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Few Thoughts on Church Planting

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1. A Church plant, not a Church Start-up.

A few weeks ago, I posted about the need for planting a mother church in West Tokyo, Shimokitazawa district.   On this post, I’d like to highlight a few things that came to my mind as part of that post.

We want to be more than a new work, Lord willing. Our desire in church planting is not to simply establish a new work in Shimokitazawa and provide a different style/flavor of worship/ministry for “Christians” who are already in Tokyo.  That process is more of a church transfer, not a church plant.  Our prayer is to be a biblical church plant through evangelism and disciple-making that results in a new church.  By God’s grace, since we began our journey in 2014, 90 % of the people who we reach out to, and who come to us are non-Christians on their journey to discovering the Gospel.  We desire to grow not by transferring Christians from the few existing churches in Tokyo, or by providing a new hip/cool church that feeds into Christian consumerism, or even a traditional style that appeals to those who are tired of the shallowness of their contemporary church.  We do not seek to become service providers in a marketplace of Christian consumerism, but we also want to avoid the other extremes of coldly avoiding unchurched Christians looking for a community to belong.

2. A Grace-Based Disciple-Making Culture.

We want to see a grace-based disciple-making culture that focuses on people who don’t know Jesus. Innovation is not as difficult as being a disciple-making church.  Having spent a good part of my life in the entertainment industry, promoting bands with a fair bit of journalism (before I met Jesus), I realized today that disciple-making is much harder but more biblical.  We also do not seek merely to become a business style leadership that over-emphasizes personal strengths without considering how the apostle Paul led through much of his weaknesses, and how Jesus conquered death by allowing death to conquer Him before rising again.   More importantly, Jesus told us to make disciples, to baptize and teach all His commands (Matt.28).  We intentionally remind ourselves that when He gave that command, He gave it to a few of His early disciples, who went out as commanded, made new disciples which resulted in planted churches everywhere–despite much opposition from the Romans and the Jewish religious establishment.  The Jesus who was with the disciples yesterday has not changed today.  He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  He has all authority in heaven and on earth.  And His Spirit is in us, without whom we dare not try to make disciples or do anything of any spiritual significance.  And He promises to be with us even to the remotest parts of the earth.  The presence of the One who has all authority gives us both the boldness and humility required to go into some of the hardest places to reach on earth–including Japan (2nd largest unreached people group).  Moreover, without a recovery of the biblical gospel of grace discipleship is manipulative and can be abusive.

3. Contextualized Ministry Expressions, Not Copy and Paste.  

Sometimes, Christians judge church plants on the basis of their appearances and ministry expressions without considering the stage the church plant is in.  While church plants may still be in the embryo stage (or infancy stage) we expect them to behave like a grown up established church.  We can also assume and misjudge about the particular context in which the new church is planted.  For example: If the preacher and the ones standing up front are wearing suit and tie, they are already– either by default or careful reflection–contextualizing.  They are communicating something even just by their dress styles–whether intentional or not.  Furthermore, we may expect the church plant to have ministry expressions that we are already comfortable with, or expressions that are similar to our existing churches despite the contextual differences.  Or we may expect them to be like the one we prefer in another country or city, without considering the kinds of people they are reaching in their particular contexts.  For example, in North East India, we use drums in a redemptive way to sing hymns.  These drums were used for worshiping demonic spirits in our culture before we became Christians.  If we use electric guitars and drums, that’s western (and not originally Indian) but we would still be contextualizing whether or not we use western instruments. The fact that you are reading the Bible in your language–that’s contextualization.  Thank goodness, we don’t have to learn Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Bible.  Jesus spoke Aramaic–the vernacular language of the day.  The Gospel then is communicated to us in our heart language.  That’s contextualization!   The Gospel is relevant for all cultures, at all times, at all places, but not all ministry expressions are universally applicable to all places and all cultures.  As cross-cultural Christians/missionaries doing church planting, we cannot ignore the role of contextualization.  But too many young people naively assume that if we simply preach the Gospel people will come and everything else will take care of itself.  The Gospel keeps us balanced from over-contextualizing (over adaptation) and under-contextualizing (unnecessary withdrawal from society and culture). 

“We often expect newly planted churches to manifest structures and organizations like what is observed in churches of 20, 40, 50 years of age.  Our definition of a local church is oftentimes so encased with our cultural desires that we do not know the difference between biblical prescriptions and [our Western or Eastern] preferences” ( J.D PayneEmphasis mine)

4. Doctrinal Depth and Evangelistic Fruitfulness. 

We want to be a gospel-centered church, and not just any church.  A gospel-centered church is not weak in biblical doctrine.  It simply seeks to preach Christ from every text, versus moralism/legalism or licentiousness/liberalism.   The Gospel truths we are called to proclaim is already offensive enough, so we do not seek to put any offense other than the gospel itself.  And we want to be faithful and fruitful as God grants us (not either/or).  Again, the early Church grew in both doctrinal depth and evangelistic fruitfulness.  They grew in depth and width.  Their doctrines were not shallow, but they were also fruitful as the Spirit granted them.  And that’s what we pray for.

In the past year, many Christians have come seeking for doctrinal depth– seeking for expository preaching etc.  Some say they are “allergic” to “hyper-evangelistic churches.”   I’ve lived in Chiba prefecture, Aichi prefecture and in Kanto area in the last 11 years.  I don’t know where they see “hyper-evangelistic churches.”  The state of some existing churches I’ve seen have always been on the erring side of little to no evangelism, considering that they are situated in a nation where there are only less than 1 % Christian.   How can one read the Book of Acts or even The Four Gospels and not see that people who met Jesus could not keep quiet about Him?  You can only commend well what you are most convinced of!  And what your heart finds most beautiful, you will naturally commend to others without even being told. That’s true about Christ!

How can you not share what God has done for you?  How can you say you are saved by grace and not want to share that very same grace to those whose need is as great as yours?  What have you been saved into, that sharing the Gospel with those who don’t believe yet does not appeal to you?  Making disciples is not even an option; it is a command (Matt. 28). 

“This means that foundational to evangelism isn’t so much our strategy for outside contact, but our seeing and savoring Jesus Christ. Evangelism, or our mission, is an extension of our joy in God. As one veteran missionary writes,

Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy. The news that the rejected and crucified Jesus is alive is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told. Who could be silent about such a fact?

At the heart of mission is thanksgiving and praise. . . . When it is true to its nature, it is so to the end. Mission is an acted-out doxology. That is its deepest secret. Its purpose is that God may be glorified. (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, 116, 127)” (Jonathan Parnell).

Still, some Christians come because they’re tired of the “shallowness” of doctrine preached in churches they’ve been to.  But over the last year, I discovered that most of the time those very same Christians do not want to come back because they equate academizing the faith with spiritual maturity.  At our church plant, we seek to proclaim the Gospel of grace and so certain texts are going to address the idols of our hearts, the self-righteousness of man (versus Christ’s righteousness), slicing legalism and liberalism, and so our message is offensive sometimes.   It is convicting to sit under true Gospel preaching, and so most of the time Christians who hide behind theology do not want their hearts exposed as it is convicting and uncomfortable.  In other words, they truly cannot sit under deep-doctrinal-Gospel preaching that addresses the deep recesses of our fallen hearts.   Those who receive the implanted Word with meekness, however, will find Jesus beautiful as they are led to joyful repentance.  While we seek to always be a very warm and welcoming culture, we also preach the uncompromising truthfulness of God’s Word, the ugliness and horrors of our sinfulness, the wrath of God to come, and the beauty of Christ’s righteousness.  By God’s grace, we aspire what Ray Ortlund laid out that “…the test of a gospel-­centered church is its doctrine on paper plus its culture in practice.”   Too many of us seem to misunderstand the “culture in practice” part, while seeming to be enthusiastic about the “doctrine on paper” part.  When that happens, doctrinal depth is accompanied by harshness and self-righteousness that repels the hearers.  But our aim is to remove all obstacles, especially our own self-righteousness–so that the only offense is in the Gospel itself.   As one pastor incisively observes: To believe in the doctrines of grace and not be gracious is a profound contradiction.  Having a gospel-centered doctrinal depth also entails having a healthy Gospel culture.  More on that later. 

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One comment on “Few Thoughts on Church Planting

  1. I so agree with this article. After serving almost 35 yrs., in Brazil, we learned these truths. During our time, these were not taught nor talked about. Of course, there was no blogs. Starting our 2nd term, after much prayer, my husband knew the direction the LORD wanted his to go in establishing the church in the new area “the graveyard of missionaries”; the headquarters of the Catholic church in Brazil and of (native African “voodoo” type religion). It followed closely to what was written above. Plus we knew to be missionaries, we couldn’t have one foot in Brazil and the other in the USA. That is an equation for unhappiness and disaster. So it followed the church would not be and “American” church but a Brazilian church. It does have the structure of an American church but the schedules and times and “practices” are theirs. It works beautifully. It is their church. The service lasts about 2 to 3 hrs. If the song service lasts 1 1/2 hrs., then so does the preaching since isn’t the Word of GOD more important or, at least, as important?! We were criticized by many since the service didn’t terminate after an hour but who were we to stop the people’s worship if that is what the want? It’s a beautiful thing. They don’t have that support at home. The church is their spiritual family. That mother church was started in 1982 and is going strong and sending our missionaries to other areas of Brazil and beyond the seas.

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