by Ken Baker
Global church planting involves the structural growth of the Body of Christ; however, kingdom building expands the concept of Christ-like character built upon a biblical interrelating of the Body of Christ.
In the late 1980s our mission challenged us to partner with another couple to reach a resistant people group in northwest Cote d’Ivoire. Fresh from several doctoral courses on contextualization, I was inspired toward the nascent incarnational approach. In this solidly Islamic region, our approach was to live as much like the local population as possible, learn language and culture, then look and pray for a breakthrough. One specific activity was to open a reading room near the local market in our small town. In true contextualizing practice, we styled this room, and our personal interactions, with a Muslim perspective in view—floor mats, discreet literature shelves, a prominent place for the scriptures, shoes off at the entrance, appropriate vocabulary, etc.
After quite some time there was virtually no response. We had made some friends; however, there was not the inquisitiveness we had experienced elsewhere in the country and region. Were we not sufficiently contextualized? What were we missing? Actually, the barrier was more basic. There was a Christian church in the area (the only one for 150 miles in any direction), whose congregants consisted of transplanted believers from the animistic south. They were government employees posted in our region, and they had a poor reputation in the area, mainly due to shady business practices involving a couple members (as well as the traditional north/south rivalry). Despite our low-key profile, there was no way as westerners we could avoid the Christian label. Even though we sought to promote a “teacher of faith” status, the people knew our reality. So, by default, we were linked to the local church. No matter the sincerity of our cause and approach, our ministry to the indigenous people was dead in the water.
Setting Out to Help Transform the Local Church
We soon realized that without transformation in the local church there would be no gospel breakthrough in that area. So we modified our approach. My wife and I began to focus increasingly on the church (there was no pastor, just transient lay leadership) with extensive teaching and discipleship. Gradually, this church body, made up of seven different ethnic groups (with French as the common language), was transformed toward humility through a new understanding of grace. They evolved in faith and understood their calling to all peoples, specifically, their Muslim neighbors. As their vision grew, so did a group of indigenous believers through the life testimony of the Christians from this church. By God’s grace, this group maintains a faithful witness despite intense social and political upheaval in recent years.
As a result of this experience, I began to learn three fundamental, and complementary, lessons about church planting:
1. Every church-planting context is unique. While there is a range of similarities from one area to another, each setting is unlike any other, even from village to village in a specific region and/or people group. The particular mix of people (indigenous or expatriate), and their personal experiences and exposures, have a unique role in the way in which the gospel message is received and spread.
2. Assumptions cannot guide the process. Going back to the story above, on the “broad strokes” level, we assumed we knew why we were there, how we should proceed, and what the result would be. In my experience, the presumptions church planters bring in the areas of motivation, process, and outcome directly impact the flow of ministry efforts—positively or negatively.
3. The process of planting a church, or even launching a church-planting movement, is not the same as kingdom building or “building God’s household.” I can already sense the reaction to such a claim as mere semantics; however, I seek to make a point about the difference between kingdom structure and character. When a family moves from one place to another, the preliminary ritual prior to the move itself involves “house hunting” in the new area. The intent is to find a dwelling, a structure, which will serve as family lodging. Conceptually, this family is not looking for a “home,” just a house. However, they intend for it to become a “home.” This is the difference between structure and character. A house has the potential to become a home, but this process involves time, relationship, intimacy, and character. Similarly, unless church planting endeavors to understand the less tangible concept of character, it is just structure—a frame—not God’s intended kingdom expression.
People Groups, Mission, and Kingdom Building
Let me paint a different picture of mission and kingdom building. Planting a church is not a “straight line” endeavor; instead, it is a winding path which can double back without warning, promising an array of surprises along the way. Whenever we presume to have the formula, we tend to take less time weighing the decisions we make along the way. As I noted above, assumptions about the mission process play a significant role in shaping outcomes. One such area involves methodology. Increasingly over the last thirty years, the focus on people groups, and the desire to see church movements develop among those who are unreached, has been the holy grail of church-planting endeavors. This people group focus grew out of a reaction to the general mission practice in preceding generations where geo-political boundaries were the standard for grouping churches into associations or denominations. One of the watershed moments was an address at the 1974 Lausanne Congress by Ralph Winter, entitled “The Highest Priority: Cross-cultural Evangelism,” which popularized the “hidden” people focus.
In tandem with the emphasis on people groups, there arose an innovative theory—the homogenous unit principle—which proposed that church growth is based upon people who are alike gathering together. In other words, “birds of a feather flock together.” This is the principle of “attraction”—when given the freedom to choose, people will congregate with those most like themselves (Winter 1998, 406).
This theory spawned the “target audience” approach, which has dominated evangelistic ministry since the 1980s. Domestically, it is expressed through the marketing strategy of identifying a “demographic slice” of society (seekers, postmoderns, ethnic groups, etc.), then tailor-shaping a ministry program or church so as to “attract” this group. Abroad, attraction theory has been expressed through identifying and targeting individual people groups. In church-planting practice, this has meant concentrating exclusively on one people group in order to maximize gospel impact. This ministry methodology works to a degree, but is this kingdom building? Throughout my church-planting career I have seen missiological theories play out in real-world contexts, either by participation or by observation. Yet, rarely, if ever, do outcomes follow an expected script. Not only are theories often unreliable, but they can actually be misleading when they reach the status of assumption.
Looking Deeper at the Unreached People Group Movement
Looking back on nearly twenty-five years of church-planting experience in five distinct areas (in three different countries, urban and rural, animistic and Islamic), I have noted certain overreaching assumptions, particularly in the unreached people group movement (UPGM). This is not to imply that I have a comprehensive perspective on church-planting methodology, but neither did the founders (and successors) of the UPGM approach. At least from a Western perspective, the UPGM has become the standard by which evangelistic mission effort is planned and measured. It may even be said that the UPGM has become an industry, spawning an array of spin-off initiatives like “mapping” and “adoption.” In this sense, the UPGM has become an institution, representing a perspective which most assume is infallible.
Clearly, we owe a great debt to those who raised our attention to the reality of distinct peoples and the need to contextualize the gospel within these cultural traditions. At the time, mission endeavor focused on the generic “lost” and cultural sensitivity was often lacking. The UPGM founders were responding to the status quo in a necessary and timely manner. Recently, while teaching pioneer church planting as a part of the Perspectives course, I mentioned the limitations of the UPGM to the incredulous surprise of the gathered students. Many had been thoroughly steeped in this approach to the point that they were quite knowledgeable of the UPGM lingo and methodology. More importantly, they assumed that a distinct people group focus was the de facto approach to church planting.
In order to stave off misinterpretation, I will reiterate that my concerns do not lay with the practice of contextualized church-planting methodology, which is clearly necessary and which I have employed. Instead, my unease centers on the pervasive institutional assumption that exclusive focus upon a people group is the way to proceed in church planting. This perspective has engendered a generation of mission activity which embraced the theory and launched toward new horizons. There have been many laudable results, but unexpected ones as well.
UPGM champions would likely agree with the import of the above lessons; however, the pervasive wingspan of UPGM teaching communicates simplistic, universal impressions of the church-planting process. Likewise, the UPGM philosophy tends to emphasize the structural aspect of God’s kingdom—that is, the multiplication of church-planting movements made up of the various parts of the kingdom.1 However, there is usually little attention toward interrelationship and collective character.
When the relational component is missing, those trained in a UPGM perspective, with freshly-minted masters degrees in intercultural studies, often arrive on the field with a fairly well-shaped idea of how their ministry should unfold. One such couple exuded competence and confidence. Being exceptionally gifted in language ability, they made rapid progress in cultural acquisition among the Woda’abe (nomadic) Fulani of eastern Niger. They were thoroughly focused on this unreached people group, a small minority population in the area. Believing they were solely called to the Woda’abe, they would not associate with those from any other group, and they would not fellowship with believers from other ethnicities. Some would commend these choices as appropriate targeting discipline; however, the UPG approach can have collateral consequences—the most serious of which is ethnocentrism, a natural human tendency which the gospel seeks to correct.
In their daily life this missionary couple was widely misunderstood by the population at large (which was ninety-nine percent Islamic and multiethnic). Likewise, the local believers (often Muslim Background Believers) were dismayed at their rejection. Granted, this young couple made significant relationships among the Woda’abe community; however, in the process they alienated themselves from the wider community and the local believers, in particular. Their response was essentially, “So what? We have been called to the Woda’abe.” As I counseled them I sought to paint a picture of the eventual consequences of their choices—particularly with regard to the example they were setting. Should the Spirit of God bring about a movement among the Woda’abe, these new believers would follow the relationship pattern modeled by this couple—they would ignore other believers and stick to themselves. Tragically, after twenty months, this missionary couple burned out and never returned to their ministry.
Learning Lessons about Church Planting and Kingdom Building
The above story points to two more lessons about pioneer church planting and kingdom building:
1. Best intentions do not always communicate what we intend (and sometimes the opposite). Ethnic co-identification and exclusivity are hallmarks of the UPGM approach, and we may think they display undivided consideration. Such attention naturally communicates this sentiment in an ethnically homogenous environment; however, in a mixed region, exclusivity can lead to uncertain results. Perceiving eventual impact leads to the second church-planting lesson.
2. Long-term vision must dictate short-term ministry choices. That which will grow a church the fastest may not provide the best foundation for a mature church in the next generation. Furthermore, UPGM theory, which necessitates a distinct church movement within a people group, pushes this sort of exclusivity—seemingly without taking into account that this may not be the type of church movement which the Spirit of God desires. In other words, this may or may not be the way the Lord wants it to unfold in a particular place. Again, I emphasize that context makes all the difference, and every context is unique.
The foundational theological structure of the UPGM teaches that “biblical unity” means a healthy diversity within the universal worldwide Church, which leads to the conclusion of a church for “every unchurched segment of mankind” (McGavran 1998, 308). A complementary teaching instills the importance of authentic cultural self-expression in church experience; that is, “Christian liberty” means that each people group should be free to pursue self-expression in worship.
These biblical conclusions join with the sociological observation mentioned above of “attraction.” As Donald MaGavran further explains, “It takes no great acumen to see that when marked differences of color, stature, income, cleanliness, and education are present, men understand the gospel better when expounded by their own kind of people” (1980, 227). In other words, more people will follow Christ more quickly if they can join their own kind of people. This latter principle points to an abiding limitation of the UPGM, namely, the thread of expediency which accompanies the approach. In discussing the theological rationale of developing ethnically distinct congregations, Ralph Winter writes,
In my opinion, this question about evangelistic strategy in the forming of separate congregations must be considered an area of Christian liberty, and is to be decided purely on the basis of whether or not it allows the gospel to be presented effectively to more people—that is, whether it is evangelistically strategic. (1998, 406; emphasis mine)
In other words, evangelistic expediency is one of the main criteria for decisions in pioneer church planting. Therefore, the progression of conclusions flow as such: since God intends that all cultures have unique worship self-expression, and people who are alike naturally flock together, then ethnically exclusive evangelistic efforts are the most strategic means toward a church movement. This stream of interpretation forms the basis of the UPGM approach, but it is also “strategy by assumption.”
Visible Unity in the Church
Although these biblical and practical conclusions have been challenged from the beginning of the UPGM, this counter-balancing voice of character and relationship has not received equal time. Throughout the last thirty years there has been an abiding question as to “whether the best way to express the diversity of human cultures is to encourage a diversity of homogenous unit churches” (Lausanne Occasional Paper 1 1978). However, in the popular stream of pioneer church-planting education, this caution is largely non-existent. Instead, the UPGM has promoted the singular theory of ethnically-specific church planting as the way to proceed. Note one of the central passages of Lausanne Occasional Paper 1, which was the product of The Pasadena Consultation on the homogenous unit principle:
All of us are agreed that in many situations a homogenous unit (HU) church can be a legitimate and authentic church. Yet we are also agreed that it can never be complete in itself. Indeed, if it remains in isolation, it cannot reflect the universality and diversity of the Body of Christ. Nor can it grow into maturity. Therefore, every HU church must take active steps to broaden its fellowship in order to demonstrate visibly the unity and the variety of Christ’s Church. This will mean forging with other and different churches creative relationships which expresses the reality of Christian love, brotherhood, and interdependence. (1978)
As the above comments reveal, the development of a homogenous unit church movement is incomplete without engagement with the wider universal Church. Indeed, without an opportunity for interdependent diversity, its Christ-like character remains stunted because it is, intentionally, ethnocentric. Such concerns reflect the import of John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This is “attraction” of a different sort, for it refers to what makes believers attractive. Note also what Jesus prayed prior to his crucifixion:
I pray also for those who will believe…that all of them may be one, Father…so that the world may believe that you have sent me…May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23; emphasis mine)
These verses present much more than a theological oneness in the person of Christ; they tell of a visible unity. Believers loving one another intra-ethnically is noteworthy; however, when believers are in loving relationship with each other inter-ethnically, this is an exceptional testimony before the watching world. It is the visible witness our Lord desires. The world sees the transforming power of the gospel when those who are not naturally together are together in Christ. This demonstrates a kingdom character, where interrelationship witnesses to the presence of Christ. The church at Antioch exuded this sort of character—and it is there that they were first known as “Christians.”
Modeling a Unified Church
Therefore, it is imperative that this form of unity be modeled, where contextually possible, and taught, even where it is not readily visible. From day one, discipleship teaching must demonstrate cross-cultural unity as normative in the Body of Christ. Such issues go beyond that which is “evangelistically strategic” to that which is “kingdom strategic.” Focusing upon relationship and character right from the outset demonstrates a sense of long-term vision and impact. The lessons I learned in my first twelve years of church planting I sought to apply in the next twelve when my family moved to new contexts. In due course, I assumed responsibility for Serving In Mission (SIM) church planting in the east of Niger, and I encouraged two defining parameters for this region.
1. All missionaries were to be community-based, that is, involved with all peoples who inhabited a region (this is partially because only isolated villages were homogenous).
2. All church planting was to be church-based, that is, in partnership with the established national Church. (In this way, relational interdependence and kingdom character were a part of the discipleship process right from the start.)
Since the region was politically and religiously tense, there were no guarantees that expatriates would be able to remain alongside those in the national Church. This task was theirs first, then ours, as partners and co-laborers. In the process, it allowed us to model unity from the outset since ethnicities were thoroughly mixed in the area.
In my current role as an intercultural ministry coach, I visit churches and interact with pastors and lay people interested and passionate about mission. Often, I am thrust into a quandary as they share about “adopting” and “targeting” people groups, especially in the 10/40 Window. I am thrilled they are looking to the horizons in such ways; however, I am troubled by the spirit of vision management and efficiency. Usually these folks are up-to-date on the latest statistics. Yet do they realize these people are real individuals, not just flip card profiles? I even wonder about the accuracy of the figures. If the stats I have seen about the peoples I know personally are not correct, then is this true of other areas?
Furthermore, in the realm of pioneer church-planting education, especially in lay forums, the UPGM approach is thoroughly dominant. All mission awareness programs (Perspectives, Global Focus, Global Outreach, DYI, etc.) promote the UPGM approach unquestionably. Likewise, the institutional nature of the movement reinforces this position. Unfortunately, many of the initiated are “theoretically conversant,” but not “reality tested,” in the arena of pioneer church planting. Such wide propagation of UPGM teaching by those who have not had any experience in pioneer church planting is disconcerting. Occasional short terms and academic courses do not replace the reality of cross-cultural life and ministry. Yet their influence significantly impacts the mission planning, strategy, and policy decisions of countless churches.
Yes, the missiological changes which the UPGM brought were quite necessary. Contextualized attention toward hidden people groups was long overdue. It was time to challenge the status quo. However, in my opinion, the pendulum has swung past the balance point and the UPGM has become the new status quo. Through this article I have attempted to reveal some shaky assertions of the movement’s philosophy. Likewise, my anecdotes are not designed to criticize as much as to point out the consequences of presumption.
There are church movements around the world which have evolved differently, many of which are a testimony to unity in diversity. UPGM promoters could introduce a greater balance of approach considering historical evidence of the movement of God’s Spirit in a variety of methods. Global church planting involves the structural growth of the Body of Christ throughout the world; however, kingdom building expands the concept of Christ-like character built upon a biblical interrelationship of the Body of Christ.
1. The issue of denominations is an entirely different, but related, topic.
Lausanne Occasional Paper 1: “The Pasadena Consultation: The Homogenous Unit Principle.” 1978. Accessed November 19, 2008 from: http://www.lausanne.org/pasadena-1977/lop-1.html.
McGavran, Donald. 1980. Understanding Church Growth. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
__________. 1998. “A Church in Every People: Plain Talk about a Difficult Subject.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ed. Ralph Winter, 398-401. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Winter, Ralph. 1998. “The New Macedonia: A Revolutionary New Era in Mission Begins.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ed. Ralph Winter, 404-407. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Ken Baker was a church planter with SIM in three West African countries, primarily in rural and urban Islamic contexts, over twenty-four years,. He is now director of SIM USA’s Culture ConneXions, which coaches churches in cross-cultural outreach, inclusion, and mutuality.
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