A couple of weeks ago I talked to a pastor and church planter with whom I went to seminary. We were sharing our church planting experiences. Both of us had not planned on being church planters. We of course had the required course on church planting and evangelism but neither of us have been to our denomination's church planter training seminars. Though we have both had to in differing ways deal with the philosophy of church planting that is currently dominant. Before my friend was a church planter he had been working with a church focusing on ministry to international students at the University near by. He regrets that since needing to follow the strategies of current church planting philosophy that he has been unable to keep up with that ministry, because working with the international students did not have the sort of immediate success in the numbers of people drawn in a short time. Though in his two years of ministering with the international students, ten had been baptized. Most of those ten however no longer lived in the area, and either have gone on to other schools, returned to their home country or moved to other cities in the US for work. My friend said to me, I don't understand this obsession with success. He said to me that church planting is like the setting up of a franchise or outlet of a large corporation. Americans always have to start new (he is Chinese and came to the states 6 years ago to go to seminary), like when Home Depot or Target buys properties previously owned by K-mart and they level the previous building and build something from scratch as if nothing was there before.
I found his observations to confirm what I had sensed in my own study of church growth and planting theory. Success is measured along the lines of capitalist corporations and similarly this leads to an obsession with the new and existing as if there is no past. What is now is what is important, the Gospel is timeless not in the sense of being beyond time or eternal, but is interpreted in the timeless of some eternal present that obliterates history. Money numbers and relevance are the primary evaluating factors.
In fairness money numbers and relevance are supposed to serve the Gospel. But my suspicion and the experience of my friend is that the Gospel ends up serving money numbers and relevance. The Gospel is interpreted as if the Church and the Kingdom of God are a capitalist corporation. The thought that perhaps the academic and scientific theories of growth and business, even good organizational theory, might simply be antithetical or at best incompatible with the Gospel apparently is not considered. According to these philosophies the church is just another organization, and thus is to be run like every other human organization. What seems to be absent in this thinking and practice is the idea that the church just might be something other than every other human institution. What seems to be forgotten is that the Gospel isn't just another message that we spread through PR and propaganda. What is forgotten is that when God came to earth as a human being God came in ways that repudiate all philosophies of success. It is in defeat that God is victorious on the Cross. As the Orthodox acclaim at Easter it was by Death that Christ defeated Death. The Gospel is incompatible with all human means of succeeding.
In the face of all the success that church growth thinkers and church planters can show, I say the Gospel and the church function on another logic than all your demographic studies and organizational theory. Not that I get to ignore what we as human students of ourselves can describe as a good or efficient organization, but that it is clear in Scripture that God's ways are not our ways, that the Gospel is foolishness to all human thinking even good scientific thinking. We certainly can learn from organizational theory and the way corporations function but ultimately all that knowledge is judged by Christ and the Gospel. All the theories and knowledge we as humans produce can never dictate how the church should be or organize itself. The message of the Gospel makes demands on us even in what the church looks like and the methods we use. The Gospel is not water that can fit into any sort of container we find appealing or useful. Rather the Gospel is both form and content. Church Growth and Church Planting theory rarely if ever admits that the Gospel has a form.
I believe there are reasons for this but that is the subject for another post