The following is an excerpt of Chapter One of Planting a Church: Critical Questions, Essential Stages, Important Decisions by church planter H. Stanley Wood, PhD, DMin. Chapter One discusses in detail the Vision stage for church planting. For more info or to purchase the book in its entirety, visit sowersfield.com/book-resources. This is Part One of Three.

Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint
[are discouraged]…
Proverbs 29: 18a1

Stage One is about the vision for starting a new church. There are two aspects to the vision for planting a new church. One aspect is gaining an understanding of our God as a missionary God, a God whose love and reach extends to the world with peace and grace. The second aspect of the vision is gaining and expressing consonance with a particular context in which the church plant will exist. This does not mean that there are two visions, or that these two aspects are separate. These are two aspects of a single vision—blended and interdependent. We will consider these in more detail below.

The Incarnation marks God’s self-disclosure in the person and work of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. God’s mission unfolds through the church. Both in the words of Jesus as well as in the actions and words of those who carried the message of the Gospel after the Ascension, it is clear that new communities of faith were founded on the cornerstone of the Church, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:20). This pattern of receiving the Gospel and reaching out to a fallen world is as real in the 21st century as it was in the 1st. The Church is God’s idea for evangelization. By patterning our lives after the ways of Jesus we uncover a prophetic vision of God’s missionary nature.2

The formation of new communities of faith is rooted in the very nature of the triune God who sent Jesus into the world (John 17:18). This “sending” is to be repeated countless times to human communities and throughout time. The vision for church planting is theologically rooted in the personality of God’s calling and sending His Son and His disciples to be witnesses to the power and redemption of Jesus Christ. As the Father sent Jesus, Jesus also sent the first disciples to “be witnesses” to “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Just prior to His ascension, Jesus commissions the new community of faith He has called together. They are to go and “make disciples,” to be “witnesses” in “all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8). In other words, they are “sent.” God’s vision is made manifest in witnessing, in sharing the grace and claims of the Gospel with all the nations of the earth. God’s plan is that disciples will make other disciples and that, in this way, all the world will hear the message of salvation.

It is easy, in our postmodern Western paradigm, to believe that perhaps the vision of Jesus was simply that individual believers would multiply into other individual believers. Nothing could be further from the truth. When Jesus asks Peter the great question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s reply prompts Jesus to promise Peter that it is on his faith that the Church of Jesus will be built. The idea is not that there will be itinerant believers functioning as solo practitioners in the world. Individuals carry the Gospel message to draw others not into a set of individualized convictions, but into the vibrant and dynamic life of the Church of Jesus. Jesus plans for His Church, His body that will go forth into all the world.

Hence, the vision for planting a church is not something that a person or a group of people simply dream up. The vision for church planting is the single most normal call within the life of the believer. Church planting is mission-shaped intrinsically, by the very personality of God.3 God calls and sends His Church and individuals in it to new, emerging, and particular cultural contexts rooted in time and place. The richest and most exciting church planting contexts are those that reach out to the lost, the least, and the “discouraged;” that is, to the kind of people Jesus sought out—the “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). The formation of new communities of faith are called and sent to be faithful witnesses to God’s reign in Christ. Effective church plants do not exist as testimony to the talent and time of a single person or of an effective group. Church plants are the very signposts of God’s Kingdom come to earth.

Church Planting in the U.S.

The vision for church planting emanates from God. However, the plant itself must be built to live with a particular people in a specific time and place. Vision, then, is shaped and informed by cultural contexts. If this is true, then what does it mean to plant a “church” in a particular culture? What is the experience and meaning of “church” in the context of the people who may enter it? In the U.S., for the first time in our history, the idea and expression of “church” is in crisis.4

For the last few decades, the proportion of the U.S. population attending church is shrinking while the overall population is growing. This means that for many people living in the U.S., the memory and experience of “church” is losing ground rapidly. Fewer and fewer members of the population have experienced formal religious training; fewer still embrace or proclaim the tenets of Christian faith. This is no more evident than in the fragmenting and shrinking of the “mainline denominations,” those large, nationally prominent church bodies that, years ago, contributed to a “religious” U.S.: a nation with a Christian character.

In our day, the loss and decline of these denominations is staggering; even the booming evangelical gatherings cannot outpace the death of these denominations. The inescapable truth is that combination of attendance at churches already established (mainline, evangelical, and Roman Catholic) as well as at new church plants is not keeping up with population growth.

Hence, Christians are becoming more and more marginalized within the culture of the U.S. Should this loss, as staggering and sad as it is, be our motivation to plant churches? The answer, paradoxically, is yes and no. As U.S. Christians, we should feel the loss of the Church in our midst and act to keep the Church alive around us. (However, attempting to keep church attendance proportionate with population growth for the sake of numbers alone is not a strong or compelling theological reason to plant churches.) Nonetheless, the U.S. church, as it has existed for over two centuries, is shrinking. It is dying. This provides church planters with a ripe mission field, with more unbelievers and disenfranchised believers and discouraged non-believers than at any time in our history. For those with the call and vision, this is an exciting moment in history to plant churches, particularly in the U.S.

Historically, another important facet of the Western church context is the collapse of “Christendom;” that is, the special arrangement between the church and state which started centuries ago when Constantine, a Roman emperor, legalized Christianity throughout the known world.5 With the rise of Constantine, the third major persecution of the Church in as many centuries ended, and the Church gained recognition and stature in public life.

The ability of the Church to stand in a special and legitimized role within society created a sort of “Christian society” in which, hypothetically at least, public discourse and decision were enacted within the view and purview of the Church. Many older Americans alive today remember that sense of living in the U.S. when the nation was considered a “Christian country.” However, the idea or memory of the U.S. as a “Christian country” is in sharp decline. Since 1950, the collapse of Christendom is evident, particularly seen in the Western and Northeastern areas of the U.S., and more subtly observed in the “Bible Belt” of the Deep South.

The collapse of Christendom has meant that the relevance of the church within society at-large and the influence of church leaders are no longer undergirding or challenging conversations in the public square. Modern media outlets now routinely air inaccurate or pejorative views of Christians and clergy. The Christian church now is “dis-established” as an acceptable moral mediator or resource of wisdom on social and ethical questions. Christianity is no longer a Christendom-based “national religion” in U.S. culture. The U.S. is now described as postmodern, pluralistic, hedonistic, secular, and openly pagan. This “loss” of Christianity as yeast leavening our public lives is staggering and unprecedented.

Human beings, however, are spiritual beings. We can no more ignore our spiritual nature than we can ignore the nature of gravity and its impact on our planet. Spirituality, within the human experience, is a given. This means that even though the U.S. is not a “religious” country, it is a very “spiritual” one.
The search for meaning beyond ourselves and our lives is a robust business. One only has to check on the spirituality book selections at Barnes and Noble to find that the thirst for the transcendent is not quenched. There are many books on New Age beliefs and practices, many on finding one’s own meaning in life, many on experiences of life after death.

As for books that might ground one in the orthodox faith of the Christian tradition, the commercial publishing pickings are sparse. There are books that focus on prosperity and Christianity, high self-esteem and Christianity, or a simplistic equation of salvation. This focus on “feeling good” as central to the experience of the church has affected preaching and teaching, leaving pulpits as places where either personal happiness or social justice advocacy are the topics under consideration. This is called “Gospel reductionism.” Gospel reductionism leads to “Mission reductionism.” Around the rest of the world, the U.S. church is known for a focus on individualistic “spirituality” and for providing “services” for consumer congregations.

Taken together, this sad picture presents a more urgent need for church planting as a means to recover an apostolic understanding of New Testament mission. New communities of faith need to emerge and re-imagine “church” as something different than as a provider of consumer goods for the religious. The in-breaking and transforming love of Christ is still sounded and felt in the marginalized church where big dreams are dreamed and big plans are made. The Church needs to re-awaken to its intrinsic missionary DNA. How “church” is created and experienced does not need to be bound by the Christendom formulas and programs that made the church culturally entrenched half a century ago. New forms of witness and evangelization are in order, are needed. In some ways, the “church” must travel backwards in time. The church must re-discover its earliest roots in order to meet the challenges of postmodernity. In many different ways and forms the Gospel of John comes alive when it describes the way of Jesus that transcends time and place: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). 6

Endnotes

  1. This book is for church planting that is focused on forming new disciples of Christ. Proverbs 29: 18 was chosen as a text for Stage One because it contains a word of wisdom for spiritual families/ churches. Proverbs 29: 18a is part of the scriptural context of vv. 15-18 which describes how parents should rear and mentor their children. Verse 17 is about the upheaval of a child who is out of control and without discipline. Verse 18 is about the role of prophetic vision and it states that a person is blessed who pays attention to God’s Torah or law, which gives Scriptural direction. Judaism established the family unit as the primary place of spiritual formation. The Passover was not celebrated at a synagogue but at a family gathering. Fast forward to today, most churches consider their Sunday School—Christian education program as a primary place for spiritual formation. The family of God/church today needs a “prophetic vision” from the Lord.
  2. For an excellent missiological argument of God’s missionary nature see Darrell L. Guder’s, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, Eerdmans, 2000, chapters 1-3.
  3. I use the phrase “mission-shaped.” I am not using the word “missional” intentionally, since recently this word has become a cliche and so for many it has lost its original meaning. The word missional was introduced in 1991 with the seminal book on missional church that created the word: see Missional Church published by Eerdmans. In this book missiologists argue that Christendom is dying, they explore the contextual changes of the North American context and posit that the church needs to recover it’s core mission, a calling to be missional. They argue that mission is not just some program of the church or sending someone across “salt water” with the Gospel. Mission is God’s action in history and preeminently found in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, not in a church program or individual missionaries. Missional or mission-shaped ministry, as I say in this book, is informed by the rediscovery of mission viewed from the nature or attributes of God, who is missionary.
  4. See David T. Olson, The American Church Crisis, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. I am using Olson’s language when I speak of the “crisis.” He offers well-researched insights into the shrinking proportion of the U.S. population that is churched. From the 1990s to 2008 the U.S. population grew by appropriately 56 million and during this same period the church (Catholic, mainline Protestant and Evangelical) grew by only a half-million.
  5. The Edict of Milan signed in 313 by the Roman Emperor Constantine brought fair treatment to Christians and in particular the restoration of property rights to those who had lost their homes. Their homes had been seized when the church met there. In brief, Christians in the Roman Empire went from a persecuted and counter-cultural minority group to overnight status as favored persons. Within a century of this new status Christianity increasing was wedded to an institutional partnership with the state and society. The legacy of Christendom led to the amalgamation of state purposes and church purposes. Eventually, and in diverse ways, this amalgamation led to Gospel compromise. Much of the robust apostolic witness of the first three centuries that followed the inauguration of the church was obscured by power and prestige.
  6. The Message Translation, NavPress, 2005. All right reserved and used by permission.