Editor’s note: At 9Marks, we’ve long appreciated those with whom we have the most important things in common, yet disagree with us constructively (Prov. 27:6). This article by Ed Stetzer is an example of putting that appreciation into practice. We hope you’ll benefit from him, just as we have.
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When Jonathan Leeman asked me to write an article for this issue, he sent the title above and saying, “C’mon, don’t you love the title?”
You see, he knows (and Mark Dever knows as well) that I love gospel clarity and biblical ecclesiology, but I’m concerned about the anti-practical nature we sometimes see in the 9Marks community.
This article is not in my place, but rather in yours, at their request, because they know I share so much in common. As a matter of fact, the last few churches I planted all used A Display of God’s Glory to describe our polity. But I do think that there are some issues to consider in church planting. So, I’ve created nine things that 9Marks purists should know, because nine is a holy number!
1. Preaching Does Not Plant Churches.
Your preaching is not as important as you think it is, at least in church planting.
Now, don’t be a hater yet—keep in mind that this is a conversation about church planting. Let me be clear, preaching the Scriptures exegetically and theologically accurate is essential, meaningful, and vital to the health of your church, but it is not the first thing you do. You must also build relationships, share the gospel, and start groups.
You evangelize a church into existence, and then you start preaching to the church of the newly evangelized.
Yes, preaching and teaching are marks of a biblical church, but it is not how you plant a church. Preaching is a part of how you pastor a church— but you have to plant it (through evangelism) first.
Now, if you start with a group being sent out, and it’s already a functioning church, that’s another story on preaching—but it’s the same story on evangelism. Evangelism has to be a driver if it is really church planting and not just hiving off a new preaching point.
Too many purists love preaching more than planting (and sometimes more than people), leading to a “plant” that is usually more about people wanting better and more Reformed preaching.
2. Practical ministry and pragmatism are not the same thing.
Never plant a church in your head.
For theorists and theologians, there is a danger of adopting methodology and modes of church planting without an understanding of your specific culture or context. We need a vision for the people God is calling us to, which means we must know them and then develop practical steps to actually plant a church among them. These practical steps can be as simple as meeting every neighbor on your street, inviting people to come with you to church, attending community events, etc. Church planting can’t stay in the clouds, it has to make the practical jump to the streets.
And, what you heard in a conference or in seminary is not always the same as it is practically applied and lived out when you are planting from the inner city to the rural farmland.
3. You Plant by Engaging the Lost, Not by Immersing in Church Culture.
You cannot live and love like Jesus without spending significant time with the people who don’t know him.
Jesus said he came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), and we are called to join Him on His mission. As a church planter, it’s surprising that making and protecting time to spend with people who need to hear about Jesus is difficult, but it is. It can be easy to drift into the mode of teaching others fantastic methodology on seeking out those who are lost, but spend little time modeling it ourselves. This can create a church of intellectually well-equipped yet completely inexperienced missionaries. As church planters, with the various demands on your time, you must viciously protect the time you spend with friends, neighbors, and co-workers (if you’re bivocational) who don’t yet know Jesus. Modeling this, and doing it together with members of your church plant, will mold your culture around mission.
For a lot of purists, they have immersed themselves in a church or religious culture. Have you ever noticed how easy it is for us to start saying spiritually sounding phrases around people who are not spiritually inclined? That’s a sign of church culture, not biblical truth, and certainly not knowing and engaging with normal people.
4. Cultural engagement is both crucial and not natural for the theologically inclined
You want to be both theologically astute and culturally engaged in order to plant a church effectively.
Sometimes, the people who are more adept at cultural engagement tend to be less theologically inclined, but that is not always a correlation. Often those who have studied theology for years find themselves missing cultural context clues, and their preaching is distant and disparate.
Planting a church well involves exegeting the culture God has sovereignly placed you in. This takes time, energy, effort, and intentionality. We must preach Christ and the Scriptures with a faithful understanding of theology, but we must also communicate in the language and cultural context of our time. I find it ironic that those who love the Puritans sometimes betray the Puritan practice of “speaking plainly.”
You can be and should be both engaged in culture and theologically driven in your approach to ministry.
5. You won’t preach and disciple your way to evangelism. You must lead your church TO evangelism by engaging IN evangelism WITH them.
It is a myth that preaching and teaching will always produce an evangelistic church. It often doesn’t.
Good teaching in isolation rarely has a transformative effect, though people tell me all that time that’s their plan. A preacher’s sermons must be matched by the activities of his life (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 3:10). Watching you actively attend to your own and their evangelism, pastor, is the illustration your sermon’s need to create a new culture. Evangelism needs to be caught and taught.
I actually had a discussion with one 9 Marks purist (did I mention that was Jonathan’s phrase?) about that very thing. He was frustrated that he was teaching and preaching, discipling and going deeper, but evangelism was not increasing.
He agreed to do whatever I suggested for a few months. So, we planned outreach days, started a new series that was easy for Christians to bring guests (and then planned a bring-a-friend emphasis), planned church-wide outreach into the community, organized a prayer strategy, and more.
The end result? He did nothing that violated his purist views (that was our deal), yet soon the church was growing because it was mobilized and God was blessing.
6. You can learn from people who are reaching people.
I often tell people that if they want to get a bad reputation for their church, start growing. Pastors who lead churches that aren’t growing will find ways to explain away other churches’ growth as illegitimate.
Yes, there are false converts. Yes, there are bad methodologies. No, we don’t want to be momentum dependent. But, maybe you can learn more by asking, “What can I learn from someone who is reaching people that I am not reaching?”
7. Love Jesus. 8. Preach the gospel. 9. Care about ecclesiology.
OK, I assumed we all would agree on the last three. And I wanted you to know that I’m with you on so much.
When Mark and I discussed this one day, I told him (in, I hope, a nice way) I believed he was creating a whole generation of theologically-minded but practically uninformed pastors that are less effective than they could be.
He responded something like, they are reading all the practical books (and, he graciously said many of them were mine). However, I am not convinced that is always the case. (And, Mark, your books sell a whole lot more than mine.)
But, in his answer, I found my hope. Mark is assuming you are getting the practical from somewhere. My concern is that 9 Marks purists are not—and need to.
So, learn best practices, learn how to engage the lost, learn how to lead your church well to engage its community, but don’t do so by moving away from the gospel, the scriptures, and a biblical understanding of church.
That’s my exhortation to you…my friends, 9Marks purists!