Friday, December 18, 2009

Shaping the Local Church – Who Decides?

There is a proliferation of models out there. In their book, "Eleven Innovations in the Local Church" Towns, Stetzer and Bird list the following sampling:

  • Organic house churches
  • Recovery churches
  • Multi-site churches
  • Ancient-future churches
  • City-Reaching churches
  • Community Transformation churches
  • Cyber-Enhanced churches
  • Nickelodeon-Style Children-Focused churches
  • Intentionally Multicultural churches
  • Decision-Journey churches
  • Attractional churches
    • And then they have an appendix with "Extreme Churches!" Yikes!

Now I love to dream about the ideal church that will multiply, transform, and reach a city. But other cross-cultural church planters didn't always share my idea of the ideal church. Tom Steffen, Missions professor at Biola University has found that the primary factor influencing the future shape of a church plant is still the dream in the mind of the church planter(s). By determining shape I mean deciding what a local church will look like (model, design) and how it will gather and function.

Church planting models tend to reflect the history, goals, and aspirations of those who develop them. One could say the same of the models church planters select—they tend to reflect the history, goals, and aspirations of those who select them. Church planters who prefer to take a more controlling role throughout the church plant will select a model that reflects such a philosophy… Those who seek to phase out, i.e., gradually turn the ministry over to nationals, or take a subordinate role under nationals, will select models that support such aspirations, e.g., Patterson's model. Models and church planters tend to find themselves intricately intertwined.

My question is whether missionaries should be the prime movers determining church shape cross-culturally. What do you think? What about indigenous factors like the ministry focus group, receptivity, worldview, and cultural patterns of family and voluntary gatherings? So who should decide what the church should look like? There aren't too many options:

Local Believers - Many would say the best human agents to shape the new church are biblically-informed cultural insiders. Free from outside control and imported designs they can, under the Spirit's direction, become the natural contextualizing community – the group that interprets both Scripture and context to make decisions about how the church will function. "Wait a minute," someone objects. "Have you met the core group in our church plant? Even if they were capable of making weighty decisions about the future of the church, don't they have more pressing things to be working on as new believers?" The problem is that in pioneer settings it may take a while before local believers can make those types of decisions; first they need to understand the church, its nature and purposes.

Expatriate Missionaries - Missionaries bring much to the table: their theological training, experiences and models from other cultures, and (in most cases) teamwork and critical thinking skills. As students of culture they may have insights that a local person might overlook. Besides, sometimes the best approach is counter-cultural. For example, hospitality to people outside one's inner circle of family and friends is biblically important even it is not part of the cultural norm. But obviously, new missionaries may lack cultural savvy. And even veteran missionaries have been known to be ethnocentric and unable to put aside their personal preferences – or to see them as such.

Expatriate and local believers together – Do local believers really need to be mature to be cultural mentors? Some instinctively know what a good cultural fit is. It does not take theological training to anticipate how unbelievers will respond to evangelistic approaches and types of gatherings. A recent convert needs only to remember how he/she reacted or check out how friends and family respond to an idea. Why shouldn't a bi-cultural group be formed- church planters who are growing in their understanding of the culture and local believers who are growing in their understanding of the Scriptures and the church? Missionaries can begin with a simple family-style Christian community until biblically-informed cultural insiders join them in the shaping of the church. Then they can teach about the local church and empower and advise local believers toward structures they can embrace together.

If we agree that both have significant pieces to contribute, how should they proceed together? Let us explore some best practices for shaping a church plant in a cross-cultural context.

Toward Best Practices for a Bi-Cultural Strategy Group

Here are some ideas to start with. Please respond by sharing your own experience or opinion on who should decide and how to decide. Very little is written on this. We need to learn from each other.

1. Select those who decide church structure carefully. Sometimes local believers become a Christian subculture out of touch with the contemporary culture. Local contextualizing agents should be believers who understand their neighbors and are able to be relevant while remaining biblical. Also if they have the support of the other believers then the decisions about church shape. A missionary may have a hard time distinguishing between what is a biblical non-negotiable and a cultural expectation. Anyone – local or expatriate – who is unable or unwilling to distinguish between the two should sit it out. One pioneer church planting team formed an advisory board of mature, sympathetic and likeminded nationals – some from within the church plant and some from without - to advise them in the work in the initial stages.

2. Missionaries should be advisors. They should avoid excessive influence or unilateral decisions for three reasons: (1) the local church and its ministry ultimately belong to local believers under Christ. Missionaries lay a foundation and pass the baton. (2) If they impose their preferred model they should not be surprised when that community sheds their idea to adopt a design that seems more natural or promising. (3) If the design is "owned" by the local leadership team it is more likely to follow indigenous lines, draw local people, grow and reproduce.

3. Study Scripture together to understand biblical purposes. The Scriptures allow much discretion as to forms but the biblical values and functions should be clearly identified and understood by the local believers. This will require much corporate Bible study and discussion. In cross-cultural church planting it is especially important that the believers come to their own biblical understandings and convictions about the church so that it is clear to them that the church is not merely an imported idea of the church planter. This will position local believers to discern how those biblical purposes can be fulfilled in culturally appropriate ways.

4. Consider this a spiritual journey. Iron may sharpen iron but where there are too many sparks, fires can break out. Rather than considering these strategy discussions perhaps they should be seen along the lines of the Acts 6 and 13. Those leaders sought God's leading to determine ministries and select people. Prayer and listening skills are needed to come to consensus about God's leading. The group should be united but unafraid to ask tough questions and able to disagree graciously.

5. Put into practice before you decide. The group can discover what it means to be a kingdom community in their context as they live out the biblical purposes and functions of the church. For example while designing small groups they can function as a prototype and evaluate their experiences. A church planter decided to take the entire embryonic community (of about 20 new believers) to visit other more established churches before beginning public worship. They experienced various forms of worship and small group meetings and met to discuss what practices they found were most biblical, edifying, and culturally-appropriate. They identified elements that they decided they would certainly avoid and others they enjoyed. This may sound too existential, but it is extremely practical. The starting point is always "biblical purposes." But the way they are fleshed out is tested before being adopted.

6. Consider shaping the church an ongoing process. Some value tradition and others prefer innovation. But because cultures are always changing, the church must continually reinvent itself while remaining faithful to her divine calling. She must always seek to be more missionally-effective. Shaping the church contextually takes ongoing reflection, dialogue, experimentation and evaluation. It is a refining process because as the local church grows it will need new structures and leaders. Thus missionaries must hold their favorite structures very loosely and trust God to continue shaping HIS church.

Is there a suggested best practice you disagree with or have questions about? Please share that. But also add any words of advice from you reading or experience. Thanks.


[1] Towns, Elmer, Ed Stetzer, and Warren Bird. 2007. 11 innovations in the local church – How today’s leaders can learn, discern and move into the future. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

[2] Steffen, Tom Missiology: An International Review, Vol XXII, No. 3, July 1994, 366-367[1] This decision making body is sometimes called a “hermeneutical community” (Hiebert 1987, 1994).

[3] This decision making body is sometimes called a “hermeneutical community” (Hiebert 1987, 1994).

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Gene is serving as Church Planting Director for ReachGlobal and has been a church planter in Quebec and a church planting coach in Latin America.