“CHURCH PLANTING” or ‘EVENT PLANNING?”

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There are times when I think we shouldn’t describe what we are doing as Mosaic Edinburgh as “church planting.” My reticence comes from the fact that I am often introduced as a church planter and then people seem to get confused as to whether I am really planting a church at all. The confusion comes when they ask where our church building is and I say “well we meet mainly in homes” or they ask when our Sunday morning service is and I have to admit we don’t have one. At this stage in our development we simply don’t do, and perhaps will never do, what many people automatically associate with church.

I have been thinking about this for a while and recently two things happened which have crystallised my thinking about why people get confused about what we are doing. I spent some time talking to a friend who is involved in starting a new missional group in a Church of Scotland congregation. We were discussing in essence what it was we are both doing and that kind of discussion sort of forces you to articulate what you think but which has been largely subconscious. Then I read this quote Alex McManus posted from Bob Roberts, ‎”We don’t plant churches in America. We plant worship services.”

That quote and my conversation has clarified in my mind why so many people are confused and frankly unsure about whether what we are doing is actually church planting. You see from my experience Roberts is bang on, what is generally called “church planting” is in essence more about “starting a worship service.” I have been to several church planting training events and read numerous books on the subject and when you look at what is being taught you soon realise that, at least from my perspective, what people are really being trained to be is not so much “church planters” but “event planners.” Most of this training seems to be about the logistics of starting a worship service and attracting people to it.

That approach was very much in vogue in the church of the 1990s when church planting gained prominence again but has lived on with some tweaks. Willow Creek and Saddleback Community Church in the States became the inspiration and example for a whole generation of church planters. In their books and at their hugely influential conferences Bill Hybels and Rick Warren described how they had started their congregations. Their methodology basically was to take surveys in their communities to discover what people didn’t like about church. (Now strictly speaking I think what they actually did was question people about what they didn’t like not about church but about church services.) Hybels and Warren, and countless others who adopted their methodology, then started church services tailored Sunday services around their target audience’s like and dislikes and then set about attracting those people to their church service. That whole process was called church planting. I went to the Saddleback Church planting conference, in a nutshell the process was to attract people to a Sunday service they will like. I suspect this process may have been more attractive to Christians who had dropped out of church than atheists or agnostics.

Being of a certain age I can even remember church planting in the generation before the seeker sensitive movement. As a pastor a denominational leader told me he had found an empty church building and so we could think about church planting in that area now. When you unpacked what he was proposing it soon became clear that what he meant was there was a building to which we could attract people to an event, a Sunday worship service. All we needed to start the church was in his view a preacher, a musician and a few folks to invite and welcome the “visitors.”

So in this understanding of what church planting is all about I visualise it like this

Church Planting = Starting A Sunday Morning Service

or perhaps for those who were slightly more nuanced in their approach and more informed in their ecclesiology

Starting A Sunday Morning Church Service —-> LEADS TO —-> Church Planting

Now I need to be really clear about something, I certainly don’t think worship services are wrong or that you can’t develop a church from them. I do however seriously wonder if starting there is the right place to start if you want to plant a missional expression of church.

There is an apocryphal story that some tourists in the Highlands stopped a local in the middle of nowhere to ask how to get to Fort William. The story goes that the Teuchter replied “oh I would start from here if you are trying to get to there!” All of my studying, reading and experience, smattered I hope with some divine guidance, has lead me to conclude that the church is to be missional. What I mean by missional church is that the church exists for, and so is to be shaped by its participation in, God’s mission, the Missio Dei. Church is about the People of God joining the Mission of God by embodying, expressing and so extending His Kingdom in this world. To use a now well worn summary, “Its not so much that the Church of God has a mission but that the Mission of God has a Church.”

Its because I passionately believe in the missional nature of the church that I feel like that unhelpful Highland guide. I have to say that trying to start a missional church by starting with a church service, is to start from the wrong place and potentially as a result go in the wrong direction. I have come to that conclusion for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, as I have already mentioned God’s mission is prior, it creates the church, rather than the other way round. Remember the cliche, which is nevertheless true? “Its not so much that the church of God has a mission but that the mission of God has a church” The implication I draw from the theology that lies behind that statement is that mission should precede and create church. For the more theologically minded of you, what I am saying is that theology and missiology should precede ecclesiology, if you want a missional church. The Mission of God expressed through and in the Kingdom of god creates the People of God. It was God’s action that brought created His People by freeing them Egypt and His action in and through Jesus life, death and resurrection and the pouring out of His Spirit which recreated them. Therefore if we start with the church we are narrowing mission from its biblical mandate. We are making the goal of mission just the starting of an event at worst, or only evangelism at best.

Secondly, I worry about the DNA which is created in any expression of the Body of Christ which is started by basically attracting people to an event. I suspect that when we do it that way what we are in fact doing is attracting consumers and engendering a consumerist attitude among Christians. I have seen it happen time and time again, a new church starts, it reports great growth but upon closer inspection we can see what has happened is that it has attracted a crowd of Christian consumers who are on the look out for the “next thing” That never works because the fundamental fact about consumers is that they are never satisfied and in fact feeding consumerism actually subverts part of the true mission of the church which is to make Christ like disciples. Matt Smay and Hugh Halter put it like this A consumer is NOT disciple and a disciple is NOT a consumer. Consumerism reflects what Jesus came to call people out of. Its is exactly the opposite of what Jesus is telling us to go and make!

We will one day, perhaps soon, as Mosaic Edinburgh, run a more “recognisable” church structure. For me the important thing is we didn’t start there. We have attempted to do the hard work of building community and being involved in mission and tried to allow “church” to develop naturally from that. I am positives we have and will make many mistakes in doing that but I am more and more convinced that we have started from the right place.

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