Monday, September 14, 2009

Plant Jesus, not a Church

While doing some organic church training in Asia I noticed the impact of planting churches rather than the Gospel. We were in a church building that looked like it could be found in middle-America. I spoke on a stage behind a large wooden pulpit in front of an audience seated in pews. Behind me were four empty chairs that were heavy and also carved out of wood and a large cross hanging on the wall. To my left was a pipe organ. The people even had red hymnals with the same songs in them that I remember from my first church experience. You have seen all of this before, because it is the way church has been done here in the West for a couple centuries. The only hint of the indigenous culture on the stage was the carvings found on the chairs and pulpit of native design. The missionaries, with the greatest of hearts, came to this island off the coast of China and planted a church as best they knew how. Fifty years later it still looks like a “church,” and the neighborhood around it has remained unchanged.

Dr. D.T. Niles of Sri Lanka had this to say about planting the seed of the Gospel rather than planting church expressions:

“The gospel is like a seed, and you have to sow it. When you sow the seed of the gospel in Palestine, a plant that can be called Palestinian Christianity grows. When you sow it in Rome, a plant of Roman Christianity grows. You sow the gospel in Great Britain and you get British Christianity. The seed of the gospel is later brought to America, and a plant grows of American Christianity. Now, when missionaries come to our lands they brought not only the seed of the gospel, but their own plant of Christianity, flowerpot included! So, what we have to do is to break the flowerpot, take out the seed of the gospel, sow it in our own cultural soil, and let our own version of Christianity grow.”

I have taken to telling people: Don’t plant churches! Plant Jesus. Plant the Gospel of the Kingdom. Church will grow naturally from that, and reproduce organically.

The core importance of God’s church is not how the followers are organized, discipled or helped. The core reality of God’s church is Jesus Christ being followed, loved and obeyed by His people. All else is consequence rather than cause. It all starts with a relationship with Jesus; and since Jesus is on mission to seek and save the lost so are his followers.

Christ alive, forming spiritual families and working with them to fulfill His mission, is the living reality of church 3.0. The church really is an embodiment of the risen Jesus. No wonder the Bible refers to the church as the body of Christ.

When we lose sight of our true mission we can no longer determine if we are a true success or a disaster. The mission determines the success or failure.


Rineke, (Belgium) said...

This makes sense, thank you!!!

Adam said...

I agree, at very least in principle. The big question I've been wrestling with is: How is it possible to avoid planting a "Christ" that is untouched by the particularity of our perspective of who he is? Even if we do not force-feed our particular (e.g. Western) ecclessial forms, are we not still communicating our particular understanding of the Gospel?

More questions: What does "planting" the Gospel entail? Is it the communication of an idea? of a grand narrative? is it something that is merely "told"? or is it a holistic embodiment of a transformed life-together? If the communication is holistic in nature, how can you avoid embodying that communication in liturgical forms?

These were huge questions for me as I was studying missiological anthropology last semester. Never really got answered yet.

Thanks for the post! Your blog is great!

Tagbo {grimtraveller} said...

Hmmm.........I kind of agree with this to an extent, but I think that by having an eye catching memorable catch phrase {“Plant Jesus, not a church !”}, there is a danger of obscuring the really important crux of the matter. Without a doubt, we can see that Peter, John, Phillip, Barnabus , Apollos, Saul and obviously others, “preached” Christ. Far from being a weekly lecture to an eventually dull eared “congregation”, preaching was a proclamation about a person to people that obviously didn’t know that person. More than that, there was a two way interaction between the “preacher” and the enquirer which meant that questions could be asked, arguments could be had, and the ‘preaching one’ needed to rely on something more than the fact that they were a ‘preacher’.
But as people responded to their message with it’s accompanying signs, they formed into groups – what we would call churches { I do dislike that word, actually}. I think it’s fair to say that apostles’ intentions were both – to introduce people to and demonstrate Jesus and form those groups into bands of people through whom Jesus expressed himself with the natural consequence that he would continually transform their existences.
So planting churches should mean starting off ekklesias, that is assemblies /groups, showing them how to function and respond to God’s voice then shoving off so that the Lord tunes that particular grouping to his own frequency. This cannot be done properly if the people do not truly and experientially know and respond to their Lord.
Planting churches {for want of a better term} should never be something that a church ‘decides’ to do. If there’s one thing that needs to be recovered {among many}, it’s the sense and reality that God and God alone leads the charge in the forming of ekklesias. Consider one thing. During the Saul persecutions after Stephen’s death, the ‘word’ spread out of Judea and internationally. In some cases, you had an evangelist like Phillip. In others, believers who couldn’t shut up about this Jesus introduced him to foreigners. In both cases, as soon as the apostles in Jerusalem {who themselves were starting over, given that all but them and those in jail had fled from Jerusalem} heard what was happening, they sent apostles to places like Samaria and Antioch. Why ? Because that was their function. Evangelists didn’t ‘build’ churches, apostles did. And I notice that they didn’t stick around long. Why ? Because the ongoing relationship with Jesus and one another was strong. Not without hassles, but self sustaining.
God has ordered it that he has people who ‘plant’ ekklesias. I’m not about to argue with him ! But the real work is done once those planters have gone and there is this mystical happening in which Jesus is supposed to continually infuse his people and they grow in him and each other. If they want to.......

Burly said...

Just want you to know that It's been well over a week since you wrote this post and I've still been thinking about it and passing it along to others to think about. I whole-heartedly affirm the need for churches whole-heartedly affirm the need for a church planter - Jesus. Having the focus of planting Jesus (first and foremost) is so freeing and invigorating. It takes off the pressure.

My response here is like your original post - it's not nuanced. I don't think it's terrible to identify oneself as a church planter and have a desire to plant a church, but for me, personally it doesn't hurt to switch the focus as you've described.