While Fundamentalists often noisily do battle over issues important mostly to their sub-culture, there is a battlefield where Fundamentalists are conspicuous by their absence. There has been a resurgence in church planting in North America and few Fundamentalist churches have answered the call. The names of leaders in this resurgence are well-known and include Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Bob Roberts, and Ed Stetzer, to name a few. Whatever Fundamentalists think of these men, let there be no doubt that they are engaged in the most noble of tasks—the Great Commission—on a scale rarely seen and in cities which, with some notable exceptions, have been long abandoned by solid, Bible-believing churches. These leaders are not without their foibles, and controversy often surrounds or follows some of them. That said, it must be asked if there are any church planting movements in Fundamentalism with the depth and breadth of what is taking place in conservative evangelical circles.
Recently I attended a conference on church planting where several thousand active or prospective church planters and their wives were in attendance. Admittedly the presenters and attendees were from diverse evangelical backgrounds, a blessing in many ways in witnessing the diversity and unity of the body of Christ. Many in attendance could not plant churches together, a fact they recognized, due to doctrinal differences that are at the heart of one’s understanding of the nature the local church. One speaker, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, expressed his friendship with and admiration for Tim Keller, yet confessed that they could not plant a church together. There would be an immediate conflict over needing a bowl or a bathtub to baptize the first convert. Yet in spite of obvious differences and the inability to partner in church planting there was a laudable spirit of cooperation to help others plant churches by providing training, mentoring, and access to resources.
We cannot partner with anyone or everyone to plant churches. But planting churches is not an option. It is a matter of obedience. If fundamental churches are lagging in this area they need to ask themselves why. The neglect of church planting is flagrant and perhaps nothing will hasten the demise of Fundamentalism more quickly than the inability or unwillingness of Fundamentalists to be engaged in this work. Alas, church planting requires cooperation and networking, rare commodities among many Fundamentalists, among whom the spirit of independence and individualism persists, and few churches have the resources to go it alone. In addition, churches must recognize that the churches they plant may not be a mirror image of the sending and supporting churches, an unacceptable condition and consequence for many churches.
Some of the reasons for the lack of church planting movements in Fundamentalism were addressed in an earlier article and won’t be repeated here. In this article I would like to expand on those earlier thoughts and raise some questions.
I will offer this opinion up front. Most traditional churches cannot reproduce themselves. There are exceptions to this generalization. For example there are pockets or regions, often surrounding Fundamentalist institutions of higher learning, where graduates stay on after completing their studies and where a constituency exists to plant churches with other graduates, faculty members, and support personnel. There are also clumps of believers who gravitate to certain areas where they are sure to find like-minded believers. New churches have also been planted with former members of other churches who fled the cities to find refuge and comfort in suburbia. These predominantly monochromatic churches are often racially and relationally segregated where Christians live in a bubble without realizing it since most people they know are in the same bubble.
There is nothing pernicious about planting affinity-based traditional churches, yet it must be admitted that these churches are mostly attractive to Christians who already share conservative values and fit in a cultural-Christianity mold which has sometimes been mistaken for the only valid expression of biblical Christianity. An artificial setting exists where there is little contact with unbelievers and where church programs cater mostly to insiders. Churches perpetuate this virtual isolation through the establishment of ministries designed to avoid contact with the world in order to protect believers from contamination. Few of these churches successfully reproduce themselves except occasionally when there’s the opportunity to support someone planting a new church that is like the supporting church—same music, same attire, same standards, same Bible version, same approved colleges and universities, and same loyalty to national leaders. This kind of church planting is often little more than the shuffling and reshuffling of those already committed to a certain vision of the church. A clone-like church is planted here and there, mostly in white suburban areas, but there are no church planting movements to speak of and few churches which reflect the diverse population of North American urban centers.
So if most traditional churches cannot reproduce themselves what should we do? First of all, we should recognize the contribution that traditional churches make and have made to the work of God. They have a role in the outworking of God’s plans and should be appreciated. They have provided a legacy on which others build. It’s easy and mostly pointless to search for flaws in how they have done ministry and mistakes they have made. We should look on them with the same generosity and grace which we will want others to accord us in the future when they are looking back on what we have tried to accomplish. As one writer puts it, traditional believers and churches are like bricks on the understructure of a bridge. These bricks will not move to the other side of the bridge (i.e., they will not, need not leave their traditions) but they are necessary for the overall support of the structure, in this case God’s church (see The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, pp. 33-36). They are not to be despised or belittled for holding to traditions which are an important part of their Christian identity as developed in their contexts.
Secondly, although most traditional churches cannot reproduce themselves, they can still reproduce, and here is the caveat: they must be willing to allow churches they plant to have their own identity in obedience to the Scriptures and develop their own traditions and style of ministry. Simply put, they should be narrow where the Word of God is narrow and grant freedom where the Word of God permits freedom. Of course traditional churches have every right to expect that the churches they help plant possess the same DNA, the same core theological commitments. But if churches demand that new churches in different contexts look the same, do church the same, be governed in exactly the same way, emphasize and engage the same issues, and follow the same leaders, then we should expect to see more men—young and old alike—leaving Fundamentalism to experience and enjoy God-given liberty to plant Christ-honoring churches without being held hostage to the extra-biblical sensitivities of others.
For those traditional churches which are ready to meet the church planting challenge, let me raise a few questions as suggestive of where liberty might be accorded to church planters. In saying this I’m imagining a church plant in an urban setting with a significant number of university students who are skeptical of, if not hostile to Christianity as they’ve known it. The community has pockets of immigrants who live alongside young professionals who are buying and renovating older homes and displacing long-term residents who can no longer afford skyrocketing rents. In planting a new inner-urban church, consider the following questions:
- Do you have one pastor carrying the leadership and preaching burden alone or a leadership team where the lead pastor is “one among equals in decision-making; first among equals in vision and leadership?”
- Do you organize traditional Sunday School, Sunday AM, PM and Wednesday prayer meeting services or develop gatherings according to patterns more appropriate to cultural patterns where the church is situated?
- Do you create and multiply programs for different age or affinity groups to attract people to the church or does the church seek bridges of contact in the community for incarnational ministry?
- Do you insist on the exclusive use of more formal, traditional hymns and outdated gospel choruses or do you seek a balance with music that is theologically sound, spiritually uplifting, and comprehensible and which includes contemporary forms?
- Do you employ a church name that creates unnecessary barriers or choose a name which reflects an aspect of your ministry without denominational code words?
- Do you utilize a website designed to attract Christians who move into your area while confusing unbelievers with Christian-speak language like “separatistic,” and “militant” and listing everything you believe about everything, or do you simplify your public presentation in order to catch and hold the attention of the unchurched as well?
- Do you place the American flag and the Christian flag behind the podium and give the appearance of supporting a conservative political agenda (usually Republican) or do you urge your people to be good citizens regardless of their political views and affiliations and refuse to allow politics to highjack the cause of the gospel?
- Do you give public invitations after each service singing “Just As I Am” or “I Surrender All” with a decisional emphasis or do you emphasize progressive and radical transformation through biblical discipleship and in relational community?
In asking these questions I realize that not all of the elements in the first part of the questions are found in all traditional churches and that such stark polarizations do not always exist. Neither am I saying that all of these elements are inappropriate in certain settings. I am saying that the first part elements will not be found in most urban settings, are not essential “as is” to being the church, and that we must allow for liberty in contextualizing ministry. In other words, there are functions and there are forms. The functions are those elements which are indispensable to be the church and they center on and around the Word. The forms can be adapted and modified and should not be considered normative.
At this point I have purposely not given answers to the above questions. The questions are only a small sample of what needs to be asked. I cannot provide normative answers since there is no one model for planting churches. What I would like to ask in closing is this: are there churches that are unable to reproduce themselves who are interested in reproducing gospel-centered, Christ-honoring, theologically-committed churches which can be effective in ways and in places where traditional churches may never be found or effective? Perhaps nothing will contribute more to the kind of future in store for Fundamentalism then how Fundamentalists respond to this question.
Dr. Stephen M. Davis is on the pastoral team at Grace Church, a new church plant in Philadelphia, and adjunct professor in missions at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A. from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from CBTS, and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania.