Each Sunday morning, as I drive to one or more of our campuses, I see multiple freshly-printed signs of varying creativity and style announcing a new church plant meeting at such-and-such a school. Whenever I’m in another city, I see the same thing. It was the case when I was in Charlotte and it is the case across South Florida. As frequently as I see a new restaurant starting up, I see a new church plant starting up and sadly, from my observations — they both have about the same chances of making it (which isn’t a real good shot.)
Having been in fundagelical circles my entire life (and I’m still only 47, for at least a few more weeks), I’ve seen trends in church growth come and go. I won’t bore you with the various fads, movements, campaigns, conferences, strategies and so on, I’ve seen — but they are myriad and multiple. I’d also like to state for the record — I am PRO church planting. I’ve helped start churches, I grew up in a church that was planted by my parents who were lay people, as a pastor — I’ve lead our church to plant daughter congregations. I only have respect and admiration for those called into church planting. I am neither spiritual enough or man enough to do it myself. What follows is not a criticism of church planting as a mission inspiteof what may be viewed as some cynicism on my part. I’m excited to see a new church gain its footing and break loose.
One last caveat — the kinds of churches I’m discussing here are those that would, for lack of a better term, be best described as “emergent”. Specifically designed for “unchurched” folks who think and behave like postmodernist folks and are largely younger than 35 or so. They have an “anti-traditional” air about them and they often speak openly of “doing church” differently than what others may have experience previously in a church. They often have “one-word names” like “Relevant, Elevation, Revolution, Engaged, Mosaic, etc…”. They are independent for the most part and even if they are denominationally-supported, they tend to hide that fact if at all possible. Their pastors are hip, have kewl glasses, wear jeans and graphic T’s, love hair gel and tattoos, are prone to vocabulary that would make their mothers cringe, are extremely passionate about the lost, are often disdainful of politics — particularly the conservative/Christian/Republican variety –, have a copy of “Velvet Elvis” right next to the Bible and love edgy music of any kind. Their pastors have often grown up evangelical, have been wounded by legalism, hate racism, love people, have been considered liberal by some uptight fundamentalist type at some point in their lives, find relational evangelism important, are very engaged in the local community, want to be friends with unbelievers and desperately want to make a difference in the Kingdom of God. Oh….and they generally like Starbucks.
With that said, I have some questions of church planters. Some of them are intended to provoke thought, some are intended to poke at the caricatures we tend to become, some are intended to open dialogue and others are simply born of my own curiosity which is almost always seasoned liberally with a certain amount of skepticism. Please don’t misinterpret this as an “attack” on new churches, young pastors, the Church Growth Movement (well, maybe I DO intend to challenge the CGM a bit) or that this in any way indicates any hostility, envy or Pharisaical arrogance on my part toward new church plants. I’m just doing my usual — asking the importunate questions that are rolling around my brain at this moment in time.
So…here we go….
1. Is your desire to plant a “new kind” of church born of passion for the lost, frustration (maybe even bitterness) with the church of your parents/grandparents or a combination of both?
I ask this question because I seem to detect something that often borders on anger when one discusses the history of the church. To some like me, it sometimes feels like they are declaring to the Bridegroom (Jesus) that He has a really fat, ugly, lazy Fiancee (the church) and that they want to offer Him Rachel, not Leah. Am I off-base here? Is this a rebellious stage in your ministry? Was your parent’s church really all that awful? Is rebellion and anger a good reason to start a church? What message would you like to see received by the “traditional church” that they just don’t seem to get?
2. Is it possible that you are becoming as much a caricature of your generation as the caricature that irritates you in the generation before you?
We know the jokes. Yesterday’s pastor and deacon and elder were cut of the mold that carried huge Bibles, wore bad combovers or even worse, pompadours (like they do on the Trinity Network), prayed in the King James style of intonation, loved polyester suits — particularly dark and double-breasted or with a vest, had 2 colors of wing-tip shoes and was married to a wife with “big hair”.
But….in wanting to put major distance between you and them (and who would blame you), you have chosen to use gel to an excess, refuse to tuck in a shirt under any condition, use the terms “Dude” and “sick” WAY too much, seem oddly proud of yourself that you have done a funeral in blue jeans because you don’t own a suit, have a soul patch or a goatee or that 5-day stubble thing going on and probably own some glasses like that Danny Gokey guy on American Idol.
So…really, aren’t you becoming just the newest incarnation of someone your kids will mock sometime around 2030 or so? Is that really what makes us different? Have you created a slightly newer version of the Christian sub-culture look that is still “mock-worthy” by the guy that wouldn’t be caught dead in any kind of church? Is there more to your rejection of the pastoral suit and tie than we realize? If so, what?
3. Do you think that doctrine really doesn’t matter?
Depending on whom one reads from month to month, we are frequently told that doctrine divides (and that is bad), that it is transient (can mean something different from one generation to another), is not essential and that it should be de-emphasized? Is it impossible to teach doctrine without being as boring as a crusty old seminary professor? Do you think that some tenants of doctrine (I’m not talking preferences, standards or traditions here) are essential for genuine and authentic faith? If so, what are those and how do you systematically teach and train people in those doctrines?
4. Are denominational labels totally irrelevant?
I’m not convinced that you have to have your denominational tag on your name or on every sign. However, do you consider the doctrines/beliefs/philosophy/positions of, say…the Southern Baptists to be on the same footing as perhaps the “Disciples of Christ?” Why or why not? How do you train your members to note the differences without clearly teaching them the differences? Should potential differencs be important enough to explore them and maybe even teach about them? If not, why not? If so, when?
5. Are all traditions bad, are some good and how does one avoid traditions? More so, what constitutes a tradition?
There seems to be a significant “anti-tradition” element in the CGM and emergents. But the term “tradition” often seems to mean, “I like my traditions because they aren’t really traditions, but I really don’t like your traditions.” What is a tradition by your definition? Is baptism by immersion a tradition? Is using unleavened bread and unfermented grape juice a tradition? Is singing a hymn on occasion a tradition? Is taking an offering a tradition? What constitutes the difference between a good tradition and a bad tradition? Is using lighting effects a tradition? Is offering folks coffee as they enter a tradition? Is twittering questions for the pastor during a sermon a tradition? Are they better traditions or just different traditions or are they traditions at all?
6. Is a church that is multi-cultural, but not multi-generational better or worse than a white church or black church with several generations represented throughout? Should one be avoided?
There frequently seems to be a few token “gray heads” in some large emergent churches, but very few. It’s kind of like the token African-Americans one will find in many large traditional Southern churches. It kind of gives them a smug sense of “tolerance”….but let’s face it, some folks are “more equal than others” in those settings.
7. Is expositional and systematic preaching and teaching impossible to pull off in a non-traditional church?
It could be argued that dry Bible teaching without any practical application is a huge turn-off for desperate people with messed up lives who need answers and they need them now. But is there a gulf between a “Dr. Phil” style of “I’m going to change your life in 60 minutes or less” and a method of teaching/preaching that relies on exegesis, but also includes some practical applications that is impossible to bridge?
So….those are just a few of my questions. Now I’m going to duck and run for cover. But before I do, I’m not sure I’ve got all my questions out there on this yet. Maybe. Maybe not. I may post some more before we’re over. I’m looking forward to hearing from some of my favorite young pastors — many of whom grew up calling me “Pastor” — as they roll their eyes at me and unload their guns. That’s OK. I’m sure I’ll learn something. OH….and before you think I’m taking a singular swipe at emergents….beware! I’ve got a list of questions I’ll be posting for those who think that 3 Hymns, a Wurlitzer Organ, ushers that look like funeral directors and an invitation that includes 27 verses of “Just as I am” constitutes “real” church. So, watch out….
More later and thanks as always for letting me ruminate outloud.