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On the TGC site today, Jonathan Dodson posted, Be Missional, Not Superficially Contextual where he generalized that many church plants today are not planting a church that fits their culture, but planting something that looks a whole lot like the church in the adjacent community, town, city, etc. Dodson wrote about two concerns with U.S. (at least I believe he is speaking about efforts inside the U.S.) church planting to “a superficial approach to culture and, second, gospel contamination that results from this approach.”
In short, I agree with Dodson. Also, I commend him for promoting contextualization as several have criticized it of late. His piece raises a couple points I want to write on quickly.
First, whether what Dodson calls syncretism is actually that or obscurantism as normally evaluated on a contextualization scale is debatable. Though I would contend the latter would be consistent with most evaluations, I see the situation he writes about as a possible combination of woes. On one side of the scale by making the gospel unclear due to forms that are held–he mentions “building, music, service, website design”–which may not fit the culture one is entering being a classic expression of obscurantism. On the other side, the consumeristic vice of “blending Christianity with another religion, in this case consumerism” could be described as syncretism. For this to be syncretism, though, church participants would be worshipping the objects which had been intended to aid in worship in addition to the One who alone is worthy of praise. This would be a very strong statement–a very strong accusation.
Second, and, in my opinion, the most important is that it is normal to be dealing with beginning contextualization issues in U.S. church planting. Issues such as whether or not a denomination needs to be on a sign or what style of music a people should sing, or whether or not to multi-site, or fill in the blank. In a number of contexts overseas, however, the reverse is of great importance. A much more common concern when on mission to other nations is what denotes over-contextualization. Cross-cultural planters must be careful to seek to express the gospel and the church in ways that are able to be understood and fit within the rhythms and moires of life in that context while seeking to keep the gospel of Christ as the point of transformation, the point of tension.
The contextualization issues that planters address today are important, but they are basic compared with some deeper questions that need to be addressed. As planters and church leaders, we would do well to be seeking to contextualize at deeper levels.
If you are easily offended, skip this post. You can come back soon for the next one.
This week I learned of Tim Minchin, a highly-talented British-Australian who is either a comedian that sings or a singer that does comedy–both descriptions seem accurate. In listening to some of his stuff, I found almost all of his songs and comedy to be laced with profanity, except for one song that consists of profanity sprinkled with conjunctions and a name. One theme that seems to run throughout his stuff is a disdain for all things religious as well as anything God-related.
Minchin could easily be a key narrator for a western, post-Christian world. With a recent trending on Twitter and his concerts taking place in some of the largest venues in the western world, his message clearly resonates with a large percent of audiences in Australia, the UK and the US. Having examined various aspects of religion including a number of key points from the Bible, he rejects it all. But, he is not rejecting all that is good. In what is becoming a Christmas standard, White Wine in the Sun, he sings of the deep trust and safety he has in his family. His holiday celebrations with them represent a place and time that he treasures. Something that he wants to convey and extend to his baby daughter. He values the deep community made up of people that he loves, a people that love him well.
In this song, Minchin celebrates the sentimental aspect of Christmas. His celebration is of a Christ-less Christmas. For him, I pray a wonderful celebration with those he loves and that one day he will experience the transformational love of Jesus. For me and others that read here, I pray that we can learn from Tim about how to better represent Christ to those that have wholly embraced a post-Christian non-belief.
Though I have been away for a bit, I wanted to give a quick update on the last post which created some really good conversation about what the term might be in church planting if it is not a “launch.” With so much good input, it gave the church planter dealing with the issue, Jason Egly, an opportunity to work through this process with the sage advice of many that had gone before. (Thank you to all that participated in the conversation, your contribution was very helpful.)
So after much thought and prayer, Jason and his crew decided to go with: This is “our next step.” To make it a bit more emphatic non-event, they are using the idea that this is: Just our next step.” Thanks for processing with us Jason. I am cheering you on and praying for you as you move forward.
In this vein, I am sharing a video that I saw on Tall Skinny Kiwi’s site that may give more food for thought on this issue.
Of course launch refers to all things rocket related. It is the goal. The desired action in rocketry–much of which is explained in Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion–is about getting the vehicle off the ground. Newton’s third law is often summarized as: “for every action, there is [always] an equal and opposite reaction.” Ignite thrust downward in order to achieve lift. Rockets are conceived, engineered and built to leap off the ground. This is the goal for which people build them. Whether for recreation, science or weaponry, the goal is the same. Get the thing up in the air to a desired altitude and then you can add to it any functionality that one may desire.
So if launch is the goal in and of itself, then I would offer that it sucks for use in church planting. As this is not the realm of the laws of motion, launching a church does not hold to the confines and realities of physics. I have seen a lot of energy expended in church launches that proved unsuccessful and vice versa. So, because church planting and physics are not bound by the same physical laws, for this reason alone the term is less than adequate. In fact, it is wrong. But it is wrong for an even greater reason….
If launching is the goal, then it is possible that simply holding a religious service is the objective for which we strive. Some may say that it is a little more developed than that. Perhaps the goal is a recurring service which leads to transformation and development of disciples. I will pass on spending a lot of time on that here as I think this has been candidly dismissed by Willow Creek’s reveal. A public meeting, worship gathering, or church service–regardless of what you call it–is not the goal of church. Nor does a recurring service constitute a church.
If the church is conceived and functioning before any public declaration or launch, then what is it that we are kicking off? And with that what would be ideal for this launch thingy to be named? In the particular plant in question–(whether planting a church or planting the gospel is the goal is another topic for another day as well)–disciples are being made. Broken relationships are being restored. Justice is being pursued in the community. What this community of believers is about to do is let it be known to their neighborhood that there is a group seeking to live as the body of Christ, love God and love others so that those not already in community with them may find them more easily.
PLEASE help us with some input on this topic!
Last week a friend of mine met with the president of one of the state SB conventions. According to him, the number of SB churches in the state that are dead or in decline was 85%. This number is troubling for a whole lot of reasons. While I am aware that there are significant changes in the U.S. church scene at present, no growth or realignment comes close to addressing an 85% decrease in the number of existing, functional churches in one denomination.
As this state is in the Bible belt, it doesn’t really matter where this interview happened. It seems that this statistic could very well be true for any of the Bible belt states–take your pick.
To turn it around and look at the positive side of the statistic, 15% of the churches are vibrant. A meager 15% are in a situation where they can be more concerned about loving the lost around them rather than being focused on self-preservation. This positive side for me is a bit depressing. Clearly, things as they have been are not working.
For some time I have followed the writings and blurbs put out by Justin Long with Mission to Unreached Peoples at his blog–The Long View. I would encourage those interested in mission to unreached, unengaged people groups (UUPG) to follow Justin on the Twitters or add his site to your RSS feed. One recent piece of his is, in my opinion, worth special attention due to the weight and timing of the topic and the swarm theory applied to the SBC he put into his piece entitled “2 major challenges Southern Baptists face in getting churches to engage the unreached.” Before reading any further here, go read his piece. If that’s all you get out of this post, then still it was probably worth your time. Seeing the Southern Baptist Convention as a swarmish entity is uber helpful especially in light of the daunting task of making massive change in default behavior. (Again, let me encourage you to read Long’s piece before going any further here.)
To restate Long’s two cautions in the referenced piece:
- Can Southern Baptists change the default of SB churches as it relates to international missions?
- Will Southern Baptists cooperate with others outside of the convention in the efforts to embrace UUPGs?
The first caution is a good question that I will not pretend to answer, but I will share that the desired change in default is, I believe, highly substantive and positive. It is encouraging to see that the language and expectations imb is holding out to SB churches is changing. Over the past several years I have seen imb be more open to the idea of the church functioning as a missionary–which I would credit my friends and cohorts at The Upstream Collective to a great extent for promoting and holding out this idea of the Sending Church. In the past I have seen imb consider sending churches as those that would do non-strategic or non-critical work to free up company personnel to do the strategic roles such as engaging new peoples and areas. Now, however, with the vision that Dr. Tom Elliff–the recently elected imb president–is conveying, it is a call for all to participate. All are to play critical, strategic roles in taking the gospel to the nations. Churches are being asked to partner with imb to embrace the unengaged. To be clear here, embracing a people is for the intended purpose of leading to engagement. To do this among one people is significant and challenging. To seek to do it among 3800 at one time is one of the more lofty and complex challenges undertaken historically in missions. It must be of God if it is to succeed at any level and the activity must be scalable and largely driven by a vast number of smaller swarms (as Long points out).
Exactly what the minimum default expectation and activity looks like is being ironed out as different leaders pose and grapple with this issue. These expectations should be public soon.
On the second caution, I strongly agree that the SB swarm is more likely to be effective in the end goal of engaging the UUPGs if the effort is not exclusive. It seems helpful to remember that this commitment to reaching UPGs and ultimately UUPGs was birthed 11 years ag0 at table 71. As part of a larger group of like-minded Great Commission Christian organizations, imb accepted the challenge to take the gospel to those that do not have access to it.
If one holds to the theology that once an individual from every nation, tribe, people and language has made Christ their Lord, then Christ will return, then it would be best to admit that mission is really about the existing followers of Christ rather than those that have not heard. In other words, if evangelicals can get one person from every people to pray a prayer of salvation, then those that believe can finally get out of here sooner. Were this to be a correct eschatological view, which I question strongly, then the task is not about reaching peoples, but reaching a person from each of the peoples. However, this view does not seem consistent with the whole of Scripture for a number of reasons including that we read of Christ’s guts churning when He beheld the masses that were “like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus consistently was concerned about individuals and masses. He spent his ministry years continuing to share primarily with one people group. His passion was about seeing people become followers of the Most High God. Regarding Revelation 7:9 and eschatology, Elliff states that this is not a cause and effect relationship. Instead of a causal situation, this can be viewed as coincidental in nature. Our responsibility is obedience to take the gospel to the nations. The timing of Christ’s return is known only by God the Father.
If this is about the peoples of each people group and not about a person from each group being compelled by the Savior, then it seems that partnershipping is of increased value and importance (please allow the word for extra emphasis). SB churches, entities and imb must be in partnership for this to work to fulfill the imb vision. Even further, partnership with other like-minded churches and agencies is essential to reach the peoples among the unengaged and unreached peoples. Elliff’s responsibility and station is to seek to influence the swarm that is SB. It is my hope that through the language that he uses and the messages–both overt and meta–imb sends this week and in the coming months that other swarms beyond the SB affiliated will be influenced and encouraged to see churches, agencies and networks be about reaching both UUPGs and UPGs.
Finally on this point, I want to reiterate Long’s point that others will believe because of the unity of the believers in Christ. While the instruction is simple yet often difficult for us to live, “they will know we are Christians by our love for one another.” Partnership is essential. And based on what I am hearing, it is welcomed by imb leadership.
In addition to Long’s concerns, I will offer two aspects that I believe will be critical for the Embrace effort to be successful. One of these is timeless in missions and the second a bit more specific to this vision.
First, churches must prayerfully seek to answer the question: “To whom are we sent?” The Embrace conversation may influence this significantly, but ultimately a people should go only as the Lord directs. Whether to a UUPG, a UPG, Dearborn, MI or even a town in the U.S. Bible belt, both the individual and the church would do well to go those to whom she is sent.
Second, Embrace is a commitment to see the effort through. If the church is going to those people that the Lord has sent them to, then the Embrace effort will not be contingent on the presence of the initiating pastor or other church leader. I envision a future question for staff hires including the senior pastor to be whether or not he senses that God is leading him to be sent to the people that the church has already embraced. This is a commitment to see the task through to fulfillment. At this point, the church would do well to calibrate expectations in terms of a decade or more rather than think in years. The call to Embrace is not a call for the preservation or development of imb or for the enrichment or ease of the church. This is a call to obedience. A call to be about the Great Commission. Embrace is ultimately a call to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
*These ramblings are my own and are not the official position of any person, agency or church. Where the arguments are lucid and helpful, there is a good chance that these points are influenced by other persons. Where they are unclear or unhelpful, there is a good chance that is mine.
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Congratulations to the people of Egypt! It must feel like a new era of opportunity and hope. Both for you and others in the region including the peoples of Bahrain, Iran, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, etc., I pray for the very best for you. In this period of social unrest may you find peace, hope and truth.
A combination of inflationary food prices, decades of me-oriented leadership and social media innovations that are going mainstream make for a powerful convergence that impact the political, economic and social balance of a country and far beyond. While only one of these three factors can be significantly influenced, the leadership element demands attention. These events call for humility, integrity and trust among leaders and the people they represent. Chicanery and lies at this juncture, could cause outcomes that are far worse than the history they follow. Today is the time for leaders to embrace the golden rule. This is the era for those that would truly lead to “consider others better than [themselves].”