MR #35: Church as ‘Place’ or ‘Service’

Increasingly Christians in North America are thinking about “church planting.” This phrase “church planting,” however, carries its own baggage.

I have found that many church leaders assume that the first step in church planting is purchasing a piece of property and constructing a church building. A church defined as “a place where things happen” (Guder 1998, 79) necessitates property and place. A second assumption is that church is a public “service” organized by a staff for the giving of information or for celebration. Church becomes, to some degree, a spectator engagement. These ideas are so culturally embedded in the term “church” that we commonly say, “Let’s go to church,” inferring place, or ask “When does church begin?” inferring service. When American pragmatism is added to this mix, church planting becomes “getting the largest number of people to a service in the shortest period of time.”

Within the North American cultural environment where “success” is defined by numerical growth, church planting is frequently the reapportioning of the Christian population. Christians sometimes flock to new churches who because of abundant financial resources have brought together the best personnel to offer better preaching, enhanced children’s ministry, superior classes, and/or inspirational services than other churches. Megachurches consume smaller churches in what might be called the Wal-Martization of Christianity. The goal becomes providing more and better services to fulfill the felt needs of a consuming population. Making disciple-making and spiritual formation are frequently marginalized in this process.

My devotional life and understanding of church has been enriched by Philip Kenneson’s Life On The Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community. Kenneson is convicted that the church in the United States is seriously ill and aims to accurately and honestly provide both a diagnosis and remedy. He believes that “it is quite possible for the church to be both growing and yet not bearing the fruit of the Spirit. What is happening in many cases is that the church is simply cultivating at the center of its life the seeds that the dominant culture has sown in its midst . . . . The church that is being cultivated in the United States looks suspiciously like the dominant culture rather than being an alternative to it” (1999, 11-12). The question is not simply “Is it bearing fruit?” but “Is the fruit that the church is bearing the fruit of the Spirit?” (1999, 15). For example, the rates of divorce and premarital chastity do not significantly vary between Christians and non-Christians (1999, 16). Christians are frequently “pledging allegiances to Christ with their lips while engaging in practices that cultivate a quite different set of loyalties, dispositions and convictions” (1999, 29). They are like ancient Judah who partially followed God but also served the gods of the nations around them. Jeremiah wrote that they “turned their backs” to God but “not their faces.” Only when they were in deep trouble would they say to God, “Come and save us!” (Jer. 2:27).

Christians held captive by the assumptions of the dominant culture must seek liberation. But this is not easy. First, Christians do not realize the extent to which their behaviors, values, and assumptions are formed by the dominant culture. Second, intentional nurturing of the soil and plants is imperative if distinctive Christian fruit is to spring forth from the soil of American culture. As an old farm boy, I learned to expend much time and effort weeding and fertilizing tomatoes, green beans, and corn but whenever I left the garden unattended, weeds flourished and smothered the crops that I had intentionally planted and nurtured. The good fruit must be tended and nurtured; weeds spring up almost without effort because the environment in which we live is conducive to their growth (adapted from 1999, 30).

Kenneson rightly suggests that Christianity, if it is to distinctively grow in the soil of American culture, must reflect the character and mission of God “uniquely embodied in the person of Jesus Christ” and much less perfectly “in the life of that community animated by his Spirit” (1999, 32).

The church is often like the vineyard bearing bad fruit that is soon to be discarded (Isa. 5:1-7). But our hope is in God, who prunes us so that we might become faithful and bear the fruits of God (John 15:1-5). After describing the divine character of the nine fruits of the spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23, Kenneson explains why Christians have difficulty implementing them. His chapter headings illustrate the difficulty of living Christianly in a non-Christian American context:

  • Cultivating Love in the Midst of Market-Style Exchanges
  • Cultivating Joy in the Midst of Manufactured Desire
  • Cultivating Peace in the Midst of Fragmentation
  • Cultivating Patience in the Midst of Productivity
  • Cultivating Kindness in the Midst of Self-Sufficiency
  • Cultivating Goodness in the Midst of Self-Help
  • Cultivating Faithfulness in the Midst of Impermanence
  • Cultivating Gentleness in the Midst of Aggression
  • Cultivating Self-Control in the Midst of Addiction

While Kenneson’s Life On The Vine does not deal with church planting, many lessons can be learned about this ministry. We no longer live in a world where people ascribe to basic Christian values. Church planting which focuses on meeting people “where they are” is doomed to synthesize the values of the dominant culture with those of Christ. We must, therefore, seek a new and different way of church planting, one which primarily looks to God for its identity and purpose and then incarnationally contextualizes these missional perspectives in local cultural contexts. This missional church understands itself as a community of disciples on a pilgrimage through life helping each other to be Christ’s disciples and encouraging others to join them as they journey through life to heaven.

Imagine the life in such a counter-cultural church:

  • Spiritual formation: Every member is passionately, whole-heartedly pursuing full devotion to Christ. Their very lives exist in relationship with God.
  • Community: Christians are nurtured in Christian community to grow as disciples of Christ. They are not mere spectators.
  • Lay Equipping: Leaders are equipping “God’s people for works for ministry” (Eph. 4:12).
  • Evangelism: Christians make disciples through personal relationships, through intimate spiritual friendships.
  • Multicultural: Christ breaks down racial and ethnic barriers so that planted churches are “red and yellow, black and white.”
  • The Strong in Christ Serve the Weak: The Church compassionately cares for the children and the poor.
  • Kingdom: The church is a unique community, formed by the calling and sending of God.
  • Missions: Christians are passionate about God’s mission to the nations.

These types of emergent churches are even now being planted by those of a missional heritage. For example, Mission Alive (www.missionalive.org) exists “to discover, equip, place, and nurture church-planting leaders who will plant missional churches in suburbs, city centers, and poverty areas with unbelievers as the primary target.” Mission Alive is…

“Missional people,

    1. because of the mission of God.”
  1. planting missional churches

Works Cited

Guder, Darrell L. 1999. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Kenneson, Philip D. 1999. Life On The Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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