Written by Bruce Young
December 20, 2006 (Edited and released May 22, 2008)
(This is a response to the InVision church planting movements article by Dr. Kooistra.)
In “Toward a Definition of Church-Planting Movements”, Dr. Paul Kooistra expressed hope that his article would “spur us to further dialogue and action.” I offer my observations as a part of the continuing dialogue.
Our goal at MTW is to advance movements of churches that are indigenously led, where churches multiply and spiritual, social and cultural renewal is taking place through the advancement of the gospel. And as the agency of the PCA we are to be advancing Reformed and covenantal churches that are self-propagating, self-supporting and self-governing through trained and empowered leadership.
Related to this I have the following observations:
1. The emphasis for church-planting movements, while using slightly different terminology, reflects the indigenous principles of the previous generation of missionaries but is different in a very significant way. Many are hesitant and even critical of having a missionary serve as a pastor on the field, but they support funding national pastors or workers. On one hand they say that pastoring should only be done by nationals (according to the indigenous method), and on the other hand they say it is legitimate to provide funds for the national pastor and even sometimes national church building. (Some believe this goes against the indigenous principle. I can remember my father’s continual reference to the Nevius self-movement method of church planting. For this reason there was strong resistance to his mission providing any outside financial aid for national salaries or buildings.)
2. While the terminology and use of the word “indigenous” is not very different from Nevius method terminology, there seems to be a change in emphasis in the missionary’s role in establishing indigenous works. This change may be driven more by pragmatics than by principle. It is said that church planting creates problems when missionaries do it so we need to find nationals who can lead churches, and put them in a position to lead. To do this we will need to support them. The recent emphasis on the formation of partnerships with fields tends to be driven by this desire to get the nationals into leadership and support them financially.
3. While MTW does not prohibit a missionary from serving as the pastor of a national church, it seems to discourage missionaries from pastoring except when this arrangement is unavoidable. But this may cause us to miss an ideal opportunity to train national leaders. The missionary pastor is in an ideal position to provide hands-on training to nationals until they are ready to take over the leadership. By working closely with the missionary, they will be trained and given the opportunity to grow spiritually before taking over pastoral responsibility. Placing the national in real ministry with a mentor answers Dr. Kooistra’s concern about sending a national away from his culture to get training: “… a biblical pattern for ministerial training is best served when it is an integral part of real ministry.” Another argument against having missionaries lead a church is that when the missionary leaves, the church often faces a crisis. But most churches go through a crisis when a good pastor leaves the church. In fact the better he is the harder for the church when he leaves. But if the core values are deeply embedded and leaders have been affected by the gospel, then the church will recover and grow to live out its core values within that denomination and society.
4. I am concerned about the long-term effects on missionaries when primary emphasis is placed on partnering with national churches. According to the MTW 2006 Purpose Statement, MTW’s first priority is “partnering with an existing group or denomination that is Reformed and covenantal. When there is no such group we may establish a new Reformed and covenantal denomination.” If there are already pastors in the country with Reformed and covenantal convictions and the churches are to be indigenously led, then the task of the missionary will be to coordinate and assist in a supporting role assuring that a vibrant Reformed and covenantal faith is in place. History shows, however, how nearly impossible this task is, since there are deeply embedded values that may take years of strong teaching and modeling to change. It could be argued that it may be easier to start with nothing than insert your core values into an already well-established church with moralistic, legalistic and non-grace based approach to life of faith. We see in the United States that it is sometimes easier to start a new church than to resurrect a declining or dying one, because of the strong DNA present. This is also true of denominations, at home and abroad. For this reason, one may ask, is it really fair to ask a missionary to come into this situation and to bring a group of churches or a denomination to walk in line with Reformed and covenantal values without having firsthand experience in that culture through pastoring a congregation? If the missionary is not actually in ministry in that culture, the only alternative is to explain what a vibrant, grace-based Reformed and covenantal faith looks like in theoretical terms, which is not very different than what professors do in seminary! I believe a far more effective way is explained in point three above where nationals can receive practical hands-on experience from a missionary working in an actual church situation.
5. This shift in the role of the missionary needs to be carefully considered for it has serious long-term consequences on a missionary’s development. The “ideal” MTW missionary speaks the language well, understands how to relate to nationals, understands their culture, and demonstrates the relevance of the gospel to every aspect of life. But if his assignment is to look for nationals that are able to lead and to facilitate them, then he will likely have little opportunity to preach, to lead Bible lessons, witness and counsel nationals in their language, examine the culture for relevant ways the gospel applies to life, etc. To the extent that he has not learned the language and entered into the culture in a deep way, he will be less prepared to determine the ability of a national to lead, to train him to be gospel-centered, and to have a vibrant Reformed faith. The temptation will be to lower expectations because of the limits of the situation and then to prematurely determine that the task is done rather than taking a long hard look to see where the church is in its growth as a vibrant Reformed faith community. And who will be qualified to accurately evaluate if no one is deeply immersed in that language and culture? Surely we do not want to raise up a generation of missionaries who as consultants must rely on translators and who because of limited experiences lack insight into the culture to act with wisdom.
6. We should encourage our missionaries to become students of their adopted culture for as outsiders they have great potential to bless that society. While aware that as Dr. Kooistra writes, “Culture is so much a part of who we are and what we think that, like language, those who develop within its bounds will better understand its nuances,” this must not lessen the missionary’s zeal to enter into the adopted culture and study it continually, confident that they have a valuable contribution to make. They can become aware of patterns, values, and ways of thinking of which the nationals are unaware. This can be an invaluable asset to the nationals when the missionary knows the language and culture well enough to do this. Just as most of us have had “foreigners” open our eyes to aspects of our own culture of which we were unaware, so too missionaries can help their brethren in their adopted culture.
7. We live in an age of short-term commitment and success measured in quick results. There is a problem however with this mindset when it comes to church movements. The reality is that there is a need for a long-term perspective on church movement involving three generations spanning over at least 20-50 years. The first generation can bring hundreds into the Kingdom of God; in the second generation Christians can rise and make their influence known. It is not until the third generation that one really begins to see the full harvest of a multiplication movement. (See Tim Keller: Changing New York, and Richard Lovelace, Spiritual Dynamics). For this reason a long-term commitment needs to be promoted in order to see the Spirit bring about a movement and to significantly impact a society or region. MTW must use every possible means to encourage this longer commitment so that the missionary can be an increasingly effective instrument of God to bring about a church planting movement in his country of service.
8. There is an innate danger in praying for and working towards church planting movements. The danger is in the tendency to overlook the small victories and not celebrate individual conversions and small victories won along the way because too much focus is on the end result of a larger movement. The angels are rejoicing in heaven over one lost sheep and so should we, even though there are still billions to be reached through movements. We do not hear these individual stories as much as we used to, but we do hear much about opportunities to work with organizations throughout the world!
9. In defining the role of the Holy Spirit in church planting movements it would be helpful to carefully spell out what tool the Holy Spirit uses to enhance church planting movements. Dr. Kooistra’s definition is: “A church planting movement is a God-glorifying, God-centered work of His grace whereby the Holy Spirit energizes indigenous leaders to plant a cluster of churches with a common vision and purpose to reproduce themselves, often by means of evangelizing and discipling a specific region or people group.” What is the central tool the Holy Spirit uses to bring about this movement? This answer is addressed in Allan Thompson’s definition. The movement hinges upon a transforming power: “A church planting movement is a Spirit-directed activity which naturally builds, renews and expands the body of Christ in a given city/region through the recovery and application of the Gospel. A movement produces new believers, church leaders and churches that result in the spiritual, social and cultural change of the city and surrounding region” (underlining mine). If it is the recovery and application of the gospel that keeps our focus God-glorifying and God-centered, that it is His work of grace, and it is what the Holy Spirit uses to energize leaders to plant churches through evangelism and discipleship, then it would need to be included in the previous definition as well instead of it being assumed.
10. This final topic really needs to be addressed separately since it is more a suggestion on how we can be involved in church planting movements than a comment on Dr. Kooistra’s article. I will try to explain my suggestion briefly. MTW has the great opportunity to influence church planting movements on all of its fields, including mission agencies and churches both inside and outside the Reformed and covenantal communities. Every one of our fields has the task of reaching its region/country, a task far beyond their own MTW field’s capacity. And yet there is a broadly evangelical community in most fields with which we can join forces through our involvement in leadership and training.
As Redeemer PCA seeks to reach all of New York City through creating a vision, directing and training other evangelical churches, they are making strides toward reaching the whole city in a way they could not by themselves. Japan’s Church Planting Institute (CPI) is likewise trying to reach all of Japan through the joint networking of many missions and denominations. Under the leadership of PCA minister and RTS professor Steve Childers, missionaries from every denomination are affected personally through the recovery and application of gospel truths in their lives, and through church planting methods taught at CPI. Participants are thrilled to receive this training, even though it is strongly Reformed and gospel-centered! I am amazed at the nearly 1000 individual missionaries and nationals over the past 12 years who have had the opportunity to hear and be changed through a God-glorifying and God-centered approach to church movement in Japan because of CPI, and I am excited about the potential that MTW has through this same opportunity in every one of its fields!
Steve Childers’ efforts are being multiplied beyond the United States and Japan, in Korea and Ghana (Senegal, India and other countries are in the planning stages) through his broader ministry Global Church Advancement (GCA). GCA teaches that there are four strategic steps for developing movements: one, developing church planting networks; two, building church planting alliances which are networks of diverse people groups in a region to resource and support one another toward the common vision; three, birthing church planting movements through the recovery and application of the gospel; four, working hard toward the goal of establishing healthy and growing church planting networks and alliances and praying hard for the desire that through our networks and alliances God will birth true church planting movements.
MTW’s mission purpose statement says (in part): “As the Holy Spirit leads we will also take opportunities to impact others from our Reformed and covenantal perspective.” Through Global Church Advancement, MTW has a golden opportunity to work towards this goal. Each one of our MTW mission fields can tap into the resources of Global Church Advancement and thus participate in the wider expansion of the gospel throughout the world.
Author’s Disclaimer: I am missionary to Japan and with Spiritual Life Department. In this article I am writing as an individual missionary and not representing MTW as a whole or the MTW Spiritual Life Department.