When A Missiologist Plants A Church

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Earlier this year, my friend, Ed Stetzer, planted a Grace Church in Hendersonville, TN. In addition to being a church planter, Ed is a missiologist, research expert, and prolific author and blogger.

I imagine there’s added pressure, and not a small amout of scrutiny, when you’re a well-known missions and church-planting teacher, to plant successfully. I wish Ed and Grace Church the best as they continue to develop gospel ministry to the people of Sumner County, and I don’t want to add expectations.

It is interesting, though, to look at a missiologist’s approach to planting a church in the United States.

I encourage you to pray for Ed and the Grace Church leadership team. Beyond that, follow them on their journey. They are very deliberate about being connected on social media, and Ed is very approachable on his blog. Please feel free to ask him questions. It’d be a shame for us all to miss the opportunity to learn from the decisions he’s making along the way.

Hypermissiologicalism

I’ve been watching an interesting, if asymmetric, discussion on Ed Stetzer’s blog about MissionShift, the book he co-edited with David Hesselgrave.

Participants were given copies of the book and asked to post their thoughts on their own blogs and discuss them in the comments section of Ed’s post. We started by reading the first section of the book, written by Chuck Van Engen, and the accompanying response essays written by various missiologists and theologians.

The book itself is a thoughtful discussion of mission past, present, and future. It begins with an exploration of the definition(s) of mission. Though it seems like a simple thing to do, defining the mission has proven very difficult for evangelicals to do; interpretations of “therefore go” have ranged from social justice work with no gospel proclamation to open-air evangelism with no contextualization to baptized syncretism with no transformation.

Some reject the idea of missions. Others carry on under a new title (Van Engen refers to a church that replaced its “missions” program with “global outreach”). Others still hold tightly to the word, but apply it to everything from feeding the homeless to cleaning up the local schools.

What’s a missionary to do?

Part of the problem in defining the mission is that we’ve elevated it to something that is, for most of the church, (and, ironically, for most missionaries,) out of reach. As an academic discipline, missiology sits somewhere between theology, sociology, anthropology, and communications theory.  The words we use to talk about our motivations and methods in mission can be pretty intimidating. The result is a church that has a fuzzy picture of what missions is or else doesn’t talk about it at all.

For some time now, more culturally-aware churches in the U.S. have been talking about being “missional.” This conversation has, for the most part, happened without any meaningful input from practicing missionaries on the field. The missional church has therefore been left to learn the hard way, missiological missteps and all.

It’s time for a more accessible missiology. It’s time to stop using lofty words that prove we know more than everyone else and start wrestling with what God is currently doing around the world and how that fits into our understanding of the scriptural mandate to “go unto all nations.”

I’m thankful for Ed Stetzer (don’t tell him- it’ll go to his head) and what he’s doing to further the conversation by bridging the gap between academic and armchair missiologists. I’m proud of all the missionaries who are mindful to share lessons from the field with the people in the pews.

You don’t have to be a scholar to talk about God’s global purposes or how you fit into it all.

Ed Stetzer Is (Probably) Not Your Pastor

At the “amen” of the closing prayer, the man bounded up to the stage with a satisfied look on his face. “Dude, you really brought it just now!” he exclaimed. “That was just what we needed to hear!” The Dude in question was Ed Stetzer, missiologist, author, preacher, researcher, and popular Christian conference speaker. The excited guy from the audience was going in for the hug when he uttered some very telling words: “Thanks for being a pastor to all of us.”

Ed had no idea who this guy was. Not because he’s especially forgetful (he’s a human Wikipedia of missions and the church), and not because he’s bad with names (he isn’t– except maybe with mine). The problem was that Ed had never actually met this man who was clearly his biggest fan. (Though anyone who knows germaphobic Ed would know better than to actually touch him.)

Ed Stetzer is everywhere. He spends lots of time on the road, speaking at conferences, teaching in seminaries, and consulting with various organizations and denominational groups. He puts out several books each year. He blogs regularly and Tweets like a spambot. His brain never shifts out of overdrive. I’ve seen him answer text messages while making a keynote presentation without ever missing a beat. Despite his crazy travel schedule, he’s home every weekend to spend time with his family and preach at church every Sunday.

It would be easy for anyone who reads his stuff and sees him speak a couple times a year to feel as though they knew Ed. His commitment to biblical truth might even make some of his fans feel as though Ed was their pastor. He’s not, and he doesn’t claim to be. Neither are any of the other two dozen or so other big names in evangelical circles. Unless you go to their churches (and in some cases, even that won’t do it), authors and conference speakers aren’t your pastors.

A pastor knows you well enough to preach the gospel into your community of faith. He holds you accountable for your missteps and encourages you through the rough patches. As described in 2 Timothy 4, a pastor is more than just a presenter of gospel teaching, he’s a shepherd who supervises your spiritual formation. The conference stage, book, (and, in many cases, the megachurch pulpit) serve as two-way mirrors; allowing us to be taught without being seen, to be preached to without being cared for.

We need thinkers, teachers, authors, and speakers. On the corporate level, leaders like Ed Stetzer are the people who drive the conversation and inspire with new ideas. They teach, equip, and challenge us publicly. They speak on our behalf. But believers need more than just sound instruction. Every Christian everywhere needs a pastor who knows them and speaks into their lives personally.

Ed Stetzer isn’t your pastor. Neither is Francis Chan, John Piper, or Matt Chandler (unless, of course, you go to their churches.) If you don’t know who your pastor is, you need to find one. If you don’t know of any in your area, ask Ed Stetzer– he probably does.

The First-Century Megachurch?

In the comment thread of Ed Stetzer’s recent post introducing a series on megachurches, I wrote:

“I would argue that megachurches are intrinsically unhealthy because of the exorbitant building costs, reliance on attractional church programs, and the fact that your pastor doesn’t know your name.”

A couple of Ed’s readers responded to my comment with,

“I guess I’m not into questioning the idea of megachurches till one get’s larger than the church in first century Jerusalem. I don’t think James knew the thousands of parishioners in that church by name.”

and

“Didn’t the church begin as a mega-church? ie Jerusalem and 3000 were saved in one day.”

It never really occurred to me that there were Christians who believed that the first century church looked even remotely like church as it’s known in America today. I can’t imagine that early believers organized themselves congregationally, or that what they did/could (in any way, shape, or form) be compared to a modern megachurch.

This is a classic example of bringing American Christian presuppositions to the scriptures. The commenters on Ed’s blog didn’t say this, but let’s apply the thinking; the elders (“pillars,” Galatians 2:9) were staff members, the church met all together in one place, the pastor preached a sermon.

Scripture doesn’t paint this picture of the early church. According to the book of Acts (2:42-47), the first Christians were Jews. They participated in the Temple, they observed Jewish traditions. Their Christianity was expressed through learning, sharing, eating, praying/fasting, praising God and meeting needs. The Lord added thousands to their number. Maybe it’s my postmodern distrust in all things institutional. Maybe it’s my time on the mission field, away from established traditional churches. Whatever the reason, I don’t see this as a megachurch.

Why would we assume that “praising God” means that the believers met in one place for a time of guided “praise and worship?” Why would we think that early church leaders were pastors in any sense of the word as it’s used today (seminary-trained, full-time, executive preachers)? What would lead us to assume that the “Jerusalem Church” was a local church and not a unified citywide  movement? Why would we think that a felowshipping network of believers could be safely “translated” into something compartmentalized, attractional, branded, and programmatic? Can we not see that applying corporate and commercial principals to church actually change what it means to be the church?

Our inability to conceptualize church outside the formal, building-and-staff centered model may be one reason for the relative ineffectiveness of American missionaries planting churches on the mission field. In the short run, we can reproduce First Baptist Church by re-wiring people to think in modern, rational, and propositional term. We can build (rent/borrow/receive as gifts) buildings, set up rows of chairs all facing the pulpit, and teach people to sing in order to worship, but the popular American model for church simply isn’t sustainable, even in America.

So what might a more biblical and missional church look like? Stay tuned for my next post: Mom-and-Pop Church.