Church Planting Lessons: Gospel-Centered Churches?

This is the fifth 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, three and four.  I’ve added a photo or painting from Bronzeville in each of these posts.

There is a phrase I’ve noticed in the few years I’ve been immersed in the church planting world, a label used to describe the need for new churches.  Gospel-centered churches – or some variation – is language meant to describe a need, as in, “There are no gospel-centered churches in that neighborhood.”  I’ve been to enough church-planting related events to notice how often this language is used as a rallying cry to start new congregations.

"Storefront" Baptist church during services on Easter morning. Russell Lee, April 1941

By identifying a church plant as gospel-centered, the church planter (denomination, church-planting network) is differentiating between this new church and the churches that  already exist in the targeted neighborhood, suburb, or – for the truly ambitious – city.  Inherent to this phrase is the belief that many or all of the churches in the targeted area are not gospel-centered.

I’m learning just how reckless this claim really is.

Planting a gospel-centered church means caring deeply about the Gospel.  No problem so far.  The confusion comes in defining the Gospel and in understanding how other, existing churches are faithful to the Gospel.  In my multi-ethnic, urban context the possibilities for misunderstanding are endless. Those church planters, like myself, who are white, male and often not from the area where they are planting are subject to certain blind spots that hinder the ability to discern whether theirs will truly be the only gospel-centered church in town.

Theological difference is the most obvious possibility for missing existing gospel-centered churches in a given neighborhood.  Those church planters who are wedded to an understanding of the Gospel that comes from a specific church tradition (usually a historically European or white American denomination) will often struggle when interacting with those who don’t share their theological history or jargon.

Less apparent to many of us is the massive impact of culture on how Christians talk about the essentials of our faith.  Those of us from the majority culture tend to view our culture and our theology as neutral.  The way we talk, think and articulate our beliefs aren’t culturally bound (so we think or, at least, behave).  When it comes to those from other cultures we also downplay the significance of culture.  I’ve watched this play out more than once with white, male church planters who desire to start gospel-centered churches.  Their sincere conviction is that they have the culturally neutral, theologically correct version of the Gospel that should be embraced by those with different theologies.   Unnoticed is how they (and I) have translated theology through cultural lenses.

A final reason misunderstanding takes place is the nature of the questions being asked by different churches.  For example, historically the questions asked of the Bible and answered with theology by White and Black American Christians have often been different.  It’s not hard to imagine why this is the case.  African-Americans with a history of experienced oppression and broken promises have a view of the cross and empty tomb that will elude most of us with a privileged existence.  Claiming the need for more gospel-centered churches is a claim about having the right theological answers to the right theological questions.

There are certainly churches that have little or no interest in proclaiming and embodying the Gospel of Jesus.  I have no doubt about this.  However, when we make claims as church planters about the need for our gospel-centered church we are surely saying much more than we mean.

Does acknowledging that there are more gospel-centered churches than we first imagined arrest church planting urgency?  I don’t think so.  We plant churches not because God needs us to (because of a lack of gospel-centered churches or any other reason), but because God calls us to.  And when we answer this call with the expectation that the Gospel of Jesus is already at work, whether we can initially see it or not, we are best positioned to move forward with the humility befitting our task.

Author: David Swanson

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

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