Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Indigenous Church Planting: Lessons from Middle America

To the left and below are pictures of a recent church planting seminar I was privileged to lead in southern Mexico. God is indeed moving all over the world, and His presence in Mexico is evident in the fact that the churches of that area want to plant a new church in every "municipo" (county seat) in the state of Chiapas. I was privileged to lead a team from our association to respond to an invitation by the churches of Mexico to assist them with setting up a church planting process to acheive this goal.

It has been said that during international missions endeavors, one often learns as much as he or she teaches, and is often blessed as much as he or she is a blessing. I can certainly attest to the fact that I learned as much, of not more, from these committed pastors than they learned from me. Unfortunately, what I learned from them is something that they don't yet seem to recognize about themselves: namely, that they have every resource they need to facillitate a church planting movement without American help.

If anything, we have "helped" enough already. By this, I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't seek to work with our brothers and sisters in other nations. In fact, our plans are to continue where we left off in subsequent discussions next year. However, during my time in Mexico I couldn't help but notice that the barriers to a church planting movement faced by the Mexican church are almost identical to those we face in the states. And I can't help but believe this is tied to the culture of dependency we have often created while doing missions in Middle America.

For example, one of our favorite things to do for our brothers and sisters, especially in the "third world," is to erect a church building for them. Our second favorite thing to do is to fund the salary of the pastor who will preach in that building. While I am certain these efforts are the result of the best of intentions, and a genuine desire to see disciples made, in many cases the opposite is what happens. The pastor doesn't teach his people stewardship, because the source of income for himself and the church comes from outside. The people of God don't give, because the Americans are picking up the tab. The mission dies, because the Americans aren't there to perpetuate what they started. Most tragically, no more churches are planted . . .that is, until (you guessed it) the Americans show up to erect another building!

It is in this context that we now find ourselves . . .a "culture of dependency" wherein the Mexican church has been, by and large, disempowered by its well-meaning American counterpart. Regrettably, the trouble gets worse from this point. When American money, American buildings, and American ways of doing church are interjected into Mexican (or any other) culture, American problems almost always follow. The result?

. . . The established Mexican church is now "up in arms" because Mexican church planters are telling their people that it really is OK to dance.

. . . The established Mexican church believes it cannot sustain a church planting movement on its own because of the lack of "trained professionals" to lead these churches.

. . . The established Mexican church believes it will take lots of financial resources--certainly more than they posess--to multiply churches in the way they envision.

All of this sounds eerily familiar.

The problem with indigenous church planting in ecclesiological contexts like this one is that many of the established churches themselves are not indigenous . . .they are American! In starting churches, they adopted our leadership models, our decision-making processes, our financial expectations, our programmatic approach to ministry, our "campus-centered" orientation, and in some cases, even our architecture!

Contrast this picture with that of the truly "indigenous" church . . .one that is in no way dependent on outside "suppport" or "help" to maintain its ministry. One that can reproduce itsself in ever-more contextual ways as it plants other churches in other areas. One that truly preaches a "counter-cultural" Gospel message while at the same time looking and sounding like the culture in which it finds itself.

So my question in the midst of all this is as follows: How on earth do a bunch of white guys from an upper-middle class area in Maryland help to propogate a movement like the one I've described above? While I haven't yet figured it all out, there are a few principles that I think have to guide American missionaries--short term or otherwise--as we seek to facillitate the multiplication of churches in other parts of the world. These principles are, in my view, solidly Biblical, unsophisticatedly simple, and interesting enough, very Baptist!

1. The Principle of Global Minsitry: Because we are presently the richest and most powerful nation in the world, our tendency as Americans is to think ourselves superior in every way. We think anyone without central air conditioning or an electric Viking range is "poor and unfortunate" when in fact many who live in mud huts are quite happy with their living conditions. Similarly, we think any church without a brick structure, or any pastor without an auto allowance or seminary degree will automatically produce a "sub-standard" ecclesiology. The fact is that churches in many nations of the world exist and thrive without buildings or theological seminaries. With all of our resources, education, wealth and power, the American church is anemic when compared to the church in other parts of the globe. It would do us well to remember this so that we don't encourage our brothers and sisters in other nations to do it the way we do it.

This was, I believe, a very helpful point we made during a panel discussion with Mexican church planters and pastors on the second day of our seminar. When told by state convention leadership that their culture was to "copy" what we did in America, my response was simple: "We are the only continent on planet earth where Christianity is not growing. Why on earth would you want to emulate that?!?!" The church is indeed global, and if we are to have any significant part in helping it expand globally, we must give up our preference for western culture and allow the church to be the church wherever it is found.

To be sure, God has given us in the states a grand opportunity to empower the churches in other nations. But to take advantage of this opportunity, we absolutely must check our "national pride" at the door!

2. The Principle of Church Autonomy: Once during the seminar, one of the pastors asked me my opinion about a subject that, as it turns out, has become very controversial in Mexico. Though it wasn't a "cardinal issue" such as the deity of Christ, or even a "Baptist distinctive" such as a commitment to immersion, this tertiary issue had already caused quite a stir among God's people in Mexico.

As he was asking the question, I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise. Oh, how I wanted to simply give my opinion and encourage them to follow my lead. But in the end, my opinions, however strong they are, do not matter! What matters is what the Scriptures teach. And what matters even more is that the church be able to arrive at the right conclusion via their own study of God's Word.

While we should make every effort to teach national pastors and laity how to read and study the Word, and while the basic principles of interpreting Scripture should be laid before them, the task of theological education abroad should be the same as it is here: teach God's people "how" to think, not "what" to think! It would have been very easy for me to answer the pastor's question directly . . .and set a precedent for "spoon-feeding" them theology. It would have been very easy for us to insert the church planting process we utilize in Maryland into Mexico. But God's people should instead be empowered, as the Bereans in Acts, to study the text, and their culture, on their own.

3. The Principle of "Scripture alone": With all of our talk about strategy, contextualization, "target" and "focus" groups, behavioral assessments, and demographic and psychographic observations, the fact remains that a true New Testament church cannot be planted if the Word of God is not the final authority for that faith community. I have attended church planting seminars in the states where days were spent musing on the enigma that is postmodernism, but there was nothing said about Scriptural authority. I agree with Mark Driscoll, who says that those who do such things are "practicing liberals" even if their theology is "conservative." If we are to have any significant part in a church planting movement, here or abroad, all of our strategies, studies, and tactics must ultimately find their appropriate place in submission to Scripture.

I have experienced very little Latin American culture, and as a result, I am the last person to deliver instructions to a group of Mexican pastors about how to reach their own people. My authority during this seminar was not found in my cultural "savy," but in the Word of God, from which all the principles I taught were drawn. Once we empower God's people by arming them with the Word, and lay out the principles for how to teach the Word in a way that connects with their culture, they can take it successfully from that point.

The church in the US has before it an enormous opportunity to facilitate the multiplication of congregations, both stateside and international. But if such churches are to be effective, they must also be indigenous, which means that the lessons learned as we walk this road together with our brothers in other nations, will be reciprocal.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Was the Church the First to Change the Definition of Marriage?

He denies that Jesus is Messiah, and calls the President of my alma mater a “spiritual racist” because of his belief that Jesus is the only way to God. Needless to say, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is one of the last people with whom I thought I would ever agree!

Last Thursday evening was like most Thursday evenings for me: I came home from a day at the office to take my wife to the gym, my kids to the child care center in the gym, and myself to the treadmill (ugh!), and then the pool (ahh!).

I love my gym membership, by the way . . .especially the way all the treadmills are tied in to television screens. It’s a multi-tasking dream! And while watching a special CNN report called “God, Sex and Greed,” I caught a panel discussion regarding the injection of “faith talk” into the political speeches of the 2008 Presidential hopefuls. Host Roland Martin was emphasizing the fact that as we approach the 2008 elections, Democrats are ratcheting up talk about their faith in God, and in doing so entering a conversation that has for many election cycles been dominated by Republicans. Joining him to discuss this interesting phenomenon were liberal Baptist Theology Professor Michael Dyson, Muslim author Irshad Manji, and Rabbi Boteach.

Asked to give his perception of this phenomenon, Boteach responded, “The problem, Roland, is that for the past 10 years, religious morality has been defined as anti-abortion and hating gay people.”

Suddenly, the heart monitor on my treadmill began to beep.

Thankfully, I continued to listen. And surprisingly, in spite of all my disagreements with the Rabbi, my heart resonated with what I heard next:

“. . . .And in a sense, religion has become a mockery as a result. We've got a 50 percent divorce rate. Any country with a 50 percent divorce rate has no right to call itself civilized. Who do we blame? The gay people. I mean, we ruined marriage well before any gay people decided to get married.”

Sadly, the Rabbi is absolutely correct! While conservative politicians scream about the efforts of some in the homosexual community to “re-define marriage,” the fact is that our society has been tinkering with God’s definition for decades . . .long before any homosexual ever demanded the benefit of this rite. Fornication, adultery, and divorce are in fact nothing more than acts which pervert God’s definition of this sacred relationship.

So in a sense, the Rabbi is correct when he contends that marriage has been a mockery in America for decades. The current discussion about homosexual marriage isn’t the beginning of the “re-definition of marriage.” It is its culmination! And when the divorce, premarital sex and adultery rates are virtually the same inside the church as they are outside the church, the people of God have lost their authority to speak prophetically to this issue.

This is precisely the reason why Al Mohler, in discussing this same subject, rightly contends that evangelicals “cannot begin a conversation about homosexual marriage by talking about homosexual marriage.” Reclaiming God’s definition of marriage means not only that we flatly reject the idea of homosexual nuptials as a tragic oxymoron, but that we also refuse to “wink” at the sins against this God-ordained institution that have occurred for years within our own midst. Such reclamation means that the church must again judge marriage according to the Scriptures, and such judgment, as the Apostle Peter tells us, begins with the household of God!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Some Good Conversation on the Web

I love to write.

There is something about the exercise of putting your thoughts into words that brings clarity, and when the subject is God and His Gospel, the mental clarity gained from writing frequently makes its way to the heart as well. But from time to time, even the best writers recognize that with regard to certain subjects, there are others who have "said it better."

God willing, next week I will post on my experiences while in southeast Asia (in April) and Chiapas Mexico (last month) and reflect on them in light of what the church should be in each and every culture. But for now, there are some very worthy conversations taking place in other areas of cyberspace, and I would be remiss if I didn't call your attention to their existence.

1. The Emerging Church and Evangelicalism. On September 21 and 22, I will be in Wake Forest, North Carolina for the Convergent Conference, which will be held on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The "emerging church" has become so controversial, many evangelicals have simply written it off as a heretical aberration of the true church. In many ways, this movement is not so different from the "church growth" and "church health" movements that preceeded it, meaning that while there are indeed theological concerns in certain sectors of the movement, there is much about the emerging church that can be very helpful to the body of Christ.

I am thankful that in the midst of the criticisms and "cheap one-liners" toward this movement, Dr. Danny Akin has chosen to take the route of genuine scholarship. Akin, who serves as President of Southeastern, is hosting this conference, and will be speaking alongside Ed Stetzer (Missiologist in Residence and Director of Research at Lifeway), Mark Driscoll(Founding Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle), and Southeastern Professors Alvin Reid and John Hammett, among others.

Last year, I had the privilege of helping contribute to an article Dr. Hammett wrote for the Criswell Theological Review on this very issue. Throughout our interactions, I was profoundly impressed by his tenacious defense of the truth coupled with his careful and fair analysis of the movement as a whole. I genuinely look forward to meeting him in person.

The 21st Century finds most developed cultures in a constant state of flux. If the church is to effectively impact western culture it must cease its reactionary posture toward culture and instead begin to lead it. At the same time, emerging methods should be undergirded by a solidly Biblical theology. Through Convergent, Danny Akin has provided a context in which honest conversations can begin regarding how Southern Baptists will meet this challenge.

2. Baptist Identity in a post-denominational world. Dr. Sam Storms, Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, posted a thought-provoking article today on the subjects of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. I found myself in agreement with him at several points, while personally parting ways with him regarding the relationship of Baptism and church membership in particular.

Nevertheless, his words should stir the kind of conversation that needs to happen in our churches. So many Baptists apply their convictions consistently regarding Baptism and the Lord's Supper, yet have no idea where the Scriptural evidence exists that undergirds their practice. We are not "people of the Baptist Faith and Message," we are "people of the Book," which means that in a "post-denominational context," we need to be prepared to defend our heritage because it is Biblical, rather than assuming the Bible is in agreement with our traditions.

Conversations like the one started today by Dr. Storms are a helpful starting point in finding our Scriptural moorings again. You can find the article here.

3. The End of our Work and the End of the World. Bob Roberts of Northwood Church in Dallas, Texas had an excellent article posted last week on how to effectively evangelize middle-eastern cultures.

Though many other things are said, his warnings against allowing a "narrow" eschatology determine not only public policy, but also missiological philosophy, were the most striking of the entire piece. One section in particular deserves to be quoted:

First, we are allowing speculative theology to formulate foreign policy. That’s very dangerous. When conservative Bible believing scholars can’t agree – for one opinion to be pushed to the point of war is arrogant and dangerous.

and again . . . . . .

we have not respected the views and situation of Palestinian evangelical Christians. Before ’67 2/3rds of Palestinians present were Christians – now that’s 8 to 12% depending on who you talk to. How could we have ignored their concerns – these are our brothers in Christ. This makes no sense. Who was better positioned to tell people in the Middle-East about Jesus than the Palestinians?!!!

Now, I have to admit, as a "non-dispensationalist," my biases toward what Bob is saying here should be clearly revealed. At the same time, his argument (and I agree) isn't against holding to a dispensationalist eschatology. Its against allowing this one view (among at least three others, all held by conservative, Bible-believing evangelicals) to so dominate the evangelical landscape that it informs both our philosophy of missions and our foreign policy views in uniform.

Sometimes, when it comes to impacting the world, we can be our own worst enemy, and one of the things I appreciate about Bob is his willingness to say this.

Find the article in its entirety here.

So there you have it! There are lots of thought-provoking discussions presently going on in cyberspace. Happy exploring, and I'll have some more thoughts of my own in about a week.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Its all about Leadership . . .or is it?

As a whole, I am very grateful for the emphasis given to the discipline of church leadership over the past two decades. Given the dearth of such training for pastors throughout much of the twentieth century, coupled with the enormous changes that have taken place in the pastoral role, the study and practice of sound leadership principles is absolutely essential.

At the same time, I have grave concerns over how a discipline that has provided great help to pastors is beginning, in some sectors of the church, to be viewed as a "magic pill."

From the turn of the 20th century until around 1930, American business culture subscribed largely to what has become known as "Great Man Theory." In order for a company to be a success, a "great man" with inherently extraordinary skills in leadership and management was needed, and all would be well. This age culminated with the celebration of Ford Motor Company and the invention of the "assembly line" of Henry Ford.

Over the next several decades, leadership theory evolved from the view of the "great man" to "group theory" (1930-1940), "trait theory" (1940-1950), "behavior theory" (1950-1960), "situational theory" (1960-1970), and "excellence theory" (1980s). While the history of western leadership philosophy is more complex than this, these categories are the generally accepted description of our philosophical evolution regarding this discipline.

The church of course, finally caught up with culture in the 1960s, when seminaries began to charge their schools of Christian Education with teaching leadership principles to aspiring ministers of the Gospel. Today, leadership as an academic discipline is viewed by many seminaries as equal in importance to the study of theology. While sound theology is an essential and foundational qualification for pastoral ministry, it is also true that sound theology without leadership skills results in knowledge wasted on onesself and a orthodox church immobilized by its own pastor.

Still, over the past few decades, leadership studies have grown to the extent that, in the church, we are almost seeing the return of the "Great Man" theory. Less than a decade ago in a conference on church planting, the late Rick Ferguson stated that if you have the "right leader," you could drop him into a barren area, with no money and no other outside support, and he would grow a church. Such statements are now commonplace in seminars and conferences on pastoral leadership.

I recognize these statement as a bit hyperbolic. Still, I ain't buyin' the point!

We spend an inordinate amount of time today with assessing potential leaders, and this is especially true in church planting. On the whole, this is as it should be. Certainly experience has told us that someone seeking to plant a church with deficient leadership skills will most likely fail. The problem come when we move beyond this base understanding of the neccesity of leadership to claim the mantra of John Maxwell that has reverberated in church life to the extent that most now look in Scripture to find it: "Everything rises and falls on leadership." But is this really true?

The fact is that great leaders fail. I have seen it personally. I remember the first church plant I ever had to "shut down." I remember meeting the planter over a four-hour lunch. I remember the bitter tears. I remember making plans with him to "re-locate" the remaining families. I remember hearing his exasperated prayers to God of "where did I go wrong?" I remember thinking with him about how he would now support his family. And I also remember thinking "we assessed this guy, and we told him he had the leadership skills to successfully plant this church." According to our "great man" mentality, this was all we needed, right?

This is the hypocritical irony I have seen in church planting systems across the methodological and denominational spectrum. We assess a guy, tell him he is the "right leader" for a plant, and then when it fails, 99% of the time our response is "this was a leadership issue."

I don't deny that many failures can be credited to a deficiency in leadership, but those who are always so quick to point out the failure at this level sometimes forget that it takes more than a "great man" to build a great church. If you question that statement, you need only take a brief look at the life of an Old Testament leader.

The time is just before the wilderness wandering. The place is Kadesh, and Moses has just sent out twelve spies in order to plot out the best way to take the land God had promised His people. Ten of the twelve return with "doomsday" predictions about their chances. Apparently, they had forgotten that their objective was to report on the "status" of the enemy, not give their opinion of whether they should do what God had already commanded.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, are ready to obey. Unfortunately, the people of Israel side with the pessimists, and God's people spend the next four decades wandering . . .and dying!

Without a doubt, this is one of the most colossal "failures" in the history of any nation! The question is, was this a "leadership issue?" Perhaps Moses should have spent more time discovering how to "develop the leaders around him."

Or, just perhaps, this was a "truth" issue. Just maybe, Moses really was God's man, whom God's people simply rejected. Bill Hybels wouldn't have been pleased at all with this kind of turnout, but in recounting his life, the writer of Hebrews certainly seems to think Moses a "great leader" (Hebrews 11:23-30)

Needless to say, if a man with a failure like this on his record is referred to by Scripture as a "great leader," and we are currently assessing nearly every ministry failure as a "leadership problem," we should probably rethink our definition of "leadership." And as we are rethinking our definition, maybe it would be helpful to look to Scripture to find our parameters. In the case of Moses, his great leadership was centrally characterized, not by "success" or "acheivement," but instead by faith, conviction, obedience, values, and boldness.

Contrary to Maxwell's popular cliche, everything does not "rise and fall" on leadership. Everything rises and falls on the Word of God. Effective, godly, skilled leaders are desperately needed, and the work of church planting in particular cannot happen without such individuals. But such individuals are not a "magic pill" that cures all that is wrong with the church. This realization will guard our hearts from bowing to the idol of "personality," and empower us to undergird the right leadership with all that is essential to grow God's Kingdom