These congregations must engage with those outside their doors in order to grow and thrive. How might missional theology inform the starting of new churches?
To begin with, new congregations must be understood within the Spirit’s formative work. The church is always both forming and reforming.2 That is, the Spirit creates new expressions of ministry in different times and places, while at the same time renewing and transforming existing ministries. The creation of new congregations is an integral aspect of the Spirit’s movement in the world in history, which points us again toward the key theme of discernment. Within missional theology, it is vital to recognize the Spirit’s primary agency in bringing new churches to life.
At the same time, missional theology suggests that new congregations do not come into being merely to service the existing members of a denomination who happen to live within a particular area. Rather, the Spirit gives birth to new churches to witness to God’s coming reign in Christ. The church is called, gathered, deepened, and sent to be a sign, a foretaste, and a witness to God’s reign for all humanity. It exists to participate in the Triune God’s mission in a particular time and place. Church planting offers abundant opportunities to fulfill this vocation creatively and innovatively without some of the constraints that existing churches have.Church plants are free to recontextualize the gospel anew within cultural spaces that have been neglected by the established church. The fluid nature of new churches allows for high levels of participation and change—key dimensions of the missional church.
Moreover, new missional congregations have an imagination for the church’s public vocation in society.3 That is, the missional church is not about attracting spiritual consumers and seeking to meet their private needs. Rather, missional churches serve as a vital public presence, both through their own gathered life, in which the challenges affecting the common good of the surrounding community are engaged for deliberation and action, and in their diaconal service to the neediest neighbors. They refuse to accept the dichotomies of public and private by which modernity bifurcated and reduced the gospel. Instead, they embrace a holistic understand of God’s reign, which touches every aspect of human life and culture, both personal and social.
In a missional era, many of the assumptions underlying current practices of church planting by denominations and judicatories will need to be reexamined. For instance, in many church systems, a new congregation becomes officially “legitimate” only when it comes to resemble the functional Christendom model of church—a congregation that can support a full-time pastor and a building. Prevailing models of church planting leadership often draw more from business entrepreneurship and institution building than from the practices of cultivating communities of discipleship, discernment, and witness as outlined above. The institutional character of new congregations may, in some cases, need to be intentionally underplayed in order for robust missional communities to be formed and sent to engage populations that have been excluded from the institutional church.
New missional congregations keep at the forefront of their minds and hearts the question of how they can give the gospel as well as their gifts to the community.
New missional congregations keep at the forefront of their minds and hearts the question of how they can give the gospel as well as their gifts to the community. They resist the tendency to make their own institutional stability and survival the primary end. Rather, they recognize that their primary end—indeed, the very reason for their existence—is participation in the Triune God’s mission in the world. This does not mean that new missional congregations will not take institutional form. On the contrary, institutional expressions of church can be used powerfully by God in mission, and organizations that are sustainable over time typically adopt some institutional form. Organizational and institutional expressions of the church must serve its dynamic vocation of witness and service to the neighbor. The creation and multiplication of new congregations is integral to the future of the missional church.
CRAIG VAN GELDER is professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including The Essence of the Church, The Ministry of the Missional Church, A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation, and The Church between Gospel and Culture.
DWIGHT J. ZSCHEILE is assistant professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary and serves as associate rector at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.
1. Darrell L. Guder, “Leadership in New Congregations: New-Church Development (from the Perspective of Missional Theology,” in Extraordinary Leaders in Extraordinary Times: Unadorned Clay Pot Messengers, ed. H Stanley Wood (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 1-29.
2. Van Gelder, Ministry of the Missional Church, 54.
3. See Mary Sue Dreier, ed., Created and Led by the Spirit: Planting Missional Congregations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming).