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GUEST POST: Josh Blunt

In the previous three posts, I have been privileged to share some reflections on the way my training as a postmodern, seeker-focused church planter gave way to a rediscovery of an ordinary means of grace model.  As my congregation and I navigated those years, the final nail in the coffin of our original attractional bias was way in which it crippled us from handling disharmony, unclarity, and misbehavior through explicit teaching and firm governance.

Church discipline, unresolved conflict, clarifying gender roles, and authoritative church governance all add up to one thing:  ANTI-attraction.  When your main purpose is to get people in the door, it would seem that the less said about these topics, the better.  The reality is that modern, American culture (especially mainstream religious culture) has a passionate aversion to authority, conflict, countercultural stances, and meddling in people’s private lives.  If your goal is uninterrupted church growth, then every battle for church purity is lost simply because it was begun.

As our paradigm shift exposed mixed agendas and expectations within our congregation, unmentionables erupted.  Many who had been attracted when church might become anything balked when it actually became that thing.  The organizational fission that ensued was a product of an unintentional bait-and-switch, perpetrated by our early adherence to attractional church-growth methodology.

In our attempt to attract a crowd, we had been most things to most people.  In transforming a crowd into a governable congregation, we had yanked the rug out from under some folks and drawn a line in the sand.  Those with denominationally-conditioned expectations about religious culture and interpersonal ethics were appalled.  They thought church was for nice people who make one another feel nice and who perennially focus on what is nice.  I don’t entirely blame them for their surprise and disappointment – our methods had enabled them in that misunderstanding in exchange for their presence.

We slogged through church discipline cases and attempted to clarify our position on human sexuality, marriage, divorce, and family.  We brought long-standing conflicts and incompatible models of communication out into the light of scripture and mutual accountability.  We articulated a complimentarian understanding of gender roles based on our reading of scripture and the pleas of recently converted women for their husbands’ training and edification.  We began the work of establishing clear lines of accountability and discipline among our leaders and staff.

The result of all this decidedly repellent activity was that our congregation was masterfully pruned by the Holy Spirit.  Those who had an axe to grind with authority and discipline voted with their feet.  Those who worshipped at the altar of niceness headed for more pleasant pastures.  Those who savored growth and size left, ironically, because they disliked people leaving.  In the end, we were numerically diminished, bedraggled, sobered, chastened, and publicly defamed.

We were also a far more mature, infinitely more compelling, more deeply united, and vastly more gospel-centered group of people.  We were convinced that the Church was Christ’s Bride not ours, that she existed for his good pleasure rather than ours, and that our congregation was only a temporal and fleeting manifestation of something far more eternal and perfected.  To put it another way, we were a true church.

Gaining that cost us almost everything.  As givers exited, costs of salaries and facilities became mutually exclusive.  Our remaining assets were transferred to a larger church with plans for a fresh restart in our newly constructed facility.  Staff members, including me, were released to look for new ministries.  The remnant who had matured so much was dispersed to bless and edify other congregations.  What wasn’t lost was the transformation we had experienced.  Faithful saints had weathered the storm and matured as they discipled converts.  New believers had been tested by fire and weathered the storm as emerging leaders.  Pastors had learned invaluable lessons and been humbled by God’s unsearchable sovereignty over the work of their hands.

I still believe in church planting.  I would simply advise planters to start with an ordinary means of grace model.  This requires the strong support of a healthy, likeminded mother congregation throughout a slower, more labor-intensive maturation process.  It takes an intentional commitment to abandon fads and gimmicks, to hold fast to the Bible in both content and methodology.  And it takes a willingness to do the painstaking work of patient contextualization, continually discerning the fine line between inspired innovations and unbiblical shortcuts.  Christ promises to build his Church; if he promises to do the work, why would we trust our methodology over his?  Why would we employ novelties of the last two decades instead of methods that succeeded for the last two millennia?  I suggest we make simple the new sexy, and ordinary the new extraordinary.


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23 thoughts on “From Metro to Retro – Part 4 of 4”

  1. Rose says:

    It is ironic, and sad, that so many of the “clarified gender roles” passages consist of advice to the early church not to unnecessarily offend the surrounding culture. Now those verses are being used specifically TO offend the surrounding culture. Somehow, adherence to this backward understanding has become a “means of grace.” Furthermore, the voice of the holy Spirit speaking through the nation of priests is shut down through “firm governance.” Authoritarian/”shepherding” practices that usurp God’s own authority for the comfort of those who find themselves in leadership positions will not result in the furtherance of the gospel or the building of the church. I think you are on the right track in wanting to do things God’s way, but I sense there is a lot of “lording over” Christ’s inheritance happening in what you think is God’s way. The inflammatory way you describe those who “have an axe to grind with authority” gives you away. The model you are describing is not so much Word/Sacrament/Prayer centered as pastor-centered. You pass it off as being Word-centered, but that only works by redefining the Preacher as being the Word. Those who want to hear more from the pastor are described as wanting more of the Word. Well, maybe, if he really is preaching the Word. But how much of what is said from the pulpit involves the pastor’s own experiences and thoughts? It doesn’t take forty-five minutes to read through an entire epistle, perhaps because the apostles addressed their letters to those who already knew the one who had indwelt them, not to a class of sheep some level beneath them. Please think/pray about it.

  2. Priscilla Lohrmann says:

    Wow. Thank you for sharing your story. You have articulated so well the muddy waters of 21st century church….
    I felt really sad to hear that your church dispersed…but it sounds like people’s lives were changed and God was glorified. Thanks for reminding us how powerful – and sometimes costly – are the ordinary means of grace.

  3. Mark LaChonce says:

    Thank you for your insights, Josh. It’s sad that things didn’t work out in the end, but the story isn’t over yet, and God definitely did a work in you and in others through this. I’d have to say that God has brought me along on a similar journey of learning to focus on the God-given means of grace for Christian growth.

    I am also frightened by our generation’s (and maybe even more so after us) total repulsion at any idea of authority or accountability. If we don’t learn how to accept correction from others, we are in big trouble.

    I have to admit though, when I first saw that picture I thought it was some kind of toucan gripping a branch with its beak.

  4. DRT says:

    Josh, thank you for documenting and sharing this with everyone. I was involved in a similar church for 8 years where I was a trustee, speaker, managed the web site, head teller, head of finance, etc etc. In the end the church kicked me out and I would like to share a couple of points about my experience. BTW, I am going to write a longer post on my blog about the parallels I see here while referencing your post.

    I was either part of your B or c group, I was raised Catholic, was a seeker and basically buddhist for 20 years, and came back to the faith through participation in this church.

    The problem I had with the church, is that the pastor and members of the A group (religious people from their denomination) would say to me in private that we would start to form less shallow ministries once we built our building but we need to wait until then. But once we built the building they quickly set their sites on another building instead of trying to help the poor, or have more in depth theology for those of us who wanted some meat.

    I had become annoyed at the lack of direction in the church, so I wrote a 16 page church strategy draft that I gave out to about 10 of the leaders and offered that we could work on that document to develop our approach and get everyone on the same page.

    What happened was something I never would have anticipated. The A group and the Pastor suddenly realized that the token formerly unchurched guy was trying to actually influence the direction of the church and they did not like that one little bit. The accused me of trying to “take over the church” (which I have since found is something that happens, but that was the furthest thing from my mind at the time), and they immediately tried to shun and shame me for thinking that I actually could know something.

    As it turns out, those folks lied to me and all the other B and C groupers since they hid that they actually had a charter and covenants for the church as well as the fact that they were legally part of this larger church. They always told us we were independent, but we were not!

    When I started to talk to other people in the congregation they got a no trespassing order against me and that is where we have stood since, about 3 years.

    But they have taken the approach that “theology is bad and we cannot teach that” as opposed to your approach to bring it in, which is what I was trying to do.

    I will comment again since this is getting too long.

  5. DRT says:

    But there are major differences between what I was advocating and what it seems you ended up doing.

    First, I am not reformed. I was and still am a big fan of NT Wright and would have liked for us to adopt the approach that we would teach the controversies instead of taking sides on it. I felt the best approach would be for the church to remain someone theology neutral by teaching each of the approaches while not advocating a single theology. That was the understanding that I spoke about with the pastor and he agreed to do with me in private. But he was simply lying.

    Second, I can understand why everyone would leave if what you put on them was a reformed approach. I would have left too since reformed theology is hardly compatible with a group of people who have grown accustomed to lax teaching. That would have seemed like a huge bait and switch to me and would have left immediately too.

    Last, I believe that there can be this middle ground that I advocated. That a seeker sensitive church and open environment can teach different theologies and allow people to invest themselves in those theologies while maintaining a more open common environment, similar to C.S. Lewis And Mere Christianity. Infant or believer baptism is not critical. Teaching gener heiarchy would be a definite show stopper for me an apparently others in your congregation, but you don’t have to teach that except in those classes that are for those who want to follow a reformed tradition.

    The biggest issue would likely be around having women preach and teach in the church, and I would simply advocate for allowing that too.

    So, I can see why everyone left, I would too if you suddenly embraced a reformed approach. I would consider that to be a pretty agregious thing for you to do.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  6. Robert W. Fretz says:

    Dear Josh;
    Where to begin? Young pastors (yes, I clearly remember those years) are motivated by many things. We were motivated by our call… and many – myself included – viewed the membership numbers as affirmation of our preaching, leadership, and sometimes our faith itself. This was a destructive attitude for both the ministers and the congregations. And indeed, congregations in the Eastern Synods faltered, and almost all experienced numerical decline in the 1970’s and 80’s. Some ministers left because of their “failure.”

    There were numerous reasons for this culling, some were political and cultural, but to my knowledge it was never because a minister or congregation ignored the doctrines of faith and practice. In 1978 Win Arn advised the leadership of the Reformed Church in America not to invest any time, energy, or money in the New York – New Jersey Metropolitan region because it was “over-churched and too heterogeneous” for effective Church Growth models. While the rest of the RCA received the attention and money from the denomination, the Eastern Churches have been left to fend for themselves ever since.

    Yet, we have survived and continue to serve as Christ’s Church. I credit much of this endurance to the training many of us received at New Brunswick Theological Seminary and those I now recognize as true apostles of the faith: Hageman, Kooy, Koops, Fries, Waanders, and more. We never let go of the doctrines, sacraments, and liturgy. Most of us never led our congregations to become the “Church of the Holy Microphone” where baptismal, table, and pulpit became invisible and were replaced by drum sets and soloists (as seen at the recent “Conversations” in Florida). Our worship space as well as our worship tells the story of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.

    Our members do not attend because of cultural affirmation or political influence, they come because God has loved them and they are grateful. Visitors arrive for various reasons. They stay because they are loved and accepted… seeing the face of Christ in those who surround them. We all respond and live in gratitude to the Good News which proclaims the Kingdom is near and as its citizens we are to seek righteousness, justice, equity… lifting up the poor and oppressed, liberating the prisoners, and healing the sick.

    Having roots from (New Amsterdam c. 1630) and serve an historic church (1784), I suppose I am comfortable with the phrase, “Give me that old time religion.”

  7. Robert W. Fretz says:

    I’m sorry. 1978 was the year I graduated NBTS. The meeting I refered to with Win Arn was in 1977 at the United Reformed Church in Somerville, NJ. It was after a weekend retreat encouraging our churches to embrace the “Church Growth Model.” After asking participants to create a “plan of growth” the RCA Executive Staff reviewed the plans. Arn separated everything in the Eastern Metro area and indicated the plans would not succeed because of the demographics of the region. (I was a full time intern at United. I heard this conversation in the sanctuary during the meeting as I was cleaning up the AV (16mm projector, slide projector, and sound system – we too knew what effect moving pictures and sound had on people):)

  8. Bob says:

    I enjoyed all the post Josh and thanks for writing them. There are two responses that I would have you Josh consider and one for DRT. Josh, while a love the refocus on the solid stuff of the church you served, was some of the demise associated to timing or your own leadership approach of style? Would your members agree that it was all because of a refocus on discipline, theology our doctrine? I think that in God’s Church it is possible to be “trendy”, technology saturated, contemporary, even seeker-slanted and still be solid theologically, reformed, evangelical, growing and mature. DRT, I have to admit I would have been ticked off if a staff member wrote a 16 page paper and gave it out and usurped the Elders/Sr Pastor and board. That is out of line and divisive. I just know myself well enough to know that my sinfulness and blindness, to my own junk, clouds my perception of the whole picture. I share this in love, not judgement.

  9. DRT says:

    Bob,

    Thanks for your comment. The problem was that we had no elders nor board. All there existed was the pastor who bowed to the political whim of people. That was exactly the whole I was trying to fill by saying that we need some sort of structure.

    Further, the pastor, who was then 68 years old, had a history of poor health (like major heart surgery) and would not take action on setting anything up so that we could have a smooth transition in case of a problem.

    The dynamic that I saw was that we were a church founded by this single person and everyone went to him for everything and for every decision, except those that the law required us trustees to make. I felt that we were going to be in for a major problem if something happened to him because all that existed was political division, and him.

    So I got the ball rolling to try and get something down on paper. Little did I know that I was just not part of the “in” group that knew about the existing documentation, that they hid from the rest of the church.

    Frankly, given that I was a trustee, would speak on most Sundays with my own research, ran the web site, the finance committee, counted all the money given each week that I would have known if such documents existed.

    By the way, the pastor then lied to others about me and disparaged my greatly.

    Here is the post that I wrote about it.

    http://lostcodex.com/2011/01/western-hanover-church-an-approach/

    Goodnes, it was only 1.5 years ago, not 3. So much for time flying.

  10. DRT says:

    Clearly it was the “hole” and not “whole” I was trying to fill. Please excuse any other typos……

  11. DRT says:

    I realize that what I am about to post is the equivalent of putting the teachings of satan here, but I urge all pastors and other planners to consider this.

    Here is an excellent example of how to “teach the controversy”. While you don’t have to listen to the whole thing, the first 15 minutes will give you the point that I am making. This is a masterful job of really educating people about the society and climate surrounding the Jewish people when the bible was written. Please take a listen.

    http://marshill.org/teaching/2012/07/01/genesis-6-8-stay-in-the-boat/

    I would appreciate any comments by the reformed crowd on this.

  12. Randy in Tulsa says:

    Why not keep the simple…simple and the ordinary…ordinary, which would be more consistent with what you say you have learned? Your counterintuitive terms for simple and ordinary seem more like the oh-so-creative style you say you have abandoned.

  13. Josh,
    Much to say Amen to in this series. I would encourage you to use the experience the Lord has given and blessed you with, and plant another church. Too many church planters “don’t get it” and if solid works are to be established then they need solid men, men of conviction and calling and experience, to plant them. Don’t waste the experiential knowledge the Lord has given you.

    Morris

  14. Michael B. says:

    “We were also a far more mature, infinitely more compelling group of people. ”

    Wow. Just listen to how disgustingly arrogant you are. What a truly humble group you must be.

    One thing you can count on is that the infighting will continue. You’ve basically ended up with a congregation where many members believe God is on their side, and so arguments can’t be resolved. Like a fraternity or sorority whose members believe they’re better than everyone else, one can expect there to be substantial infighting after initiation, due to the personality traits of the membership.

  15. faithmatters says:

    Josh, I was encouraged and blessed by your 4 part blog entry. In the book “God Has A Wonderful Plan For Your Life (The Myth of the Modern Message)” Ray Comfort shares a quote from J.C. Ryle.

    “People will never set their faces decidedly towards heaven, and live like pilgrims, until they really feel that they are in danger of hell…Let us expound and beat out the Ten Commandments, and show the length, and breadth, and depth, and height of their requirements. This is the way of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. We cannot do better than follow His Plan.

    We may depend on it, men will never come to Jesus, and stay with Jesus, and live for Jesus, unless they really know why they are to come, and what is their need. Those whom the Spirit draws to Jesus are those whom the Spirit has convinced of sin. Without a thorough conviction of sin, men may seem to come to Jesus and follow Him for a season, but they will soon fall away and return to the world.”

  16. Bill says:

    This approach always sounds Biblical, but let us be reminded that the pruning process is administered by human interprutation of scripture, and not always directly from scripture.

    I was part of a congregation that went through this and yes, we had the group that left because they had a problem with authority. However, this group read the Bible just like the leadership did, and they knew the scriptures from Paul about church dicipline like everyone else as well.

    It wasn’t so much a problem with church authority in general as much as two different Biblical understandings of church.

    To be clear, I am speaking more about some of the “not as much debated” topics that normally are not covered in independent church mission statements, not the big ones we have seen recently debated.

  17. DLT says:

    Hi Josh, Just a question more than a comment. What does “patient contextualization” mean? Anytime I see the word contextualization and how that method of communication is somehow used within the church, I am a little leary of it. Can you clear it up for me exactly what it is that you are saying with “patient” contextualization? Thank you! :)
    BTW-You may have already addressed this question…I haven’t read all the comments.

  18. Josh Blunt says:

    DLT – Take a look at my replies on post 1 of 4. In them I mentioned an upcoming book by Tim Keller called “Center Church.” As a freelancer for Zondervan, I had the privilege of doing some editorial work (drafting chapter study questions) for this book which releases this month. In it, Keller does an amazing job of clarifying and redeeming the term “contextualization” and fleshes out what it means practically and biblically. I, too, hesitate to use the term sometimes, since it has been so abused in certain circles. Some mean it as code for “reinterpreting” or “blatantly defying” clear biblical teaching. I mean it in the sense that Keller uses it, which has more to do with thoughtfully and prayerfully discerning the way the unchanging Gospel critiques, subverts, heals,, and intersects with each cultural context uniquely. I think you will be blessed more by reading his work than by my meager explanation – I can’t do it full justice here. Besides, I’m bound by contract with the publisher not to leak content before books release, and my explanations would borrow heavily enough to push that. Thanks for reading, and blessings.

  19. Tim Coomar says:

    Josh, it’s ironic that you refer/defer to Keller as I was just about to comment (to Kevin) that both this series and the recent one on expository preaching have the feel of perhaps being ‘gentle pushbacks’ to Keller ;-)

    Of course such pushback is very often healthy – and I have no doubt that Keller is viewed in friendly terms but most everyone here – but I have to say that I was disappointed by both series of posts as there was very little to engage with beyond a stated rejection of certain things (most notably the rejection of redemptive-historical preaching?! – further explication ‘definitely’ required there).

    For instance, I am a church planter in a neighbourhood filled with anarchists and the rejection of authority is actually a helpful point of contact with the gospel rather than a thing to be condemned in and of itself. Also, if you group people into certain categories and treat them accordingly, they will begin to behave accordingly…

    Finally, just as we view ‘successful’ figures like Keller uncritically and become ‘star-struck’ young pastors, isn’t it also possible to go the other way and exalt our ‘failures’, becoming ‘shell-shocked’ young pastors, who invoke our faithfulness and gospel integrity while being blind to how our own poor handling of a situation contributed to its downfall. Of course I’m not saying that this is necessarily what happened in your instance but your story would inspire a lot more if it was slightly more self-critical, perhaps integrating more elements like this: http://www.edstetzer.com/2012/06/confessions-of-a-failed-church.html

  20. Mary Ruiter Vander Velde says:

    “Christ promises to build his Church; if he promises to do the work, why would we trust our methodology over his? Why would we employ novelties of the last two decades instead of methods that succeeded for the last two millennia? I suggest we make simple the new sexy, and ordinary the new extraordinary.” I’ve been a member of SCC since 1985, and, as you know, our congregation has experienced so many of the the pitfalls that you mentioned here. My prayer for our future is to follow the method in quotes above. Prayers for you and your family and thank you for posting your sermons. As a member of the 60 and Better leadership team, I appreciated your description of your loved 90 year old grandmother who is still discipling others.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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