Monday, September 12, 2011

Onward Christian Soldiers

This is the second post on planting a new kind of church that will glorify God by displaying the power of the gospel to bring unity out of hostile and indifferent separation. The first article outlined four characteristics of these churches:

1) They incorporate two of the more prevalent current worship expressions of the American church which are the black and white contemporary style.
2) They begin with joint multi-ethnic leadership.
3) They target the suburban areas of our large and medium sized cities.
4) They make full use of existing churches to form active mission teams.

These next series of articles will flesh out each of these characteristics. Please keep in mind that in my view it's crucial to have all four of these in place when considering starting this kind of church. The first one we'll takcle is the possibility of making full use of existing churches to form active mission teams.

I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. Sharon and I had dinner with some good friends (btw much more about them in later posts so stay tuned) and since they too were planting a church the after dinner talk took up the subject exclusively. The reason I recall that evening so vividly was because of how much they reminded me of myself and Sharon during our initial stages of church planting. We talked of the challenges of starting a worship service from scratch that would glorify God, nourish the souls of His people, connect with non-believers and provide the kinds of things that many visitors look for in a more established church. All of this with scarcely any real help and while trying to do all the other things one must do to manage a family through the week! It is a most daunting task which is why it’s little wonder that many church planting families deal with a host of struggles as they attempt to get a new work off the ground. Add to that the church planter’s mandate to establish relationships with non-believers, deal with administrative duties, preach each and every Sunday, shepherd those he serves and be a husband and father and it’s easy to see why we approach the task of witnessing of the gospel through church planting with such apprehension and frustration.

This was the substance of the conversation when I openly speculated about something I’d been thinking about for a long time. I wondered why our presbytery (or for that matter any presbytery) couldn’t have a group of people equipped and ready to assist a new church planter and his wife with the many duties necessary to get a church up and running. The group (call them a core group, launch team, mission team, band of brothers and sisters or whatever) need not be committed to the church for the long haul, but could serve some of the vital roles needed to assist its birth into a new community. They would consist of members of the existing churches in the presbytery, be willing to commit at least two years and would provide the necessary people power that would free up the church planter to attend to needed ministry such as outreach, preaching, prayer and discipleship.

Let me give you an example. There are about 40 PCA churches located in the greater Philadelphia area. My guess (and this is only a guess) is that they serve around 5000 or so communicant members. Now what if we had about 5% (around 250) of these members invest themselves in this kind of short term mission which would entail them actively participating in a church plant that would be no more than 30 minutes from their home?
This team could provide a host of advantages to a presbytery looking to plant the kind of multi-ethnic churches needed to display the unifying power of the gospel to a society in the grips of ethnic division. A few (and just a few) are listed below:

- Team members need not make a long-term commitment to the church plant. They’d serve for a defined period of two years with the expectation of returning to their home church once they’ve completed their service.
- This could give so many more folks an opportunity to use their gifts and talents in significant service to the Lord who might otherwise consider serving in a church plant.
- The new church would immediately present that sense of movement that’s so important to those who first visit a new congregation. Many church planters know that there’s a definite difference between a worship service with 30 people than one with 70 people.
Team members would essentially do many of the same things that active church members already do.

But what happens when they leave? Couldn’t the church planters be in an even worse situation since their support is running out and they have no mature help with this new work? Possibly, but here’s where a strong, short term launch team can be so valuable during that initial two year period.

Firstly, since this isn’t a standard launch team but one that’s come for the specific task of catapulting the church into the community the members of the team can use their time and talents to connect with many more members of the community than could the church planters just working by themselves. The new church could almost immediately begin ministries of good works which Lord willing would put them in consistent contact with members of the target community. In my view this is a much, much wiser way to make use of a launch team than beginning a bible study with them.
Look at it this way: Imagine a new church had 70 to 100 people each connecting with 3 to 4 members of the community during the first year of the church? That means that the new work would have the opportunity to consistently engage and pray for at least 200 hundreds souls in its first year alone! To me this is far superior method of having a new church engage a community than just relying on one man who in addition to this task is usually saddled with a host of other duties.

Here’s an example from Scripture. Matthew’s gospel records how our Lord began His ministry by engaging in preaching and good works which drew thousands of people to Him (Matt 4:18-25). After the Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5-7) Matthew returns to our Lord’s preaching and good works (chs. 8-9) which again draw large numbers of people (Matt. 9:35-38). Matthew 10 opens with Jesus empowering and authorizing the disciples to go throughout many other towns and villages replicating His ministry. Viewing it from another angle Jesus multiplied His work by getting others involved so that together they could have a much greater impact than He (confining Himself to the creative laws of time and space) could alone. Enlisting a motivated launch team with a clear and defined mission is simply an application of this method.
By God’s grace, power and providence it’s possible that the launch team could enable the new church to contact and connect with a few hundred people over a two year period. And this contact would be more in depth than merely hosting one time events separated by several months. Over that time the community members would get to know these people, what they’re about and by God’s grace come (or return) to faith.

A second crucial advantage this kind of specialized launch team could give is in the area of finances. Most church planters know that it’s unlikely they’ll be able to make use of the new church’s resources especially if you’re starting from scratch and have to take the time to build a core group. However, in this scenario the church planters could do the work of raising their own support for at least three years with the knowledge that they could rely upon the giving of the launch team to invest in getting the word out about the new church to the entire region. But won’t existing churches resist this potential departure in people and financial resources? Not necessarily. Remember our example of the churches in the Philadelphia area. If most of the churches participated it would mean that a given church would at most lend 5% of its membership in this gospel venture.

Thirdly, it’s probably wise to take into demographic patterns into account with respect to this whole process. For instance, according to the US Census Bureau Montgomery County PA gained about 50,000 residents from 2000 to 2010. It’s likely that some of these folks were mature believers who immediately looked for a new church in which to worship and serve while others were believers who took a bit more time to find a church home. At any rate it’s my conviction that a church plant with a presbytery mission team would be in a much better position to contact, connect with and in graft these believers than one that simply relied upon a single church planter. Once more, think about the possibility of 70 to a hundred mature believers connecting with several dozen to a couple of hundred believers who are new to the area and looking for a good church?

Now for 'true confessions'. Having spent ten years leading a church planting effort and about six years before that assisting in new churches I'm more than convinced that this approach would have greatly helped and blessed my friends who by God's calling parachuted into an area in which they did not know a soul except for me and my wife. And yet, I'm grateful it wasn't available for them, but more on that later.

To Him Who Loves Us...
Pastor Lance

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sunday morning is the most....

Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Now I’m almost positive you’ve heard that one before. In fact it’s been said so often and so long that it’s almost reached the mythical position reserved for ‘death and taxes’. Who knows pretty soon folks might say something like ‘you know there are only three things for certain in life, death, taxes and segregated churches. I’ve written before that in my view Sunday morning is not the most segregated hour of the week. Instead it’s only a reflection of the kind of society in which we’ve chosen to construct and live. America for all its diversity is not an integrated society. Though we live amongst each other we don’t actually live with one another (in the sense that we believe that those who are different from us are actually an asset and that we’ll accomplish more together than apart). True we are a diverse people but that doesn’t mean we’re in any way unified in within that diversity. Thus for most of us church attendance on Sunday morning isn’t exactly an aberration from the norm, but merely a clearer picture of what our lives are really like.

Despite that most all of us would agree that in one way or another this country and the church called to witness to it (and that’s a much bigger deal than I think most of us realize) has problems, challenges, struggles and opportunities with respect to race/ethnicity. We keep hearing of the need to have a 'national conversation' on race, the problem is that so few of us really know and trust another soul of a different ethnicity that such a conversation is almost impossible to begin. And should the world look to the church for answers what will they see? You guessed it, a people who claim to worship and serve one Lord and one faith and yet have persisted in doing so along the same convenient ethnic lines established and maintained by the world. In fact it seems that whenever issues of race/ethnicity hit the national scene (as it does with increasing frequency) we just shrug our shoulders and along with the world weakly recite the ‘Sunday is the most segregated day of the week’ mantra as if that’s the only real and tangible answer we can offer.

But does that have to remain true? Can the bible believing church in America actually begin steps to literally change the complexion of the church? I believe we can and for the sake of the gospel we must. Over the past year I’ve written and helped to coordinate a series of articles on the issue of race/ethnicity as it impacts the PCA which appeared in the byfaith online webzine. For the most part each article (five were published) generated a number of comments many of which offered the view quoted below.

Why not embrace that a) there are different subcultures within the US, and b) as much as we love each other, those subcultures involve worship styles that other subcultures may not be comfortable with, and that is okay? Is it necessary to make white people more exuberant, or make black people tone it down, to accommodate each other in worship together?”

Quotes like this raised the issue of worship style as the main (and perhaps only) barrier toward the pursuit of genuine ethnic unity within God’s church. Before moving forward let me say that style of worship is a valid point when considering integrated churches. It’s a valid point because the spectrum of expression within biblical Christian worship is quite wide. I experienced this first hand over twenty years ago upon leaving my rather conservative Pentecostal church for Tenth Presbyterian Church. I can tell you that even apart from the obvious theological differences it would have been nearly impossible for these two faithful, bible believing congregations to worship together on a regular basis. Even though they sang some of the same hymns there was a noticeable and pronounced difference in the way they sang and responded to them. But let’s remember the spectrum of expression within biblical worship is just that, a spectrum. Within their tradition and heritage both West Oak Lane Church of God and Tenth Presbyterian Church lie along that spectrum. WOLCOG’s worship was not as expressive of many other Pentecostal churches and Tenth’s worship was not as restrained as other Presbyterian churches. Let me add to this point that I certainly do not believe that every existing church should change their worship style so as to remove cultural barriers that might hinder its outreach towards other people groups (that’s not to say they should never consider it). Moreover, there are probably a great many churches located in areas where the population is over 90% of one ethnicity or another so as to make effective integration virtually impossible. Consequently, I do not suggest that we aim for wholesale church conversions. The fact is that most of our churches are so far entrenched in their cultural style whatever it is that change is just not going to happen.

How then can we hope to set upon a path to change the complexion of God’s church in America? We can do so by pursuing a church planting strategy that will feature at least the following characteristics:

1) They incorporate two of the more prevalent current worship expressions of the American church which are the black and white contemporary style.

2) They begin with joint multi-ethnic leadership.

3) They target the suburban areas of our large and medium sized cities.

4) They make full use of existing churches to form active mission teams.

Look, more than likely the evangelical church and black bible-believing church will start a number of congregations during the next twenty years or so. And if we can make just a few adjustments the majority of these congregations can actually grow to become multi-ethnic churches that feature more than just token minority membership. How can all this work you ask? That’s for the next post.

To Him Who Loves Us…

Pastor Lance