The plethora of books, articles, and conferences on church planting is has caught the attention of many within Reformed and evangelical circles. Church planting is denigrated by some as the ‘hipster’ fad within some denominations and networks while others see church planting as a kingdom necessity to offset the number of dying churches in America as well as the dramatic population increase in metropolitan cities.
Planting, Watering, Growing: Planting Confessionally Reformed Churches in the 21st Century edited by Daniel R. Hyde and Shane Lems (published 2011 by Reformation Heritage Books) is a unique set of essays by ministers and theologians, most who serve in the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). As the subtitle of the work suggests, the goal of this church planting book is to set forth a vision of church planting that is uniquely confessional and Reformed. While other church plant manuals and guides might strongly imply a Reformed-ish theology and confess some of the ancient creeds of the church (or perhaps modern creeds, e.g. Lausanne or ICBI), Hyde and Lems believe that they and other contributors offer a unique perspective in church planting (though they favorably cite Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church as similar to their vision).
Some might be hesitant to take this work seriously as the URCNA and similar bodies haven’t made headlines with their success in church planting. Others might assume that this book will be one that bashes other kingdom works in non-Reformed or pseudo-Reformed denominations and network. However, there is much that is positive that one may gain from this work. (And there is even praise given to the Acts 29 Network, Ed Stetzer, Tim Keller, and other individuals and networks known for church planting vision.) (p. 236, 238)
First, there is an almost constant emphasis on mission, even being missional. Reformed churches are often known as being the ‘frozen chosen’ (p. 25), but this book tries to overcome that moniker to present a spirited view of mission and fulfilling the Great Commission. In the opening chapter, Brian Vos boldly states, “A church that does not die to self in service to Christ will necessarily turn inward and thereby lose her life. The work of missions, evangelism, and church planting is vital to the life of the church.” (p. 15)
In writing about the heart needed for church planting, Paul T. Murphy is adamant that evangelism and mission isn’t just a tack-on to the church budget, but rather it is the church’s “identity” so that we might build a worshipping community. (p. 70) Murphy even goes on to give something close to an incarnational analogy when he says, “Since God is a missionary God who sent a missionary Son, who together sent a missionary Spirit, every church should be a missionary church. What we need to do away with in the hearts and minds of our people is the distinction between a maintenance church and a missionary church.” (p. 71) Murphy even claims that evangelizing is the “responsibility of every Christian.” (p. 72) Hyde has an excellent section of the church planter and witnessing (p. 117). But perhaps this theme may be summarized by Lems who states, “We don’t plant churches just to reach the underfed; we plant churches to also reach those who have never been fed, who need to be led – like the Samaritan woman – to the well of Jesus.” (p. 235)
Second, there is an affirmation of the principle of contextualization. The notion of contextualization is a controversial one, even among those in the same denomination. Many of the church planting networks are known for their particular views on contextualization. I found three of the chapters in the final section on the context of church planting to be outstanding (“Church Planting in a Melting Pot” by Shane Lems, “The Cultural Factor in Church Planting” by Mitchell Persaud, and “Growing Contextually Reformed Churches: Oxymoron or Opportunity?” by Phil Grotenhuis). Lems’ chapter is especially worth reading.
Lems makes the case that cultural context needs to be taken more seriously by church planters, though less seriously than our confessions. (p. 232) We don’t plant churches in a cultural vacuum, the planter must know and engage the cultural context wherein he plants. (p. 235) Lems compares church planters to missionaries, who must gain a competent understanding of the culture they live in. Because of this, Lems firmly believes that a church plant “should be open to all sorts of peoples, traditions, and customs, and it should not try to force everyone into the same traditional mold. What should bind the church plant (and all churches) together is the common confession of faith in Christ.” (p. 236) Lems goes on to give helpful suggestions on contextualization when it comes to worship, a meeting place, the church name, clothes, titles, language, Christian liberty, etc.
Other implications of contextualization noted by authors is that church planting should not demand a cookie-cutter method, which would be contrary to the theology of Luke-Acts. (p. 245) In addition, a more indirect (re: relational) approach to evangelism may be better suited in our post-Christian culture than the direct approach seen in many evangelism methods, e.g. Evangelism Explosion. (p. 248-250) Contextualization also should have us consider stylistic and semantic issues in worship and in the church’s ministries. (p. 250-272)
In summarizing the overall message of this book on contextualization, the authors, almost universally, would say that contextualization is unavoidable, we are tempted to overcontextualize or undercontextualize, the Scripture (and subordinate confessions) are always normative, and we need to pray for wisdom as to how we handle issues not explicitly mentioned in Scripture or our confessions. One suggestion I would make is that WCF 1.6 is a guiding confessional principle on contextualization.
Finally, there is a helpful chapter by Paul Murphy entitled “Church Planting: A Covenantal and Organic Approach” that every church planter should consider. Murphy, though positive about the evangelistic quality of a worship service, sees weekly, neighborhood ministry as an organic model for doing mission. Murphy gives a test case showing how his congregation in New York City ministers to unbelievers through creative ministries that meet people where they are. The ‘covenantal’ aspect deals more with an emphasis on families, Christian day schools, and children in worship. Of the three, only the first and third distinctive may be said to be ‘normative’ if one is trying to extract a ‘covenantal’ approach from Scripture. While I personally am a fan of Christian schools as a means to doing mission, I would put that distinctive below families and children in worship. (Although, one might need to handle families and children in a different manner, depending on the cultural context. If one is church planting in a city that has a high divorce rate, fewer children, and more singles, the communication of these principles will look different than in a typical Reformed church in the suburbs or rural countryside.)
While these two themes in the book, along with many other helpful sections and chapters, are enough to warrant a positive review, there do remain some concerns that I want the reader to be aware of. While the book as a whole is positive when it comes to mission and contextualization, there are occasional contradictions by other authors (and sometimes the same author) on these themes.
Michael Horton doesn’t see a problem with the term missional if applied in a faithful manner. (p. 54) Though, Horton is not always clear as to how creative a local church may be when he claims, “The mission of the church is simply to execute these tasks faithfully.” (p. 55) “These tasks” are the proper preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and discipline. Yet, this emphasis would have one look to Lord’s Day worship not as one of the most important aspects of the life of the church, but as the only aspect of the life of the church. This is seemingly in tension with Hyde’s claim that church plants must be “creative” and “proactive” to begin a work of the kingdom instead of just waiting for people to come to a worship gathering (“Build it and they will come” philosophy of ministry). Murphy also seems in tension with Horton in stating, “I do not want to diminish the significance of the official nature of that office and proclamation, but in addition to an official proclamation of the gospel in preaching, there is an unofficial spreading of the gospel in preaching.” (p. 73) Perhaps a distinction between Ministry (Lord’s Day worship) and ministry (done by the laypeople during the week) would be helpful as this seems to be the point Paul makes in Eph 4:11-13.
I’m also still confused as to what makes a church plant “confessional” and “Reformed” versus those that aren’t. While I think many of us might be able to tell if a church is these things, there wasn’t a chapter in the book or a long section explaining these distinctives. It seems that some of the contributors would criticize churches that are members of Reformed denominations that hold to a historic Reformed confession but that there is still “something missing” from these churches. What is that something missing? I could never put my finger on it. Maybe they are missing a particular view of confessional subscription, a particular order of worship, etc?
Also, would the contributors of this book admit that a non-Reformed church, even a non-denominational church, might still be confessional or even Reformed on some level? Now, I myself am a member of a Reformed denomination (ARP) and I think there is much benefit to being connectional in such a manner, but I wish more clarity and precision was present in the book to look at some of these issues. Perhaps the lack of such precision has to do with the fact that several of the chapters (six total) are reprinted from other publications.
There is plenty of material that this book doesn’t cover, and the confusion and contradictions betweens some of the authors diminishes the book’s overall usefulness. Still, it warrants a positive review and recommendation. I would have aspiring and veteran church planters read it as well as denominational officials interested in the work of church planting.