#ReimagineCHURCH...A Path Forward
by Michael T. Cooper
It seems clear that to move beyond the decline of Christianity in the United States, we need a shift in the manner in which we think about church planting. Continued claims of it as an evangelistic methodology also need further examination. The data discussed in this essay seems to indicate that, even though there are certainly more churches, there are fewer people attending those churches. While we might maintain the practice of church planting, here are a few considerations that could help justify it as the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven.
First, we need new metrics.Church growth cannot be measured by the number of new churches planted. Nor can it be measured simply by church membership as that definition changes from church to church and, often, those numbers are Christians shifting to new congregations. Instead, church growth should be measured by the number of new Christians. Indeed, Ott and Wilson assert, “A mere numerical proliferation of small, competing, and struggling churches will not necessarily advance God's kingdom purposes” (2011, 28).Additionally, tracking church multiplication as a result of evangelism is critical in order to achieve gospel saturation of an area. So, not only should our metric include new Christians, but also Christians sent to the harvest field. In other words, how many church members are actually participating in evangelism and discipleship, for you cannot have one without the other. Paul did not encourage Timothy to multiply churches. Instead, “What you have heard from me ... entrust tofaithful peoplewho will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2; emphasis added). As Jeff Christopherson notes, when church becomes the goal, it becomes an idolatrous pursuit (2012).Second, a shift in thinking about church planting. Church planting is not about a Sunday morning service. It is about gathering together believers in Jesus Christ resulting from evangelistic activities in the community. Stetzer and Im state, “In church planting the goal isn’t to plant the coolest church or do things that have never been done before, but it’s always to reach people, be on mission, and be about the kingdom of God” (2016, 1). Similarly, church planting should be thought of in terms of multiplication of disciples rather than adding an additional church in a city. To get to multiplication will take movement thinkers committed to entrusting disciples to equip, empower, and inspire others to make more disciples (2 Tim 2:2). These movement thinkers will have to be analytic, catalytic, and cathartic in the manner in which they church plant (see figure 1). That is, they will need to study culture, mobilize and equip human resources, and care for the communities they engage (see Cooper, 2020).
Third, an emphasis on the transformational nature of the church.A church in a community should impact the community on the deepest level. First, the impact must be personal and at times communal. From such transformation emanates a complete societal transformation: economic, political, educational, healthcare, and religious. In other words, it will have what Alan Hirsch (2016) calls a movemental ecclesiology; that is, churches shaped by Jesus and his mission. Warrick Farah and Alan Hirsch (2021) suggest the following as a comparison between a typical ecclesiology and a movemental on By Michael T. Cooper
Fourth, a de-emphasis on Sunday morning and re-orientation to Jesus.If you define church as a place of worship, you fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the body of Christ. Interestingly enough, when Jesus wrote to the seven churches of Asia Minor, none of his expectations for the church focused on Sunday. In fact, to be the church in the community meant to be present at all times. After all, was that not typical of our Savior? Consider for yourself Jesus’ list of expectations for the 7-day per week church:
- Listens to the Holy Spirit (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22)
- Confronts false teaching (Rev 2:2)
- Proclaims God’s glory (Rev 2:4-5) – the works of your first love
- Stands up for the marginalized (Rev 2:6)• Stands firm in the faith (Rev 2:13)
- Goes beyond the work of love, faith, service, endurance (Rev 2:19)• Endures hardship (Rev 3:11)
- Keeps sound doctrine (Rev 3:3, 8, 10)
These are not Sunday morning events or programs. These are the daily opportunities to be the church in the community and they demand a re-orientation to the way of Jesus.Typical Ecclesiology• Inherited from Christendom• Led by a Pastor (Top-Down Authority)• Professionals do the ministry• Pulpit Teaching• Program-Orientation, Events• Centered around a building• Structure is Static/Hierarchical• Reproduction is Expensive and Slow• Power and Attraction• Enlargement (Megachurch)Movemental Ecclesiology• Emerging from Christology• Led by APEST, Eph 4:11 (Equipping)• Everyone, according to roles and responsibility• Participatory Learning• Disciple-Making Orientation, Relationships• Centered around an Oikos Network• Structure is Organic/Flat• Any Part can Reproduce the Whole• Vulnerability and Service• Multiplication (Church planting)By Michael T. CooperTable 1: A Paradigm Shift in Church Mindset (Farah and Hirsch, 2021)
Fifth, we need to understand the difference between correlation and causation. There is little doubt that those involved in a new church plant are more likely to see new growth from evangelism than those in a legacy church (Ott and Wilson, 2011, 29). However, such growth is only a correlation with the new church plant, not the result of the new church plant. Gifted peopleplant churches. Ideally, those people are motivated to disciple-making. The result of people doing evangelism and discipleship is new growth. To say that a church plant is causing the growth is to misunderstand the nature of the priesthood of believers and leads to claims that church planting is the greatest evangelistic tool under heaven (Wagner, 1990).
The new church plant certainly is a factor among many correlating factors for growth, but it does not cause the growth. Given similar circumstances, a legacy church can see growth if they are able to activate people skilled in evangelism and discipleship. To reduce effective evangelism to church planting marginalizes the legacy church and gives her an excuse to not participate in evangelizing her community. Peyton Jones is correct, “Church planting is not the causeof anything in the New Testament, but rather the effectof carrying out the Great Commission” (2021, 14).
Sixth, a renewed respect for the conjunctions.Two small Greek conjunctions make all the difference in church planting: καιand δε. In Acts 1:8, καιlinks the geographical breadth of the mission of the church. When the Holy Spirit would come upon His disciples, Jesus said, “And [και] you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and [και] in all Judea and [και] Samaria and [και] to the ends of earth” (Acts 1:8; see Leston, forthcoming). It was not a progressive mission, but rather a simultaneous one. This mission is a vital part of the DNA of church planting and must be present at its beginning. Otherwise, a church plant risks becoming insular and will not multiply where there is no church. Additionally, Paul relates the means by which Jesus has equipped the church to engage every part of the world, “And [και]He gave on the one hand the apostles also [δε] the prophets also [δε] the evangelists also [δε] the shepherds and [και] teachers for the equipping of the saints for works of ministry to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12). This APEST team works together in honor, respect, and deference to one another as they recognize Jesus as the only head of the church, not a pastor or church planter.
Seventh, a rediscovery of what it means to adapt to culture. In many places, church planter training as been reduced to a methodology. The method which has proven successful in producing numbers of people in church on Sunday’s often becomes the model for other church plants. Rather than doing the hard work of cultural study—observation and dialogue—with a community, church planting methods become captivated by the pragmatism of social media advertising, attractional methods to persuade people to come to church, or simply shuffling sheep from one congregation to another.
Conversely, adaptive ecclesiology recognizes the ongoing work of God among people to draw them to himself. In the missionary or church planter’s work, adaptive ecclesiology sees God creating spaces for community in preparation for people joining theέκκλησία. Recognizing God’s activity of creating spaces, adaptive ecclesiology takes what God is already doing in a community and incorporates them into the life and form of the church. Adaptive ecclesiology is naturally theocentric as it relies upon the Holy Spirit’s leading in discovery God’s activity in context. It is animated by the fact that God continues his active role in culture. Only in this way can the έκκλησίαbecome properly incarnated as the body of Christ in a community.
Table 2: Ecclesiological Forms
In 1992, Malphurs predicted that “The twenty-first century church will not look the same as the typical, traditional church of the twentieth century. What has worked in the past will not work in the future” (1992, 15). Unfortunately, the reality is that the twenty-first century church looks like a nineteen-century congregation applying an ecclesiology from the sixteenth century in a context that is increasingly like the first century (Christopherson 2019). For all practical purposes, the church in general has not significantly changed in 1,700 years. Even the multiplying of new churches between 2000-2020 demonstrates that there is a serious lack of creativity in the church which has largely rendered it ineffective in her engagement of contemporary culture. Malphurs is absolutely correct when he asserts, “If a church desires to reach its generation in its culture, it must adapt its practices (not its faith) to that culture” (1992, 15).
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