by Aaron Klinefelter
In part 1 of this series we explored the cultural and institutional barriers to church planting in the Episcopal Church.
In part 2 we delved into why churches undertake church planting in the first place and how these might or might not fit into the ethos of the Episcopal Church.
In this third installment we look at the theology of mission and the importance of context
Church planting and missional theology
How do we understand the mission of God, in which we participate via our baptismal covenant, in the work of church planting? While Stefan Paas helped frame the historical and contemporary practice of church planting, Christopher James, in Church Planting in Post-Christian Soil: Theology and Practice, gives a theological defense of church planting in light of missional theology. In the main, his book is a sociological and theological investigation into churches planted in Seattle, Washington.
According to James’ research, the predominance of new churches in Seattle fall within four main categories:
- Great Commission Team: characterized by Evangelical spirituality and driven by a mission of evangelism and discipleship
- Household of the Spirit: characterized by Spirit-filled spirituality within the Pentecostal/Charismatic family of churches
- New Community: characterized by Progressive and Sacramental spirituality and advocating for a communal and contemplative engagement with the world
- Neighborhood Incarnation: characterized by Hospitality and Service and focused on the immediate neighborhood in which they are situated
Each of these paradigms, which have their own sociological and theological emphases, is evaluated in light of missional theology. The benefits of a missional theology, formed in the context of the missio Dei, have already been touched on in part 2, but James helpfully summarizes the core ideas: “they include God’s nature as a missionary Trinity, the missio Dei as God’s renewal of all things, Jesus as paradigm for divine and human mission, and the church as missionary in nature.”
James, however, makes clear that much of the literature and resources for church planting do not avail themselves of missional theology. The key exception, he notes, to this unfortunate trend is Starting Missional Churches: Life with God in the Neighborhood, by Mark Lau Branson and Nick Warnes. James summarizes Branson and Warnes work in terms of priorities of practices for church planters, they are:
- Discerning God’s initiatives
- The neighbor as subject
- Plural leadership that shapes an environment.
These priorities are shaped by an engagement with missional theology and they give flesh to the theory animating the theology.
Based on James’ assessment of Branson and Warnes’ application of missional theology for church planting and his close reading of missional theology (primarily through the lens of twentieth century missionaries David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin), he discerns that the Neighborhood Incarnation model of church planting most closely coheres to and resonates with missional theology. However, he is careful to emphasize that this does not mean there is no value in the other models of church planting present in Seattle. He advocates for a family or ecology of churches that benefit the city as a whole.
The Neighborhood Incarnation mode of church planting that James advocates is explicated by the work Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen have done in their book The New Parish: How neighborhood churches are transforming mission, discipleship and community and their organization the Parish Collective, which is based in Seattle.
They propose a posture of being the church where members, “Follow Jesus into [their] neighborhood with fellow followers of Jesus. Allow[ing] the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ to form [their] imagination for faithful presence.” This has implications for church planting. As the church sees itself as embedded in a context, a neighborhood, and that its presence matters it can begin to allow the neighborhood to shape the way it does ministry there. The church takes on the incarnational character and quality that Christ exemplified.
In our next installment, we look at the diocese of London in the UK where evangelism and church planting have altered the ethos of the diocese and led to significant growth.
Aaron Klinefelter has been a House Church planter and pastor, a youth minister, a university campus minister, and presently serves as the Assistant to the Rector and Associate for Children and Families at Trinity Church in Menlo Park, CA. He also is a postulant from the Diocese of Southern Ohio. But most of the time you can find him driving his kids around in a minivan