Pastor Miles DeBenedictis
1 Corinthians 15:1-2
Preached, Received, Standing-fast & Saved
I recently heard a Christian leader say that “church planters” hold an apostolic role in the church, and that they ought to recognize their call as apostles. Yes, he made a distinction between “the 12” foundational apostles of the church, and explained that an apostle, according to mere definition, is [essentially] one who is sent. A modern day missionary. A “church planter.”
I don’t necessarily have a problem with the title of “apostle” being used for a “church planter.” I think we all recognize the difference between modern day missional pioneers and say, the Apostle John. My concern is that some, who are giving counsel and advice to up and coming planters, are painting a picture of the “church planter” as being some sort of rogue lone ranger, on a mission to which all else refuse to embark.
As I listened to the remainder of the exhortation, seeking to keep an open mind, I found myself thinking, “every true apostle must always begin as a servant.” The reality is that an apostle leads as a servant throughout their ministry. I’m not sure where this splinter cell mindset is coming from, but I don’t think we observe it in the scriptures.
Without a doubt, the church planting, missional, total abandoned, standout apostle of the New Testament is, Paul. Nearly two-thirds of the book of Acts is dedicated to the ministry God wrought through the converted Pharisee. The majority of the New Testament epistles are attributed to the Roman born, Hebrew of Hebrews, and aside from Christ Himself, Paul is perhaps the most well known figure of the first century. But lone ranger, he was not.
Paul’s calling and ordination to the task of an apostle was of God and not of men (Galatians 1:1). Be that as it may, it was not until he was sent out with the blessing of a church that he actually went; and when that day came, he was not alone. The thirteenth chapter of Acts gives a brief summation of the commission. Paul and Barnabas, assembled with the three other leading teachers at Antioch, were ministering to the Lord when He, by His Holy Spirit said, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” Following the call they fasted, prayed, laid hands on them and sent them away.
Nowhere do we see Paul or Barnabas giving Simon, Lucius and Manaen an earful about the greater work they had lost sight of or were missing, out on the frontier. Paul did not leave as a misunderstood pioneer without a gracious blessing from his sending church. As often as he declares his apostleship in the New Testament, he bears witness to his servanthood. Was Paul the apostle uncomfortable around other pastors, or something of a misfit? I think not. He recognized and wrote that those called to leadership within the church, whether apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers (or pastor-teachers if you read it that way), are all called to the same work; equipping the saints for the further work of the ministry and building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12).
A renewed fervor in church planting is praiseworthy. A desire to see people brought into the kingdom and bearing much fruit is right. But an unwillingness to submit to the leaders of a local church and serve an established body, because of a pressing desire to be the pioneering apostle is, I believe, a mark of immaturity.
I have not planted a church, but would go in a second, were God to call me to do so. But as a pastor of a church I am ready and willing to fast with, pray for and lay hands on those that have proven themselves faithful stewards, as servants among the gathering of God’s people. Hasty, impetuous individuals who push their way out into the field to lay claim to a plot of ground upon which to build a pulpit, prove themselves often times to be no more than self-willed children, unwilling to wait in the proving-ground of ministry for the sincere endorsement of those whom God has made overseers for their souls.
Your leaders understand you far more than you realize. Learn to submit, and let them serve with joy and not grief; it will profit you greatly.
[dropcap3]A[/dropcap3]s I’ve studied church history, I think it no stretch to conclude that local churches, over the last 2 millennia, have experienced an average attendance of about 75 adults. Enter, 20th century American Christianity. Or, as I like to call it, Consumeranity.
The average church size in America at present hovers at a little more than 180 adult members, roughly 2.5x larger than historical averages. While nearly 60% of American churches are 100 or less, and around 90% are under 400; more than half of all churchgoers in America attend a church of 400 or more adults.(1) Most congregations are small but most people are apart of large congregations. Such large [Consumeranity] congregations skew the numbers, and [unfortunately] this abnormality is normal for the majority of American Christians.
This anomaly is a relatively recent phenomena (the last 50 years or less), and I believe that the cultural shift taking place in America today will – in the next generation – bring the church back to normal in terms of congregational size and makeup. But what happens when abnormal, which has become normal, reverts back to true normal?
As a result of this shift, some will feel real pain. Many (especially the “movers and shakers” of mega-church evangelicalism) will fight against it. We tend to oppose change, as change is painful. But change is an essential part of life. Alistair Begg once said, “Where there’s life, there’s change. You want no change, live in a cemetery. [There’s no change there], accept for decay.” Therefore, if the church is to experience vitality and life, it will be faced with regular change, or it will decay.
What then does normal Christianity look like in the context of 21st century America? I think it looks like church has for 2,000 years. The gatherings of believers are smaller in size, community oriented, or people-group centered fellowships. For lack of a better word, they are tribal. This being the case, I’m not necessarily sure that multi-cultural, multi-ethnic churches are the norm. That’s not to say that there are not beautiful things that take place in such settings, they’re just not the norm.
Frontline missions has sought for generations to establish self-replicating, indigenous church planting movements. But in our own backyard we constantly seek for an American (or western) multiculturalism within the local body. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating segregation, only setting forth for consideration the idea that congregations have an established cultural identity from which they worship and express Christian love and character in a way that is relevant to the cultural makeup of the gathered believers.
What then does it practically look like? In all honesty it is quite hard to say, as I have no rhyme or reason for my belief, other than a hunch. I do however think that over the next 30 years the larger congregations in America will fracture along tribal fault-lines as the charismatic executive leaders move on. The churches will become multifarious. They would therefore do well to be proactive in their planning now, if they are to have influence then. I suggest that the best thing the larger traditional church can do is not to scrap it all in favor of a “home church movement” (as one home church movement leader once exhorted me to do) or fight against the shift to prop up the establishment, but to embrace the reality of a smaller community church model by taking what I believe is an Antioch approach.
The Church of Antioch was the first thriving “uttermost parts” church mentioned in the book of Acts. It was the first Gentile church, and the first at which the followers of Christ were referred to as “Christians.” Little is said in the book of Acts about the makeup of the Antioch church, but my gut tells me that it was a fairly large fellowship with multiple meeting places throughout the region. They were one church, composed of many congregations, superintend by a plurality of overseers (I have purposefully chosen not to use “plurality of elders,” as it means something more than what I’m saying here). The core leadership of Antioch consisted of five apostolic, teaching leaders; Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, Saul (Paul). Antioch thrived for several centuries and was known as a charitable, missional and evangelical church.
As large western churches navigate the current cultural shift, and more and more church planters step forth to birth new works; I propose (as possible first steps) that they/we maintain established church structures to raise up a multiplicity of lay pastors to oversee small community fellowships throughout a city, county or region. Furthermore, churches ought to establish an apostolic core of leadership dedicated to discipleship, for equipping an ever increasing population of overseeing pastors and missionaries.
Ideally, for our fellowship (Calvary Escondido), I’d love to see us get to a point where we have 30+ lay pastors, overseeing small gatherings (under 75) in homes, community centers and other well-suited venues throughout our city and the surrounding region. I would expect we would maintain the structure we currently have for regular corporate worship gatherings as well as a central meeting place for equipping and training. Such a body incorporates the strengths of smaller fellowships (self-care of benevolence, discipline, counsel and other pastoral care needs) as well as the accountability and enabling resources of a larger congregation.
I am quite sure that I’ve overlooked several blind-spots in my consideration of where ecclesiology is headed in 21st century western culture, but as I’m certain it is experiencing a course correction, I want to be at least hypothesizing what that may look like. At the end of the day, I know one thing for sure… God builds his church, I tend to be just “along for the ride.”