Church planting: What it takes to rise with Jesus now
My sense of church planting begins with introducing myself and the Lord who is with me. Like God became incarnate in Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwells in me, a human. So church planting is personal — just like Jesus walking around Galilee; we’re walking around being one with God; God is walking with us and we are walking around with the Lord. When Jesus talks about planting the word about his work, planting the Word Himself, in the world he says it is like a seed going into the ground and “dying.” I find the process just that painful and just that joyfully regenerative all the time.
Paul talks about sharing the sufferings of Christ. “Filling them up,” being planted again and again. Very specifically, for me, part of that suffering is the need to keep introducing myself to new people and new situations and not hide out in or merely enjoy the little group of people who already “get me” and love me. I am doing that again right now as I tell you about Jesus in me. This blog is one way to “get out there.”
During each era of my life in mission, I have discovered things about Jesus in me that have proven valuable for church planting. As I tell you about a few of them, I hope you will consider how you might introduce yourself with what you’ve got.
It all started with that college Bible study. I was called to be a church planter early on. Jesus used the most inept evangelist ever to win many of my dorm mates to Christ. In my sophomore year, I started a Bible study to disciple them. It grew by my junior year to two apartments and 50-100 people coming every Monday. I have not forgotten what it was like to feel twenty – ready to invent the wheel.
What did I (and my friends) have?
- conviction that “if it is true for me it will be true for everyone”
- trust in the presence of God, not our skill
That’s all great for church planting. We thought, “There is a great movement of goodness in the world and we have found it.”
I went to seminary. I was called from planting a new youth group with the Assemblies of God back to the college church who had lost their beloved youth pastor a few months back and a lot of their kids. At the first meeting I led we had four people. When the church blew apart about seven years later they did not fire their boy (lucky me!) with everyone else. Plus, there were about 200 kids from jr. high through college. They were about a third of the church.
What did I (and a very beloved team) have?
- I had added a wife who added incarnational evangelism as a concept to my sense of mission. When we discovered Anabaptists, we began calling the idea “invasive separatism.”
- Tons of energy
That’s all great for church planting. We lived like, “Life in Christ is a big party and you are invited.”
The first church planting
We finally decided that the group of us who lived and worked together at the center of this youth ministry were not going to make it into the next act of this Baptist church. So we got them to send us to plant a new church. It was their first and maybe last multiplication. We had never heard of a church multiplication but we did not want to be responsible for a church “split.” We traveled together for another seven years or so and the new congregation is still going.
What did I (and this remarkable congregation) have?
- We discovered that we were a group who had the same odd flavor mix that the Brethren in Christ has. Mostly we were Anabaptists because of our simple, straightforward Bible reading – we were doers of the word. But we had the Baptist pietism flavor and I, especially took the holiness flavor into Pentecostalism. That and some great practices we discovered (like the Love Feast) seemed perfectly suited for what we postmodern types were looking for.
- We already had community.
- We just wanted to do it; we did not have to do it. It was all new and exciting to us.
- We liked being real.
That’s a great combo for church planting: a convicted core team doing their own thing based on a dream, not just an application of a program or a duty to some principle.
Circle of Hope
During our short stint in the BIC homeland we were called to explore urban church planting (when it was not so fashionable!). We thought God was calling us to one of the mega cities of the third world. But we finally ended up, to our surprise, in Philadelphia. We thought we could contemporize BIC thinking to meet urbanites where they lived. It was a mid-life leap for me: all my training and experience were put to the test. I liked that. I became a Christian by having my new beliefs put to the test and they survived. I still do not want to be part of an institution that is not constantly being tested to see whether it deserves to survive in its environment.
What did I (my family and the small core team) have?
- Willingness to risk it all
- Supportive friends and family
- A vision
When I came to Philly I had a simple conviction. I was not a likely candidate to win a bunch of people to Christ from scratch and form a church. I thought I was sent to catalyze what the Holy Spirit was already doing. I would introduce some people to Jesus and include some ready-made partners, but who I would mostly find were people who had an idea that what I was talking about was what they were looking for. They would mostly be burned out evangelicals, dissatisfied Catholics, under-used twentysomethings who Baby Boomers would never let drive the car, and people who were spiritual but who had never met an authentic Christian before, people who wanted the church to be a good thing but just hated it. I parachuted into Philadelphia and wandered the streets for a few months and, sure enough, I met a lot of these people. From September through March we gathered a formation team, formed four cells and were ready to have a public meeting on Palm Sunday.
What did we have?
- Encouragement from successful people that we could do it. I had an almost slavish humility in practicing what others had learned.
- A good plan – and that we did our plan. We had good, practical goals; we considered the barriers to meeting them; we had actions steps for how to accomplish what we considered. It was a serious project — and still is.
- I had a very supportive wife and family. My sons and their wives are stalwarts in the church and my youngest son is our newest pastor.
- We listened to the call and were there when the Spirit was beginning to move. As a result, we have been copied relentlessly. And that is great.
What do you have? What do we have now? What is the Spirit doing and how are we moving alongside? Yes, we answered that call and those questions in the past. But Jesus is dying and rising all over the region and the world right now. How are you and I planting the church with him?
How will we introduce ourselves and the Lord who is with us? As God became incarnate in Jesus, we are his body, filled with His Spirit. Church planting is personal — just like Jesus walking around Galilee, Circle of Hope is Jesus walking around the Philly region. I find it painful. But I also experience resurrection in myself and others through that suffering. My true self is put into action and grows in the process of getting out there with Jesus. For the joy of that re-creation, we endure the cross.
Thinking like we ought to belong together — even these days
The first General Conference of the Brethren in Christ I ever attended was led by the Moderator named Owen Alderfer. He impressed us so much that Gwen and I thought we had stumbled upon the Shangri-la of denominations. We had lived in intentional community for years and here was Owen Alderfer trying to teach mutual respect and dialogue to a group of over 500 delegates who took themselves rather seriously. Just the fact that he would trust the group to debate meaty issues was way beyond anything we had ever experienced beyond the local level.
His mentality has slowly eroded over the years until BIC meetings would have to resurrect the idea of dialogue and few delegates take themselves seriously since they have little purpose — other than experiencing the show. But I have not forgotten Dr. Alderfer. If you talk about what should form the character of a BIC church planting, you might look to his summary of his dissertation called The Brethren Mindset.
Alderfer summarized an ethos that had four overlapping assumptions:
- Christian truth is open—ended.
- No one holds a monopoly on truth; God’s truth, therefore, may come to us from a variety of sources.
- A system of doctrine is qualified by trusting relationships among brethren.
- Mutuality is necessary to the existence and development of the body.
This mindset helped form the way of Christ for the Brethren in Christ. Unwittingly, perhaps, it is amazingly suited for the postmodern world. I have often said, and thought when I joined up, that the BIC’s capacity to be a little “big tent” was the main thing it could offer to the future. Right now I think that has been reduced to a “mosaic” of identities with little reason to hold together. Alderfer’s mindset offers a framework to actually make that diversity into a dynamic unity. I think he matches what Cavanaugh calls the pilgrim way through the mobility of the globalized world (see previous post).
I have to admit that I don’t really care if we plant “Brethren in Christ” churches, not really. I am not a so-called “cradle BIC.” I am not even a cradle Christian, since my parents never attended a church. So that kind of blood-family loyalty is not my strong suit. Instead of just extending the blood-line, what I want to do is make disciples who have the hope of making disciples and plant churches that have the hope of reproducing churches. I want to live in a lively incarnation of Jesus as the body of Christ — a body influencing individuals and whole regions by its unusual presence and prophetically demonstrating as well as explaining how it is the alternative to the fallen world around it, starting with introducing the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
I love the four-legged stool idea of Anabaptist, Pietist, Wesleyan and now Evangelical ways that combine to make a foundation for the Brethren in Christ. But I would add more legs: the charismatic movement, the “purpose driven” influence from a few years ago, and I would go further back and include the original desert father and mothers, the Benedictine movement in the 600’s, the Cluniac reforms of the 900’s, and the Franciscan movement of the 1200’s – it all comes from a common yearning from people who want to be Jesus followers, not just part of some “thing.” I came into Christianity with a trip through the history of Christianity, being personally attracted to all the radicals who just wanted to follow Jesus the best they could, and I was basically opposed to all the men who wanted to systematize and dominate the church to death.
So I am not that interested in the historic character of the Brethren in Christ or the very limited theological contours it has written for itself. I doubt that most, if any, of the BIC church people are that interested, either. (This blog post may be boring you already!). It just so happens that I think the Brethren in Christ stumbled upon a rather appropriate way to be the church. To the extent that we can express our genius and keep it living and not merely codified, then we are a good team to join. If we aren’t really a team and we are just trying to drum up enthusiasm for our dying tradition, then we won’t really have a good way to make disciples and plant churches, and I think we should just close down and go juice up the Church of the Brethren, or change our name and become something relevant.
I think we should be what Cavanaugh calls “pilgrims” in this interesting age. I have been a pilgrim and I think Alderfer was, too. A pilgrim is moving toward the center looking for gravity, not moving toward the periphery looking for difference or newness. The pilgrim, unlike the tourist, has a motivator outside themselves: God, rather than the interior motivator of satisfying themselves with relationships, knowledge or experiences. They are mobile, but they are not looking from above with the imperial gaze, they are looking ahead into what is next and looking inside for what needs to be emptied. They are humble.
When we planted Circle of Hope, we elaborately planned to build a church that had a brethren mindset. If you want to have one, I think it takes four features that match Alderfer’s premise: dialogue, a culture, listening leaders, and mutuality. See whether you think this bit of our genius is well-suited to making lifelong disciples from the people of our era.
Invite people into a dialogue.
Christian truth is open—ended; that is, it is not captured in a closed system and articulated in creeds and formal theological statements.
The idea is: “God may yet illumine the minds of His children to grasp new insights. True Christian faith is more a relationship than a system. We must, therefore, be open to the Holy Spirit that he may bring us new truth as our relationships to God and each other are enhanced throughout our Christian pilgrimage. We must continually be open to God lest we miss some fresh word from beyond.”
As the people God used to build Circle of Hope we had and still have choices. Our “small groups” could have just been a “program” of the church or the cells could be the church. We could have spawned independent congregations, dependent congregations, or do what we did: plant equal congregations joined as one church. We consciously formed a network of cells and congregations that are held together by a dialogue of love. The dialogue begins in the cells. It extends to cells of cell leaders and the Leaderships Teams that facilitate our life together. It is generated in the public meetings and works its way back down into the life of the body. The church is a breathing organism. That’s why we often warn people not to merely consume it, as Americans are accustomed to doing with everything, that would be cannibalism.
Everything we do has a feeling of being open-ended. Someone suggested a new proverb the other day: a newcomer is a gift you didn’t know you needed yet. That’s how dialogue should work. Alderfer quoted Vernard Eller saying that “’The central factor in brethrenism…is a commitment to follow Christ in radical discipleship.’ This thrust immediately skews Brethren thought away from the conceptual, the theoretical, the systematic, the theological, and toward the practical, the applicable, the existential. One’s positions are not as important as is the quality of one’s commitment and discipleship. The Bible is enough, and further creeds and regimentation are distractions.” God is splendidly complete, but God is humbly walking with us through our time until we are finished.
Thus, one of the main pieces of theology my children learned is that the people of God do not “go” to church, they “are” the church. They were forbidden to say, “We are going to church.” That’s impossible. Cavanaugh says the pilgrim mentality sees no differentiation between sacred and secular, clergy and laity, worship and work, spiritual and temporal. Speaking the truth in love undermines those, and other, false dichotomies. I like to talk about who is moving, not who is right or wrong, in or out, up or down. Those either/or identity arguments are the tricks of the powers. Having the arguments ultimately reduces faith to one’s private opinion. And when faith is private, the nation state owns the dialogue.
Nurture a culture
The first characteristic leads into the second: The body of belief held by Gods people may well incorporate principles from a variety of sources.
The idea is: “No one person or group has a monopoly on truth; we need to draw upon and learn from one another–using discernment and wise judgment all the while–lest our system of truth be dwarfed or truncated.”
This characteristic is seen in the early development of brethren-ish people. They were descendants of radical reformed Christianity. But they did not find this intense enough, so they searched for a deeper, richer expression of the faith. Their journey was later influenced by Pietism—-from which they drew a personal, immediate experience of God’s presence coloring all of life by the pervasive activity of the Holy Spirit.
God is always creating the culture by the power of the Spirit. As the people of God move through time they adapt, redeem and bring hope. Their pilgrim sense of having a center in Christ that they carry along their way and having a destination outside themselves, given by God, allows them to be agents of an ongoing creation. When Joe Snell (one of our early church planting pastors) answered our call to try to mother our first new congregation, one of the first things he did was organize our proverbs as he got a handle on our culture. We had collected the sayings of Circle of Hope in a rather disorganized document. In the course of our dialogue, certain things had become more important than others and we could reduce them to a line or two like the Old Testament proverbs. Joe put them in order. Ultimately, I was assigned to write a book about them, which I outlined as a group project with a few of my twentysomething comrades. We created a culture. We keep doing it: we write songs, we invent teams, we make a Map of our future together. The process makes us like family – we know who we are and who we are to each other and it makes us able to feel secure in hearing what God might be doing next.
Be a leader who listens
The thought system of the Brethren was something worked out in life among the Brethren.
The idea is: “A system of doctrine is not isolated from the trusting relationship of believing persons. The Brethren do not hesitate to state their beliefs and to support them with Scripture and argument; still, they are uncomfortable with a rigidly stated system regarded as capturing the entire body of truth and standing as the final measure of orthodoxy. More important is the Christian lifestyle and the caring relationships among Brethren. Minor and lesser differences may exist within a body as long as trusting relationship is maintained and fruitful conversation is progressing relative to the faith. Doctrine is seen as relational as well as logical; if there are differences between us we can work them out as long as we are under the Spirit and the Word and we maintain a trusting relationship.”
I think this mindset is perfect for the postmodern era. It would greatly enhance Brethren in Christ church planting, if we would stop diminishing the dialogue among the church at large, and our leaders demonstrated their trust for us rather than insisting that we trust them. I have objected, as I most recently did at the last General Conference, about the secrecy and trust-the-leaders mentality – not because I think the leaders are untrustworthy, but because I think they are undermining our unique capacity to plant churches that could make radical disciples. In the “global economy” radical Christians are like a boutique, like monasticism is within the Catholic church. Being small, familial, intense communities is our brand. Listening leaders culture that very necessary gift.
So when I came to Philadelphia to plant a church I first formed a formation team. They decided the church name; they helped form the plan. The first act was to begin cells and I was not even the first leader of one. While we want to double in size right now, I do not want to double by stealing the opportunity for individuals to become real Christians. No one needs to be a cog on a big machine. Just the opposite, they need opportunity to become deeper and to realize the full expression of their true selves as members of the body and full partners in the Lord’s mission. People often leave the church in their thirties because it is not meaty enough. It is boring, run by old white men who stopped listening in their thirties and just ran the organization. Leaders who listen demonstrate that the people are trustworthy and trustworthy people make a trustworthy church through which trust-starved postmoderns can find Jesus.
Mutuality is necessary to the existence and development of the body and to the working out of its system of belief.
The idea is: “Individuality is a valuable reality among the Brethren–the preciousness of the individual and the contribution of one single person to the whole; however individualism is a dangerous heresy which allows barriers to be erected between brethren and cuts one off from the inspiration and discipline of the whole. Brethren need one another in the identification of Christian thought, in the mutual discipline of the sanctifying process, and in life—warming, life-giving fellowship among believers.”
A leader can say whatever she likes but the culture, the system, the practices are what ultimately teach. We recently had an exciting Council meeting. In an inspiration we changed around our leaders and decided to spend Circle Thrift profits on risky dreams of expanding our influence and numbers. We call it the “second act” of Circle of Hope. At this meeting people cried. They questioned one another’s sensitivity and wisdom. We demonstrated how precious we think individuals are and we also reinforced that we want to be subject to the inspiration and discipline of the whole. We welcome the visible process of being the body of Christ in all our diversity, held together by a dialogue of love in the Spirit. It is a mutual process that takes all of us — at least the process reveals who’s not moving. You cannot present a brethren mindset in a powerpoint, it requires a community to learn. Life in Christ is a mutual endeavor if it is merely happening in one’s personal philosophy, it has left the Bible behind.
Being the church has always been challenging. The postmodern era is just another challenge the world presents on its way through the dark. We carry the light of Christ with us as we also make our way and we see the dawn on our horizon. It is worth the effort to make an authentic church with an ethos that matches the heart of Jesus as best we can.
Who am I in the globalized world: migrant or tourist?
I think the story of Jesus and our own stories of following the Lord’s lead are crucial to church planting in this next era. A person entering our meeting has plenty of preconceived notions about what church is in the United States. They need to run into a person whose story is being written with Jesus, not just a story that can beam in on a screen – they are up to their eyeballs in those, and not just someone else’s story — like the ones written in the Bible.
I think Circle of Hope has a unique story about living out the historic Brethren in Christ ethos to offer as a gift to our post-Christian culture. Our leaders are feverishly trying to manage our “mosaic” with less resources all the time and with outdated practices, so we will see how we fare in the coming era — that story is being written. So far, it looks like we are getting further fragmented instead of united in love. Some of the reasons for that may have to do with a lack of dialogue about who God is calling us to be in a changing world. It seems like many of us have outsourced thinking to our leaders and they don’t have that much time to do it!
How we see the new environment being created before our eyes may help us decide what we ought to do to follow Jesus through it. Here are the two most common ways people find a way through: as a migrant or as a tourist.
William T. Cavanaugh is the director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. His newest book Migrations of the Holy is a great encouragement for church planters who are facing the great divide happening right now in Western history: the move into post-Christian culture and post-modern thinking. The BIC have been a small boat on stormy seas for most of their history. This may be the biggest storm yet, and we’ll see if the boat can survive it. Technology, capitalism and war have created a global economy with all new assumptions and it presents a host of challenges for Jesus followers, especially the followers who want to multiply their churches, either a cell or a congregation.
Cavanuagh says that every person in a globalized world dominated by nation states and the giant corporations that keep the states going for their profit has three choices for dealing with their mobility: they can be a migrant, a tourist or a pilgrim. What I mean by mobility is very broad. An obvious example is: we travel — like travelling across the country for a meeting or planning a destination wedding. We change countries – like I moved from California to Central PA – a true cross cultural experience (yes, I know they are supposedly in the same nation). Even more, our relationships and ideas are mobile. We carry mobile phones and the younger we are, the more connected to them we are.
Navigating these circumstances as a group takes some good communication. Here’s an attempt to give us some fuel for dialogue about church planting in our era, before all we are talking about is the latest episode of the Walking Dead (and, of course, becoming them). Are we migrants or tourists? The Brethren in Christ, historically, have reflected each of these circumstances: migrant, tourist and pilgrim. We’ll talk about pilgrim next time.
A migrant is person who has exercised border-crossing mobility. The nation states have freed the movement of capital across national lines, but they have not freed the movement of labor, by and large. So migrants are points of contention in most places. U.S. money can go to Mexican factories just across the border, but Mexicans cannot come to the U.S. to get it the same way Americans get it. The borders try to deal with the question of identity with which postmodernity is consumed — are you an indentifiable, legal someone or not? For instance, the Mennonites are breaking apart over sexual identity — they are being forced over mental and religious borders by philosophy, governments and corporations. The BIC decided to call the denomination a “mosaic” because we do not have much of a practical identity.
The original Brethren in Christ in this country were part of the radical reformation Christians who migrated into William Penn’s generous idea of a commonwealth. They maintained their language and religious traditions. They were migrants. I choose to think they had an Anabaptist sense of separation, practical holiness and community. But they were also migrants who banded together to preserve their past and common identity. They found their identity by being “other” than the rest of the people. A lot of churches are self-protective migrants who don’t connect to the country. Peter and Paul call new believers to adopt this identity as aliens and strangers in any number of passages. To this discipleship, the BIC in the new world had the overlay of being a migrant people who were not accepted in the mainstream. They did not have to leave the world, they were rejected by it and had to find their own way.
You can see how someone new to the Brethren in Christ might like to become an Anabaptist theologically with a New Testament sense of being a stranger and alien because of the community’s radical faith. Meanwhile, people whose ancestors were migrants might enjoy becoming part of the mainstream. I like to see myself and our church as invasive separatists. But I think most Anabaptists these days are invaded separatists. They are not aliens in their identity, they are merely alienated migrants consumed, like everyone else, with finding their seat at the national table.
A second way Cavanaugh sees that a believer can navigate the global world we live in is to be a tourist. This will be more familiar to most of us, I think. The migrant sees the bordered world from below, like the Mexicans in my neighborhood who keep an absolute vacant face until they see someone they know. The tourist sees the world from above, a giant white man with plenty of money to travel and experience all the interesting people looking up at him as he peers through his imperial magnifying glass. That’s how they exercise their mobility. It is an interesting phenomenon of the loose borders of the postmodern world: one can scan the globe and imagine herself engaged with “otherness” in any part of it.
Not long ago I was in Disney World for a couple of days. Disney is the epitome of tourist experience of reality. From the beginning of our visit it was “make a memory” and “dreams will come true.” There was a princess from every culture plus a fairy one to offer the propaganda. This is a very common way for Americans to see the world, as tourists expecting their dreams to come true. Disney collects all the otherness for you so you don’t even need to cross the safety of the border.
Disney is a magical experience put on by cast members. I think it is extremely tempting to be cast members of a memorable experience each week when we put on worship shows — since people will love them. If we can get them to wear our brand, like Mickey Mouse ears, they might even love it all better. Some huge churches have perfected tourist Christianity. I think the BIC have tried hard at this too, mostly unsuccessfully.
It is hard not to think that when the Brethren in Christ were invaded by the holiness doctrine in the 1880’s and into the twentieth century that it was a little bit touristy and that is why it was so roundly criticized and why we managed to squeeze out the excesses of the movement. I think it was an intriguing encounter with “otherness.” The United States was turning into a common country with common communication devices and a government that was capable of infiltrating its entire territory with force and taxation. Magazines and new ideas spread like wildfire. And the BIC were also intrigued. I choose to think of their interest in the holiness movement as interest in the movement of God’s Spirit. But I also think that people were sick of Anabaptist culture without its reformation fire and Pietism that had become legalistic principles and practices. So they built camps to hold revival meetings that generated the intriguing experiences and which eventually became spots to vacation. By this time most of the holiness-oriented churches in the BIC are dying out or have turned over to evangelicalism and just complain that the denomination has lost Pentecostal fire.
You can see how many people in this era might be attracted to people who have an authentic relationship with the living God, spirit to Spirit. You can also see how people who were still living out 1910 in 1980 would like to get on with it and sing like Disney with everyone else. Holiness makes a person weird. And being weird makes you an object of the state’s protection, not an actual member of the community. It is always tempting to offer what people are buying.
What is your story? Is our church filled with migrants and tourists? I think Jesus, the Bible writers and radicals from the history of the church, have offered us a better model: the pilgrim. But before we get to that, it might make sense to assess where we are starting. Is our story just a variation on the movement of the global economy? Or do we follow a different Lord?