Church Planting Assumptions of the Neo-Reformed: Some Observations for Testing

I posted yesterday on the D. Min Church Planting Course I am teaching at Fuller this summer. As I said, I am particularly interested in how we are to go on church planting when the cultural conditions of Christendom can no longer be assumed. How do we in the words of Darrell Guder “call out communities to witness to the Kingdom of God” when there are less and less cultural conditions left that make such a ‘call’ intelligible (such as even the cultural conditions which made possible the apostle Paul preaching the gospel amidst the synagogues of Hellenistic diaspora). I am working on a manuscript on this very subject which, given the pace of my current project The End of Evangelicalism? most likely will appear in about 5 years from now :).  One of the things I try to lead this class towards is the uncovering of the cultural assumptions that underwrite the way we go about church planting. I hope to test my own observations more carefully and broadly with my students at this class.
For example, what are the cultural assumptions that undergird the Neo-Reformed urban church plants as modeled by Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan and the Acts 29 group out of Mars Hill in Seattle? We assume the Holy Spirit is at work in these churches and invigorating any work of God in Christ’s church. Yet God enters culture in Christ in order to become visible, he does not usurp or overwhelm culture, He enters culture (the principle of Incarnation). Cultural assumptions are important therefore. Indeed they give us indication whether any of these approaches to church-planting are indeed reproducible in post-Christendom or indeed are parasitic on the conditions of Christendom (not that there is anything wrong with that – the problem is that these Christendom conditions may either be exhausted or no longer exist to make possible other church-plantings in similar fashion).

In regard to the Neo Reformed urban church plants, I offer the following observations/questions for testing (in the class and on this blog):

1.) ARE THESE MODELS ATTRACTIONAL AND DEPENDENT UPON CHRISTENDOM? Therefore they are not reproducible in a post-Christendom context?  Both Mars Hill and Redeemer Presbyterian are attractional models which rely on people seeing the church as a desirable place to come and find God. In both of their church planting manuals and their books they regularly say things to indicate that the strategy is to get people to come to their gathering of some sort whereby they will be engaged in a culturally relevant fashion. For example, in Tim Keller’s church planting guide he says “The preaching and worship was to assume the presence of non Christians even before we knew if any were there.” (p. 13). There are many more of these kinds of references in the first several pages of the manual which narrate the beginnings of Redeemer Presbyterian. Similarly, Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev, a blow by blow account of his journey to plant Mars Hill, is strewn with many references to drawing a large crowd and assuming that its goal is to be a large church (several thousand in attendance – see most famously pages 25-32). In both these cases then, attractional-based church is assumed to be capable for the bringing in of people outside of Christ. IS THIS BAD? NO. (I don’t want to bring up the attractional versus missional debate – it’s clear to me why this discussion is tired and getting no where). Neither does this deny the profound work of God in Christ through the Spirit going on in these churches. The question is, are these methods sustainable in decidedly post Christendom contexts? Some might argue pagans will always come to a large gathering to hear about Christ even in post Christendom. I think this is worth talking about.

Each of these two churches is driven by the attraction of a personality, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll. Large crowds gather to hear this one speaker. According to this account (by a man who admires Keller as much as anyone, just as I do) even Tim Keller is an attractional mega church rock star ?. Recently I heard (this is second hand) that of the several satellites of Redeemer Pres in Manhattan, they will not announce where Pastor Keller is actually speaking because this drives down attendance in the other venues. I may have some theological issues with personality driven churches. But this is not my point here at all. I am asking, given the dependence upon personality, whether these churches are reproducible (without the personalities).

3.) WHY THEN ARE THESE MODELS OF CHURCH SO SUCCESSFUL IN TWO OF THE MOST POST-CHRISTENDOM PLACES IN THE U.S.? I have a theory as to why these two churches became so successful in NY and Seattle at a time when there was such a dearth of churches in these places and the population was so decidedly post-Christendom. I can tell you first hand, after being in a church and exercising teaching leadership in a city church plant (which is now a mega church) during the nineties, there was an influx of people aged twenty five to thirty-five that flooded into the urban landscapes of this country in the nineties. Whereas their parents had all left in the sixties and seventies, these “young adults” came back to the city for culture and financial service sector jobs. They wanted to live in the city (I was one of the early ones). Yet there were no churches. In fact, the only churches that remained were heritage churches, ethnic community based European and Catholic churches. The few outposts of evangelicalism that remained were made up of white people driving into the city and then driving back to the suburbs (like Moody Memorial Church in Chicago). Out of this 100,000 and more migration into the cities of the youth, there were hundreds of younger evangelicals from the burbs, or churched people that wanted a place to go to church (and meet a spouse). Churches therefore that were started in these cities anywhere from 1989-1999 were in an opportune place to harvest this as a foundation for a ministry. These churches were ministering and reaching people in post Christendom urban centers, but they were built on the foundation of Christendom. These were outstanding works of God. The question is, based on the fact this migration of young urbans was a one time thing, and the two other things above, are they strategies that can ever work again?

What do you think?

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