It used to be so simple twenty years ago. Everyone knew what church was and planters just got on and planted another one. But that kind of planting – or ‘cloning’ as it became known – has fallen into disrepute. In a plural and changing culture, cloning will not do. With hundreds of people leaving the church and a burgeoning non-churched (rather than de-churched) population, cloning is inadequate. We need different expressions of church in different contexts. Cloning represents a missed opportunity for incarnational mission and contextual church planting.
But once you start asking ‘what kind of church?’ or ‘what do we mean by church?’ where do you begin and end? There are so many possibilities, so many ‘fresh expressions’, so many ‘emerging churches’ – how do you decide what is appropriate in your situation?
If you pray for guidance, how much are your own preconceived ideas influencing what you think God is saying? If you visit other churches and talk with other church planters, how do you work out what might be transferable to your context? And if you sit down with a blank piece of paper to design your own new church, how much of your past experience of church will end up on that paper?
And what about the convictions of those who will join your team? What preconceived ideas and experiences of church (good and bad) will they bring to the party? How will you reach agreement on what you are trying to plant?
There’s no quick answer to any of these questions. In practice church planters operate within the boundaries of convictions, context and constraints.
All church planters bring with them certain convictions – you need to do all you can to identify these and share them with others in your team. But church planting also needs to respond to the context, allowing the host community to shape what emerges. And there are always constraints which limit what you can actually achieve with the personnel and resources you have available
It is really important that you recognise these three elements – ignore any one of them and you are heading for frustration or irrelevance.
Here’s an exercise to help you explore your convictions with others – in your team, in your church or in your mission agency. It invites you to identify the essentials of church and distinguish these from aspects that are non-essential. I’ve used this exercise with various groups, including some who were very sure they knew what church was, and I have never yet found any group of even three people who agreed on everything!
See how you get on – but remember this is only one aspect of the question – convictions. You’ll need to do further work on your context and constraints.
So, working alone, complete the following chart, placing a mark in one of the boxes in each row. Is each statement non-negotiable (essential) for church? Or do you think it is negotiable (maybe good but not essential)? Or are you unsure?
Aspects of church
|Having an ordained minister|
|Having a church name
|Meeting at least once a week
|Evangelising as a church|
|Behaving with ecological responsibility|
|Having church membership|
|Praying together as a church|
|Being accountable to one another|
|Having a statement of faith|
|Using music and other creative arts|
|Developing relationships with other churches|
|Sharing bread and wine|
|Requiring members to be married or celibate|
|Assigning roles by gift not gender|
|Encouraging personal prayer and Bible reading|
|Appointing recognised church leaders|
|Working for justice locally and globally|
|Becoming financially self-sufficient|
|Welcoming all ages|
|Intending to reproduce and plant another church|
|Open to outside input|
Once you have completed the chart, discuss this with two others in a group of three. You might find the following process useful:
There are some blank rows at the foot of the chart. Are there any other aspects of church that you think need to be added – either because you think they are essential or because others often think they are?
Doing this kind of exercise with your team – or with your supporters – can help clarify all kinds of issues and save problems later on when non-negotiables suddenly appear.
Download a copy of the article as a word processor file HERE to make it easier to complete the exercise.