Saturday, September 22, 2007

Convergent: Southeastern Seminary and the Emerging Church

We Southern Baptists are blessed to have six theological seminaries spread out all over the country. Most aspiring ministers of the Gospel are within driving distance to at least one of these institutions, and all are fine places to prepare yourself for ministry. But lately, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is becoming my favorite!

Granted, thats saying a lot for a two-time graduate of Southern, but I have been particularly impressed with Danny Akin since he assumed the Presidency of this institution. This week I'm actually on the Wake Forest North Carolina campus for the Convergent Conference, which has featured Ed Stetzer, J.D. Greear, and most notably, Mark Driscoll, all of which are speaking about the emerging church and how evangelicalism should view it.

Tonight Dr. Akin closed the Friday series of meetings with a message from 1 Corinthians about appropriate Christian behavior and cultural engagement. As always, he showed an unapologetic commitment to the authority of Scripture, while at the same time demonstrating himself well-versed in N.T. Wright, and others whose theology helps to undergird the worldiew of many in emerging church circles.

Honestly, the fact that he invited Driscoll to speak is alone a sure indication of his fair treatment of the subject. I would venture a guess that the Missouri Convention, after its convoluted and hopelessly confused statements on the subject,* would not have given Driscoll the same ear . . .let alone the same respect.

Nevertheless, Akin's move to hold a conference on emerging church issues, while far from total accomodation of everything in the movement, clearly signaled his recognition that cultures are changing in North America and that the church bears the responsibility of reaching them. This requires a commitment to the unchanging Gospel, but it also requires a presentation of that Gospel in changing ways.

Anyone attending these meetings will go away with two facts about Southeastern Seminary that have been clearly demonstrated: 1. The commitment of this institution to the supreme and sole authority of Scripture has not, and will not, change. 2. The commitment of this institution to play its part in reaching everyone with the Gospel will not change either.

In the end, I suppose thats what I like best about Southeastern, and Akin. His primary passion is the evangelization of lost people. He said at this year's Southern Baptist Convention that as long as he is President of Southeastern, he would allow nothing to be raised to an issue that would be a detriment to this cause. With this in view I say, long live his Presidency!

*Regarding the Missouri Convention's statements on the Acts 29 network, two things are helpful to know:
1. Dr. Mark DeVine, Professor of Theology at Midwestern Seminary, actually gave an excellent report that for some reason seemed to be totally misunderstood by Convention leadership.
2. Acts 29 has published a response to the contentions of the Missouri Convention that clear up any misconceptions about this organization's doctrinal fidelity.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Church Planting and Authenticity/Consistency

Some of our pastors and planters spent a couple of great days this week at Branch Creek Church near Philadelphia at the Purpose Driven Launching Conference. One of the issues we deal with regularly in Maryland church planting is that of obtaining the "critical mass" neccesary for a church to really "take off." And given the number of folks who attended this series of meetings, I suspect Maryland isn't the only place where this is a problem.

However, as I listened, and had subsequent conversations with our guys in the field over lunch (and dinner, and breakfast the next morning, and lunch . . .) it occured to me that much of our problem might be less about the model we employ and more about whether we consistently employ it.

Take the "Purpose-Driven" guys for instance. It is apparent that no one takes the stage at these meetings who doesn't wholly "buy in" to the whole "baseball-diamond" effect. Personally, I like the PDC model of planting, but I'm simply not sold on it as the "be-all, end-all" of what we need. There are at least five other legitimate and viable approaches to church planting in North America, and in my opinion, each of these is needed as much (and in some cases, more) as the PDC approach. With this perception of things, it is highly unlikely that I will ever "key note" any sort of Purpose-Driven event, and actually, this is probably a good thing.

At the same time, if you are planting a Purpose-Driven church, it is, for the most part, not to your advantage to "syncretize" your approach with other ways of planting. And as I reflect on this, I can't help but think that this is part of the reason churches sometimes don't make it.

Obviously, I'm not saying that the Purpose-Driven, or any other model, shouldn't be contextualized to the area where you are located and the people you are trying to reach. My point, however, is that if you plan from the beginning to "launch large," then stick with the program until you do just that. On the other hand, if you take a more personal, "relational" approach in the beginning, don't expect an explosion of growth, and don't shift models "mid-stream" simply because things aren't what you originally pictured them to be.

One way to look at this is by comparing the two approaches to church planting. Although there are a plethora of ministry models employed on our continent, you can basically boil them down to two "approaches." And since Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch have already given names and descriptions to these two approaches, I will use their definitions.

The "Attractional" Approach: Frost and Hirsch describe this approach as one in which "the church bids people to come and hear the Gospel in the holy confines of its church and community." In short, this approach starts with some sort of established church system and seeks to invite (or attract) as many initial "seekers" as possible to come and hear. The conference we were a part of this week was most definitely promoting an "attractional" model. The main emphases were on marketing, researching the area, recruiting a team of people to help you run the "system" you set up, and "launching" the church with as many people as possible in attendance.

The "Incarnational" Approach: Frost and Hirsch give a simple definition of this term: "Instead of asking non-Christians to come to us, to our services, our gatherings, and our programs on our terms, the incarnational church seeks to infiltrate society to represent Christ in the world." To a large extent, this approach is a strong "echo" of the type of church planting often done in international contexts, and follows a path very close to that blazed by the British missionary Leslie Newbigin: Bring the Gospel, and only the Gospel, to bear on a given culture in a contextual way, and "church" then grows out of the infusion between Gospel and Culture.

With these two approaches in mind, the next question is usually: "Which of these is more effective in an American context?" The answer of course, is "YES!!!" Our association supports and encourages both approaches, because the diversity of our area demands it. However, I have casually observed, not only here, but in other places, that consistency is sometimes a real problem. Guys start with an attractional strategy, and when their launch date yields 75 people instead of 150, they quickly switch gears. Conversely, guys will also start with an incarnational strategy, and when the time comes near for funding to dry up, they try to "draw a crowd," often because they let money rather than mission determine what they will do.

I say all of this as a "backdrop" to this statement: I don't care which approach you use, so long as two conditions are met:
1. The approach is the best way to reach people for Jesus, given your context.
2. You remain CONSISTENT in your approach.

As I reflect on this past week's conference, four principles come to mind to guide us in remaining consistent.

1. Know who you are. I might add to this sentence: "know who you are BEFORE you plant." Before you move to a field to start a church, regardless of the style, you need to know what the essential DNA of that church will be made of. In short, you need to be totally sold out to the way YOU will do church in this area!

Of course, this doesn't mean you become condescending toward other models and approaches to church planting. There are already too many out there who think theirs is the "Biblical" model. What it does mean is that you have done your homework, and as a result believe strongly that the way you are going to plant IN THIS AREA is THE way to do it! In other words, be true to yourself, the Gospel, and the community and/or people group you are seeking to reach.

2. Be Consistent with who you are. I'll never forget receiving the strategy plan of a planter who wanted to take an incarnational approach to church planting. The more I read of his initial plan, the more excited I became. "YES, this is EXACTLY what is needed in this area . . .not a church (at least not initially), but instead a discipleship process that results in converts, which in turn eventually produces a congregation of people who follow Jesus." His strategy plan was streamlined, clear, and compelling . . .that is, until I got to the budget!

Although the plan was very atypical of established churches in our area, the budget looked exactly like our established churches . . .funds were allocated for advertising, facility rental, and multi-media equipment . . .none of which would be used . . .at least not during the first year of the plant. If your "advertising strategy" is 100% relational (as is usually the case with an incarnational approach), then be consistent by not budgeting money to Viacom for advertising. If you will start in homes and stay there, then be consistent by not including a line item for facility rental. If your vision is to attract people one at a time, then don't paint your people a pictture of large crowds gathered every Sunday, since it probably won't happen.

Once you have determined the best way to reach people in a given area, consistenly employ that approach. Don't just let it influence how you staff, budget, and set structure for your church. Let it exclusively determine how you do all of these things!

3. Expect support according to who you are! Our association is moving toward guidelines that reflect this principle. Called and gifted church planters are worth their weight in gold! At the same time, no one is really paid what they are worth. If that were the case, teachers would be millionaires and lawyers and politicians would be broke! [grin] Financial support, particularly from the "outside," needs to be based on the mission.

That statement of course, has a reciprocal effect on both supporters and the church planters that they support. On the one hand, if we are financially supporting a planter who utilizes an incarnational approach, we should understand that the growth, while steady, will be slow. If I judged my incarnational guys by the standards set in the conference we attended this week, I would have cancelled all their financial support a year ago. 10-15 people after a year is a dismal failure . . .in an attractional church. But in an incarnational model, these numbers can represent a huge success, particularly if you are located in an area where there is a high resistance to the Gospel.

On the other hand, church planters should understand that outside financial support cannot continue indefinitely. I can count on half of one hand the number of guys I know whose churches were financially self-sufficient enough to support them with a full-time salary before their outside funding ran out. I certainly wasn't one of that number! The simple fact is that most planters, even those planting attractional models, will eventually have to "get a job," at least for a while.

The point here is simple: if you plant Bob Banks' church, don't expect Bob Roberts' salary!

4. Judge success based on who you are. "Numbers aren't everything" they say. Well, that depends! Which numbers are we talking about? The number of people in the seats? The number of dollars in the plate? The number of bricks used to put up the new structure?

How about the number of lives transformed by the Gospel? How about the number of marriages saved because wives and husbands put Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 (and a few verses of Song of Songs) into practice? How about the number of couples who found their way out of debt and into lives of good stewardship because they were taught, and applied, Biblical principles? How about the number of children who didn't turn to gangs, or drugs, or alcohol, or violence, because their parents were taught how to raise them in the admonition of the Lord?

I remember shutting down a plant a couple of years ago and listening to the planter tell me stories like the ones above. My response to him was: "This church may have failed, but you did not!"

At the same time, I'm confident that one reason many churches fail is because they don't clearly mark out before they begin what success is going to look like!

Most of the guys leading the Purpose-Driven conferences have churches of several thousand people. That's because God has blessed their ministries incredibly. It's also because they live in areas where 100s of thousands reside. If you are in a community of 5000 people, you simply cannot judge "success" by the same standard!

Emphasizing authenticity (knowing who you are) and consistency (applying with regularity who you are) in the beginning stages of a plant can be the greatest ways to promote resilience and strength in a church planter's ministry. In a few days I'll post on leadership and management qualities that are helpful in this regard. But I'm convinced that if we do our homework in advance, we can avoid a lot of heartache . . .and bring more souls into the Kingdom . . . by resisting the temptation to "switch horses midsteam!"