Re-thinking church planting and evangelism: A bunch of questions and maybes for post-modern, post-Christian Australia
What follows is a collection of (speculative) thoughts, ideas, and questions from a novice church planter about church planting and evangelism
My college principal (and friend), Gary Millar, caused a bit of a stir on social media with this post asking whether the new, trendy, church-planting-is-the new-black, movement is taking the focus off evangelism in the church. I like Gary a lot, and learned much from him, and I think it’s funny that a guy who was a church planter prior to joining the academy is copping flack online for being anti-church plant. He’s not. He’s certainly pro-evangelism. And pro-church plant.
His post, and the subsequent discussion have been stimulating, and got me thinking some thoughts that I needed to put into words so that I don’t lose them. I feel like it’s a conversation I should be part of, even though I’m not the most experienced church planter in the world, and didn’t even want to be a church planter. I think one of the big challenges the church faces though is figuring out how to do church and evangelism for people of around my age, and younger, and I feel like maybe I can offer some insight here, especially because Gary mentions “QTC graduates who are planting in Brisbane” and that’s me, and there aren’t many of us. I feel like he was singling me out a bit with the bolded line in this paragraph too…
“Biblical church planting flows from evangelism, as the message of the gospel is clearly proclaimed in every possible context. Some of this proclamation may be cutting edge, but some of it may look extremely mundane—teaching Scripture in inner city schools, building intentional relationships with baristas and road-sweepers, inviting the faceless residents of the other units into our block for dinner, eating at the same time every week in the RSL, going to the annual show just to be there… And doing it all to make the most of every opportunity to speak the gospel to a world which desperately needs to hear it.”
Before I begin…
- I flicked back to a thing I wrote before starting out as an “inner city church planter” to try to remind myself why I signed up for this (and why I didn’t), and was surprised to find that a year and a half in, I still largely agree with myself.
- The closest I’ve come to ‘sheep-stealing’ which has been part of the conversation after Gary’s post (other than having a steady stream of people moving back and forth from our parent campus) was a thing I wrote in our denomination’s quarterly newspaper, then called New Directions, reflecting on my first year as a church planter.
- Stephen McAlpine’s response to Gary is worth a read.
And a slight disclaimer: This is the stuff I’ve been mulling over since Gary’s post, and while reading (and entering) some of the discussions about his post. Some of this reads like its a vague critique of strawmen ministers out there, and you might want empirical evidence that such ministers or thinking exists… I’d like to offer you Exhibit A, the only exhibit I’ll be offering throughout (apart from my ability to accurately represent the aforementioned conversations).
I’ve assumed at some points that how I feel and think is representative of how others might feel and think. I know there’s great stuff happening out there in many churches, and in many locations, and I thank God for that… but this is also based on conversations I’ve had with others and things I’ve observed as a participant in various churches that have either planted churches with varying degrees of success, or suffered as a result of people leaving to join new churches.
On the necessity of more evangelism
I think most people in Gospel ministry, if asked “is enough evangelism happening” would, and should, say no. Right up until the time that 100% of living people are following the living God (the new creation we long for), the answer to this question is no. That’s why the parable of the lost sheep is so profound in how it values the lost. We live in an age where there are maybe three ‘found’ sheep, and 97 lost…
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” — Luke 15:1-7
So evangelism is necessary. And obviously it’s about pointing people to the good news. The ‘evangel.’ Which is the good news about Jesus.
But I wonder if we really need to figure out is what it is we mean by evangelism (both in content and form), before figuring out what the relationship is between the church, members of the church, and what a proper emphasis on evangelism in the church looks like.
Maybe the problem Gary identifies is more about how we think of church being somehow distinct from how we think of evangelism. Maybe the move to church planting is actually a shifting understanding of the relationship between church and mission
It could just be me, but I’m pretty sure that evangelism has slipped down our agenda. Church planting has, it seems, taken up the headspace that was once occupied by evangelism. And much as I love church planting (it’s what we did in Ireland), it does provide more places for people to hide who don’t want to talk about Jesus to their friends.
Churches in our circles, especially in Australia, tend to think about church as the gathering of believers for the sake of believers. Sundays are inward looking, they’ll often feature the Gospel pretty heavily, because we realise that the Bible is ultimately a story centred on Jesus and to teach bits of the Bible without the Gospel is to not teach the Bible properly… but this way of thinking, that the body gathers for the sake of itself, doesn’t really give much clarity on how mission, or evangelism, fits with the life and rhythms of the church. So preachers throw “tell your friends about Jesus” in as the application to most sermons, churches put on evangelistic events, and might, if they’re really organised, occasionally teach people how to have conversations about Jesus with their friends (and I can’t help but think we make this more complicated than it needs to be, I don’t need coaching to tell my friends about the new coffee place I found, or my love for the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, even in a terrible year, perhaps people just need to be convinced that the need is urgent and that this isn’t something they have to do by themselves). Here are some things I think we forget that we need to remember.
1. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10).
If the Zacchaeus story is the culmination of a bunch of stories that show who Jesus thinks the lost are — sinners who know they need a saviour —then this climaxes at the Cross, and in the resurrection. The reason to think this is how this verse should be understood, as a summary of Jesus’ lifelong journey to Jerusalem, is that Luke tells the Zaccheaus story in a way that ties together a bunch of different lost ‘types’ we’ve met on this journey.
2. Jesus sent the Spirit to the Church so that we could be united with him, and then sent the church into the world the way God sent him. (John 17, John 20).
“As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world…My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:18, 20-23
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” — John 20:19-23
What’s interesting, I think, is if the prologue of John’s Gospel (the first 18 verses) sets up the themes of the Gospel, the way God sent Jesus is as the life-giving word who becomes flesh and dwells in the world (John 1:1-5, 14).
3. The Church is the body of Christ (and God gives gifts to the body to help it be the body). Part of being the body is corporately imitating Jesus in seeking the salvation of many.
Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 12. If the letter makes sense as a whole, I don’t think it’s a massive jump to link the stuff he says in 12, with the stuff he says in chapters 9-11, and 13-14, to figure out how people might do together what he sees as imitating Christ (1 Cor 11:1).
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” —1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
Perhaps we have a problem if the way we understand church (ecclesiology) is not deeply connected to the way we think church should be oriented to the world (missiology). I think the short shrift evangelism gets in our reformed evangelical churches in Australia is a product of us thinking that church is a community for believers, not that the church is the community of the people of God for the world. Church isn’t just a Sunday gathering (or a gathering), but the way we gather, and what we invest in, will reflect what we think church is.
Evangelism is necessarily proclamation, but it’s not necessarily something an individual does as an individual. It necessarily involves words, but words are amplified or cancelled out by the actions and emotions of the proclaimer(s). Evangelism is more than saying “Jesus is Lord” — it’s living this truth together in a way that is intentionally compelling and persuasive to the people we dwell with.
Maybe, then, we proclaim the Gospel as we live it out in our community, as community, and speak clearly about why we live the way we do, because of points 1, 2, and 3 above.
If you think the church exists to proclaim the Gospel, and church communities exist to do that in particular places and cultures — then the dichotomy breaks down. Church planting is evangelism. That’s why we preach about Jesus every Sunday at the church plant I’m part of, and in our established mothership. If churches are missionary communities gathering to reach and serve a hostile culture, not simply the place where everyone from a culture is expected to rock up for an event on a Sunday to tick some sort of box, where evangelism is another checkbox on the “good Christian” to do list, then the dichotomy at the heart of Gary’s post gets resolved a bit.
It’s only in churches that don’t think of church or evangelism in this way that this conversation is a problem.
Evangelism has to be something that stretches beyond the Gospel being clearly proclaimed on a Sunday, it has to be part of the lives and relationships of Christians in community in their wider community.
Maybe there’s also a more complete approach to the content of evangelism (the Gospel) than exclusively emphasising the atonement, which also changes the forms of evangelism we look for, develop, and promote?
I don’t hear of many churches who are doing evangelism training these days.
Maybe what’s happening is we’re realising that evangelism training isn’t actually about learning to draw stick figures in six boxes, but is more about authentically living and sharing the Gospel story in the places we live and the relationships we develop?
Maybe part of this is because we think the Gospel is something best shared by a community of people — the body of Christ — rather than individuals by themselves, apart from that community. Evangelism will always involve individual people boldly proclaiming and living the good news of the resurrected Lord Jesus, but we don’t have to feel like it’s something we do on our own (nor is it something just for specialists).
Maybe we’re realising that the Gospel isn’t best summarised as “Jesus died to save you (individual) from your (individual) sins (of which there is a long list)” but “Jesus is Lord of God’s kingdom and he calls you to turn to him as Lord (forgiveness of sins is then a benefit of this)”… maybe the way to present this isn’t a series of propositions or leading questions about an individual’s sin and the judgment they face, which Jesus takes (though this is part of it), but, instead, is a compelling presentation of the Biblical narrative which centres on Jesus and flows to us.
We have a really powerful story, and the opportunity to invite people to be a part of it. I really enjoyed this post today from First Things about how to reach cynical Gen X. Here’s a long quote from it. Feel free to jump to the next heading…
So you’re in quite a pickle: you can’t tell us that the Church has “the Truth,” and we know that the Church won’t miraculously cure us of our misery. What do you have left to persuade us? One thing: the story. We are story people. We know narratives, not ideas. Our surrogate parents were the TV and the VCR, and we can spew out entertainment trivia at the drop of a hat. We treat our ennui with stories, more and more stories, because they’re the only things that make sense; when the external stories fail, we make a story of our own lives. You wonder why we’re so self-destructive, but we’re looking for the one story with staying power, the destruction and redemption of our own lives. That’s to your advantage: you have the best redemption story on the market.
Perhaps the only thing you can do, then, is to point us towards Golgotha, a story that we can make sense of. Show us the women who wept and loved the Lord but couldn’t change his fate. Remind us that Peter, the rock of the Church, denied the Messiah three times. Tell us that Pilate washed his hands of the truth, something we are often tempted to do. Mostly, though, turn us towards God hanging on the cross. That is what the world does to the holy. Where the cities of God and Man intersect, there is a crucifixion. The best-laid plans are swept aside; the blueprints for the perfect society are divided among the spoilers. We recognize this world: ripped from the start by our parents’ divorces, spoiled by our own bad choices, threatened by war and poverty, pain and meaninglessness. Ours is a world where inconvenient lives are aborted and inconvenient loves are abandoned. We know all too well that we, too, would betray the only one who could save us.
Also, while I was writing this post, Stephen McAlpine chucked his latest post up, which is also relevant and provocative.
Maybe this needs to come with a shifting sense of what evangelism looks and sounds like in a post-modern/post-Christian context
Maybe stories resonate better with a post-Christian world and the way people think about life in it. Maybe while Penal Substitutionary Atonement is an essential part of the Gospel, this is a little individualistic in its approach to the Gospel (in its content), which might make us think a little bit too individualistically about evangelism (in its form). Perhaps a slightly different nuance on the Gospel that captures both the corporate and the individual implications while utterly emphasising the person and work of Jesus, especially his divinity, his humanity, and his life, death and resurrection (content) could reshape the way we talk about and practice evangelism in our churches — be they plants or established communities.
I don’t want to unnecessarily caricature the evangelism in Sydney from 13 years ago as Two Ways To Live, but Gary did this a bit for me…
“13 years ago, I made my first trip to Sydney. I came at the invitation of John Chapman and David Mansfield to spend a month working with the Dept. of Evangelism in the Sydney Diocese. It was a real eye-opener for me. Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were doing evangelism. Guest events in church. Dialogue dinners, evangelistic barbecues, men’s events, women’s events. You name it, it was happening. Everyone was learning Two Ways to Live, and new courses were coming out regularly.”
I think Two Ways to Live has been a fantastic servant for many years, and it represents a modernist/individual approach to evangelism and the Gospel. I think it has had its day, and if we’re going to train people to evangelise we need to think pretty carefully about what that looks like. We need people who walk around imitating Jesus, like Paul did, not people walking around spouting tracts or training material.
Two Ways to Live simply assumes too much that doesn’t mesh with modern Australia. It starts by assuming that the person you’re talking to believes in a creator God. Maybe this is based on the assumption that the kind of suppressing the knowledge of God that Romans speaks about is deliberate and intentional on the part of the person doing it, not something that happens corporately or culturally, maybe people relying on this material think the people who reject that concept have already ruled themselves out of hearing the Gospel through this choice (I hope not)…
TWTL works on getting people to assent to a bunch of propositions that lead to a particular conclusion. I think this method has had its day. I understand that others disagree — especially those who hate post-modernism and think people should be assenting to truth based on very clearly articulated, logical argument.
I think post-modern evangelism needs to rest more on helping people see who God actually is (that he’s not some being-in-creation, subject to the laws of nature, but the being within whom nature exists), helping them see how his plans and purposes for the universe, which centre on Jesus, include them, and helping demonstrate the plausibility of belief in Jesus, and the beauty and appeal of living life as a member of his kingdom. This isn’t the sort of thing you learn in a course, or can necessarily articulate in an adversarial large scale debate, or a conversation at a pub. Event evangelism, like the stuff Gary talks about, has a place, but it’s part of a suite of tools that a person might use in the context of a relationship with a non-believer they hope to see won to Christ.
And personally I think both the way we posture ourselves, and our content/emphasis, needs to shift gears a bit too — for an example of what I’m talking about see the difference I loved between how William Lane Craig debated with Lawrence Krauss (where I thought Krauss won) and how Rory Shiner approached his conversation with Krauss (where Rory Shiner was “gently crucified”— which I think is a substantial win).
How can we shift the way we train people to evangelise to actually speak the language of the people around us. Like Jesus did, and like Paul did as he imitated him?
I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship)
We all know that transfer growth is something we should be seen to be against (even if we quietly say ‘But you know what? They’ll be much better off in our church anyway!’). But our real attitude to transfer growth is seen in the priority and energy and focused prayer we give to evangelism. If we aren’t pouring ourselves into the work of evangelism, then by default, we are just doing church in the hope that people show up… None of us wants to steal people from other churches (although a little bit of recruiting key people from other ministries is almost always necessary in the start-up phase).
I think this is interesting. I don’t just want to be seen to be against transfer growth. I’ve been part of small and large churches that have lost people to the next cool thing. I’ve thought about those churches as parasitic. I have. So I don’t want to be that church. I’m not interested in our church being the latest and greatest church that people move to until a newer, greater church starts up (as it inevitably will, because, you know, City on A Hill is coming next year). Here’s where I think Gary and I would absolutely agree about our patch of Australia. Brisbane is massive, and it’s projected to get even bigger. The city is going to grow to 3 million people by 2020. The reason it feels like we don’t need more trendy, evangelical, church plants in inner city Brisbane, the reason we wring our hands, is because honestly most of us are still trying to figure out how to do ministry in modern Australia. We can’t rely on turning on some lights and putting on a good kids program anymore. The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city… focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity. Church plants can’t afford not to be on about evangelism (but neither can the established church).
But here’s the rub. Say my small church really goes gangbusters on evangelism, and say God blesses that effort, and say we triple in size from new converts. Who takes the responsibility for pastoring these new hundreds? Who shepherds them, who answers their questions? Where do we get the manpower from? Where do we find mature Christians if not the churches around us. Maybe if there were genuine innovative partnerships happening between churches the answers to these questions would obviously be “the church next door” — the one thing I reckon Gary absolutely nails in his post is the idolisation of numbers in church planting.
“It’s hard for those of us who aren’t church planting to appreciate just how big an issue ‘numbers’ is for those who are. Let’s face it – when you meet someone who is in a recently launched church plant, what’s the first question you want to ask?”
But it’s not just established churches that care about numbers. I ask every minister I meet how church is going, and what I mean is “how are numbers.” Almost every minister I know answers based on numbers — and that means we’re very unlikely to be excited about not just releasing, but proactively sending, people to serve in another nearby church, be it for a season, or permanently.
At South Bank, we’re in a position where our leadership team is praying for some mature, gospel hearted, Christians to plug in with us to support new Christians. Especially new Christians from the margins of our community. These can only come from elsewhere. But where I think the transfer stuff gets messy is when people proactively seek those sort of people from other churches as they look to establish a core group. I’m happy to pray and to trust God to provide the people where necessary while we train and equip the people he’s already provided for us. So far our “transfer growth” has largely come from people relocating to Brisbane.
How do we figure out how to co-operate across churches to make sure new sheep are being cared for and fed? What does it look like for churches to partner together so that we don’t think of “sheep stealing” but “shepherd sharing”?
Maybe the reason evangelism and church planting seems like a dichotomy is because the way church planting happens is (sometimes) broken
If we played a word association game with the words around the church planting discussion, what image would pop up in your head? What do you blurt out before your brain pops into gear? Let’s try.
Probably a new set up with better branding, a nicer website, and a cooler pastor than you, meeting in some funky “third place” in a suburb more trendy than yours. Am I wrong?
Not all church plants are like this. Lots of them are tedious. But the ones that get all the attention because their pastors add friends and followers online if there’s even the hint of a second or third degree of separation between you and them are like this… some of the time.
Play the game with “church planter” and, well, the picture isn’t much different. Before (and during) college I had a particular set of words reserved for church planters, not many of them were nice.
Most would-be church planters take themselves too seriously, and don’t take the (established) church seriously enough. They also don’t tend to be realistic about just how hard it is to be the church in post-Christian Australia. We can’t all plant megachurches, nor should we want to. But most would be planters seem to think they need the branding/corporate identity of a mega church. I don’t mean my friends. Obviously. And I think the assessment processes of the bigger evangelical planting networks weed this out. But the perception is shaped by those people who self-identify as church planters before they’ve even designed a logo or married a hot wife (see my now ancient post on how to church plant, but if you want a funky name you can also pick a sanctified one word verb, previously reserved for conferences, or, as seems to be the case with hipster plants, a solid sort of noun that connects you to something even more solid, if you’re really stuck you could use the Hipster Business Name Generator).
Too often church plants happen in a way that dismisses the work of the established church — be it traditional churches or denominations — and this sort of differentiation comes at the cost of both the new and the old, the new because it can cut off support from the establishment, or just irk the people flogging their guts in those churches, and the old because there’ll always be a percentage of people in those churches feeling just disgruntled enough to get up and leave (which is where bad transfer growth happens). I say this reflecting a little (contritely) on how my own plant was promoted both in house, and online. There were people who had their noses put out of joint by the suggestion we needed new and different approaches to church. Typically from churches that are going pretty well and have reached a sort of critical mass.
Here are some things I hope everyone in this conversation agrees with, that change the nature of church and evangelism.
1. Australia is increasingly non-Christian. Post-Christian. Post-Christian people feel like they know what church is, but often have no idea what the Gospel is.
2. Many churches have not changed their methodologies significantly (especially outside the cities, but not only those outside cities) in response to this fairly rapid shift. Some want to, but don’t really know how. Sometimes this is because the change experienced in 1 happens slower outside the cities.
3. By the time the church catches up to change, the change will probably have changed again. Leaving us behind. And the pace of change feels like it is increasing.
4. The result of 1-3 is we need more churches being churches differently, but still proclaiming the Gospel, if we want to reach Australia.
What would it look like if we weren’t anxious about church planting in our neighbourhood but genuinely celebrated it? It happens sometimes, but even the people publicly celebrating are perhaps privately anxious (I know I am, especially about what newer, cooler churches will do to our capacity for transfer growth).
What would it look like for church plants to be supported by existing churches with people and resources even if those churches aren’t in a sort of mothership relationship? I think there are some great examples of this new paradigm in the Brisbane Presbyterian scene?
No Church (plant) is an island. Whatever church plants do it shouldn’t be done in isolation from established churches and networks
When planting happens best, churches plant churches. If churches are investing in planting churches, and partnering with the myriad planting networks and using planting resources from these networks, to put churches in more parts of Australia, then this is evangelism. It’s possible the church hasn’t stopped doing evangelism. It’s changed tactics.
I think the “churches plant churches” mantra is great. Especially in my experience. But I’d love us to get to the stage where “the Church plants churches” — where we all celebrate when new churches start (obviously, and its a shame I feel like I need to qualify, I mean churches that show they’re part of the body of Christ by presenting the good news about Jesus, you don’t need to celebrate every time someone puts up a sign that says “church”).
What if we were able to celebrate like this even if that church started in our suburb or town (so long as they start outside of the eastern suburbs of Sydney)? What if we looked at the number of people we’re completely ill-equipped to reach in our area and figure out what it might look like to share resources (including people), rather than competing? Where we view other churches at partners in the Gospel with such familial affection that we might even encourage our own people to patch over and serve there if it’s a better geographic fit, or the unique mission/vibe of that church is a better fit for a person, or just if the need is there and the person is willing to serve.
We need a big umbrella to do that, and I think denominations need to play a part in this because they’re the best set up, organisationally to do it. Too many church plants are independent, and this is an indictment on the denominations that have been suspicious of church planting, or worried about ‘protecting’ established churches. What do we need to protect geographic areas from? More Gospel converts?
But I don’t think denominations are the solution by themselves. I like the idea that church planting isn’t something that we leave to young, restless punks who have a bone to pick with the ‘establishment’ (no matter how well assessed they might be), or something we leave to a few innovative churches to do by themselves, or something that denominations set a budget for that happens in an ad hoc way… this is why I love it when groups like the Geneva Push and Acts 29 try to have a big enough umbrella to allow different groups and individuals to contribute to starting new churches. The more the group ‘sending’ the church planter looks like the universal church — the broader the ‘gospel coalition’ —and the less it looks like a random action of some splinter cell, the better.
If churches are being planted by churches that believe that the church being the church is a significant part of evangelism, then the church planting conversation doesn’t happen at the expense of the evangelism conversation. It is the evangelism conversation.
How do we reinvent the way we do church, and start new churches, so that new and old churches benefit from the reinvention? Maybe the answer to this question is tied up in the way Paul talks about (and fundraises for) mission to new places, and for the established church in Jerusalem in his letters (Romans 15, 2 Corinthians 8-9). I don’t know how sustainable it is to suggest the more established churches are owed respect and recognition in the way Paul wants new Gentile churches to recognise the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:27-28), but there could be something there…
We’ve got to try new stuff somewhere, and perhaps it’s easier to innovate in a new church.
I’ve grown up being part of some great churches, soaked in the Gospel. But I didn’t head off to college and into ministry because I wanted to see those churches duplicated. Well. Not completely. I wanted to see those churches produce fruit via the lives of the people shaped by those communities and the Gospel DNA. People like me.
I don’t want churches I lead to be clones of the churches that shaped me, nor do I want the church I’m part of to simply be a projection of the things I like. I hope we all feel the same. That we don’t want churches we’re part of to address the Australia of the past, but the part of Australia we’re in in the present, in a way that makes Jesus and his cross-centered story of redemption come alive as we embody him and live it. I hope we want to be a part of church communities that pass on the DNA that allows our ‘children’ (be they future churches, or our literal offspring), to shape the way church participates in the Australia of the future.
While the Gospel message doesn’t change, I believe there is continuity in terms of the beliefs the church has received because the Gospel has been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation, if we did church like my grandparents did church when they were kids, or like my dad did church when he was a kid, for my kids, my kids would not want to stick with church. But most churches get comfortable with their culture, and somehow baptise their practices as the “traditional” way of doing church. Being part of a church plant lets you at least tilt at a few windmills, or tip a few sacred cows over without too much damage. And gives other churches something to look at as a way forward.
Here’s an analogy. Parents know their kids need to eat good healthy food if they’re going to survive in the big, wide, world as adults. You can’t survive on KFC alone (trust me. I’ve tried). So a good parent teaches their kids to cook before letting them leave the nest.
Sometimes that child doesn’t figure out their identity, or what food they like, until leaving home. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve been missing out on until you’re out there experimenting, or eating at new places in new neighbourhoods, with new people. This variety can be a massive danger, and might stop parents letting a child leave home, or stop a child taking the risk of leaving, but sometimes the teenager moves out of home, tries a delicious new sort of food, and brings it back to the family home and everybody benefits. This is only a benefit when there’s nothing unhealthy about this new food and its simply because the family home didn’t think or know about the option that it hasn’t always been on the menu.
That’s the sort of benefit that might happen if church plants are seen a bit like teenagers leaving home and growing towards adulthood as members of the family… rather than like teenagers who feel like they need to run away, or have been kicked out.
Maybe the reason evangelism doesn’t look like it’s working is that the people in the conversation tend to be focused on people just like us
I quoted Gary’s picture of the life lived evangelistically above. And I reckon it’s a great starting point. But I think we need to come to terms with the idea that white, middle class, post-Christian Australia doesn’t really want to listen to us anymore and doesn’t think we should have any particularly privileged place in society or their lives (think the place of religious ceremony in the calendar of the average Aussie). Even if they tick “Christian” on the census, Australians aren’t getting married in church, aren’t really going to church at Christmas and Easter, and aren’t making every day decisions with reference to Jesus Christ.
Evangelism seems really hard if you think evangelism is about converting your best buddies. And certainly you should hope to convert your best buddies. But our best buddies tend to be wise, powerful, wealthy types. If we’re honest about our wealth (and if you’re reading a 5,000 word blog post you probably fit that bill). Why do we think this should be the standard makeup of our churches? Paul didn’t seem surprised that the church in Corinth didn’t look anything like Corinth’s middle class.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. — 1 Corinthians 1:26-30
The middle class makeup of our churches is a vestige of the social privilege that came with Christendom, and as we lose that we need to be prepared for a shift in the demographic of our church communities. Not in a way that wipes out the middle and upper classes. Paul expects some people from these echelons to be part of the church (and to play their part), but in a way that upsets the default, and changes the way we think about how and where to do evangelism, and how to measure success.
Evangelism has to involve talking to people just like you. Your friends and family. Your neighbours. People who think like you and like the same stuff as you. But I don’t think we can afford for it to be limited to that… We need to break the shackles of our own personal affinities and start getting out of our comfort zones a little. I think this will be made easier because the people in our comfort zones or “target demographics” might not want to listen to us any more.
All evangelism is hard. For the reasons Paul spells out above. What we’re saying looks and sounds stupid. But the wisdom and power of God rests in us looking stupid to those who want worldly wisdom and power. And who doesn’t want worldly wisdom and power?
Why aren’t more churches working at the margins of society? You know who wants to know Jesus? International students, asylum seekers, and other people we forget in our comfortable little enclaves. I don’t know for certain where the vast majority of church plants happen, or who they try to reach – but I bet it trends urban/suburban, and trends trendy, and trends towards Sydney’s eastern suburbs if you’re a Moore College graduate or an Acts 29 planter in Sydney.
It’s hard to figure out how effective evangelism is when most of our human resources (think people being paid to do Gospel ministry in Australia) are in a relatively small pocket of a relatively big city, in an incredibly geographically diverse and increasingly culturally diverse nation.