By D Stewart
D Stewart coaches church planting movements and lives among the unreached.
In this series of articles we have been examining various aspects of Church Planting Movements (CPM). Underlying the various aspects has been the assumption that God is at work and that to invest in CPM is to partner with Him in the expansion of the Kingdom here on earth.
Another underlying theme has been that CPM is spiritually organic. The Church is the Body of Christ and as such it is organic and should be growing and reproducing. Organic things are beautiful and miraculous, but they are also fragile.
All organic things (in this world) struggle to live, grow and thrive, often in environments that are not conducive to their survival. In the previous articles we examined how God has produced CPM in the past and what we can do to partner with Him to promote the growth of CPM.
This article will look at the things we do that, all too frequently, inhibit the growth of CPM, or in some cases, can kill a church or abort it’s birth.
Let me be clear that I believe that God is sovereign, even over our mistakes. He can, and often does, graciously redeem our mistakes; however, that does not mean that we shouldn’t learn from them.
It is said that a wise man learns from his mistakes, but that a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Most of the CPM mistakes and examples in this article will come from my own life. I do not have to look too hard, or too far back to see my own blunders! Very rarely does someone in our line of work set out to work at cross purposes with God.
Generally, we are trying to do the right thing, but sometimes we miss the mark. I have missed the mark numerous times and in too many ways to count; but, I want to focus on a few specific errors so that we might avoid at least these ways that we can inhibit the growth of the Church in general and CPM in particular.
So, I offer these reflections as a fellow pilgrim sharing his experience and observations as we journey together toward His perfect will.
When I first went overseas to engage in mission, one of the earliest mistakes that I made was to over- emphasize informational content in the process of evangelism and particularly discipleship.
Certainly there are core concepts that need to be communicated and grasped as a part of the process of conversion and Christian growth, but too often we seem to think that simply communicating the “right answers” is the point.
There are a number of prior questions when I focus on teaching content, such as how much and which content. As we answer those questions we begin the process of teaching our own interpretation, our own personally and culturally defined perspective.
It is important to strip away as many cultural layers as we can to try to get to the “pure gospel.” We will probably never be able to do so perfectly, but we must try.
What if we emphasize process rather than content? In that case we sit together with those we have come to love and learn how to read Scripture together. We open up the Word, the only pure source of Truth, and they share their understanding and I share mine.
We talk together as friends about the various potential interpretations. We humbly submit to the Word, the Spirit, and one another. During my time in Central Asia I learned more about Kazakh culture, and about God, by drinking enormous amounts of tea while reading and discussing the Scriptures with brand new Kazakh believers.
They would come up with some of the most surprising interpretations and applications from passages that were so familiar to me that my eyes would glide over the text without really taking it in.
My first impulse was to “correct” their interpretation, but over time I realized that often their perspective and interpretation was also valid and drawn from the text. It’s just that they were reading the text through different personal and cultural “lenses.”
As I learned to relax and to trust the Spirit and the Word, I find myself learning more, and them growing more. They were encouraged to search the Scriptures for answers and to turn to God for answers rather than to me, the missionary, the one with the seminary degree, the “expert.”
They were freed up and empowered and eventually became leaders of churches, churches that they planted while drinking enormous amounts of tea.
Another thing that can inhibit CPM is too much emphasis on Church Planting alone. I know that sounds a little bizarre, so please allow me to explain.
When we make the goal of our work planting one church, as opposed to the goal of initiating a CPM, we are more likely to approach it with a particular set of biases and presuppositions about “church.”
We often unintentionally create a church that looks remarkably like the church we came from, or in some cases in reaction to the experiences we have had in churches. A true CPM is an indigenous CPM. I have often remarked that I probably wouldn’t really enjoy a church planted by those that I am working with.
Why? Because if they really grasp the concept and operate in freedom following the Holy Spirit’s guidance and giving full expression to the beautiful and redeemable parts of their culture, it will minister to their hearts, not necessarily my heart.
My heart was formed in a different culture, in a different part of the world. As much as I want to incarnate the Gospel into their culture, I will always be a product of my own culture; therefore, their expressions of worship and Body life might always feel somewhat foreign and maybe even “wrong” to me.
When I venture into their culture to plant a church, I bring my cultural conception of what a church is and how it functions. I have in my mind (whether I am aware of it or not) a picture of what a church service will look like, what the church structure will look like.
No matter what I am picturing, I can almost guarantee you that the actual church will look different than I imagine.
When I go to plant a church (the church of my imagination) I will start to mold them into my likeness or the likeness of what I imagine they should be, rather than giving them the freedom to follow the Word and the Spirit to create what they imagine should be.
So, when my goal is to plant a church, I will find that I can do “it” more efficiently then they can. I can preach “better” than they can. I can “lead worship” better than they can, all because I am comparing them to my own cultural standards.
I then recognize the “need” to train them in these skills so that they can do it the “right” way.
In this kind of scenario the local believers are unintentionally disempowered, as they become servants of my vision rather than empowered and equipped to form and follow their own vision for the community of faith among their own people.
Another reason that CPM is sometimes inhibited is an over emphasis on methodology. We like machines. Machines are predictable, orderly, programmable, and controllable. Organisms are not. Organisms are messy and surprising.
They have a life of their own, a will of their own. When faced with the numerous uncertainties and difficulties of cross cultural mission, we may be drawn to mechanistic, formulaic systems that are tried and true, predictable. I spent a lot of time early on looking for the “right” way to do “it.”
I tried many methods that others recommended and “guaranteed” would bring results only to find that each had problems or shortcomings.
CPM doesn’t happen because we have discovered the formulae to apply, or the right technique to use, and when we rely on methods instead of God we find that we neglect God, as He is no longer necessary to achieve our ends.
The problem is that this kind of search is inherently fruitless because God is the source of CPM and God will not be boxed up and engineered. An over emphasis on methodology gives the illusion of control, but it inhibits the very growth we want to see produced by limiting our reliance on the only true source of Life.
Another destructive corollary to this is that when we rely on a particular methodology we will judge those who do not use it. This is directly contrary to the unity of the Spirit. I have participated in far too many discussions about why “this” and “that” bad thing happened to “this” or “that” ministry all because they did “X” or did not do “Y.”
Our over-confidence in our own methods can be a subtle source of pride and pride is a sure killer of spiritual life. Instead, we should seek the Lord and trust Him to be the Lord of the Harvest and the Lord of the Church.
We should trust Him to guide our work and seek to be a blessing to our brothers and sisters in Christ, even those who are “flawed” in their methodology, or dare I say, theology. CPM happens not because of a content, system, or structure, but because the Spirit has the freedom to move and grow, often in surprising directions.
We should seek unity and freedom while clinging to the Word and relying on the Spirit. If we rely upon technique to produce CPM, we will prescribe what it must look like, rather than being open to follow Jesus wherever He may lead us.
These are just a few of the many mistakes I have made over the years. As I read over what I have written, it strikes me that humility may be the key; humility before our co-workers, expatriate and national, as well as before God, the giver of Life.
My hope is that by sharing these with you, you may be able to avoid some of the mistakes I have made. God is faithful and true. He will build His Church and the gates of hell cannot stand against Him. I have seen Him redeem my fumbling attempts to serve Him cross-culturally too many times to count.
May you have confidence and freedom to venture out, even if you make your own new mistakes. May you trust Him to accomplish His purposes in and through you. May you find that He uses even your mistakes to bring glory to Himself. May His Kingdom come and His will be done!