Quite a few years ago, together with my co-author, Alan Hirsch, I proposed a simple formula for church planters that went like this:
CHRISTOLOGY (what is the gospel?) shapes MISSIOLOGY (what is the purpose of God and his people?) which in turn shapes ECCLESIOLOGY (what is the form of the church in this particular context?)
It appears in our book The Shaping of Things to Come, considered by some a minor classic in the field of missional studies, something about which I should feel proud, but the idea of having written a “classic” just makes me feel old.
What lay behind our proposal was our frustration with so many church leaders being far too beholden to their ecclesial traditions. We’d hear people would say they were planting a Baptist church in a particular neighborhood because the nearest Baptist church was too far away. Or they’d say that the existing churches in a particular town were too mainline or liberal and they wanted to launch a Reformed evangelical church there. In other words, the desires, hopes, fears or pathologies of a particular community had no bearing on their strategy. They were bringing a prefabricated Presbyterian/spirit-filled/evangelical/fill-in-the-blank style of church because there was a “hole” in the existing church market.
To put it simply, they were reversing the formula I outlined above. Ecclesiology was first. They decided the kind of pre-fabbed church model they wanted to plant and then proceeded to do so.
This was borne out across the whole church planting world. Whenever we attended church planting conferences we’d overhear the planters asking each other, “So, what kind of church are you going to plant?”
What kind? That’s your first question?
The second question then becomes the missiology question. How do we bring our preferred model of church into this community? In what venue should we meet? What style of music should we use? Who is our target audience? None of these are actually missiological questions at all. They’re marketing questions. When you start with the prefabricated product you’re not going to allow the context to shape the structures and patterns of the church. Ecclesiology shapes missiology and reduces it to a mere shadow of what it should be.
When you prefabricate what kind of church you’re planting your mission becomes church marketing.
You see it in the way churches present themselves online or on the signs outside their buildings. They will advertise that they are Reformed, Bible believing, Pentecostal, liberal, etc. and then seek to attract people to that model. It’s classic marketing: (1) advertise your point of difference from your competitors; (2) let people know about ‘product benefits’; and (3) be nice to new people.
It leaves us with one primary message. Come. And. See. The inference being, we’re better/different than other churches.
In proposing the formula that Christology should shape missiology, which in turn should shape our ecclesiology, we were trying to subvert that whole system. We were asking church leaders to suspend their predetermined models of how to do church and to begin with Jesus. We were arguing that we all need to learn Christ, and to locate our sense of being sent into the world in the story of Christ, not only to be mobilized by his sending words, but to model ourselves after his example as a sent one.
Then, in being sent, we will ask ourselves what could the gospel look like as it takes root in this particular community. We would allow the context to shape our practice of alerting others to the reign of God through Christ. Only then, having entered into a host community and sought to incarnate the gospel in their midst, would we ask questions about our common practices as a church.
This isn’t to suggest your theology won’t be important, but we were urging you to submit your theology to your reading of Christ, and hold less tightly to your previous ecclesial traditions.
We knew it wasn’t a simple straight line from one to the other and some people picked us up on that.
Ed Stetzer and David Putnam, in their book, Breaking the Missional Code, agreed with the formula in general, but cautioned that we usually find ourselves at the intersection of three things, rather than engaging them chronologically:
“…we have the intersection of who Jesus is and what has he sent us to do (Christology); the forms and strategies we use to most effectively expand the kingdom where we are sent (Missiology); and the expression of a New Testament church that is most appropriate in this context (Ecclesiology).”
That’s fair. Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology will always inform each other to some degree. Stetzer and Putnam are suggesting we don’t need to put one before the other; we need a recovery of all three. But we also need a way to be freed from the straightjacket many church leaders and planters are in regarding church forms and structures.
Not everyone agrees with us. Church planter, Darryl Dash thinks de-emphasizing ecclesiology isn’t a good thing:
“If I were to charge western Christianity with a fault, it would be that our ecclesiology is too weak. We don’t need to deemphasize the church; we need to understand it better, and allow that to inform our practices, including our mission.”
And Nathan Knight from 9Marks isn’t having a bar of it either.
“Ecclesiology can’t be assumed nor should it be considered a distraction to the church planter’s ‘mission’. It also can’t be a kind of add-on that you insert here and there as you have need. Instead, ecclesiology should inform, instruct, and even excite the mission of planting churches to the glory of God.”
But I think the problem here is the different ways we’re each using the term ecclesiology.
When Alan Hirsch and I put ecclesiology as the final priority in our list we are referring to the structures, habits, liturgies and events arranged by the church. When Dash and Knight talk about ecclesiology as central I think they’re referring to the broader theological questions about the very nature of the church. Indeed, Nathan Knight’s blog post is entitled, “You Can’t Plant a Church if You Don’t Know What a Church is”. That’s true. You do need an understanding of the nature of God’s people, whether it’s the classic Marks of the Church (One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic), or the Reformed tradition of requiring (1) the proper preaching of God’s Word, (2) the proper administration of the ordinances, and (3) the exercising of church discipline. I have no problem with you holding convictions about whether a church should be Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregational in it’s governance.
Don’t confuse that with saying that you’ve preset the forms and behaviors of a new church with no reference to the mission to which that church has been called. How you teach God’s word, how you administer the ordinances, and how you exercise restorative church discipline should be in some measure shaped by the context. What if God has sent us to a neighborhood in which most people aren’t available to meet on Sunday mornings at 10.00 am, and don’t process information very well listening to a 40 minute sermon, and aren’t engaged by a platform-focused, music-based worship experience?
You should have a greater, more magnificent message than “come and see”.
The church you plant should become so embedded in your community, so committed to the common good and to bringing the values of Jesus’ kingdom into every nook and cranny of society, so excited to tell others about King Jesus and the world he is creating and the future hope we find in him, and so opposed to every kind of evil in humanity, that none of your neighbors will need to come to a meeting to see it. It will be visible right under their noses every day.