I spent a year in Northern Virginia at New Life Christian Church. The church planter, Brett Andrews, told me something that has always stuck in my memory. He said, “I don’t like my church plant.” This of course let to a befuddled reply of, “What do you mean, you don’t like your church plant.” Brett replied, “If I had planted this church for me we would all where formal attire on Sunday and sing hymns. I just don’t like the loud music, video clips and dress down attire. But, I didn’t plant this church for myself. I planted it for the people of Northern Virginia and after learning about them we determined that this style was the best way to communicate the gospel.”
Wow! I love that story. How many church planters can say that? That is the story of a missionary. Contextualization is important work for a church planter. One of the unique facets of the gospel is that it is not contained within a particular culture. If a person is a Gentile, they don’t need to first become a Jew to access God. Remember that story? The first thing a church planter needs to do once they are on the ground is what Alan Hirsch calls missional listening. Church planters are typically highly driven individuals who want to hit the ground running. Too often they assume they understand the culture and begin planning for church services. When this happens, I guarantee you are planting a church for yourself and not the culture you are in.
What did you do / are you doing to missionally listen before you start planning for church services? Here are a couple of examples from planters I’ve worked with.
1. Worked at Starbucks for two years in the planting community before drawing a salary from the church plant. Result: started a ministry to mom’s providing them a place to hang out while their kids played. The facility served as a Third Place in the community as well space for the children’s ministry on Sundays.
2. Conducted a community needs assessment interviewing 100 community leaders, and surveying over 300 people. Result: Discovered that community needs were being met by existing organizations. Rather than starting another one, the church was started with a DNA of generosity and gives several man hours a month to community organizations as well as organizing drives to gather the resources they need.
3. Began serving door to door by raking leaves and shoveling snow with his family. As the team grew, they organized volunteers and took on community projects the city couldn’t pull off alone. Result: The city has asked the pastor to develop a youth program for the entire city (20,000 students) and will be funding it too. There is not restriction on sharing the gospel through the program. The chief of police asked the pastor to be the chaplain for the city fire and police stations.
The cool thing is that God is already active in the places we are planting churches. Sometimes we just need to slow down long enough to listen. When we do, not only will we learn how to contextualize church in the community, but we might also learn what God is already doing and partner together with Him.