Church Planting, Mission, "Missional" & the Lived-Out Gospel ~ BitterSweetLife

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Church Planting, Mission, "Missional" & the Lived-Out Gospel

Appended to my lengthy review of Ed Stetzer's Planting Missional Churches is a good question from John B. I thought it was very much worth answering, so I've rescued it to address here. John's question:

I've been wondering about this for a while whenever you have used the term "church planting": What happened to the term "mission" (the term I've always heard used when describing new Lutheran congregations). Then I see that Stetzer's book uses the adjective "missional," which I assume means "of or having to do with missions." But I don't want to seem flip here; I'm genuinely curious as to whether "planting" and "mission" are interchangeable or if they're understood to signify different things.

Aside: not like I know a whole lot about all this, but I've always thought that the most effective witness to the Gospel is to earnestly, humbly live it. Your actions become the sermon--or at least its preamble. People will notice; they'll (eventually) ask What's up with all this.

Or is that naive of me?

I'm uncomfortably aware that some people spend hour and hours and thousands of words debating nuances of meaning in words like "mission" and "missional," but here's my short, simple take.

I think theologians today are moving away from the word/concept of mission because it implies, for many, something people do "over there"--as in overseas or at the least, across large geographic differences. Missions also sometimes has the connotation of discrete, concentrated activity, something people do for awhile (often on a "short term" trip somewhere else) before returning to normal life.

Having said that, I think that in many ways, church planting and mission are often synonomous--when mission is understood in the New Testament sense, as advancing Christ's kingdom throughout world cultures via the gospel. Not only "over there" but "right here" and not just on "mission trips" but all the time. Arguably, the best way to lead more people to Jesus is to strategically plant more churches.

Missional is a word that was coined relatively recently in order to clarify some of the distinctions I'm making above. Missional is intended to imply that the gospel ("mission") ought to be woven into the fabric of our lives as we work to know, love, and speak into our communities, wherever we find ourselves. There is an emphasis on Jesus' incarnation within a specific culture, and the way he identified with, served, and preached to those immediately around him. Likewise, we're all called by Jesus to live in this way.

A thought on John's last point. I've always thought that the most effective witness to the Gospel is to earnestly, humbly live it. Your actions become the sermon--or at least its preamble. People will notice; they'll (eventually) ask What's up with all this.

There's a quote from Saint Francis of Assisi that crops up all the time these days: "Preach the gospel. And if necessary, use words." While I appreciate the intent (I guess, not having known Francis myself) I think his quote would have to be radically rewritten in order to be scriptural:
Preach the gospel. And if you don't use words you haven't preached it. - Saint AJ of a city

I'm not saying this to pick on Francis (you can't diss a man who could talk to animals) and I'm definitely not playing down the vital, non-negotiable, necessity of an earnest Christian life, humbly lived. I'd be quick to agree that the main reason the church in America is a laughingstock that people lampoon with cartoons is because of the abject failure of many to live even a little like Jesus. Because of this, people are disgusted by "Christian" messages that ring hollow because of their bearers, and many believers don't want to say anything gospelish before they've had a chance to justify their words with authentic living. I totally relate.

But I think what we see in the New Testament is the interweaving of words and life, and the clear understanding that the gospel needs to be spoken--directly, clearly, audibly--to be intelligible. Our lives are intended as evidence to point to the truth of what we say. Even for people who try to follow Christ, this is a scary act of faith, because our lives are full of holes. But that simply affirms the fact that the power of the gospel rests in God's power to convict people and save them.

Well, that turned into a riff. (A contemplative one, not an ill-tempered one, by the way.) I know that some of the readers here have thought about these questions a lot, so I hope you'll jump in. And of course, I'm also curious whether I came close to answering John's questions...


I did not say:
Don't worry about your hypocrisy, just share Jesus.
The best way to be missional is incessant, loud preaching without relationships.
Don't worry about making friends--just be prepared to explain Romans.

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gymbrall said...

Just for clarification, here's what I think you said:

Speaking graciously and convictingly is a guaranteed fruit of a mature Christian. Not that there aren't times where we witness without saying a word, but if someone consciously attempts to avoid using words to witness, they have a real problem with some scriptural commandments.

Is that congruent with your sentiments?

Bernard Shuford said...

The part that scares me is that so many are now concentrating on the relationships and ignoring the command to preach. We seem so ready to pick and choose which part of the Bible we like.

Ariel said...

Gymbrall, yes, exactly. You decipher me well. It's the conscious attempt to avoid using words that I'm trying to undermine.

As you and Bernard are saying, words and service are meant to work in tandem, like a couple...uh...cart horses? You know, like in the Budweiser commercials. So much for modernity. Or I could say it this way:

Words and life, preaching and service, are 4 cylinders in the gospel engine, intended to fire together. Of course, that's a pretty weak engine. But you get the idea.

Better metaphor, anyone?

John B. said...

Ariel et al.,
Thanks for the response and comments. I had suspected that "mission" carried for some the resonances Ariel mentions, but the Lutheran church uses "mission" to describe new congregations here in this country as well. For me, at least, that's not been a vexed term. Now, "planting": I confess that when I first heard that, the first thing that I wondered was, "Annuals or perennials?"

As to the response to my "aside," I hope no one took me to mean that I was speaking of living the Gospel to the exclusion of preaching it. Of course they work in tandem with each other--indeed, neither makes full, complete sense without the other.

Ariel said...

John, sounds like you Lutherans may be ahead of the curve you've managed to avoid the false dichotomy between North American and foreign missions. Do you happen to know if there are many attempts to start ("plant") new Lutheran churches in the US?

Of course they work in tandem with each other--indeed, neither makes full, complete sense without the other.

We agree. I didn't think you had lapsed into Assisi-ism, but decided to pick on Saint Francis a bit to clarify that point.

John B. said...

Do you happen to know if there are many attempts to start ("plant") new Lutheran churches in the US?

I can't say how many is "many," but every few years in just about any larger city, a Lutheran mission will be established. The Southern Baptists have us beat in that regard, though; the joke back in Mobile was that they would consider a neighborhood "unchurched" if a Southern Baptist church weren't in it.

BruceA said...

I'd like to add another perspective: In my denomination (United Methodist), missions does have some of the same "foreign" connotations as in other denominations, but it's also a much more comprehensive term than "planting." I've been on three short-term mission trips to Central America, but in all three cases we were working with an existing local church, not trying to establish a new one.

On one trip we were part of a series of teams sent to build about 3000 cinder block houses in a squatters' village, to replace houses of wood and cardboard that were susceptible to file. On another we did some construction work at a rural hospital that the local church was operating. On the third, we helped rebuild a church building that had been destroyed in Guatemala's civil war. In each case, the mission of our group was to serve the local church.

I suppose that's just another side of missions. There wouldn't be any work to do with the local churches if someone else hadn't planted them first.

Ariel said...

Thanks for jumping in, Bruce. I like the fact that your trips are connected with an existing church, so that the work you all do will have lasting effects and correspond with follow-up.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife