by Tom Steffen
Post-exit roles for team members are considered.
After over two decades of dedicated cross-cultural ministry, a fledgling mission agency comprised of nationals and expatriates in the Philippines had yet to turn over even one church plant to nationals, even though this was the stated and articulated goal of agency. Could this history be changed? If so, how? These questions set my research agenda for years to come, not only theoretically, but practically as well.
Effective church planting teams begin with the end in mind. This is one of the key points I attempted to make in Passing the Baton: Church Planting That Empowers (1997). Appendix F of that book includes, by design, an incomplete checklist that advances though a five-stage model designed for long-term, cross-cultural, pioneer church-planting teams (Rom. 15:20). The benchmarks conclude with phase-out (pp. 237-253). In this article I would like to revisit the phase-out section, noting certain areas that demand further development and inclusion: teaching curricula, Association of Churches, mission training, structuring a movement, and ministry options for church planters who have phased out. I’ll begin by defining phase-out. Hopefully, this discussion will help lead to a more precise definition of a phase-out oriented exit strategy.
Phase-out is not pullout, that is, leaving abruptly for whatever reason: health, personal, safety, completion of ministry goals. Rather, phase-out is benign neglect… it is “responsible disengagement…it is the planned absences of church planters, protracted over time, so that national believers can immediately strengthen their spiritual roots and wings” (Steffen 1997, 16, 20). It is the change of roles for team members (evangelist, teacher, resident advisor, itinerant advisor, absent advisor) as the nationals take over the various ministry challenges, including the planting of reproducing churches. It is the bitter-sweet time when the nationals say to the church-planting team: “Thanks, we can handle it from here.” This is what Greg Livingston calls a “gracious insult.” Post-exit roles for team members are considered below.
TEACHING THEM TO OBEY
The phrase “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), which later became at least part of the “Apostles doctrine” (Acts 2:24), is tremendously instructive to the phase-out exit strategy. Cross-cultural pioneer church planters, however, define the phrase differently, resulting in a plethora of exit strategies. Some interpret it to mean: just cover the basics, so they leave after a week or two, sometimes sooner. Others interpret it to entail tremendous detail, requiring 15 to 20 years to complete. Figuratively, these church planters exchange their apostolic robes for pastoral robes. It seems beneficial, therefore, to begin with an exploration of the parameters of the phrase, and then consider their relationship to phase-out.
Arthur Glasser (1998) notes that Matthew delivers his instruction on discipleship in relation to the Kingdom of God in five messages, each concluding with a characteristic phrase (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1, 26:1). Kingdom discipleship evidences: (1) rigorous justice from the heart: prayer, fasting and a life characterized by salt, light, love and not just words or religiosity (5:1-7:29); (2) Jesus, the “Sent One” serves as the model missionary who heals, exorcises demons, doesn’t seek wealth, searches for worthy people and divides families, and takes heat (10:1-11:1); (3) mission is concerned with failure and success, requires full surrender of participants and a departure from this world’s treasure which can never compare to God’s (13:1-5*); (4) the greatest disciples (share a childlike lack of status, a dependency that is devoid of pride, position or power” (p. 10), and remain accountable to the community of faith (18:1-35); and (5) the disciple is ready to give an account of “faithfulness as a custodian of the gospel and of the use he or she has made of spiritual gifts and natural talents” (p. 10) (24:2-25:46).
Luke uses phrases similar to that of Matthew’s in Acts 20:27 when Paul delivers his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders. Paul did not “hesitate” from “announcing,” the “whole counsel of God.” What did Paul have in mind when he used these terms with the Ephesian elders? Once defined, this, along with Matthew’s Gospel, can help church planters define phase-out more precisely.
Paul provides some clues as to the parameters of “all things,” the first coming from the “Kingdom of God” discussion that Paul incorporates in his message. The last scene of Acts finds Paul “proclaiming the Kingdom of God . . . and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ” (28:31, New Living Translation). The Kingdom message initiated by Jesus in Luke 22:29-30 continues in Acts 1:3,6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31), but finds itself expanded. It now incorporates the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the anointed Messiah. All Jews and Gentiles are to “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21, New International Version). The expanded version demanded announcement and mission (Acts 22:15).
Each of these clues is loaded with implicit information. While the implicit information was well understood by Paul, we continue to search for more precise meaning. Is the Kingdom spiritual in nature? Physical? Social? Some combination? Is the Kingdom present today? Sometime in the future? Already, but not yet? What implications does the Kingdom have for its subjects individually? Corporately? Spiritually? Physically? Socially? Politically? Economically? How does Jesus Christ relate to all this?
The writer of Hebrews provides a further clue as to what constitutes “all things” when he differentiates two types of spiritual food for believers (5:12). The writer refers to (1) “solid food” that enables maturing believers to discern good from evil, and (2) “milk” that sustains immature believers. The basics of Christianity (milk) include: repentance, faith in God, instruction about baptisms (John’s, believer’s, Holy Spirit’s), laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment (6:2). It would be interesting to ask the author a series of questions: Did these “basics” address issues at hand? Would some of these be excluded today? Could other “basics” be added?
Implications for phase-out. One aspect of phase-out requires that church planters identify those fundamental portions of the sacred Storybook that should be obeyed before departure. While Scripture does not leave church planters a precise teaching checklist, it does provide general guidelines that allow for flexibility. It should be noted that the goal of church planters is not just to convey content, but rather obeyed content. This may require the deliberate withholding of certain teaching until the disciples’ spiritual walk catches up. It may require an accelerated delivery. Either way, the goal is spiritual development in the fundamentals of the faith that lead to the glory of God.
The above discussion seems to conclude that “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” will require a sweeping acquaintance with Scripture that addresses relationships between God, people, and creation. For example, some knowledge of the relationships within Judaism will be necessary to understand Matthew’s and Paul’s kingdom-based message. This could include: Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28), Noah (Gen. 8:21), Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 17:2, 6, 8; 22:18; 26:4,16), Moses (Deut. 18:15, 18, 19), David (2 Sam. 7:12-16), as well as Jesus, a descendent of David who must suffer, die, raise from the dead and ascend to heaven to sit on the throne as royal Messiah (Psa. 2:7; 16:8-11; 110:1; 132:11; Isa. 52:13-53:12; 55:3).
Church planters who wish to cover “all things” with their Ephesian believers cannot legitimately ignore the Old Testament. Paul’s good-news message spanned both Testaments, from creation to re-creation, providing foundation and formation with an eye for strategic expansion; all Asia heard the gospel (Acts 19:10). Matthew’s training in Kingdom-based discipleship, requiring a heart that seeks God and uses his or her spiritual gifts and talents faithfully, finds its basis and eschatology in the Old Testament story and poetry.
Rather than arbitrarily listing the various components that comprise a teaching checklist, it may prove more helpful for the church-planting team to first think story-God’s sacred Story. What settings exist: nomadic, pastoral, kingdoms (Old Testament); Galilean, Jewish, Greek, Roman (New Testament)? Who are the protagonists? Antagonists? Who are the heroes? Heroines? What are the plots (conflicts and resolutions)? What types of characters do the authors introduce? What themes receive repetition through these characters? What choices, changes, and consequences do the authors seek?
In Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry I (1996) diagrammed the unified story nature of Scripture. The Christian community’s story connects to Jesus’ story (Creator, birth, death, resurrection, ascension, Re-creator); which connects to Israel’s story (Land, Temple, Torah, coming King); which connects to Abraham’s story (covenant of blessing reverses the curse of Adam, Cain, Flood, Babel); which connects to Adam and Eve’s story (from the old Adam to the New Adam); all of which (along with other stories) comprise God’s sacred Story. From this sacred Storybook, what snapshot stories help capture the picture album story? For example, what stories establish monotheism? Define the Creator? Define human choice in relation to sin (Gen 3)? Define the malevolent influence of fallen angels (Gen 6)? Define the Covenant Giver? Pulling the isolated topics from the stories that comprise the Big Story should help the church planters be more precise in identifying what should be covered and obeyed.
Key related phase-out questions that beg for answers include: Does the church planter think of the Bible through story eyes? What canon of Old and New Testament stories and poetry communicate Kingdom-based discipleship that addresses the whole person and community? What symbols and rituals should accompany these stories? Does this canon provide listeners/readers/viewers a big-picture overview of God’s sacred Storybook? What is the minimal number of Bible characters that these new disciples should become familiar with? Could a contextualized version of the Chronological Teaching model (McIIwain 1987) serve as an easily reproducible means of communicating God’s good news? Compiling such a list will go a long way in helping church planters determine when their audience is sufficiently Bible literate. What level of non-formal and/or formal Bible education is necessary for this audience? This exercise should also help curtail quick in-and-out visits, or over-extended stays.
AN ASSOCIATION OF CHURCHES
A second area noted in the checklist in Passing the Baton, but not developed, is the formation of an Association of Churches. This crucial step promotes interdependence among the churches, providing spiritual protection for the churches, including protection from certain outsiders interested in padding denominational statistics. This crucial development signals to the church-planting team that the phase-out process is well advanced. Not only does qualified leadership exist at the local church level, it also exists on an itinerant level.
An Association of Churches provides a second level of leadership that circulates among the churches, providing encouragement, and challenge. These class IV leaders (as McGavran would call them) seek to ensure that Christianity becomes a way of life, addressing all aspects of life. They seek to guard the movement against nominalism, legalism, and syncretism, insisting that all behavior and belief come under the scrutiny of Scripture. They provide training, stimulate evangelism, social issues, and missions, and sometimes become involved in those thorny issues too difficult to solve at the local level.
There is some biblical precedent for an Association of Churches, although the term itself never appears in Scripture. Individual letters were sometimes addressed to more than one church, e.g. Romans, Hebrews, Ephesians(?). Peter and John, sent by the Jerusalem church, investigated Philip’s work in Samaria (Acts 8:14). Mission teams gave reports to the sending church, Antioch, as to the status of the new Gentile churches (Acts 13:1-3; 14:27). “Clearly,” argues Reymond (2000), “these congregations were not independent and autonomous. Rather, they were mutually submissive, dependent, and accountable to each other” (p.576). When a cultural-theological issue arose that threatened the very existence of the first century Church (Acts 15), representatives from a host of local churches gathered to participate in that not-so-pleasant debate. When churches had financial needs due to catastrophes (poor in Jerusalem, Acts 24:17) or for mission outreach (Apollos, Acts 18:27), other churches joined in to share their economic and human resources. Fire burns hottest when the logs touch each other. An Association of Churches provides such an opportunity, igniting and fanning the fires that provide spiritual heat both locally, regionally, and globally.
Implications for phase-out. What can happen if an Association of Churches is not formed? Isolated churches often have minimal power in and of themselves. Little spiritual encouragement may come from the outside. These isolated logs can soon see their fire die out, becoming easy targets for cults, or, for just fading away over time. Sometimes, denominations in the area absorb these orphan churches, and on some occasions this marriage works out well. Lastly, and possibly most detrimental, the isolated churches may continue to look to expatriate apostles for continual pastoral care, disrupting the phase-out process.
What can an Association of Churches provide its member churches? One of the issues faced by Philippine Ifugao churches, and one about which they are continually reminded by Catholics in the area, was a lack of legal status to perform marriages or issue government work permits. Without these permits it would always be difficult for a person to obtain a job. This gave the impression that the new Christian movement was inferior. Once the Ifugao established an Association of Churches, the criticisms vanished, and the association gained prestige and credibility from insiders and outsiders alike. The Association of Churches provided church leaders the legal platform to perform marriages. The government solved the issue of work permits when it took this service away from the Catholic church.
Brant (1993) lists some major benefits an Association of Churches can offer: (1) fellowship for pastors and church leaders; (2) expanded services and programs through corporate efforts; (3) consultation on issues of national importance; (4) legal status before government, e.g., for marrying, dealing with harassment, purchasing land for church buildings; (5) showing government they are not under control of expatriates; (6) providing an itinerant level of leadership for ongoing training and accountability; and (7) encouraging new church planting on a larger level (p. 35).
A number of questions arise in relation to phase-out and the formation of an Association of Churches. Do any of the existing religions have an internal organizational network? If so, what social structure and leadership patterns exist in such networks? How do these differ from denominational structures? How and when should the national church leaders be involved in instituting an Association of Churches? What benchmarks should be instituted to ensure the formation of an Association of Churches in a politically peaceful environment? In a politically hostile environment? Such a study will help promote responsible neglect.
Two solid bookends help ensure an ongoing, authentic Christianity in a new church-planting movement. These include: (Bookend 1) a foundation for the gospel that conveys the awe of God from the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament story of Jesus, and (Bookend 2), an association of churches that can provide consistent itinerant comfort and challenge.
A MISSION TRAINING CENTER
Part of Matthew’s, Luke’s and Paul’s interpretation of the Kingdom-based gospel is missions conducted in Jerusalem (Ml), Judea-Samaria (M2) and the far corners of the world (M3). One assumption that church planters often make in relation to missions is that nationals can automatically conduct cross-cultural missions without the benefit of non-formal and/or formal training. Related to this assumption are the beliefs that nationals can readily learn language and culture, will experience minimal culture shock or stress, and will naturally and joyfully adjust to new cultural environments, including those exotic foods. While there are always exceptions, on the whole this is not necessarily true for any expatriate. The more distant the culture (M2; M3), the more likely problems will surface. Just as it took Peter numerous cultural conversions in order to be able to accept those Gentile dogs as equals (at least periodically, Acts 10; Gal. 2:11-13), the same holds true for most nationals (and us).
All Association of Churches should birth a Mission Training Center to continue the church multiplication movement at home and abroad. This may be a slow process, depending on the unique situation of each association. Nevertheless, it should remain a high priority. This assumes that stewardship has been taught from the very beginning so that the necessary funds are present. The new believers recognize that everything belongs to God, and that one-tenth of everything should be returned for Kingdom expansion.
Implications for phase-out. Effective mission training recognizes that national believers will conduct missions at different cultural levels: same culture to same culture (Ml), one culture to a slightly different culture (M2), one culture to an entirely different culture (M3). Acts 1:8 would divide it accordingly for Paul’s church-planting teams: Jerusalem (Ml), Judea-Samaria M2), and the ends of the earth (M3). It’s interesting to note that the majority of the church plants conducted by Pauline teams were Ml and/or M2. These would require much less cross-cultural sophistication than would be necessary for the M3 cases noted in Acts: Lystra (13), Athens (17), and Malta (28).
Good mission training will also recognize that there must be a balance struck between seeing everyone as the same culturally and seeing everyone as totally different. There are universals as well as particulars. Figure 1 shows that when universality (we are all alike) is too highly valued by the church-planting team, cultural blindness tends to prevail, leading the team to impose cultural dominance unintentionally, thereby minimizing the opportunity for unity and inclusiveness. Figure 2 shows that when the church-planting team extends privileges particularly, differences predominate, thereby maximizing fragmentation and individual particularities. This tends to minimize reception and the possibility for critical contextualization.
Key questions related to the phase-out process and the establishment of a Mission Training Center would include: How does evangelism differ from missions? Do the churches have a global vision? A holistic vision? What competencies, commitment, character and spiritual gifts does it take to conduct Ml? M2? M3? What benchmarks should the Association of Churches institute so that a mission training center is established that takes seriously the complexity levels of cross-cultural ministry? The need for balance between universality and diversity? Could any or all of this mission training be done through partnerships and/or networks? Would a multiethnic staff be advisable?
STRUCTURING A MOVEMENT
While some may contend that cross-cultural church planters should never take any leadership role in a new church plant, this seems an extreme position that ignores some ministry basics. For example, where is ministry modeling in such a strategy? I do not play down or apologize for taking leadership roles when starting a new church plant. Few churches would survive without such initial presence and persistence. Church planters serve as the human glue that helps hold the church together initially. This is not to minimize the role of the Holy Spirit or the Word; it merely acknowledges the co-labor relationship God purposely designed to expand his Kingdom.
More important than pioneers taking leadership roles in a new church plant is the institution of a structure that helps assure perpetuation of the movement. This goes far beyond pioneer church planters taking strong leadership roles initially; it even goes beyond having national successors to the expatriates, important as that is. Success is much more than having a successor, Rick Warren would argue; it is instituting a structure. That is, establishing basic ministry principles and processes so that the ship keeps on course no matter how thick the fog becomes when the expatriates leave or when new national leadership succeeds existing national leadership. Wise church planters structure for servant-based multiplication and the trauma of departure, not control or premature departure.
At least part of this structure is having the first believers plant another church immediately. This allows the maturing believers to become familiar with the entire reproduction process, addressing social issues, evangelism, discipleship, leadership development, church organization and reproduction, all while demonstrating a servant attitude, something first modeled by expatriates (Steffen 1997:18). While principles and processes are in place, methodology remains flexible, addressing the ever-changing cultural needs generationally and ethnically. Once this structure is captured, a church-planting movement has a good chance for long-term survival. If the multiplication DNA is present, it will reproduce itself.
Implications for phase-out. Generations tend to look at exit strategies from very different perspectives. The builder generation tended to stay too long, as did many boomers. Gen-Xers, and those who follow, tend not to stay long enough. Either extreme can kill a movement. I remember all too well what we found among the Ifugao after a two-year absence. It was early in the church plant, but time for furlough. An emergency happened after furlough and I ended up directing a language school for another year. During that year I was only able to make several short trips to visit the Ifugao. We would later return to find things extremely splintered. It would take another eight months to stabilize the young movement. This brings us back to the principle noted in Passing the Baton: that the length of time spent (too long or too short) should not determine the timing of phase-out, rather, fulfilled objectives for each of church-planting stages (pp.237-253).
A number of questions related to structuring a church-planting movement emerge in relation to phase-out. These would include: What principles and processes should be instituted to perpetuate an ongoing church-planting movement? When should they be instituted? What ministries could be instituted immediately that would serve as practical benchmarks for grasping these concepts? What changes will different generations need to make if a church-planting movement is to continue? Second Timothy 2:2 speaks of four generations of ongoing ministry. May our humble efforts result in the same.
EXIT MINISTRY OPTIONS
David Hesselgrave cogently observes: “In most cases knowing when and how to leave a new work is almost as important as knowing when and where to undertake it in the first place” (2000:279). To place more needed emphasis on the crucial role changes surrounding exit strategy, I would change “almost as” to “more” or at least “equally.” In this section I will comment on possible future roles church planters can take once they reach phase-out.
Harry Boer captures the transient role of church planters: “The missionary is in his very nature a passing figure. He goes to return, he comes to depart. He mediates a birth, and when that has been done, his work approaches its end. He has the task of transmitting a life that will develop without him. In effecting this transmission the missionary will be concerned with more than he can give directly. A very necessary part of his work is to help create conditions that will enable the Christians and the Church which they constitute to share the Spirit with others.” (1961:253)
Paul provides the spiritual resource that makes Boer’s comments, and the Absent Advisor role, possible: “I feel sure that the one who has begun his good work in you will go on developing it until the day of Jesus Christ…it is probably more necessary for you that I should stay here on earth. That is why I feel pretty well convinced that I shall not leave this world yet, but shall be able to stand by you, to help you forward in Christian living and to find increasing joy in your faith…. So that whether I come and see you, or merely hear about you from a distance, I may know that you are standing fast.” (Phil 1:24,25, Phillips, italics mine)
Five basic philosophies drive mission agency exit strategies, moratorium certainly no longer being one of them (although its influence is still resident in some areas of the world). Henry Venn’s “euthanasia of mission” strategy, also promoted by Roland Allen’s three-selfs, calls for departure of the expatriate once the national church reaches maturity. A. R. Tippett would state it this way: “The mission must die before the church can be born.” A second philosophy calls for subordination, that is, the expatriates work under the national church. A third philosophy calls for parallelism where each party works side-by-side with complementary, yet separate agendas and budgets. A fourth philosophy calls for partnerships. Bush and Lutz (1990) define partnership as “an association of two or more autonomous Christian bodies which have formed a trusting relationship and fulfill agreed upon expectations by sharing complementary strengths and resources to reach their mutual goal” (p.7).
In that the partnerships differ, from pseudo to genuine, some prefer to work through a fifth philosophy, networks, believing that this approach allows for more autonomy. They feel more comfortable with the unity / diversity and control issues. Whether through partnerships or networks, when it comes to church-mission relationships, many nationals and expatriates today agree that inclusion, interdependence and role changes should replace isolation, independence and departure.
In Passing the Baton (1997:25) I identified six role changes that cross-cultural pioneer church planters, in contrast to mission agencies, advance through. The Learner role begins before church planter presence and never ceases. The Evangelist role begins the reaping process but fades out of the picture so that nationals become adept at the same. The Teacher role refers to teaching obedience-oriented curricula, but also fades off the scene so that nationals become adept Bible teachers. This role also calls for helping prepare the church for indigenous leaders, when necessary. The Resident Advisor remains on scene but now serves as a consultant. Nationals run everything, including business meetings and budget. The Itinerant Advisor institutes programmed absences so that nationals have quality time to test their spiritual gifts and skills. The Absent Advisor is now distant geographically, but not relationally. It is this role that I would like to develop further. The final phase, or the Absent Advisor role, should come as no surprise to the church planters or the national churches (Steffen 1997: pp. 213-219; pp. 237-253).
What are some of the basic options open for church planters once they reach the Absent Advisor role? Here are some possibilities:
Option 1: Change ministry roles. Many factors could influence a change of ministry: health, marriage, death of a loved one, children, parents, and so forth. The end of a church plant provides the church planter opportunity to reassess God’s direction in life. Some may take on consultant roles, providing experience and expertise to new cross-cultural church planters.
Option 2: Retire. Age catches up with every church planter. For some it will be time to hang up the running shoes. That does not mean acts of encouragement to the national churches will cease. Retirement allows for multiple ways to let the believers know you are still concerned about their physical and spiritual lives, and the lives of their children.
Option 3: Begin a new church plant inside the same culture in another unreached area. The overall strategy would no doubt have located possible church planting sites, and potential church planters to accomplish this. This option assumes that the Association of Churches would be involved in the decision, and may have nationals participate in the church plant with expatriates.
Option 4: Begin a new church plant outside the culture in another unreached area. This will require learning a new language and culture. Where possible, the church planter should use this opportunity to provide members of former churches exposure to missions. Some may accompany the church planter periodically while others may become permanent members of the team.
Option 5: Work under the Association of Churches to reach specific goals. Leaders of the Association of Churches will know the needs that exist, and if the gifts, skills and experience of the church planter matches them. Whatever facilitator role the church planter takes (church planting, reconciliation, mission training, leadership development) he/she should identify the role changes that will lead to phase-out in this area, and establish benchmarks to make it become a reality. Part of this ministry will be to train nationals to take his or her position. Apostolic robes should never be substituted for pastoral robes in most cross-cultural church plants. The goal is to expand God’s Kingdom through the planting of multiplying churches, not by planting church planters.
Option 6: Others. What other possibilities do you envision? The Absent Advisor role is often a bittersweet time in that the church planter’s goals are accomplished. Completion of the task means moving on to another. Completion requires change.
I define the Absent Advisor role as leaving an area geographically because responsible phase-out has occurred, but not leaving relationally. Maintaining relationships remains an unfinished goal in that these people have become part of our spiritual family. What are some ways Absent Advisors can maintain these relationships at a distance? Here are some possibilities:
- correspondence that includes family pictures, tapes, videos (personal/supporting churches)
- wise and discreet financial assistance
- subscription to culturally appropriate literature
- culturally appropriate books, tapes, or videos
- assistance in schooling
- periodical visits
- partnerships and networks (train, don’t just do ministry)
Implications for Phase-out. Relationships are foundational to exit strategy. If relationships are good between both parties, departure becomes very difficult. To illustrate, when Paul left the Ep