Church Planting Lessons: Being Church

This is the fourth in a series of posts about what I’ve learned about multi-ethnic church planting as New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville enters its second year.  You may be interested in parts one , two, and three.  I’ve added a photo or painting from Bronzeville in each of these posts.

Why start a new church?  The church planting literature answers this question in many different ways, but there are two that often rise to the surface.  These two are also the reasons people often are interested in participating in the very hard work of starting a new church.  These two rationales could be called justice and evangelism.

"Bronzeville by Night" by Archibald Motley

Justice, in this context, has to do with addressing the needs of certain locations (neighborhoods, cities, etc) or peoples while evangelism is concerned with reaching individuals with the Gospel.  Church planting advocates often discuss these two needs as the primary motivations to start a new church.  I don’t disagree with these two needs and how important it is for both justice and evangelism to be present within any church.  But I’m learning that there is a more important motivating factor behind church planting, and it’s one that can be hard to get our hands around.  I’ll call this motivation and challenge being church.

Being church as a motivation for church planting is less about what we do than who we are.  As the Body of Christ the gathered and scattered people of God are the presence of Christ to our neighbors.  As a holy temple we are the visible if imperfect expression of God’s coming kingdom.  As reconciled people, citizens now rather than foreigners and strangers, we have an identity together that transcends nationality, ethnicity, and personal preference.  In other words, Christians start new churches as an expression of what is most true for us.  The Apostle Paul’s constant call to faithfulness as the people of God in the world is a reminder that church is first about who we are.

Justice and evangelism, are some of the attributes of the church but shouldn’t be confused as the primary motivations for starting a new church. (Someone please disagree with me here if I’m missing something.)

Being church may seem easier than the more active-sounding justice and evangelism but is actually far more challenging.  As I’m learning, these challenges are related to two American instincts: individualism and activism.  Calling people to be church is at odds with a culture that promotes personal freedom and preference as life’s primary goals.  Though it may not be the experience of many, belonging to church means moving to a different way of viewing and interacting with the world, one formed by a Jesus-centered community in which individuals find purpose and meaning.  We Americans also see ourselves as active agents within our world.  While there is certainly activity within a church community, that movement flows from who we are.  This means that much Christian activity – confession and forgiveness for example – may appear rather mundane and stagnant by cultural standards.

Justice and evangelism are easier church planting motivations because they can be done without having to be the church.  We can engage in these significant and loving activities without ever having found our new identity within Christ’s new family.

A church-planting mentor once told me that one of my primary jobs as the pastor of our young church was to facilitate friendships and community.  I now understand this advice within the larger context of learning how to be church together.  It’s one of the most difficult and invigorating parts of church planting and one that we’ll be growing into for a long, long time.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

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