I heard a pastor say recently: “If you know Jesus, I am sorry to break it to you: this church is not for you.” He continued by addressing those who came to know Jesus the previous week at the church: “Last week was the last week that [this church] existed for you.” Though maybe not to this degree, I think many of us fledgling-planters have erred on the side of an “its-all-about-mission” philosophy of ministry.
Certainly it is exciting when droves of souls are genuinely converted to Jesus Christ. No doubt, the church always needs a zeal for evangelism and I frequently see a lack thereof in myself, rooted in pride and laziness. Repentance is needed. Insofar as doxological zeal exists in church-planters, we ought to praise God.
However, grave consequences result among young church-planters and pastors who—even unknowingly—embrace an “all-about-mission,” “this-church-is-no-longer-for-you,” and “the-gospel-causes-us-to-look-up…not-in-to-ourselves-and-how-we’re-doing,” philosophy of ministry.
The error is that sanctification gets sacrificed on the altar of mission. It is an error I have made in my ministry, being so fixated on getting people in, I have neglected those who are already there.
This is not a problem isolated to church-planting, but one that is also prevalent in the YRR culture at large (but that’s for another article). Though few likely make it their stated goal to de-emphasize personal holiness, it is happening, and it’s pervasiveness will have certain consequences in church-planting and ministry for our generation.
I offer eight cautions for us fledgling-planters to avoid de-emphasis of sanctification in our ministries.
First, if you seek to plant a church that is “not for believers,” you will not plant a church. Instead, you will plant something like an ongoing evangelistic-crusade-event. It may even be an impressive and exponentially growing event, but it will not be a church. A church that does not exist for believers is not a church. But the church exists for believers because the church is the primary context for using spiritual gifts for mutual edification (Rom 12:4-8, 1 Pet 4:10-11). The church exists for believers because other believers are to be the recipients of the forty, or so, different one-another commands given in the NT. The church exists for believers because it is the church’s responsibility to train up new converts in everything that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:20). Evangelism was one thing he commanded, but not the only. Much of Paul’s commands to the churches (many to young church-plants) center around heavy effort given to personal holiness. To “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2) requires more than ongoing evangelism. It requires deep commitment in relationship with other believers for the purpose of working out your salvation.
A church-plant is for believers, while calling unbelievers to join in on both a deep personal, and community, effort of realizing the grace by which we have been justified.
Second, if you plant a church with a gospel that does not drive us towards regular self-examination, you will steer people towards a social-gospel. There is a lot of talk about the gospel these days, which is great. But the gospel is being reduced to something I imitate, rather than something by which I am saved and sanctified. We are viewing it as something to “display,” instead of good news by which I am progressively transformed through moritification of sin. The shift is subtle, but unsafe. The purpose of the gospel is not only to launch people out for humanitarian works. It is true that the power of the gospel is not restricted to justification, and that justification empowers transformation; to become complete in Christ, progressive sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14), is necessary. So we want people to examine themselves, to see if they are in the faith. If we plant churches without a specific philosophy of ministry to help cultivate personal holiness in people, we are not helping them ensure that they will see the Lord, and veering towards a social-gospel.
Third, an all-about-mission philosophy of ministry in church-planting risks neglecting the focus on spiritual maturity of the saints. Souls are born again to grow. Sheep need shepherds, not just door-openers. We are to equip the saints so that they “are no longer tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” giving care so that they “grow up in all aspects in Him who is the head” (Ephesians 4:14-15). Paul labored to not only evangelize the lost, but move every convert towards completion in Christ (Col 1:28-29). Missionolatry will birth a culture of immature Christians who disdain correction from others, ride imbalanced doctrinal hobby horses, indulge the flesh, and are carried about by winds of crafty doctrine. Church-plants, therefore, ought to position themselves to present everyone complete in Christ from the get-go, or the church will never grow beyond an evangelistic crusade.
Fourth, a church that is all about mission will quickly grow irrelevant. The de-emphasis on sanctification is producing an immature over-emphasis of cultural freedom that is plaguing the church today, especially us YRR’s, to the point where we are quickly becoming silly and irrelevant. We are giving too much attention to our faux-hawks and less to repentance of heart idols. Too much time is spent thinking how to offend cultural conservatives and making You-Tubes, and less mourning and weeping over sin. A lack of holiness cripples evangelism. Christ was so relevant, not because he was methodologically trained in missional living, but because he was so holy. The most effective missional living is not crafting the most culturally-relevant outreach technique, but in transformed people who are actually salt and light. Spiritual maturity through sanctification best equips God’s people for evangelism over cultural methodology. The church may look good at first, but will not equip people to be salt and light, and so will at best risk superficial conversions.
Fifth, a church that does not exist for believers will fail to care for the hurting needs of the sheep. Shepherds have a mandate to care for those souls among them (1 Pet 5:2). Believing spouses in a marriage plagued by years of mistrust and bitterness will not be instantly cured by evangelism training. A young Christian man enslaved to pornography requires more feeding than being told to live missionally. Church-plants that do not prioritize long-haul, unglamorous shepherding, will not move from an evangelistic crusade and towards a place where the hurting can really get care from mature saints.
Sixth, a church that does not exist for believers will fail to raise up biblically-qualified leaders. One of the most important steps a fledgling-planter needs to take from the outset of his ministry is to equip leaders. Church-planting leadership can be a lonely, vulnerable place for any young man. Competent leadership that will last in the rigorous demands of shepherding involves more than evangelism training. Certainly that is critical, but it is not exclusive. Paul’s letters to Timothy are packed with God’s will for the fledgling pastor/church-planter. Paul certainly commanded Timothy towards missional living (1 Tim 2:1-8, 2 Tim 4:5), but the bulk of the inspired pastoral charge is: upholding sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:3-5, 18-19; 4:1-6), training up qualified leaders (1 Tim 3:1-13, 5:17-22, 2 Tim 2:2), rigorous devotion to personal holiness and endurance (1 Tim 1:18-19, 4:6-12, 15-16, 6:11-16, 2 Tim 1:6, 2:1, 3-13, 20-22, 4:5), caring for the flock (1 Tim 5:1-16), and hard work in faithfully teaching the Scripture (1 Tim 4:11, 13-14, 2 Tim 2:15, 24-26, 4:1-2). As a church-planter gives himself to this, not only will he will be more missional, but he will equip young men around him for the marathon-endurance that is non-negotiable for biblical leadership.
Seventh, a church that does not exist for believers will risk future instability. Shepherds have the mandate to “ensure” the salvation of the flock (1 Tim 4:16). The shepherd’s vigilant self-watch is one means of ensuring that the saved continue, and finish, in the faith. An excessive focus on getting people to make a decision will neglect seeing them through the testing of their faith. Saints certainly will persevere. However, if souls are not cared for beyond a profession, then there will be no one there to wisely shepherd those never really converted to see that. Fledgling-planters, therefore, will do better to put more effort into vigilant self-watch, over maintaining a weekly evangelistic event.
Eighth, excessive focus on mission risks unfaithful shepherding. Shepherds will give an account for the souls over whom they give care (Heb 13:17). We will not give account for how many decisions we failed to prompt. Though it may feel painful to fill 32 pews on Sunday, while other “evangelebrities” are doing 5000, that ought not drive us to soothe our egotistical instability by missionolatry, and in effect neglect the sheep. Faithful care must be thankfully given to all 32 of them. They are precious souls for whom Christ died. They must be shepherded with eagerness, and without whipping them to fill more pews, so that you may hear, “Well done, good and faithful slave.” Jesus purchased those souls with his own blood and the Father cares to prepare them for a great wedding some day (Rev 19:7). In the meantime, shepherds are entrusted with his precious possessions, for whom an accounting will be given one day. Our stewardship of the Groom’s possessions does not end at their conversion, it only begins there. Therefore, the fledgling-planters should hit the ground running with a ministry plan to prioritize sanctification in light of this future accounting.
Sanctification and missional-emphasis need not be an either/or scenario.
Many of these are mistakes that I have made. My zeal to get people in was a proud and untamed immaturity that lusted for self-admiration by increasingly filled pews. These errors were fueled by an immature disdain to buckle down and do the day-to-day ordinary work of shepherding the flock of God that was already among me. A missional zeal can, in reality, cloak an idolatrous missionolatry: a worship of more and more, booming numbers as my secret way of self-affirmation (which I will examine in a future post). But the Person and finished work of Christ is my self-affirmation. He is to be worshiped, even over being missional.