by Tom Julien
The supreme purpose of human history is the calling out and perfecting of the Bride of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church is the masterpiece of God’s wisdom.
The supreme purpose of human history is the calling out and perfecting of the Bride of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church is the masterpiece of God’s wisdom. She exists already in all her glory in the mind of Christ. She will be one day manifested before the watching universe in that glory. As the artist keeps contemplating the landscape in order to capture its glory on the canvas, so must the church planter behold the glory of the church in her ideal form in order to effectively gather saints into local expressions of that glory.
WHAT IS A LOCAL CHURCH?
The fundamental question for the church planter is "what is a local church?" If this question is rarely asked, it is because we assume we already know the answer, and that discussion on this subject would be irrelevant.
Our problem is that we identify the local church by her cultural and historic expression, more than by her biblical essence. To arrive at a clear definition of the local church we must make a distinction between the two. Sluggish thinking here will lead to differing assumptions in the church-planting team that will affect the basic principles of any church-planting ministry. The more focused we are on essence, the less attachment we will have to any particular cultural expression of the church. On the other hand, if the form or cultural expression of the church becomes our reference point, adapting to different cultural situations will create tension.
The New Testament reveals the church both in her essence and expression. With regard to the essence of the church, this revelation is given in images and presented as fact; with respect to the cultural expression of the church, this revelation is given as example and is descriptive rather than prescriptive.
The essence of the church is revealed mainly in images. The two principal images of Paul in Ephesians are the spiritual building and the spiritual body. They are so closely related that Paul occasionally mixes his metaphors, speaking of a building that grows (Eph. 2:21) and a body being built (Eph. 4:12). The building image emphasizes the church in her structural aspect; that of the body in her vital and relational aspect.
Other images include the bride, the vine, and the flock. All emphasize the intimate relationship between Christ and the community of believers, the relationship between the members of the community with each other, and the ways the community of believers relates to God and the world. These images are vital in our understanding of the local church, for a local church is basically a visible and authentic expression of the biblical ideal.
Because it is a flock, it is a gathered group of people under the care of a shepherd. Because it is a body, there is vital union between the members and the head, and the members with each other. Because it is a building, it is a constituted gathering of believers, committed to the teaching of the apostles and prophets. Because it is a bride, its relationship to its Master is one of submission and adoration. Because it is a vine, it is a reproducing group of people.
In each of these images, the dominant factor is the intimate union between Christ and the believer. Yet, most attempts to define the local church ignore the Head altogether. We must not define the church from the neck down; she has a Head.
ESSENCE OR EXPRESSION?
A fundamental problem in church planting is our tendency to identify the church with her cultural expression rather than her biblical essence, and then make that particular cultural expression the norm. Our concept of the church has been influenced more by the nursery rhyme, "Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door and here are the people," than by the images of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Why? The Reformation model of the local church, growing out of the Roman model, became practically universal, both in Europe and by extension throughout the world. This is the local church emphasizing the building, the professional clergy, and a formalized worship ceremony. This influence has been so profound that we speak of "going to church" (attending a worship service), or "being in the church" (a building).
It is hard for us to read our New Testament apart from our cultural bias. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the New Testament church was quite different in form from the Reformation model, having been modeled after the synagogue. This model was especially applicable to the rapid growth of the early church, because it grew out of the dispersion. It freed the people both from the temple (the building), the sacrifices (the liturgy), and the priesthood (the clergy). All of this provides the context for rapid expansion.
Yet, we find it hard to visualize "the" church of Ephesus as being composed of multiple small groups, most at that time meeting in houses, led by shepherds who for the most part had no more training than the people of their flocks, brought together under the coordination of overseers. It is even more difficult to realize that "the" church of Antioch, our model missionary church, was scattered throughout the city. We tend to interpret these passages in the context of our structured Reformation model churches.
We all realize that no cultural expression of the church that faithfully expresses the biblical essence and facilitates biblical function is biblically wrong. And in many ways, the Reformation model has been a very effective cultural form for the expansion of the church worldwide. It is easily identifiable and transferable. Its structure creates stability. It will probably continue as the main cultural form of the local church.
Like any form, however, the Reformation model has its weaknesses.
1. Highly structured churches have a tendency to stagnate. The typical growth cycle (spring, summer, fall, and winter) corresponds to the cycle that most organizations experience. After the period of vision, planting, and fruit-bearing comes the period of consolidation, structure, and maintenance. This can easily degenerate into stagnation. The biblical pattern for churches seems to be that the church as a spiritual building should constantly grow out of the church as spiritual body. In other words, relationship should be the point of reference out of which structure flows. To begin church planting with a structured church risks putting the church already on the downward slope of the organizational cycle. Structure can affect attitude toward people. In highly structured churches, people become necessary for programs, or even for the continued existence of the institution.
2. Institutional churches find it hard to remain culturally relevant. The traditional church nearly died in England, the most Christian country in the world at one time. The United States faces the same problem, but with a different twist. In the United States a large number of traditional churches are closing each year, while at the same time new, less structured churches are springing up. Those who predict the demise of the church sometimes fail to notice the proliferation of storefront and house churches in our country. We can only assume that the people in these groups are seeking relationship rather than structure. Traditional churches must discover and retain relationship or stagnate and die.
3. Institutional churches find it difficult to thrive under oppression. From 1949 to the present the house church phenomenon in China has grown tremendously. The more structured evangelical churches of Russia, however, saw comparatively little growth during a period of oppression almost twice as long. In many parts of the world the church must be prepared to go underground in order to survive and grow.
4. Churches patterned after the Reformation model find it difficult to reproduce rapidly in economically developed countries. In most urban areas of the world, the church will have to find a strategy for growth that is not dependent either on buildings or the professional ministry. Those luxuries will have to come later, if at all. High cost of land and high wages force the church planter toward other paradigms, even when he is convinced that the traditional model is best.
5. The challenge of training pastoral leadership is greater in a traditional church. Church-planting missionaries face three basic challenges in leadership training in the traditional pattern: (1) the high level of competence required to produce a leader who can direct a program-based church; (2) the reticence of the missionary to relinquish his role and the activities that give him his identity, such as preaching and teaching; (3) the difficulty people have shifting loyalty from the missionary, whom they love, to one of their own. We need to assume forms that allow leadership to develop rapidly, and to refuse more complicated structures until leadership is trained to assume greater responsibility.
PLANTING OR TRANSPLANTING?
Church planting is not church transplanting. The role of the church planter is not to transplant a fully developed plant, but to sow seeds. It is far easier to plant a seed than to transplant a tree, especially when the tree lacks a root system. Many discouraged church planters seem to be condemned to seeking to build roots under the fully developed structure that they have imported from their own background rather than seek to discover the seed of the local church and to plant it as widely as possible, knowing that some seeds will not reach maturity, but others will produce fully developed plants.
An understanding of biblical essence allows us to develop a working definition of the essential elements of the local church, which becomes the seed, or the basic organic unit of church planting. When the seed contains the DNA of the church it can be planted in any cultural situation. When it germinates, takes root, and begins to grow, the church planter can help it develop as a living organism rather than squeeze it into a cultural mold. Some will remain satellites of already existing churches. Others will be cell groups, finding identity in celebrations. Still others will develop into more traditional expressions of the church.
Let us come back to our original question: "What is a local church?" We have said that a local church is a visible manifestation of the biblical essence. Most of us, however, need something more concrete to work with. It is crucial that every church-planting team agree on a working definition, in concrete terms, that grows out of essence, and not expression. This definition must include those elements that are indispensable to the identity of a church, and omit those that are not. This definition identifies the seed for church planting.
Here is an attempt at such a definition. Members of every church-planting team need to be unified with respect to what they are planting, even if it takes months of struggle to agree.
A local church is an organized body of baptized believers, led by a spiritually qualified shepherd, affirming their relationship to the Lord and to each other by regular observance of the Lord’s Supper, committed to the authority of the Word of God, gathering regularly for worship and the study of the Word, and turned outward to the world in witness.
HOW DOES SUCH A DEFINITION RELATE TO ESSENCE?
1. It implies that the church is a constituted body of believers. There is a particular time when a group of people commits itself to becoming more than a Bible study or prayer group. (Image: building) The difference between a church and a group of Christians is the same difference as between a building and a pile of stones.
2. There is biblical leadership. Paul’s churches had pastors, or shepherds, before they had elders. The former is functional whereas the latter is position. (Image: flock)
3. The church is founded on the teaching of the prophets and apostles. The commitment is defined. (Image: foundation)
4. There is regular worship. (Image: temple, bride)
5. The ordinances are practiced. (Image: body with its relationships)
6. The church is missionary by nature. (Image: vine)
New paradigms occur when the number of unresolable problems rises to a level where new approaches become necessary. The Reformed mode! of the church will remain the main cultural expression because of its history and the fact that it is so rooted in our experience. It has, however, experienced sufficient problems that many are turning from it to a more primitive cultural form of the church, more similar to the cultural expression of the synagogue in the New Testament. We should stress the fact that something new to us today is not necessarily new historically. Adopting new paradigms in church planting can mean rediscovering something old, and of course something that has coexisted with the traditional church throughout history.
Church planters in some cultures, such as those found in Europe, face problems that send many home in discouragement. Some of these problems are the great cultural gulf that exists between the people and the Reformed model church, the difficulty in recruiting, training, and supporting leadership, the tendency for the missionary to quickly become engulfed in a pastoral ministry, and the preoccupation with programs and facilities. All of these mitigate against rapid church multiplication.
The rediscovery of the glory of the church in her essence certainly does not solve all the problems. But it can bring hope. The image of the church in the mind of the church planter will shape the nature and effectiveness of his ministry. If the church planter sees a fully developed, Reformed model church as his goal, he will adopt an approach that will make this possible. In some countries this will mean long years of ministry creating something that may not survive or reproduce in the receiving culture.
If, on the other hand, the church-planting missionary’s goal is the multiplication of spiritual families of believers, planting as widely as possible seeds that contain the DNA of the local church, he will have a radically different concept of his ministry. The simplicity of his objective should result in greater effectiveness with less discouragement. And he will be less likely to be forced into a pastoral ministry, abandoning his apostolic calling.
Tom Julien is executive director of Grace Brethren International Missions, Winona Lake, Indiana.
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