I have acquired a strange new social paranoia this year… it normally arises right about the time I meet someone new and they ask me “so what do you do?” And I realise that somehow I have to try explain to them that I am trying to plant a church without planting a church.
I have of course tried the less is more approach by answering “a pastor” or simply “I am planting a church”. But then the polite social response is normally something like “oh what church”, or “where is your church”. I then start trying to explain that “it’s not really church like that”, or “we don’t really have a meeting like that”… And we’re back to church planting without trying to plant a church…
My internal commentary is, of course, busy burning out the Duracell bunny’s batteries as I backtrack, double-step and clarify. All the time seeing in the Christian listeners eyes… oh you’re one of those liberal/emergent/dodgy types. And most kind unbelievers respond with something like “hey that’s ok… you don’t have to be embarrassed… a pastor… nice…”. Face-palm-smack- fail!
First a disclaimer – I am not anti-church, programmes, preaching, Sunday gatherings, structures, organised leadership or any of these things I am sometimes mistaken to be against. What I do question is our current, practice, dependence and application of many of these things. My questions are more of the nature of, in some cases, doing things better and in other cases doing things differently and in still other cases dropping some things altogether. None of this is to be different for the sake of being different (another sad but common trend in church life today) but from a deep desire to see people who are not being reached by our current structures and practices being reached. And that may just mean that we need to consider doing some things differently…
So why all this church-planting without planting a church talk:
1. Expectations: as soon as you use the words church-planter or pastor, the next question is, almost without fail, “what church?” Which normally means “where does your church meet”. That question is usual followed by some mixture of “where do you meet?”, “how many people attend?”, or “what kind of church is that?” While these are all perfectly legitimate questions, they create a set of expectations around what you should be doing or what a church looks like that are not congruent with what we are aiming for.
Church planting itself now comes with its own set of expectations. As the newest and sexiest category of Christian worker you are then questioned by those in the know about optimal core team numbers, venues, public launches, timelines and vision documents. While these too are legitimate concerns or questions – they are not questions or concerns that adequately capture what it is we are trying to do.
2. End product: church as we know it has an over reliance on programmes and special buildings over relationship and sharing life in one another’s homes and worlds. Church as we know it, is, in practice, mostly all about a meeting on a Sunday rather than a daily sharing of lives together. In one sense it is simply arguing about words but the truth is that words communicate a shared meaning in a particular culture. When we use the word church in our culture we are communicating – it is understood as essentially a building, a meeting or an institutional structure. None of which we wish to communicate when we use the word.
3. Missionaries: the word church communicates something to our society and to other Christians that is simply not where we are today. As a result I prefer to think of what I hope will happen in Woodstock in 2012 as a “missionary band”. The distinction is that we do not regard seeing a church established as the end goal.
Rather we are looking to see the gospel planted, through the life and witness of a group of God’s people sharing life together, under God’s Word on mission together for his glory. Church is not the goal! Although if we are faithful in our demonstration and declaration of life under King Jesus then we would expect something that may or may not look similar to what we would call a church to grow up.
When we come as church-planters we very often bring a largely pre-determined product or service (our church culture or model) into a context which is not our own. When we come as a missionary band we begin as outsiders and we come to listen and learn. We bring only our own lives and the gospel message. We trust that as the Spirit is at work a “church community” will grow out of the gospel that will make sense and embody the good news of the gospel in that culture and to that community.