Starting Missional Churches: Life with God in the Neighborhood

by Mark Branson and Nicholas Warnes, eds.

Intervarsity Press. 2014.

Reviewed by Ty Grigg, co-pastor, Life on the Vine, Long Grove, Illinois.

There are a prodigious amount of books, conferences, networks, and assessments offering their services to aspiring church planters. Starting new churches is imagined as transactional: providing religious goods and services to prospective spiritual consumers. The focus on human initiative, top-down structures, and pre-packaged methods are glaringly incompatible with a missional theology.  

A missional church sees God as the primary agent, approaches the neighborhood incarnationally, and views ministry as a response to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives. Starting Missional Churches provides a church planting manual for missionally-minded church planters.

In the opening chapter, Nicholas Warnes says that most of the church plants of the past fifty years fit under one of four narratives: suburban sprawl, church split, expert systems, and/or a charismatic leader. In the next chapter, Mark Branson presents how a missional theology creates an alternative way of planting churches. He gives four practices that should be priorities when starting missional churches: discerning God’s initiatives, seeing the neighbor as subject (not object or consumer), crossing boundaries, and leading in plurality. 

With that opening framework, seven different pastors tell the stories of their church plants (chap. 3-9) that model Branson’s four missional values. Each story is unique, but they share common threads of forming, making mistakes, listening to a place, discerning communally, experimenting, forming commitments, and hoping for the future. The final chapter (10) connects elements from each narrative with the four missional values.  

Branson and Warnes call for the end of packaged consumeristic church plants. Church planting is not like putting together an IKEA dresser. Church planting should be improvisation, responding in the moment. The editors asked several of the pastors, “How have the voices of your neighbors shaped what the church sensed God was calling you to do?” Missional churches allow the neighbors to shape the church’s ethos. The church must be radically contextual.  The healthiest church plants will be the ones that listen and respond to God and their neighbors fluidly along the way.  

Telling the stories of the church plants was the perfect vehicle for funding imagination. The differences (and sometimes contradictions) in church-planting approaches curb the temptation to prescribe a method. While I am not currently planting a church, this book still gave me fresh ideas for seeing how our established church might listen and respond more to our neighborhood and to God. I would love to see more books formatted with compilations of ordinary churches telling their imperfect stories of listening to God and their neighbors. I would also appreciate hearing more stories from smaller churches (<100), more women (only one here), and more diverse settings (4/7 were from the greater Los Angeles area).    

Check these titles:

Dehmlow Drier, Mary Sue, ed. 2013. Created and Led by the Spirit: Planting Missional Congregations. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Fitch, David and Geoff Holsclaw. 2013. Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Murray, Stuart. 2010. Planting Churches in the Twenty-First Century. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.

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