MR #26: The Missional Helix: Example of Church Planting

In the last missiological reflection I described the Missional Helix and attempted to show the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the practice of ministry.

Developing practice of ministry was understood as a helix because theology, history, culture, and strategy build on one another as the community of faith collectively develops understandings and a vision of God’s will within their cultural context. Like a spring, the spiral grows to new heights as ministry understandings and experiences develop.

Above: The Missional Helix

Each of these four elements (theology, history, culture, and strategy) is essential in reflecting on and planning for all types of Christian ministry.

This Monthly Missiological Reflection examines each item of the Missional Helix as it relates to the practice of church planting. Because this is only an overview and application of the process, the material is simplified and reduced to a few reflections which illustrate the process.

Theological Reflection

Theological reflection is the beginning point for ministry formation and the most significant element in the spiral. All missiological decisions must be rooted both implicitly and explicitly in biblical theology in order to mirror the purposes and mind of God.

Too many church planters, while acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God, allow culture rather than scripture to shape their core understandings of the church. The Bible is used to proof-text practice rather define its essence. Without a biblically-rooted ecclesiology, the teachings and practices of the church are likely to be shaped either implicitly by the dominant evangelical culture or explicitly by random surveys to ascertain what people want1. A biblical understanding of the nature of the church, consequently, enables church planters to develop churches that are rooted in the mission of God rather than presuppositions of popular culture.

The Missional Helix proposes that church planters beginning their ministry must use scripture to form a biblical ecclesiology. For example, in Ephesians 2:19-22 Paul uses multiple metaphors to describe the nature of the church. The church is a new nation: Newly converted Christians are “no longer foreigners and aliens” but “fellow citizens” in a community of faith (2:19). The church is a family, or “God’s household” (2:19). The church is a holy temple, well constructed with each part joined together and built around Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone. This fellowship comes into existence through conversion: Those dead in sin (2:1-3) have been made alive with Christ (2:4-7) by God’s grace (2:8-10). Paul stacks metaphors one on another to illustrate a redeemed fellowship “brought together under . . . Christ” (1:3-11) and existing “for the praise of his glory” (1:12). These perspectives form an inspired picture of God’s divine community.

Theological reflection, however, extends beyond textual study. The church planter must realize that all readers understand and apply Scripture within their historical traditions, based upon their rational systems of thought, and formed by their perspectives of experience. The church planter, therefore, must be cognizant of four different resources that shape theological reflection: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience (Stone and Duke 1996, 43-54). For example, in rural, face-to-face cultures Christians tend to perceive of the church as a “family,” in modern, industrial contexts as a “business,” and in postmodern, informational cultures as a “network” or sometimes as a “community.” Missionaries and ministers, as theological “meaning makers,” must theologically reflect upon the connotation of these metaphors using all four resources of theological reflection.

Cultural Analysis

In addition to theological reflection the church planter must undertake an indepth worldview analysis of the local culture. Much too often this second element of the Missional Helix is excluded. Church planters naively project their worldview upon other contexts and interpret reality in terms of their heritage. This intellectual colonialism results in transplanted theologies, reflecting the missionaries’ heritage, rather than contextualized theologies, developed by reflecting on scripture within the context of local languages, thought categories, and ritual patterns. Transplanted theologies are merely uprooted from one context and transferred to a new one with the expectation that the meanings will be the same in both cultures. The beginning point of theologizing in a new culture is always a thorough analysis of the culture on a worldview level. Based on these cultural understandings, trained missionaries are able to be theological brokers to those within the culture and minister alongside them in developing contextualized theology for their own context.

Church planting does not occur in cultural vacuums but in cultural contexts, where rival perspectives of reality vie for human allegiance. Church planters must, therefore, become adept at differentiating worldview types and diagram how these types influence the target culture. These understandings enable them to communicate God’s message so that it interacts with the culture’s perspective of reality.

At least four different worldview types are present in world cultures. Stated succinctly, a secular worldview divides the world into natural and supernatural realms and focuses almost exclusively on the natural realm. God is considered to be either non-existent or irrelevant to human affairs. Secularists tend to be resistant until they realize, usually during times of trauma, that humans are unable to “direct their own steps” (Jere. 10:23), that the divine and the human are interrelated. An animistic perspective of reality believes that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs. During times of disease, death, and drought, they use divination to discover which beings and forces are impacting them in order to ward them off or to employ their power. Animists must learn that creator God is approachable and concerned about human life, and unlike the gods, “majestic in holiness” (Ex. 15:11). Through the death and resurrection of his son God has defeated all the principalities and powers (Col. 2:15). A pantheistic worldview perceives that an impersonal, all-pervading essence, sometimes defined as “god,” fills the universe. As droplets of water merge to become a stream, then a river, and finally an ocean, so individuals can become one with the essence of the world through meditation, thus achieving a change of consciousness called enlightenment. The pantheist, through living illustrations of Christian meditation, must experience God to be living and personal, full of compassion and having a distinctive holiness. A theistic plausibility system presupposes that God created the heavens and the earth and continues to care for that universe. Some theists follow God’s distinctive way of salvation through Jesus Christ while others focus on submission to and honoring of Allah.

Based on these typologies, missionaries and ministers can diagram the intertwining influences of secularism, animism, pantheism, and theism within their host culture. While most cultures emphasize one or two of these types, influences from all four types may be syncretized in various configurations. Understanding the various influences in the culture enables missionaries and ministers to encode the gospel in theological metaphors appropriate to the culture.

Worldview analysis is only one of many tools of cultural inquiry. Other tools include study of the epistemological sources forming worldview, types of cognitive processes, a culture’s grid/group orientation, levels of technology and the resultant strategies for use of money and media, differing definitions of sin and related conceptions of salvation, and the logico-structural integration of its worldview universals within cultures.

Too frequently church planters analyze bits and pieces of a culture but are unable to make a systematic cultural analysis. Or, they effectively analyze culture in broad, general terms, like the premodern, modern, and postmodern, but are not equipped to make localized cultural analysis.

Historical Perspective

Likewise, church planters must develop ministry based upon historical perspective rather than being oblivious of what has previously occurred. Because of their short national history and focus on practical inclinations, many North Americans “rush into the future without looking back” (Hesselgrave 1994, 7-8). Samuel Escobar believes that North American missiologists tend to negate theory and historical background. In other words, they look at missions as a management task necessitating “a task-oriented sequence of steps to be followed in order to achieve” specified goals. He challenges the North American missions community to expand the horizons of their “managerial missiology” (1992, 13-14; cf. 2000, 109-112).

Historical perspective provides many insights that guide church planters to develop their practice of ministry. For example, the reading of history greatly aids contemporary evangelists to understand syncretism. Ancient Israel, like many people coming out of animism, was tempted to follow both God and the gods of the nations. “They bow[ed] down and [swore] by the Lord and . . . also by Molech” (Zeph. 1:5). Modern Christians have syncretized secularism and theism by negating the Holy Spirit and demythologizing spiritual powers. Postmodern Christians have brought new syncretisms, including pervasive relativism, fascination with spiritual powers, focusing on power and neglecting truth, and interpreting emotions and intuition as the work of the Holy Spirit2.

Church planters will find it difficult to understand the nature of syncretism or other issues in church planting without historical perspective.

Strategy Formation

Church planting, by its very nature, necessitates strategic planning. Strategy formation, however, should never stand by itself as a self-contained, “how-to-do-it” prescription. Never should practitioners merely ask the question, “Does it work?” Many strategies that “work” and enable the church to grow for short periods of time do not reflect the qualities and purposes of God. For example, the “health-wealth” gospel produces numerical results, but when God takes away health or wealth as in the case of Job, the faith of those who have come to Christ to receive His “benefits” will likely prove deficient. A question that better reflects the Missional Helix model is: “Does this model of praxis reflect the purposes of God within this historical, cultural context?”

The foundational understandings of theology and the perspectives developed through cultural analysis and historical perspective should, then, lead church planters to critical reflection upon praxis. The missionary or minister should return time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically in order to develop ministry models that are appropriate to the local context. The four elements work together and interpenetrate each other. Based on these understandings, I will define “strategy” as the practice of model formation for ministry shaped by theological reflection, cultural analysis, and historical perspective and by the continued practice of ministry.

Strategies for church planting currently are undergoing radical transformation as missiologists reflect upon the different social contexts of missions and the need for the church to be God’s distinct, called-out people.

Because the social contexts are vastly different, strategies for urban church planting are not appropriate for rural areas. Rural areas are largely homogeneous whereas urban centers are heterogeneous and pluralistic. In rural localities people tend to live in extended families and know everyone within the immediate village; in urban contexts people live in close proximity to thousands of other people but paradoxically are neighbors with few of them. In rural communities kinship is the dominant relationship connecting people; in urban societies associational and occupational webs overlay kinship relationships and frequently are considered more important. Church structures in rural cultures tend to coincide with families who know each other and interact with each other in many aspects of life; in the urban context, however, structures of community must be created in order for the church to function as a body of Christ.

Note, for example, some of Valdir Steuernagal’s points in his “map of challenges” for the new decade during the Iguassu Dialogue (2000, 128):

  • “Is there a friend around? The search for relationship in an environment of loneliness.”
  • “I am alone, without a ‘father or a mother?’ The crisis of the state.”
  • “The savage urbanization process and the absence of sanctuary. Urbanism is a mindset.”

The metaphors of Paul from Ephesians 2:19-22 take on a new meaning within this urban environment. Migrants from various areas are united to become a new nation. New community structures are created so that “foreigners and aliens” who have moved from a homogeneous rural environment become a family in a heterogeneous city. The church is a holy temple that stands as a beacon of light in the midst of the corruption and immorality of the city. The church must not be comprised of spectators who fail to receive nurture to become functioning members of the body of Christ.

The strategic implications of the above three paragraphs are immense. Churches can no longer operate as they have in the past. Because people in impersonal urban churches tend to get lost and slip out the back door, nurturing systems must be developed to incorporate new believers into the body of Christ. Church structures must move from impersonal models, in which Christians are spectators absorbing knowledge, to models that are participatory. Thus newly planted churches must make allowances for the anonymity of urban culture and develop intentional structures of nurture and incorporation. The house/cell church movement is predicated upon these social and theological considerations.


The Helix Metaphor is useful in at least two ways. First and foremost, it provides the Christian practitioner with a model of decision-making that is both intentional and instinctive. In other words, the missionary or minister should seek theological understandings, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the process of developing patterns for ministry. Hopefully, this process becomes instinctive to the missional practitioner. Second, the Missional Helix could be used as a model for theological education. Equipping for ministry should not focus on some of the elements and give little consideration to others but form an integrated model of formation.

Finally I would like to include an insight from a reader: Lynn Anderson of Hope Network Ministries, responding to the missiological reflection introducing the Missional Helix, wrote that he has frequently “felt ping-ponged between theologians and practitioners” and concludes that “theologically impoverished practices are usually proven to be poor practices” and “theology divorced from practice is usually impoverished theology.” He speaks of once writing a satirical article in Wineskins entitled “Why aeronautic engineers don’t make good fighter pilots and vice-versa,” which only succeeded in making both poles mad (Anderson, 2002). The Missional Helix thus works to explain the relationship between theology and other aspects of ministry preparation.


1 Christian A. Schwarz in Natural Church Development (1996) and George Barna at are two examples of church planting models that were devised based upon survey methodologies.

2 For a fuller description of syncretism and types of syncretism during modernity and postmodernity read my article entitled “Modern and Postmodern Syncretism in Theology and Missions” (1997, 164-207).

Sources Used

Anderson, Lynn. 2002. Personal Correspondence.

Escobar, Samuel. 2000. Evangelical missiology: peering into the future at the turn of the century. In Global Missiology: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. William D. Taylor, 101-122. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Hesselgrave, David J. 1994. Scripture and Strategy: The Use of the Bible in Postmodern Church and Mission. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Hiebert, Paul. 1993. De-theologizing missiology: A response. Trinity World Forum 19 (Fall): 4.

Steuernagel, Valdir. 2000. Learning from Escobar . . . and beyond. In Global Missiology: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. William D. Taylor, 123-132. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Stone, Howard. W. and James O. Duke. 1996. How to Think Theologically. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1997. Modern and Postmodern Syncretism in Theology and Missions. In The Holy Spirit and Missions Dynamics, ed. C. Douglas McConnell, 164-207. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

MR #34: Contrasting Missional and Church Growth Perspectives

I pray that churches will become missional, i.e., theologically-formed, Christ-centered, Spirit-led fellowships who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ.  Missional churches define themselves as bodies formed by the calling and sending of God and reflecting the redemptive reign of God in Christ.  They are unique communities in the world created by God through the Spirit as both holy and human.  Missional leaders, likewise, reflect the calling and sending of God.  They minister with humility recognizing themselves as “jars of clay” who finitely seek to enter into what God is already doing in his world.

The missional approach to ministry stands in obvious contrast to the traditional Church Growth perspective.  Church Growth thinking has brought much to the practice of foreign and domestic missions.  Donald McGavran, the father of Church Growth, encouraged missionaries to personally minister among unbelievers rather than attempt to draw people into Western-style mission enclaves or mission stations.  He rightly emphasized the missionary nature of the local church and the need for pioneer evangelism among peoples ready to hear the gospel.  He called for the incisive evaluation of missions.  Above all, he taught us to employ tools from the social sciences to analyze culture and to use this analysis to develop penetrating strategies for reaching both searchers and skeptics with the gospel of Christ.

The seeds of syncretism, however, were rooted in the very principles of cultural analysis and strategy formation employed by this movement.  Practitioners succumbed unintentionally to the humanistic suppositions of the Modern Era.  Assuming that they could chart their way to success by their ingenuity and creativity, Church Growth practitioners focused on what humans do in missions rather than on what God is doing.  They saw the missional task as setting goals, developing appropriate methodologies, and evaluating what does or does not work rather than seeking God’s will based upon biblical and theological reflection.  Their thinking segmented the gospel and practice, the human and divine into two compartmentalized worlds, and practice was developed on the basis of “what works” rather than the will and essence of God.  Christian leaders placed more emphasis on developing effective strategy than forming communities shaped in the image of God.  Although they advocated faithfulness to God, the system they proposed was based on human intelligence and ingenuity.

It has been my privilege to work with five other missions educators (Elmer Towns, Craig Van Gelder, Charles Van Engen, Howard Snyder, and editor Gary McIntosh) to evaluate the Church Growth Movement.  The resulting book, Evaluating the Church Growth Movement (McIntosh, 2004), is part of the Zondervan counterpoints series.  My comparison of Missional and Church Growth thinking is are drawn from my chapter and that of Craig Van Gelder (Van Gelder, 2004) in this book.  A fuller description of this comparison can be found here.

Missional Church Growth
Orientation/ Perspective Theocentric Anthropocentric
Theological Practical
Postmodern Modern
Theological Focus Missio Dei Great Commission
Beginning Question What is the gospel? What makes the church grow?
Perspective on Scripture Narrative of God’s purposes Propositional truth
How does missions happen? By the Spirit (God’s “surprises”) By strategic planning
Nature of community Inclusiveness, unity of the body of Christ People groups
Focus of Evangelism Initiation of people into the kingdom of God; holistic understanding of “making disciples” Differentiation between  discipling and perfecting, individual salvation
Orientation toward Social Action The Gospel, evangelism, and social action cannot be separated Priority of evangelism and church planting over social action; Reactive to the Social Gospel

Church Growth thinking begins anthropocentrically.  The focus is on strategy development and cultural analysis with biblical passages appropriated to give validity to the perspectives.  The Missional movement, on the other hand, begins theologically with the perspectives of the mission and kingdom of God.

The Church Growth movement, emphasizing the human ability to decipher and strategize, reflects Modernity.  Missionaries and missions scholars, however, increasingly doubt the ability of human ingenuity to guide the mission enterprise.  They recognize the finite nature of human understanding and the need for dependence on the Spirit of God.  Post-Modernity provides a more favorable cultural environment for Christian leaders to understand missions as authored and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Deciding the primacy and ordering of questions determines the missiological focus.  Church Growth begins with the question “Why do some churches grow and others do not?”  The central concern of the Missional movement, on the other hand, is “What is the gospel?”  The gospel is thought to intersect with every question of theology and strategy.  Because it is the essence of the Christian faith, the gospel cannot be relegated to the periphery, even when formulating practical issues of strategy.

The Church Growth movement focuses on truth as proposition.  Christianity is reduced to culturally-defined categories and communicated based upon these conceptual groupings.  This topic framework of mental referencing is susceptible to syncretism because it is based upon conceptualizations made by Christian leaders attempting to intellectually clarify Christianity in the human cultural categories.  The Missional movement maintains that the gospel cannot be contained in a set of propositions.  The mission of God must be communicated as the dynamic story of God’s relationship with his creation.

Missional proponents believe that God’s mission cannot be predicted by human planning.  They point to “God’s surprises” in the book of Acts, resulting from the Holy Spirit going ahead of human messengers and directing them in God’s mission.  For example, Acts 10 describes the Spirit of God going ahead of Peter, teaching him of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles, and leading him to household of Cornelius.  The story is one of God working through his people for his purposes.  While the Church Growth heritage has emphasized the mighty workings of God and the Holy Spirit due to the emphasis in such writings as Roland Allen’s Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, the major focus has been on human ingenuity in decision-making.  Elmer Towns, for instance, has great trust in human creativity.  He believes that Church Growth thinking is leading missionary practitioners into a period of unprecedented growth by intentionally applying the scientific method to evangelism and church planting (2004, 39-40).  The tension between the sovereignty of God, on the one hand, and the creativity of evangelists and church planters to strategize for success is the most significant difference between Missional and Church Growth thinking.  A balance is needed between these two perspectives.  God does miraculously lead us forward in His mission.  He, nevertheless, calls us to minister intentionality.  Paul, for instance, viewed himself as “an expert builder” laying the “foundation of Jesus Christ” and encouraged other ministers to “be careful” how they built (1 Cor. 3:10-11).

The Church Growth movement has focused on the uniqueness and distinctiveness of people groups and the contextualization of the Gospel among the ethne of the world.  The Missional movement, on the other hand, believes that the gospel breaks socio-economic and ethnic divisions between peoples so that all become one in Christ.

The Missional orientation does not dichotomize evangelism and social action, discipling and perfecting, but views God’s mission holistically.  Church Growth adherents, reacting to the Social Gospel, argue that the primary task of missions is evangelism and incorporating new believers into the body of Christ.  Evangelism and church planting, therefore, take priority over social action.  They point to the existence of many social programs, which share loaves and fishes without the gospel.

The Church Growth and Missional movements represent two very different emphases.  The Missional perspective accentuates theological reflection and historical perspective and the Church Growth movement cultural analysis and strategy formation.   Each movement has much to learn from the other.  Those of a Missional heritage can learn from Church Growth how to study culture beyond the general impressionistic level and be more intentional in strategy formation.  Church Growth practitioners can learn to rethink their discipline in integrative theological categories and to study culture, interpret history, and develop strategy through the lens of Christian theology.

The Missional Helix

The limitations of Church Growth that have been discussed–the anthropocentric focus, pragmatics and the segmentation of theology and praxis, the theological level of inquiry, and the focus on growth–suggest the need for a new model of missions.  This new paradigm would maintain the strengths of the Church Growth model–a focus on identificational ministry, belief in the missionary nature of the church, critical understandings of culture, and incisive evaluation–while broadening its theological horizons.  The model, termed missional, is rooted in an understanding that a missionary theology should permeate both theology and missiology.  Kirk writes:

All true theology is, by definition, missionary theology, for it has as its object the study of the ways of a God who is by nature missionary and a foundational text written by and for missionaries.  Mission as a discipline is not, then, the roof of a building that completes the whole structure, already constructed by blocks that stand on their own, but both the foundation and the mortar in the joints, which cements together everything else.  Theology should not be pursued as a set of isolated disciplines.  It assumes a model of cross-cultural communication, for its subject matter both stands over against culture and relates closely to it.  Therefore, it must be interdisciplinary and interactive.

(Kirk 1997, 50)

The Missional Helix visualizes such an “interdisciplinary and interactive” approach to the practice of ministry and provides a corrective to traditional Church Growth perspectives.  It images the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflectioncultural analysishistorical perspective, andstrategy formation within the context of the practice of ministry.

The helix begins with theologies, such as Missio Dei, the kingdom of God, incarnation, and crucifixion, which focus and form our perspectives of culture and the practice of ministry.  Cultural analysis forms the second element of the helix.  Cultural awareness enables church planters and Christian leaders to define types of peoples within a cultural context, to understand the social construction of their reality, to perceive how they are socially related to one another, and to explain how the Christian message intersects with every aspect of culture (birth rites, coming of age rituals, weddings, funerals, etc).  The spiral then considers historical perspective, how things came to be as they are based upon the interrelated stories of the particular nation, lineage, the church, and God’s mission.  Finally the spiral considers incisive contextualstrategies, which are based upon theological reflection, cultural analysis, and historical perspective, for the practice of ministry.  This process of ministry formation must occur within an environment of spiritual formation in which the soul is being nurtured through a personal walk with God and a continual seeking of direction from God where God is sought for direction.

The Missional Helix is a spiral because the missionary returns time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically in order to develop contextual ministry.   Theology, social understandings, history of missions, and strategy all work together and interpenetrate each other.  Thus theology shapes praxis, which in turn influences theology within the context of on-going ministry.   The helix also infers growth as the practitioners spiral to higher levels of maturity and ministry effectiveness.

The Missional Helix is useful in at least two ways.  First and foremost, it provides the Christian practitioner with a model of decision-making.  Church planters, evangelists, and pastors seek theological understandings, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the process of developing patterns for ministry.  Second, the Missional Helix could be used as a model for theological education.  Equipping for ministry should not place high emphasis on some elements and give little consideration to others.  Rather, it should provide an intentional, integrated model of ministry formation.


I embrace Steuernagel’s belief:  “As we move into a new century, . . . we need to reposition ourselves and to work once again on the agenda” (2000, 127).  The Church Growth model is inadequate.  By beginning with anthropology rather than theology and segmenting theology and practice, Church Growth advocates assume that their model reflects the nature of God.   In other words, church growth determines effective practice and then seeks to validate this practice by the use of Scripture.  The movement emphasizes growth rather than faithful proclamation of the gospel and faithful living of the gospel.

I advocate an adapted missional model, one which begins with and always returns to theological reflection while taking seriously cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation.

Works Cited

Kirk, Andrew.  1997.  The Mission of Theology and Theology as Mission.  Harrisburg, PA:  Trinity Press International.

McIntosh, Gary L. (ed.).  2004.  Evaluating the Church Growth Movement.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Steuernagel, Valdir.  2000.  Learning from Escobar … and beyond.  InGlobal Missiology for the 21st Century – The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. Wm. D. Taylor, 123-32.  Grand Rapids:  Baker.

Towns, Elmer.  2004.  Effective Evangelism View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Engen, Charles.  2004.  Centrist View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Gelder, Craig.  2004.  Gospel and Culture View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn.  Accessed on Dec. 16, 2004.  From Theology to Practice:  The Missional Helix.

_________.  Accessed on Dec. 16, 2004.  The Missional Helix:  Example of Church Planting.

_________.  2004.  Reformist View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.