I Don’t Care

“What will your church look like in 5 years?”…”Who cares”. 

This question is often asked in church-planting circles: “What will your church look like in 5 years?”. It is a question that helps us plan for the future. It compels us to get a picture in our minds of where we want our church to be at a certain point down the road. It leads us to identify definitive steps to take in order to get where we want to go. But my experience is that this question also invites us to think about church planting the way the typical business owner thinks about business.

The vast majority of businesses today start, or “launch” as we say in church planting, out of self-interest. “This business will help us make money.” “This business could really take off”. “This is a business we would like to run.” These questions are obviously very self-interested. They have to do with the business and its personal survival in a sea of other businesses. Rarely if ever do I hear a business owner ask, “Does my community really need the sort of business I would like to start?”, or,  “How can this sort of business bring blessing to my community?”, or, “Who can I gainfully employ who would get on board with offering this much-needed product (or service) to our community?” These questions are rarely asked in the working world, but business owners will often ask, “What will my business look like in 5 years?”- the same thing church-planters ask.

A better question for church-planters to ask; a question more in line with the heart of Christ, is not, “What will my church look like in 5 years?” but, “What will my city look like in 5 years because of the church?” You see, the problem with the world of business today is that nearly every business functions from a personal-survival platform; “How can we personally survive among so many other businesses?” “What’s our competitive advantage?” “How can we get customers to buy from us instead of from them?” Business owners are concerned with personal survival, not the welfare of their community. In the end, this amounts to nothing more than Economic Darwinism- everyone out for their own survival where the stronger businesses out-sell the weaker ones, casting them to extinction.

It is my conviction that churches, especially new churches, must not fall into the trap of Darwinian personal survival. Who cares what your church will look like in 5 years; you barely have any control over that anyway. What you should be concerned about is what the landscape of your city will look like in 5 years because of the church you will plant. This question will lead you to work for the welfare and salvation of your city and not for your own congregation’s personal survival. This question will lead you to start ministries that will be most beneficial to your community, not simply those that have had good success elsewhere. This question will serve as accountability for your own heart so that you do not drift into the selfishness of personal survival as businesses are prone to do.

In our congregation here in Laconia, NH, we keep this external-city-focus by regularly communicating at our weekly worship gathering our vision, not for our church, but for our city: “Longing to see Laconia, NH so alive with the Gospel of Jesus that our schools, our businesses, our families and our churches radiate His love and truth into our region and beyond.” In fact, at Water’s Edge, we don’t even have a vision for our church- the vision for our city is the vision for our church. May the Lord always lead us to forget about ourselves and the survival of our churches and concern ourselves only with the welfare of our cities, physical and spiritual.

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Shaun

Shaun Dutile and his wife Marci have been married for 21 years. They live in Laconia, NH with their 5 children ages 5yrs to 1&yrs. Shaun performed his undergraduate work at Harding university in Business Management and Vocational Ministry. Shaun and Marci graduated Harding in 2004 and moved to North Brunswick, NJ with a team of 4 other couples from Harding to plant the Brunswick Church of Christ. In their 10 years in NJ God graciously stretched them, refined them and effectively prepared them for their current work in Laconia, NH. At the age of 26 Shaun began his Master’s work in Marriage and Family Therapy from Liberty University, changing his degree in 2010 to an MA in Professional Counseling. Shaun currently serves as the Minister for Water’s Edge- A Church of Christ, a congregation he and Marci planted upon moving to NH in 2015. In addition to shepherding the Water’s Edge Church, Shaun runs a marriage and family counseling practice in Laconia, is the NH State Rep for Celebrate Recovery (a Christ-centered recovery program), and is also the Chaplain for the Gilford Police Department, Gilford, NH.

Slow Discipleship

We added a puppy to the family yesterday. The family, especially the kids, was really excited about this. But, as you might imagine, the kids underestimated their excitement about how much they would need to pitch in to help train the puppy and take her outside! 

This reminds me of the slow work of discipleship. The great joy we experience over someone who begins to turn towards Jesus is tempered by a period of high activity, energy, and investment from the disciple-maker towards the disciple. But it’s all worth it when a disciple grows in faith and even becomes a disciple-maker herself!

I had a breakthrough conversation last week with Aaron (name changed), my neighbor across the street. I had helped a homeless couple with shelter and food, which led me to want to meet more folks who were homeless. So I bought some loaves of bread, lunch meat and cheese, and a case of water and went down to the park to look for homeless people whom I could invite to have lunch with me. 

When Aaron found out, he “warned” me (his word) about not giving money to homeless people because they use it for drugs and alcohol. I told him I had a strict policy of not giving money in those circumstances, but I did want to share lunch with them if possible. (I didn’t find any folks to eat with that day, but I’ve decided to make a weekly visit to the park with lunch supplies.)

Aaron’s eyes took on a weird look and he asked why I would want to do that. He wasn’t critical; he was almost compassionate. I could tell, behind his question, that he was struggling to understand why someone like me would care about someone like “them.” So I shared with him one of my core values, that there is no us/them mentality, that I’m trying to live according to the values and priorities of Jesus as I read them in the Gospels, and that anybody can pick up the Gospels, read them, and try to follow Jesus. We had a very good and engaging conversation.

Aaron would not identify as a follower of Jesus. And yet, in the time that we’ve known them, both he and his wife, Susan, have reduced the amount that they swear, Aaron has drastically reduced the amount of beer he drinks (going from, on some days, a dozen beers per day to, on many days now, not even one), and they have shown tremendous hospitality towards us. If we look at them through the Conversation Quadrant, they are definitely on the bottom half, moving more deeply into serious, spiritual conversations. 

This is what it looks like to disciple people towards conversion, rather than try to convert first and disciple (hopefully) later. The work is slow, and moves at the pace of the one being discipled, but if we believe that God has led us to people, then who are we to dictate how quickly they must move? If God has prepared people as persons of peace, then we follow Jesus’ instructions to stay with those people, let them serve us, and be messengers of peace in their midst (see Luke 10 and Matthew 10).

Disciple-making in secular culture is slow, difficult work. We believe that movements can occur, but we also believe in reproducing disciples one at a time.

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Jeremy Hoover and his family live in Sarnia, Ontario, where Jeremy is a church planting missionary with Love First. He also co-hosts Mission Alive’s Discipleship Conversations Podcast and provides Pastoral Care for Pastors who are struggling with burnout, time management, and relationship and leadership challenges. 

Any Churches for Hurting People?

By now we all know someone who has suffered from Covid-19 and may even know someone who died from this dreadful virus. We certainly are aware of the numbers and grieve for those who have suffered and those who have lost a friend or family member due to this illness. One thing we may not be aware of is the number of people who have suffered through depression and other emotional/mental health struggles. I don’t have any statistics in front of me but over the last eighteen or so months such struggles have increased significantly.

There are a lot of hurting people but are there any churches for hurting people?

Yesterday’s Discipleship Conversations, hosted by Steven Carrizal and Jeremy Hoover, is Interview with Ben Stevens (Part 1). Ben serves as the Senior Pastor of New River Church in Forney, Texas, which he and a few other couples planted in 2007.

One thing New River Church has been over the years, according to Ben, “is a place for people to spiritually heal.” What he means is that the church has been a community for those who have been hurt in other churches. Part of what makes New River Church a healing community is that they embrace freedom for people to hold differences of opinion. The focus for Ben is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and letting people know they are forgiven of their sins.

Casting such a vision has allowed New River Church to become a family. As Ben describes, “New River is a family; it has been a family for a long time. People love one another, they care about one another.” This doesn’t mean the church has not had some challenges along the way, which Ben alludes to in the conversation. But even with the challenges, New River Church is still “an extremely peaceful place to worship and to come and to feel accepted and loved by a church family.”

If you listen to the conversation, which I encourage you to do, you’ll hear Ben discuss how the church dealt with some of these challenges in order to cultivate this loving-family church culture.

This makes me think also of a similar but different reality in North America that pertains to church planting. We’ve heard a lot over the years about reaching the unchurched and for good reason. But I suspect that in some local communities, perhaps many, there are a great number of dechurched people. By dechurched, I mean people who once belonged to a local church but have since left after being hurt one too many times among unhealthy churches. So while we always want to make disciples, we need some new church plants that can cultivate a healthy church environment with the intention of engaging the dechurched. Perhaps these churches can help some dechurched believers re-enter a church and help that church live as a signpost of hope for others who are hurting and bearing a broken heart.

Equipping Leaders for the Mission of God

The church lives in an ever-changing society where the realities of suffering and strife are everywhere. The good news is that in and through Jesus Christ, God is bringing about a new creation. By the power of the Spirit, the church bears witness to this new creation—the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God embodied. This is participation in the mission of God.

Practically speaking, participating in the mission of God is following Jesus Christ. It involves discerning where God is at work in order to join his work through fresh innovative ways of serving while remaining faithful to God and his will revealed in Jesus Christ. This includes teaching others to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God too.

This is also why planting new churches as well as equipping Christian leaders for participating in the mission of God is necessary. This is why Mission Alive seeks “to bring about the holistic transformation of marginalized communities through starting and renewing innovative churches that address the most challenging issues faced by their neighbors.”

One way of pursuing this vision is through digital media. Our digitall media platform not only includes this blog but also our Discipleship Conversations podcast, and our Innovative Church Conversations hosted on the Mission Alive YouTube channel. Each platform offers opportunities for reflecting on how the church may faithfully participate in the mission of God.

The most recent Discipleship Conversation podcast, hosted by Jeremy Hoover and Steve Carrizal, features an interview with Wes and Amanda Gun, who planted the Redland Hills Church in 2014. The Redland Hills Church is located in Wetumpka, AL, a city just outside of Montgomery, that seeks to connect with people by proclaiming the good news of Jesus. The most recent Innovative Church Conversation, hosted by Tod Vogt, features an interview with Stacey Gaskins, who serves as the Global Movements Director at Tampa Underground located in Tampa, FL. The Tampa Underground is a network and movement of churches with a passion for the poor and lost.

Our desire is that these platforms will stimulate a new imagination for how the church might participate in the mission of God. Beyond that, we hope these platforms might inspire more people to consider church planting and more churches to consider supporting new church plants. If that’s something you’ve thought God might be leading you to consider, please contact Mission Alive.

A Work of Art: Leadership and the Faith Formation of the Church

There it was on Facebook, an advertisement for a book on how to begin and grow a church from zero to one hundred in a year. Hmmm, I think to myself. Have I not seen this book before? Have I not read this book before?

Well, no. I’ve not this particular book, so my judging a book by its cover may be way off. Yet just based on the summary, it sure seemed like many other books I’ve encountered and my cynical reaction is always the same… If only it were so simple. I’m sure there are some helpful insights but in our post-Christendom society, where more and more people are skeptical of churches. Whether leading in an established church or a new church plant, the challenge is not about any formula for growth but tending to the gospel story — the good news of Jesus Christ.

The gospel story was the framework and foundation for the ministry of the apostle Paul. He understood salvation was promised as a blessing from God through the faithfulness of Christ and therefore a blessing the church entrusted God with as participants made alive in Christ. Faith, an embodied participation in the gospel, opened space for the church to portray this good news through good works.

What we have is the story of the redemptive work of God, centered in Jesus Christ and oriented towards the kingdom of God. It’s a story that involves grace, faith, and good works, and not good works to earn salvation but as participation in the salvation already received. The apostle Paul expresses the idea in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

This text has been very formative in my theological formation, especially as it pertains to ecclesiology and particularly how the church participates in the mission of God. One keyword that I want to emphasize is “handiwork” (v. 10), which comes from the Greek word poiēma and is where our English words “poem” and “poetry” derive from (Hiebert, 1994, 117). It’s a word that describes a piece of art, like a sculpture, a painting, or even a poem. That’s why the New Jerusalem Bible renders v. 10 saying, “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life.” (italics mine).

God’s intention for the church, both universal and every local church, is to be a living portrait of the new creation he is bringing about in Christ. The church, as followers of Jesus, live as a community participating in the mission of God so that the future, the fulfillment of God’s redemptive work in Christ is visible. This is the embodied gospel of the church in Christ. Hence, the church is “God’s handiwork” or “God’s work of art.” 

We might think of the church as a canvas upon which God is painting a picture. This painting is a proleptic portrait of the future, which simply means the church is portraying the future within the present as an already accomplished reality. Now because the church consists of people who still sin at times, sometimes egregiously, we might think of the portrait as still awaiting its completion and sometimes is in need of correction. That is, God needs to repaint or restore some aspect of the canvas so that the picture will reflect the work of art he is painting. However, since the portrait reflects the future, the embodied gospel is not about restoring the past. Attempting to recreate the first century, sixteenth century, etc… embodiment of the gospel is not how the church participates in the mission of God. Rather the portrait is embodying the future of God’s kingdom in fresh ways that are contextualized to the present.

As the onset of a post-Christendom society become more and more apparent, the challenge of leading churches will most most likely defy any cookie-cutter approach. They already do. Some churches will thrive and some will struggle. Some church plants will lead many to follow Jesus and even plant new churches themselves, while other church plants will struggle and may even have a short life. There are too many variables beyond the control of any church leader to say what will guarantee success. However, if leaders will focus on the faith-formation of the church, cultivating the gospel in people so that they learn to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God, then God has a work of art to display among society. That’s an attractive church to others seeking something beyond the mundane life of old creation and what they’ll find is a masterpiece that only God can create.

~ K. Rex Butts

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K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

Rest and the Mission of God

“The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living,” writes rabbi Abraham Heschel (The Sabbath, p. 14). Oftentimes when we talk about the mission of God or we talk about church planting, we talk about the activity of God, the ever-advancing Kingdom of God. After all, we see Jesus  say, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). And the psalmist writes, “Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).

So what does rest have to do with the mission of God? When we consider the story of God in the Bible, a whole lot. The word “mission” is a word we use to talk about what God wants with the world and what God is actively doing to accomplish it. And when we pay attention to God’s story, we see God actively pursuing a world at rest.

Sabbath in the story of creation

In the beginning, God made everything. And it culminates in Sabbath. The first chapter of Genesis (bleeding into the first couple verses of chapter 2, as well) provides a poetic prologue, not only to the book of Genesis, but to the Pentateuch as a whole, as well as the rest of Scripture. For this reason, we should pay special attention to what the author communicates in these opening images.

On days 1 through 3, God separates things, making empty spaces. I like to imagine God clearing blank canvases on which to put things. On days 4 through 6, God makes things to inhabit each of these empty spaces. The sun and moon will inhabit the light and darkness. Birds and fish will inhabit the “waters above” and the “waters beneath.” Animals and humans will inhabit the dry land.

On day 7, God does something entirely different. This is the grand finale. The finish line. The big red bow. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2, 3). The climax of creation isn’t human beings. It’s not a “what” but a “when.” It’s Sabbath rest, and it’s the one thing in all of creation called “holy.” This is everything in its right place.

Sabbath in the story of Jesus in Matthew

The writer of Matthew gives us one Sabbath story with Jesus, and it’s a big one. It begins at 11:28—”Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” It culminates in 12:21—”In his name the nations will put their hope.”

The closing verses of chapter 11 provide a compelling invitation from Jesus to rest. When he says, “You will find rest for your souls,” there is an explicit callback to Jeremiah 6:16. This is clear Sabbath language. And as if to explain what Jesus means by this invitation, the Gospel writer then provides two stories of what Jesus does on the Sabbath followed by a quote from Isaiah as the punchline.

Chapter 12 begins with a story of the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath because they’re hungry. The Pharisees protest. Jesus responds with a story about David from 1 Samuel 21 and wraps it up with a quote from Hosea 6:6.

He then goes into a synagogue to teach. Again the Pharisees antagonize Jesus by pointing out a man with a withered hand. They quiz Jesus about whether it’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus refuses to directly answer the question but heals the man. And then, to rub it all in to the Pharisees, we’re told that he leaves that place, a crowd follows him, “and he healed all who were ill.” How’s that for a mic drop moment?

As we witness the mission of Jesus in Matthew, the rest of the Sabbath is meant to feed the hungry, heal the broken, and restore the dignity of human beings. Rest is central to the story. The rest of Jesus culminates in the restoration of all creation. Everything in its right place.

Rest in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John, likewise, shows us a rhythm of work and rest. Two key words in John are “remain” and “sent.” They are like breathing in and breathing out. They are the work of cultivating God’s good kingdom on earth and the rest in the loving presence of God.

The author sets this up early in the narrative when a disciple asks, “Where are you staying?” (John 1:38). In Greek, this same language is repeated when Jesus says, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you” (John 15:4). Where Jesus stays, he remains. The invitation is to be with Jesus. Consequently, when the risen Jesus first reveals himself to the disciples after the resurrection, he tells them, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Disciples of Jesus remain and they are sent. Like a spiral that ever draws inward but also ever expands outward, so we experience the inner rest of Jesus and the outer participation in Jesus’ mission in the world.

Embracing a practice of rest

What should this have to do with the daily life of ministry? Everything, if we let it. I remember being in seminary and having the default conversation: “How are you?” “I’m so busy.” And what would follow would be a litany of activities with the implication being busyness made me important. There came a point where I started to get a hunch there could be something deeply wrong with this competitive busyness. We never see Jesus in a hurry or out of time or frazzled by his never-ending to-do list. Jesus is always rightly oriented with Time.

A practice of weekly Sabbath rest is necessary for healthy ministry. It rightly reorients us with Time. The work-rest rhythm of six-plus-one is the design of human beings. We are made to work six days and then spend a day enjoying the work of our hands. We are not made to spend ourselves until we crash.

A weekly Sabbath ritual can look and feel like “Opposite Day.” In all the ways we say “yes” to the world—the emails, the phone calls, the constant availability, the productivity, the hustle—on Sabbath we say “no.” In all the ways we say “no”—to relationships, to ourselves emotionally and physically, to enjoying life—on Sabbath we say “yes.”

In addition to a weekly Sabbath practice, a regular rhythm of retreat, whether quarterly or bi-annually, is another way to re-tune our souls. I used to play the guitar a lot, and a part of learning to play the guitar is learning to hear when it was out of tune. Sometimes I had a device to tune the strings. Other times I didn’t have it with me and needed to use my own ears. It was a skill to develop over time. It wasn’t a defect of the guitar or strings. It’s just what happens when you play the guitar.

Ministry is similar. The work exercises our bodies, minds, and emotions in ways that deplete us, and that’s normal. We need regular rhythms to engage silence and stillness and solitude that “tune the strings” of our soul.

Our work for God’s kingdom isn’t meant to be an endless race. We don’t have to run until we burn out or crash. Daily, weekly, quarterly, yearly rhythms of Sabbath and rest and retreat are necessary because they remind us that God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on us. It is God who works.

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Rev. Dr. Peter White is a spiritual director and curator of The Sabbath Life and The Abbey, a retreat space of contemplation and rest for those on the journey. He holds a D.Min from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL in Contextual Theology where he explored race, culture, church, and mission in a gentrifying neighborhood. Peter, his wife Jackie, and their two grade-school kids live in a historic neighborhood north of downtown Tulsa, OK, one of the city’s most diverse communities, where they are discerning a church plant.

Church Planting: It’s Not One Formula

An acquaintance of mine among the Independent Christian Churches used to say, “Eric, there are three ways to plant a church: the hard way, the harder way, and the hardest way.” At times I have wondered whether I was doing it the hardest way. Today, I believe God is seeing us through and that maybe we are only doing it the hard or harder way.

Eight years ago, my family and I sold or gave away most of what we had to make a big move from the Deep South to New England. I transitioned from “big church” and “senior minister” to “no church, no salary, and no supporting organization.” In the church planting world, you would call us “parachute church planters.”

Today, we live in a small New England town, five miles from Plymouth Rock and thirty miles from Fenway Park. We have a community with a small group of people, hold no debt, and the four-year-old church has six million dollars of property including the historic church building and a parsonage. To God’s credit alone, I believe the greatest witness to what is taking place with this small church is that our town would notice if we were not here and that we would be missed.

So, how did that happen? How did God use us to engage this town? What works? What doesn’t work? Perhaps an analogy will help.

A great family therapist, Salvador Minuchin, once penned a book called, “Family Therapy Techniques.” It was a primary text in a course I took at Harding University in 1994. Minuchin explained that, “training in family therapy should… be a way of teaching techniques whose essence is to be mastered, then forgotten” (Minuchin, 1981, 1). As I trained to become a family therapist in the early 90’s I had little idea how much that would affect my call to church planting these many years later.

Perhaps one of my favorite family therapists in the early years of my field was a man named Carl Whitaker whose preferred technique seemed to be no technique. According to him a good family therapist is not a person who applies technique, it is the one who can survey and size-up the landscape in which a family lives. As the therapist “does” this a joining occurs so that as the therapist moves the system (family) to which they are now connected responds.

This explanation was lost on me when I first began to learn the techniques of family therapy. There was a time when I sought diligently to “do” what my teachers did. It seemed elementary that if I did what they did, I would be a good therapist like them. It didn’t happen that way for me and it was a process of trial and error, months and years, before “being” a family therapist felt natural.

Today, I am an adjunct at a small college in Boston teaching family therapy. Based upon my own previous anxieties as a student, I regularly remind my class that they have what it takes and the techniques they employ mean nothing next to how they regard their client. A good therapist doesn’t “do” therapy. It’s not a shirt you take on and off. Joining with an individual or other system is more about who you are than what you do.

Even though I instinctively knew these things about the practice of therapy, I did not associate the value of these experiences with church planting when we moved to New England. I thought I might just learn the techniques of church planting by spending time with a newly planted church. We spent a year with a church plant that began by meeting in a movie theater. I could “do” what they had done in New England and be successful. Perhaps the organization that planted the church would consider sponsoring us to do the same. After working alongside this church for a year, the organization said I did not have the gifts or “techniques” to successfully plant a church with them. I felt like a failure.

In truth, I was guilty of the same thing I struggled to learn so many years ago as a budding therapist. Underneath what we “do” is the more important question of who we are. But, in this experiment we call a secular culture that truth can go missing. How? In our secular culture religion is just another menu item that one might choose. You have your private life, your work life, your religious life, and so forth. For so many following Jesus is something you “do.” It’s formulaic.

But, following Jesus isn’t about wearing a Jesus shirt. Jesus owns my whole suit of clothes and my person, right down to the bone. Discipleship, spirituality, religion, we use a number of words to say the same thing. What I hear Jesus saying is that following him is not a technique. There isn’t a formula. How do I know? Well Jesus said so. The cost of discipleship is everything. There is no need for a list of things Jesus requires from you or me when it includes everything. Jesus didn’t come to give us a full spiritual life. Jesus came that we might have a full life – all of it.

Perhaps the greatest experience I have had in these years since moving to New England is the shedding of a formulaic faith and the embrace of a sacramental faith. It was not a failure to learn that I am not gifted for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and planting a hip new church in a movie theater. It was freedom to discover there is not one formula. The hardest way to plant a church or follow Jesus would be to follow the formula of someone else.

Sacrament simply means sacred mystery. A sacrament is a sort of portal – a connection between heaven and earth. Yes, the church has struggled over that term and what sort of things are sacramental and what sort of things are not. I’m going to weigh in on this and I could be wrong, but if you are reading this you are a sacrament. There is something about you that is uniquely you. You have what it takes. And when Jesus is not merely a shirt that you try on and off but the One who is about making your life full and meaningful, then you become an extension of who Jesus is. That is sacramental.

It is a mystery to me. I have no formula to share. Over the last eight years, I have shared sacred moments on barstools, in parking lots, by deathbeds, in doctor’s offices, furniture stores, ambulance rides, and the list goes on. So, this is not a how-to-do-it blog. It’s more a how-I-think-I-learned it blog. How does life happen to me? How can I get more to happen? May more and more happen to you.

~ Eric Greer

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Eric Greer sounds like he’s from Tennessee but he is a New Englander. He pastors a new church in Kingston, MA and loves beekeeping, the Red Sox, and fire engines.

Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society by Stefan Paas (SCM Press, 2019)

Church planting wasn’t supposed to be this difficult!

Don’t tell Mission Alive I said that. I was warned that church planting would be difficult but I wasn’t really listening. I knew it was just a matter of gathering some folks who had already been softened to the gospel during the summer mission trips my supporting church had engaged in for a decade. Imagine my surprise when my Christendom tactics (which I was well-versed in) did not work!

Stefan Paas, in his excellent book, Pilgrims and Priests, helped me understand why I found church planting such a challenge. In Canada, as in Europe, where Paas teaches missiology and has planted churches himself, we find a post-Christian, secular culture that has no place for Christianity as a (the) dominant narrative. Thus, Paas addresses the question of what missionaries are to do in such a context.

He writes about the “always elusive majority” (chapter two). A “conquest” motif has softly underlay Christendom. The church has always been seeking to have a majority but has never fully actualized it. Even when the culture was largely considered to be “Christian” it was always the minority acting on behalf of the majority. 

This is seen in the images of “hospital” and “restaurant.” A hospital is a place you support so that, in time of need, you have access to its services. A restaurant is a place you choose to go to when you want access to its services, though you do not support it otherwise. The Christendom church has functioned in both of these ways in Christian-majority culture. In some cases, the “hospital” has been a state-sponsored church. In other cases, the church has certainly been the restaurant serving the buffets of Easter and Christmas. 

In light of this, most dominant models of church are dependent upon Christendom underpinnings. This is because we find at the heart of Christendom the “conquest” motif: Christianity seeks to transform (to overcome) the world. This mindset is no longer helpful, or appropriate, in secular culture. It is important, Paas believes, to maintain a clear separation between the church and the world. Both are God’s, but both are distinct.

Constructively, Paas draws from 1 Peter (chapter 5) to elucidate the themes of pilgrimage and priesthood. Christians are pilgrims. We are travelers, foreigners in the land, who have no interest in conquest and transformation because that time has passed. Likewise, Christians are priests, and our mission is not to transform, or take over the world, but to bless the world on behalf of God. 

His work on 1 Peter is strengthened by his work on Israel’s exilic situation and spirituality (chapter four). He develops the theme of “loss,” that exile was not merely a deportation and a grappling with a new culture. Rather, it represented the actual loss–even the failure–of the promises of God: the loss of land, the loss of a king, the loss of the temple. Amidst this loss, Israel had to find new resources to draw upon, and they did. In the exilic literature of the Old Testament, we find the rise of Sabbath as both an identity marker and as a participation in God’s created order, identity practices such as circumcision and purity laws, and devotion to God through cultivated practices of prayer at regular hours and almsgiving. Israel in exile had to carve out a way of being God’s people in a culture that didn’t care about God. 

This book has shaped my missional imagination in many ways. First, the deconstruction of church models opened my eyes to the prevalence of the Christendom model. This enabled me to see that one challenge I faced was that I was trying to import a model of church among people who knew what that model was and had already rejected it. This is not to say that they have rejected God, only that they have rejected a model of organizing belief. 

Second, the discussion of Israel’s exilic situation and their spirituality within that context, combined with the priestly reflection on 1 Peter, helped me to understand the distinction between the people of God and the world. Here, formation is key and is privileged above public proclamation and evangelizing. The church must focus on its identity and formational practices are important to that end. Rather than evangelizing for new members, churches can focus on the ways in which they are being formed into the people of God and can discern the ways in which God is calling them to bless their neighborhoods. Conversion happens implicitly, not explicitly, as the church blesses the world.

Third, the practical implications of small churches, distinct from the world, functioning as priests who bless that world on behalf of God is generative. Small churches are nimble and can operate as mission outposts without the apparatus that larger, Christendom-style churches have in terms of buildings, staff, and other commitments. These small churches can gather in living rooms, backyards, community centers, and public parks to pray together, dwell in the word, and discern where and whom God desires them to bless. They can bless freely without the need for results hanging over their work. 

Paas’ project to define a post-Christian mission is ambitious but helpful and practical. He has helped me see the disconnect between my earlier Christendom approach to church planting and the reality of the post-Christian, secular culture. I have much to think about as I contemplate a new, smaller, more nimble, and priestly approach in our post-Christian, post-covid era. 

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Jeremy Hoover and his family live in Sarnia, Ontario, where Jeremy is a church planting missionary with Love First. He also co-hosts Mission Alive’s Discipleship Conversations Podcast and provides Pastoral Care for Pastors who are struggling with burnout, time management, and relationship and leadership challenges. 

The Mission of God: A Faithful but Contextual Participation

I’m excited to be helping Mission Alive relaunch their blog. This blog is part of a larger social-media effort that also includes a monthly webinar called Innovative Church Conversations and a podcast called Discipleship Conversations.

My excitement stems from my belief in the cause for which Mission Alive exists, the mission of God. I’ve had an association with Mission Alive for more than a decade now. I fondly recall my wife and I having breakfast with Dr. Gailyn VanRheenen and his wife Becky, hearing about the beginnings of Mission Alive. Several years later I helped with a church planting team that Mission Alive was helping and then eight years ago I participated in the Mission Alive Renew cohort for leading church renewal.

Although I serve as a pastor with a church that is nearly seventy years old, I believe there is a need for planting new churches. Likewise, I also believe there is a need for equipping leaders who will help local churches live on mission with God. That’s why I’m helping Mission Alive.

Of course, I will boldly say that neither the church nor her leaders should ever forget that when we speak of mission, we are talking about the mission of God — not our mission. As Christopher J. H. Wright has said, “it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world” (The Mission of God, p 62). 

Recognizing that it is the mission of God rather than our mission raises some questions. What does it mean to participate in the mission of God? How do local churches participate in the mission of God? How does participating in the mission of God shape the task of church planting? How does participating in the mission of God shape the task of leading? You probably have a few other questions too. One thing for sure is that there are not any easy answers to the questions before us.

As most people know, the landscape of North American culture has and continues to shift in major ways. We can’t even speak of one culture because there are a multiplicity of sub-cultures that differ from city to city, region to region. Even within any given metropolitan area there are many sub-cultures. So we can forget any one-size-fits-all approach to our participation in the mission of God. Rather than embracing a homogeneous approach, I want to suggest that the answer to our questions begins with the Bible and particularly the hermeneutics of how we read the Bible.

When we read the Bible, we’re reading a story. In short, the story gives us an account of how God is redeeming and restoring the life he has created, with a past, present, and future. We learn of what God has accomplished in the past to understand how that bears upon the present and will come to complete fulfillment in the future.

Although every aspect of the story is important, the plot draws our attention to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. The Bible, then, offers us a narrative that is Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented (or Christologically-Centered and Eschatologically-Oriented). Reading the story as people who are part of the story serves forms us as followers of Jesus living under the reign of God. Herein is the key to our participation in the mission of God: We are are learning to live as a coherent reflection of the life Jesus lived and the incoming kingdom of God he proclaimed as good news (cf. Mk 1:14-15). 

So as I like to remind people, we are the Bible that people will first read. What story will they read? Our calling is to live the story of the gospel in such a manner that when words become necessary, they are merely offering an explanation of what is already seen. In other words, the churches we plant and lead as well as our very own lives as church leaders must be embodiment of the gospel. Underscore that too because one of the unfortunate obstacles between the gospel and culture is the reality of too many scandals with churches and church leaders, where there has been a failure to embody the gospel.

However, as important as faithfully embodying the gospel is, the plethora of different cultures among the North American landscape will require innovation as well. If we don’t pay attention to the culture we live among, we may faithfully embody the gospel but do so in a manner that talks past the local community.

To some Christian, the word innovation raise concerns. Are we now just deciding to make it up as we go along, doing whatever is trendy and even edgy? The answer to that is a big “No!” 

What I mean by innovation involves what actors and musicians call improvisation. With the Bible as our story, we become actors within the story (Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, p. 140). Except the script for our particular scene — how we are to embody the gospel within our local context — is missing and now will require some improvisation. It would be redundant, meaningless, and eventually boring if we just repeated everything in the previous scene because that is what was done before. In lieu of that, we want to improvise in a manner that makes sense for our scene but also remains coherent with the plot of the story told within scripture.

It’s like playing in a jazz band. The story of the Bible provides us with the key, tempo, time signature, and even the chord structure. If some of the musicians were to play in a different key, tempo, time, and chord changes, the music would sound terrible and turn away the listeners. So instead, all the musicians play within the structure given. One the other hand, imagine if the musicians just began playing the same seven or eight notes over and over again in the same pattern and same emotion. The song would lose meaning and lose the interest of the listeners. But if the musicians were to improvise, they would still play coherently with the music piece they are given but do so in a manner that makes sense at every bar in the music. So it is with participating in the mission of God. We follow Jesus Christ as people living under the kingdom of God but it requires both faithfulness to and contextualization of the gospel we read about in the biblical story. That is how we participate with God to, as the purpose of Mission Alive states, “bring about the holistic transformation of marginalized communities through starting and renewing innovative churches that address the most challenging issues faced by their neighbors.” To that end is what the relaunch of the Mission Alive blog will serve.

~ K. Rex Butts, D.Min

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K. Rex Butts serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

We’re Back: Reintroducing The Mission Alive Blog

I am excited to reintroduce Mission Alive’s Missional Church Planting blog. It has been nearly 5 years since our last post. At the time we were in the midst of a leadership transition from Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Mission Alive’s founder, to me as the second-generation executive director. We have made the transition well, planted several new churches, developed a focus on marginalized communities, and are now ready to recommit ourselves to providing helpful articles on missional church and church planting.

As we relaunch this blog, we are doing so as part of Mission Alive Media. Mission Alive Media will consist of 3 media platforms

Each platform will have a unique audience but together they will explore the breadth of topics involved in missional church, church planting, leadership, discipleship, and the future of the church in North America.

I am even more excited to announce the leadership team that will oversee Mission Alive Media. It is my pleasure to announce that Steven Carrizal, Associate Minister for the Alta Mesa Church of Christ in Ft. Worth, Texas will chair the Mission Alive Media team. In addition to his ministry at the Alta Mesa church, Steven is a coach and an associate with Hope Network Ministries. Steven and Jeremy Hoover, Mission Alive church planter in Sarnia, Ontario, originally launched the Discipleship Conversations podcast. While Steven will lead our media team, Jeremy will oversee the Discipleship Conversations podcast. I will continue to oversee the Innovative Church Conversations webinars.

This Missional Church Planting blog will be under the direction of K. Rex Butts. Rex is a gifted preacher, pastor, theologian, and congregational leader as well as a husband and father. He is a ministry coach, guitar player, and enjoys a good brew — coffee and more. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry degree in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL (Chicago). What makes Rex the perfect leader of this Missional Church Planting blog is how well he brings together missional theology and missional practice. I am excited to entrust the leadership of this blog to Rex.

This blog will address missional ecclesiology in general and missional church planting specifically. It will focus on the connections between Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology all with an eye toward ministry practice.  

Our hope is that this Missional Church Planting blog will become a valuable resource to you and your church, as you seek to join God in what he is doing to bring about the holistic restoration of every soul and every community. Our goal is to provide you, the well-trained ministry practitioner, with high-quality, theologically robust articles that are at the same time enormously practical and inspiring. We will seek out the leading theologians, missiologists, and practical ministry experts in the field of missional church and church planting to write for this blog. Many who are already part of the Mission Alive Network will share with us their thoughts and experiences and we may even convince Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen to write an article from time to time to share with us his ongoing insights!

We in Mission Alive believe that the cultural tables have been turned over. While tried and true ministry methods may continue to gather the already-Christian – introducing our unbelieving neighbors to Christ and helping them grow in Christ will take more creative and innovative methods. That means no one is truly an expert. We are all experimenting. Our goal is to bring you the result of many experiments from many missional trailblazers.  Please join us.

~ Tod K. Vogt