Prophetic Gospel Planting in the 21st Century: Ten Things to Do (and not do) in Contemporary “Church Planting”

Would you like to be part of a relevant, seeker-sensitive, cool, successful, hip, church-plant committed to converting non-believers through excellence in worship located in urban America?  If so, this article probably isn’t for you.

If, however, you would like to be part of a prophetic, God-seeking, faithful, relational, obedient group of Christ-followers committed to heart-on-heart discipleship and authentic, holistic worship located in the Kingdom of God, then you might want to keep reading.

As I continue think about church planting and look back on the experience of my own journey as a former “church planter” in Los Angeles, the more I am convinced that if the Church is to continue to impact our nation and our local communities for the Kingdom of God we must be committed to a prophetic message that will both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Remember that, as recounted in Scripture, prophecy often comes in the form of a double-edged sword: prophetic messages rarely leave anyone unscathed; a truly prophetic message will convict both the people of God as well as those who are currently part of the secular culture.  And we must also remember that prophets have never been particularly popular with either group.

Being a 21st century prophet is a daunting task – as a matter of fact, being called to a prophetic message has always been a daunting task (hence, I believe, why so many Old Testament prophets’ initial reaction to their call was “Not me.  Can’t you please send someone else?”).

If we are going to be 21st century prophets, there are at least three major things that we have to realize, as well as a number of things that we are going to need to do, and not do.

Three Things We Must Realize

First, we must realize that if we are going to be prophetic leaders of prophetic communities, those who are deeply tied into the world’s message are probably going to think that we are totally out of our minds.  As Paul says in his first letter to the church in Corinth “…the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God[1]” (1 Cor. 1:18) or as he says again in his second letter to the same church “If we are ‘out of our mind’ as some might say, it is for God…” (2 Cor. 5:12).

If the idea of being totally out of our minds makes us uncomfortable, we would do well to remember that technically, being out of our minds (i.e., crazy) only means an extreme deviation from the norm.  And, as Christ-followers, it is precisely that to which we have been called.  The Gospel is not normative – it is, in fact, quite the opposite: The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world are not compatible.

Additionally, if we are still uncomfortable with this concept, we must remember that if people think we are out of our minds, we are in good company with a long line of prophets.  Consider some of the Old Testament prophets: Isaiah ate scrolls.  Jeremiah lived in the desert and wore camel’s hair.  Ezekiel lay on his side for 430 days (Ezk. 4), staring at a model of the city of Jerusalem, cooking his food over manure.  Hosea took as his wife a woman of questionable repute (for lack of a stronger term) and when she left him to ply her trade Hosea sold everything he had to buy her back.  Zechariah wandered around the city of Jerusalem mumbling to himself  while measuring things (or so it would have appeared to everyone watching him – seriously, read the text).  Normative behavior?  I think not.

And if that is not enough, we must remember that even Our Lord Himself was thought to be out of his mind – and this accusation came not only from His enemies, but also from His own family (Mat. 12).

The second thing we must realize that the task of changing culture or people is impossible.  Our job is to live and speak the truth found in the Word of God and His Message of the Good News that will change our world.  While this is impossible, we must always be encouraged that all things are possible with God (Mark 10:27) and that He will be with us to the end of the age (Mat. 28:20).

The third thing we must realize is that the Remnant – those who have not bowed their knees to the idols of our culture – are chosen by grace and not by works (Rom. 11:5-6).  It is by God’s grace that God’s Kingdom comes to fruition, not by our works.  We can try as hard as we can to do good works, but the reality of the Kingdom is revealed when God works through us by His grace.

With all of that in mind, I would like to offer at “Top Ten List of Things to Do (and not do) as we undertake the prophetic task of contemporary “church planting:”

Top Ten Things to Do (and not do) in “Church Planting”

(1) Plant the Gospel of the Kingdom, not churches.

I would like to make a motion right here and now to stop referring to “church plants” as such.  There is only one Church, and there has only ever been one Church Planter, and He is Jesus Christ.  Everything we do must be focused on God’s agenda for the world – the Kingdom – and that Kingdom’s King, Our Lord Jesus.  In other words, we do not plant churches, we plant the Gospel because we are  the Church[2].

Neither do we plant programs or services – those are only tools which help us plant the Gospel of the Kingdom and reap the harvest that it will produce.  It’s a real mistake to confuse a combine with a husk of corn.  To that end, I would like to refer to all future “church plants” as “Gospel plants” or “Kingdom plants.”

(2) Be prophetic, not relevant.

I am sad to say that I feel like the Church in America has sacrificed too much in the name of relevance.  Our word ‘relevant’ comes from a Latin word (relevare) which literally means “to be raised up” – it’s where we get our word “elevate” – (r)elevate.

So the true intention behind ‘being relevant’ in the Christian context means to stand as a people who have been raised up by God for a particular purpose.  In my mind, this is the same as being prophetic.  Unfortunately, we have come to understand ‘relevance’ as ‘being sensitive to culture’ and the result has been disastrous.  So many God-fearing, Jesus-loving communities have crippled their effectiveness by buying into our culture’s “it’s-all-about-you” mentality.  We try to attract people to our churches by telling them “We have a great program for Your kids.  We have great music for You to listen to.  We have great, entertaining preaching that will change Your life.  We have a Starbucks in our narthex that’s just for You.  This church is all about You!”  And we do this in the name of being culturally ‘relevant.’

If what we desire is to be truly relevant – to stand as a people raised up by God for a specific purpose – then we must be culturally irrelevant; i.e., prophetic (or Kingdomly relevant).  The message of our church community must not be the message of the world (“It’s all about You!”); rather, the message must be “It’s not about you – It’s all about Jesus Christ! – Jesus Christ and Him crucified;  Jesus Christ and His life and teaching; Jesus Christ and His resurrection and His agenda for the world and His present and coming Kingdom. All this so that we can fulfill our true purpose – that ‘the chief end of [human beings] is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’[3]

 

(3) Be God seeking, not seeker sensitive.

 The vast temptation when undertaking the task of Gospel planting is always to pursue people.  We want talented musicians, cool people who will attract and invite other cool people, funny preachers, etc.  This is a mistake.  We should not pursue people, we should pursue the God who will raise them up[4].  In other words, we should pursue the God who will make people truly relevant.  And we must accept the people God sends our way, even if they are not necessarily the people we ourselves would have chosen first[5].

 

(4 & 5) Have faith in God, not in coolness; Be relational, not hip.

These two need to be treated together because the temptation to be cool and hip at all costs is directly related to the issue of identity.  By the world’s standards, we get our identity not from what others think of us, or what we think of ourselves, but from what we think other people think about us. 

The temptation, therefore, is to be overly concerned with what other people are going to think of us or our Gospel-plant in the name of (false) relevance, and to derive our identity from there.  When we do this, we are letting the world’s identity-formation model get the better of us.  If we are looking to attract people to our church because we are cool, we hinder God’s ability to choose for us the people He wants us to have (see #3); when we look to attract people to our church because of our hipness, we sacrifice authenticity and may actually aggravate a misconception that many unchurched people already have about Christianity – namely, “I could never be good enough (or cool enough, or hip enough) to come to this church.”

Rather than letting the world’s “what-we-think-other-people-think-of-us” mentality hinder our mission, we must focus on our true identity, namely What we know God knows about us – that He knows everything about us, that He loves us, that He considered us worth dying for, and that He wants to partner with us to build His Kingdom.

 

(6) Be Compassionate, not Competitive

            This too is an issue of world-identity vs. Kingdom-identity.  The system of the world is rooted in competition.  Competition, essentially, is avoiding suffering at all costs even when that causes other people to suffer.  The system of the Kingdom, on the other hand, is rooted in compassion.  Compassion is bringing dignity to the suffering of others even if it causes us to suffer in the process.  When we have bought into the mentality that “it’s all about us” we begin to give special preference to our individual, personal selves (the self we call Me), and we are forced to live in competition with other selves which are a threat to the self we call Me.  When we are secure in our identity in Christ we can have equal charity toward all selves (all ground before the Cross is level) and “no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16-18).  This is precisely that which enables us to live compassionate lives.

            When young new communities (Gospel-plants) are born, there is always a temptation to compare our new community to “those other churches.”  We begin to look at the number of people we have showing up as a measurement for success; we begin to look to see how other communities are attracting people and seek to imitate them, and when they are more “successful” than we are we attack them – often from the pulpit.  Christian communities that are not secure in their identity in Christ are forced to live in competition with other communities, rather than joining forces with them to build the Kingdom.  Bottom line:  We must  be secure in Christ and live in Compassion with others.

(7) Be Real, not Excellent

            One of the major buzz terms during the “seeker-sensitive” movement was Excellence.  Everything had to be done in the name of Excellence – which meant everything had to be darn near perfect.  Excellent music.  Excellent PowerPointTM presentations (which hopefully synced up excellently with the music).  Excellent preaching.  Excellent everything.  Oddly enough, this desire to be excellent (which was no doubt rooted in a genuine desire to do everything to the best of our ability for Our Lord) has become a major turn-off for the upcoming generation.  Why?  It lacks realness.  It can tend to make people feel like they are watching a performance rather than participating in a worship gathering.  Being Real is important – seekers need to see real Christians, and our gatherings ought to reflect the fact that we are simply a group of real people who have gathered together to worship Our Lord.  Who cares if the projector slides are messed up?  It’s not the end of the world.

            Our worship must focus on Jesus, not on our performance.  In order to have effective Gospel-plants, we must trust that God will provide the gifts He intends us to have in our communities.  The temptation is to go and hire professional musicians or sound people or even speakers to “make the show great/Excellent.”  Now, maybe God will provide some of us with professionals eager to use their gifts.  That is a real blessing.  But if He does not, that’s okay too – we must have faith that God has given each community what it needs to build piece of the Kingdom He has given us to build.

I literally have a book on my shelf about “church-planting” that actually makes the following statement: “Church planting is all about getting people in seats; after that it is about getting more people in more seats[6]”  This book goes on to state that we must have Excellent programs which will keep people in their seats once the church grows beyond about 150 people.  But programs are supposed to be tools designed to serve people, not the other way around.  Or as Bishop Todd Hunter says “We have dinner together because we are a family; having dinner together does not make us a family.”  If things naturally start to fall apart at 150 people, then maybe that’s a good size for a community – maybe that’s a good time to go plant a new Gospel-plant.  In any case, if we want our Gospel-plant to grow, we actually ought to be keeping people out of their seats and in the world building the Kingdom.  It’s all about Jesus Christ – discipleship to Him, and making disciples that make disciples and planting Gospel-plants that plant other Gospel-plants.

(8) Be Discipleship Oriented, not Conversion Oriented

It has been said that conversion-oriented communities make converts and that discipleship-oriented communities make disciples.  The Great Commission (Mat. 28) is to make disciples, not converts.  So, again, we want to be disciples who make disciples and Gospel-plants that plant other Gospel-plants.  This is primarily realized by true apprenticeship to Jesus Christ through engaging both individually and corporately in the ancient spiritual practices of the Church in order to create the sacred space in our lives where Jesus can train us (again, corporately and individually) to become like Himself in character and in action; where we can become a transformative and restorative force in the world seeking to partner with God in building His Kingdom as we allow Him to reconcile us back to Himself and to each other.  We do this when we obey the commandments (the Great Commission and the Great Commandment), live the liturgy (the work of the people) and celebrate the Sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist).  We must be communities of Word and Table who are engaged in the reading of Scripture (together and individually); who worship in Spirit-driven, expectant prayer; who learn through prophetic teaching and preaching; who fuse the ancient liturgical practices of the church with the energies of the future; and most importantly bring Glory to God in all that we do by leading others to Him by living, celebrating, building, and proclaiming His Kingdom and His Son Jesus Christ, who is this Kingdom’s King – who lives and reigns with Him and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever.

 

(9) Be Transformed, not Conformed

            In Romans 12, Paul exhorts us not “be conformed to the patterns of this world”, but to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds.”  In order to be successful Gospel-planters we must “remember those who spoke the word of God” to us (Heb. 13:7).  We must watch our lives and doctrines closely and persevere in them, and if we do, we will save both ourselves and our hearers (1 Tim. 4:16).  This is how we allow ourselves to be transformed, and how we become a transformative force for the Kingdom.

            Of course, there is always the temptation to be conformed instead.  Paul warns and instructs Timothy again in his second letter “A time will come when people will no longer put up with sound doctrine, but instead, to suit their own desires,  will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear… but you, keep your head in all situations…” (2 Tim. 4-5).  If we want to avoid conformity we will do well to take these words to heart.  There are always going to be people in our communities who want to make the whole community about their pet-project; who want us to say what they want to hear; who won’t put up with us if we stick to our guns and proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified for us.  This is okay.  We must always tow the line, remain faithful, remember the Gospel that was preached to us, and let God worry about church attendance.  In other words, don’t be popular, be truthful.

(10) Be Obedient, not Successful

            Essentially, this whole article has been about “How to Be a Successful Gospel-Planter.”  These methods for success are a lot different than what we’ve all been taught, but there is one last important point we must remember:  We are called to be obedient, not successful – or maybe another way to look at it is that obedience is success.  If we are obedient to God’s will in our lives, God will accomplish His purposes through us, even if those purposes don’t match up with the plan we think God had for us to begin with.  One of the deadliest things in Gospel-planting is inflexible devotion to one’s own vision rather than allowing God to work His Vision for our community through us and in us.  The number of people we have coming, the spiritual depth of those we do have coming, our financial security, what people think about us – our preaching, our teaching, etc – those things are not our problem.  Those things are God’s problem.  Success is God’s problem.  Our problem – our task, our responsibility – is obedience to Christ.  And how do we, as Gospel-planters, remain obedient to Christ?  By taking time to spend with Him each day, by seeking His will, by praying our guts out, by intentionally making time for our own spiritual formation.  If we do these things, we will be “transformed by the renewing of our minds – then we will be able to test and approve what God’s will is: His good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2).  This is our most important task.

 

Conclusion

            Imagine this on a church-community’s website or flyer: Come be part of a church community that Isn’t All About You! We are an irrelevant, seeker-insensitive, uncool, unhip, uncompetitive, unexcellent, non-coversion-oriented, unpopular, and unsuccessful Gospel Plant.  And remember: it isn’t all about you.  Probably not the best marketing ploy ever seen.

“I cuss, you cuss, we all cuss for asparagus” (Failed Marketing Ploy)

            Yet, as we undertake the sacred task of Gospel-planting together, I would like to ask that, together and through God’s Grace, God might one day begin to use us together to create communities that are irrelevant (yet prophetically relevant), seeker-insensitive (yet God-seeking and God-sensitive), uncool and unhip (yet faithful and relational), uncompetitive (yet compassionate), unexcellent (yet real), non-conversion-oriented (yet disciple making), unpopular (yet truthfully transformative), and unsuccessful (but obedient).  And most importantly, it is my prayer that it would always be all about Jesus Christ.

~ Soli Deo Gloria

Jim Gray


[1] All scripture quotations TNIV

[2] see Mike Edwards, “Lessons from a Failed Church Plant”  viewed online at <http://churchesplantingchurches.com/lessons-from-a-%E2%80%98failed-church-plant%E2%80%99/601>  Accessed 04.29.2010 @ 2:16pm PDT.

[3] See “The Westminster Shorter Catechism” Question 1.

[4] Edwards, “Lessons…”

[5] ibid.

[6] Since I don’t have much to say about this book that is very nice, I’m not going cite it here.

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