GUEST POST: Josh Blunt
I spent the better part of the last eleven years as a church planter in a small, protestant denomination known as the RCA. I was trained and vetted at the height of the attractional church model’s heyday, when pastors flocked to conferences at Saddleback and Willow Creek for inspiration and when Rob Bell’s fledgling ministry at Mars Hill just seemed quirky and innocuous. Those were days in which innovation was king and the postmodern landscape of the culture around us promised to flow with milk and honey if we could only crack the code and infiltrate it for Jesus.
It was also the dawn of my denomination’s foray into intentional church planting, a season in which young, idealistic, evangelical pastors emerging from seminaries were encouraged to bypass the quagmire of tradition, bureaucracy, and stasis inherent in existing churches. We were enjoined to boldly go where no RCA pastors had gone before, claiming a new share in the Harvest for an increasingly obscure yet historically evangelical family of believers.
The RCA has always been a mixed denomination, boasting of its ability to balance both mainline and evangelical elements in one household. Nevertheless, our denominational landscape at the time seemed divided into two camps:
1) traditional methodology + progressive theology = mainline protestantism
2) progressive methodology + traditional theology = evangelicalism
The assumption in church planting circles was that, at least in terms of denominational survival, equation #1 led to death and equation #2 was the path to life. In this sense, planters genuinely believed that we and our new churches were going to be the great hope for the next generation of RCA believers.
Many within our little tribe insisted that church planting could restore our dwindling numbers, and even revitalize existing congregations who would parent new, daughter congregations. This plan seemed explicitly biblical and patently apostolic to me then, and it still does now – healthy, biblical, new congregations and church networks DO reach new people and expand the Kingdom. When I started out as a planter, however, most of us assumed that this growth potential would be largely connected to the new congregations’ ability to more nimbly and rapidly deploy progressive, attractional church methodology. In other words, we would adapt to the emerging needs of unbelievers far more easily, having fewer sacred cows to kill along the way.
I can assure you that no one foisted this rationale on me explicitly or activistically. All the appropriate reverence and spiritual language one would expect in churchmanship were judiciously injected along the way. I heard no one openly advocating for a radical abandonment of the ordinary means of grace on which all believers have historically depended for sustenance (God’s Word, the sacraments, and prayer), nor did anyone imply that the true Church should no longer be marked by discipline, purity in proclamation, or right administration of the sacraments. Rather, an excessive optimism about progressive methodology and focus on attractional church accoutrements steadily overshadowed our faith in such means. This blind preference was instilled by the emphasis and tone of well-intentioned and hopeful people, not by any strategic rhetoric from jaded deconstructionists.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter how the idea got into my head or the heads of other planters of my era – what matters is how it affected us and the churches we planted, and how the Holy Spirit has challenged and exposed our assumptions along the way. What I have learned, and what Kevin has graciously invited me to convey through a short series of posts here, is that the future of ministry in historical denominations can’t be reduced to equation #1 OR #2 above. Whether a congregation is being freshly planted, or revitalized over time, I believe the math is something much more akin to this:
3) ordinary, historic methodology + orthodox, gospel-focused theology + patient, painstaking contextualization = sustainable fruitfulness
Over my next posts, I will offer some of the things I observed over the course of my decade-long church planting journey. I will explain the transformation my congregation and I underwent as our adherence to an attractional, progressive model of methodology inevitably worked against our traditional theology and tore irreparable rifts in the fabric of our fellowship. I will describe the attempts we made to change horses midstream and how they helped. I will also show how the previously lost and unchurched perceived each model, and how the pre-churched and re-churched among us did, as well. These dynamics tended to revolve around three key areas, each of which will be a focus in my remaining posts:
- Proclamation (Preaching of the Word, Worship, Evangelism)
- Life Together (Prayer, Discipleship, Sacraments)
- Unmentionables (Discipline, Conflict, Gender Roles, and Governance)