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Approaches to Church Planting

by Patrick Oden  
12/13/2006 / Missions

The present push for church planting has a couple of different approaches. The first is the attractional model in which a form or structure is developed, emphasizing key leaders in the presentation, and serves as an oasis of sorts apart from the world for the purpose of drawing Christians together under a common bond of worship and sacred interaction. Primary spiritual development comes from participation in this setting and primary spiritual interaction comes by drawing more people to come to and discover the spiritual conversation that has been developed.

Essentially this is the classic model of church exemplified by a Cathedral. The changes are primarily cosmetic and liturgical, with a place like Willowcreek being essentially a modern version of this very old pattern the adjustments have everything to do with the attractant. A Catholic Church uses the authority of the Mass and the liturgy to draw in a person's participation. The Mass became such a theologically profound act that for centuries it drew people together to discover God in the wafer. Even for those not particularly theological astute or spiritually minded it has a very strong reverence and serves to unite communities. Willowcreek, rather than a Mass, uses the Evangelical liturgy of preaching and singing.

It is not a bit of wine and a wafer that unites, instead it is the gathering singing of various choruses, and the shared learning of the preacher's considered message. Whether or not the singing and the message have any practical impact through the week is a secondary consideration. A person participates with God by hearing the Preached message and by sharing the collected Songs one feels an insider when the songs are memorized and words on the screen aren't needed.

Both of these models emphasize the celebrant the priest in the Catholic liturgy who performs the Mass, and the preacher/pastor in the reformation model who delivers a message to the people, and by doing this guides them into re-connection with the divine. Thus, with these, the emphasis in building a new church is primarily on those who lead, and secondarily on those who gather. The assumption is that with the leader/celebrant in place people will be naturally drawn to the system as they are naturally drawn to God.

With this comes an unfortunate assumption. If they are not drawn to the established leadership structure, the problem is assumed to be their fault. The role of leadership is to develop a context where people can gather, to establish a leadership team who would guide this context into the fullest possible reach, and to emphasize the traditional actions of attraction such as preaching and formal worship in a controlled setting.

With a gifted preacher and with a dynamic team this can be an extremely effective model. It can be very inspirational and very undemanding, as the onus is primarily carried by the leadership, but so is the honor. This pattern re-emphasizes the clergy/lay divide, though in Evangelical circles it is not called such but instead called leader/follower.

The sign of success is the church building where the gathering can take place, the set services providing order, and a clear, organized hierarchical leadership structure. The work is primarily to follow an established ministry model with proven success, and to find people who fit into the roles this model emphasizes much as a company forms itself under a business model.

The value of this model is that it is very good at attracting people, hence the growth of megachurches around the country. The problem with this model is that it is very good at attracting people mostly from other churches. There is, people who study these things say, about 35% of the country who are drawn to this sort of model and who bounce around to various churches depending on the vibrancy of a particular congregation.

In short, this attractional model is very, very good at attracting the 35% of people who are attracted to this sort of model. This leave 65% of the population uninterested. But because 35% of the population is still a huge, huge number most people don't think of this problem as a problem, and press onwards not quite understanding why they are having trouble attracting people not understanding they are having trouble because the 35% of the community who would be attracted are already participating elsewhere. If the attractant such as preaching or music is not strong enough, there will be a continual struggle to get people, leading to situations where there are a lot of seminary people wanting to be an attractant but not a lot of attracting going on.

The second approach, the very much newer approach, is loosely called missional/incarnational. Essentially, this model arises from the realization that people are not responding to the expression of the message anymore as much as they are responding to the message itself. People don't think Christianity has much to say about important issues of life and so they feel little to no need in committing to it. Essentially they have been inoculated against the Gospel.

They have heard parts, or seen parts or assumed parts, and these parts have created a block in their soul. Such people are wise to the tricks of churches and are not at all interested in the surface level tricks that in the past have served to initialize communities into committing to the attractant. They've likely heard the basics of the Gospel message and determined it has no bearing on their deep needs and issues. Rather than assuming that the Gospel is something a person will want if they just hear about it, the contemporary church planter has to realize the American (and European) contexts have to become more like missionary situations where people have to be shown that the Gospel is in fact a power for life. Rather than having a set pattern and an assumption people, if their hearts are right, will respond to the structure, instead this model assumes that people will not respond to anything already in evidence within the community, i.e. a standard church.

With this the goal is not to set up an attractional, leader based model. Rather it is to be Spirit people within the contexts already established, participating in the same structures that gather the community and here blessing people according to their individual needs and realities. As they are blessed, as they see a group of people being a light, they are drawn to this light and participate with an increasing openness.

The pastor/leader of this approach is not setting up another context, but through Spiritual means and guidance, helps to guide a body of believers into maturity. Thus, there are different expressions through the week, and entirely flexible depending on the community itself and the people who the Spirit draws into the community. Essentially, this is a going out and meeting people where they are at, instead of expecting them to come where we are at. Obviously such a model requires a very strong grasp of the depths of the Faith and a fluidity of response, able to be constantly adjusted according to the context. It is an infusion of the Gospel within the community, first in practice, then in more specific words.

Michael Frost puts it this way: There are three places a person participates. Home, work, and a third place. Home is a closed place of security where the walls are up and isolation is valued. Work takes up a great deal of time but rarely delves into the particularities of a person because the mission is so specified. The third place is where people gather to be open to others and to let go of their walls. This could be a pub, or a club, or some other type of recreation activity.

The Church has been, traditionally, a 4th place. It either takes the place of the third place for Christians, thus pulling them out of their natural community, or insists a person add yet more duties to their life on top of the other things. The goal of the missional/incarnational model is to participate primarily within those third places', and letting the community of believers be shaped in participation with community.

Of course, there are moments of more purposeful times of prayer and worship and so on, but these are not the primary ways of reaching out to others, as in the attractional model. They are instead returned to their own goal of lifting hearts heavenward for renewal and rejuvenation, so as to recharge the people who serve God and infuse the Spirit within the broader community.

The former model relies on generalities, set systems, and established structures. The latter model is extremely reactive to the specific context, the specific people, and fluid in approach. The former model tends to be a top down establishment of Church, emphasizing leaders who deliver the message. The latter is a bottom up reflection of the gathered community, in which leadership serves in a functional rather than formational role.

Each person is a vital expression, with leadership giving guidance and teaching, but not mandating a certain order or approach or response. In the former the message is the primary purpose. In the latter, the person is the primary purpose, with the assumption being the Spirit is working already in their lives and so the goal is to tap into that work by participating in their lives.

Patrick Oden lives and works in the mountains of Southern California. Education web design pays the bills. Writing and enjoying the beauty of God's Creation fills his soul.

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