Planting Urban Churches, Part 2

Read Part 1.

Cultural accommodation is a genuine danger in planting churches. However, a real problem is the one-sided perspective that many have of accommodation. Usually the accommodation is seen rightly (Rom. 12:2) but narrowly only toward the world, caving in to worldly culture in dress, music, and questionable practices and associations. Frequently forgotten is the cultural accommodation toward Christians, generally well-meaning but misguided, who have a truncated view of the Christian life and seek to impose discipleship as they’ve known and experienced it as normative for all believers. Thus, there are twin dangers of cultural accommodation: 1) Accommodating or catering to the unchurched in designing worship from a seeker-driven mentality; 2) Accommodating or catering to the churched who come to the new church plant with their preferences paraded mistakenly for biblical convictions.

A recent article on urban church planting elicited mixed responses for which I’m mostly glad. I appreciate it when others point out weaknesses or would like more clarification. Since I’m not a blogger I don’t have a cadre of lapdogs to pat me on the back and cheer me on as seems to be the case with select blogs. A few people, in reading between the lines, may have understood my encouraging the removal of barriers to the gospel in thinking that doing so would allow people to more easily accept the gospel message. I’m all for getting rid of unnecessary barriers which prevent people from hearing the gospel. But there was no suggestion that getting rid of pews, ties, and changing the music will bring more people to Christ.

Nonetheless, I must maintain that I have no problem with an established church which desires biblical transformation or new churches started with a different model. Pew or chairs; Sunday best , business casual or jeans; morning and evening service or morning only; small groups or Wednesday evening prayer meeting—you may find biblical allowance, but you will not find biblical warrant for all your choices. What slightly amazes me is that many seem to care so much about churches where they have no voice of influence, only criticism.

In the previous article I asked two questions: “Whom are you trying to please?” and “Whom do you want to reach?” I was purposely vague about providing definitive answers to those questions (as if I really have them anyway). I can only answer those questions for myself, not for others. The point was that in pleasing God and reaching the lost you may upset some believers who probably shouldn’t care so much about what you do in your church. My point at that juncture was to sow seed so that church planters can come to their own conclusions. For that I offer no apology.

Actually I think churches with longstanding traditions should tread carefully and lay a clear biblical foundation for needed change. If that foundation isn’t laid or can’t be laid, then whether, and what change should be pursued has to be re-examined. Without needed renewal some churches might die, but it won’t do to simply chase the latest fad. In church planting it’s less a question of change than it is of determining the right course from the beginning in questions of pews, dress, music and similar issues. There is not the same importance accorded to these things as there is in churches with established practice.

The church where I am a pastor would be considered traditional in many respects. Sunday morning you’ll normally find me in a suit and tie and singing hymns in a pew. Yet we are finding ways to incorporate the best of more recently written music with classic hymns. I don’t consider myself anti-traditional and recognize elements of continuity with historic Christianity. Neither do I consider myself trendy and avant-garde in jumping on the latest church growth bandwagon. But I will oppose investing tradition with biblical authority and will continue to look to Scripture to correct and refresh my view and practices.

In the aftermath of the above-referenced article, the editor of SI rightly pointed out in a comment that “it doesn’t follow that we should be stupid and insist on customs that are clearly just our own preferences. But these are far more often issues that matter to believers rather than unbelievers.” Exactly! Most unbelievers don’t care what Bible version your church plant uses, what preferences leadership might hold concerning dress standards, or what musical philosophy you hold—at least not at the outset. The greater problem in planting a new church is what Christians expect to find in the new church – their favorite Bible version, their opinions on what music God listens to, and their lists of do’s and don’ts are deemed emblems of true spirituality.

Concerning the first danger mentioned above—of accommodating the unchurched—there is biblical warrant for having worship done in such a way that unbelievers come under conviction and “worship God and declare that God is really among you” (I Cor. 14:25). That does not mean that you entertain them in a show atmosphere or dilute the gospel to make it more palatable with “plausible words of wisdom” (I Cor. 2:4). It does mean that you need to engage them with the truth in a comprehensible way. If we use incomprehensible words in our witness to unbelievers with the lame reasoning that the Holy Spirit will enlighten them, we abdicate our responsibility to “make it clear, which is how [we] ought to speak” (Col. 4:4). Further,

We have to wrestle with the reasons why people reject the gospel, and in particular give due weight to the cultural factors. Some people reject the gospel not because they perceive it to be false, but because they perceive it to be alien. (Stott 1999, 24)

We cannot do the Spirit’s work of bringing conviction. We can do the “work of an evangelist” and speak simply, clearly and compassionately the words of life. In other words, let the gospel offend but don’t excuse your personal offensiveness by saying you’re “only preaching the Bible.” Surely the natural man doesn’t receive the things of the Spirit of God (I Cor. 2:14). That’s no reason for a lack of courtesy, attentiveness, humility, and civility in speaking the light into darkness.

Concerning the second danger mentioned above—of accommodating the churched—there is biblical warrant for believers to be like-minded (Phil. 2:2; I Peter 3:8). It’s interesting to me that these texts which enjoin like-mindedness among believers also call respectively for “having the same love” and “brotherly love.” How rarely we find these today in issue-driven churches! These virtues do not entail unanimity in all that we believe to be important for the Christian life. Whether we admit it or not, we are all influenced by our backgrounds, education, discipleship environments and mentors, causing us to emphasize some issues out of proportion to their scriptural importance or biblical clarity. Of course there are some who are right on all issues, who claim the final word on disputed matters and continue to pass judgment on other believers, notwithstanding the apostolic prohibition (Rom. 14:13).

Part of my observation in the earlier article mentioned dress, music, and versions. Their mention was not meant as a criticism of those who choose differently than I in those areas. Although I have no problem with those who would make different choices in these areas, I resist vigorously any attempt to have someone speak for me in a once-for-all fashion as if they have the one right position. And tragically these issues have become fodder for endless disputations particularly by those who, whether from naïve realism or under the spell of influential gurus, have exalted their preferences to a level of scriptural certainty. They proclaim that those who disagree are disobedient to Scripture, preach another gospel, or are possibly apostates.

So, in planting a new church, here’s what, by God’s grace, we as leaders would do when facing the dangers of accommodating culture, whether it be contemporary culture or preferential, Christianized culture which vaunts itself as the only true expressions and representation of biblical Christianity.

Concerning the unchurched, we will boldly and uncompromisingly preach the gospel of salvation by grace in Christ alone. Yet, “we need to be reminded that this gospel is not simply an evangelism plan; it is a message of how the good news of God’s provisions affects our whole lives every day” (Chapell 2009, 100). With that in mind, we will not require that new believers submit to a list of regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (Col. 2:21)—to achieve spiritual maturity. We are confident in the power of the Word and Spirit to bring authentic transformation rather than superficial conformity in the lives of his people. We want God to produce followers of Christ, not imitators of men.

Concerning the churched, we welcome them to journey with us in discovering more about grace. Come, we say, let us worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Come with your KJV, ESV, NASB or NIV but if you need to prove to everyone that you have determined which translation is best for everyone else, then you might be ill at ease among us with our tainted translations.

Come with your suits and ties, wing-tipped shoes, skirts and frilly dresses, slacks or Dockers, jeans, pullovers, and sandals. But if you have an impulse to establish the proper dress code, beard and hair lengths, so worship is acceptable to God then you won’t be happy with the way we look.

Come with your preferences for classical hymns, gospel choruses, contemporary praise songs, ethnic flavors, and we will incorporate from these that which we believe is fitting to honor the majesty and glory of our God and Savior. Say “Amen,” clap your hands, lift your hands in worship or remain silent and meditative. But if you have to always agree with musical choices and modes of expression and have an agenda to correct faulty worship then it might be best to start your own church.

Come with your convictions and precisions of the timing and interpretation of end-time events. But leave your charts at home. Let us look together for the coming of Christ and his eternal kingdom without being blinded by speculative details.

Come with your questions and opinions on Calvinism and Arminianism but leave a dogmatic, argumentative, crusading spirit at the door. We believe in sovereign grace and amazing grace. We don’t magnify one without the other. We don’t fully comprehend either or claim a divine perspective. We preach “whosoever will may come,” marvel that God has saved us, and rejoice over every person saved by grace.

In our attempt to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we seek neither accommodation to the world nor accommodation to cultural expressions of Christianity. We embrace truth, yet have no illusion that we and we alone have grasped it fully. Still we submit to that truth to shape the church which Christ builds.

Works Cited

Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice. Grand Rapids. Baker Academic, 2009.

Stott, John R. W. “The Bible in World Evangelization.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steve C. Hawthorne, 21-33. Pasadena, Cal: William Carey Library, 1999.


Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA) and adjunct professor 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 Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. He and his wife Kathy recently moved back to Philadelphia to plant Grace Church with his brother John and his wife Dawn and three other couples. Steve’s views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Two observations:
One...

S.Davis wrote:
A few people, in reading between the lines, may have understood my encouraging the removal of barriers to the gospel in thinking that doing so would allow people to more easily accept the gospel message.
I'm a bit unclear on how there can be so much "needed change" if (a) we are not talking about traditions that are unbiblical (or "antibiblical" as some prefer), and (b) making the changes won't help with the evangelistic mission of the church. If walking away from the traditions will not help reach the lost, will it help believers grow? I think we'd encounter similar problems in making a case for that.

Two...
I have to confess I'm a somewhat random contrarian. That is, when I was surrounded by people who constantly preached a handful of traditions, I was full of zeal to slay these sacred cows. And I regularly expressed most of the ideas in the article here. But it's been a long time since I encountered that problem. So now I'm more inclined to defend traditions... because I see them being broadsided far more often than I see them being held with too much tenacity or defended with misused Scripture. I'm sure this is still a problem in many places. I'm just blissfully insulated from them. The believers and churches I'm familiar with would, without exception, benefit greatly from a far greater appreciation for traditions--but much older ones.
Since I live and serve in a different climate, Steve, I find it hard to feel the passion for "needed change" that you do. Where I live, the music and the pews and the ties are just not what is hindering churches from effectiveness.

B Thomas's picture

Regarding dress, music, and Bible versions Steve Davis wrote, ". . . I resist vigorously any attempt to have someone speak for me in a once-for-all fashion as if they have the one right position."

Aren't you, in these articles, claiming to have the "one right position" regarding urban church planting as it relates to dress, music, and versions?

Steve Davis's picture

Aaron:

I agree that these do not hinder churches from growing. I think I made clear (or tried) that these are a sampling of issues that are often raised way out of their importance and are moot issues in church planting. In new church planting situations there is greater latitude and liberty in these and other areas and new churches will develop their own traditions. Many church traditions are neither unbiblical nor antibiblical. They are traditions and not necessarily transferable from place to place. I care little if a church has pews (nice if padded), or if ties are worn, and with different music styles. We are presently renting meeting space in an Episcopal Church and would love to use their ornate auditorium at times. Ties are welcome at our gatherings. My 86 year old dad comes in suit and tie. And in our music we try to incorporate the best from different genres. For us the question is not is it contemporary or classic but does it honor God in the components of worship – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, assurance, petition, proclamation, benediction, etc. (see Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell). We are not here to entertain but to exhort and to edify.

A book I would recommend for SI readers is "Deep Church: A Third Way Between Emerging and Traditional" by Jim Belcher. One of the things he deals with is what can be learned from the Tradition of 2000 years of church history. Some tradition is local and appropriate for the time and place. Only apostolic “tradition” is authoritative. It seems that many Emerging Churches are trying to return to the “Tradition” while many traditional churches want to retain their “tradition.” I know that’s way oversimplifying. Jim argues for a third way with the valid protests of the Emerging churches (not necessarily their solutions) and the valid concerns of traditional churches. It’s a good read with enough to disagree with for everyone. I am not looking for agreement with what I present. It’s there to be knocked down and around and hopefully will have some benefit.

I'm sure we will develop our own traditions in the new church plant in Philadelphia. We also have much to learn from the Tradition of churches throughout the ages. Most of all we want to be gospel-centered and gospel-driven. (see Michael Horton's book - The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World). We want to see people come to Christ, drawn to Christ. We want them to be enriched with elements of continuity with the historic church which would include liturgy and classic hymns. We want to as much as possible get out of the way with what God is doing and not emphasize lower tier disagreements. I do think that recognizing the primacy of the gospel and having a two or even three-tiered approach to what we believe will help the evangelistic mission of the church. At least in this way - believers will recognize the local and parochial and unite on the universal and transferable. They will speak less about each other and more to unbelievers.

What established churches need to do or not do to be more effective - I can't speak to that. They may die without change but there is not one change package for every church and making changes to follow the latest trend will not do. There must be a way to recapture a gospel-focused vision of reaching people with the Good News. I have great respect and appreciation for traditional churches and the legacy they have bequeathed us. I’m in no way an anti-traditionalist. Yet so many established churches have become ingrown and withdrawn, busy running programs and maintaining the status quo that your average church member has few outside contacts and even fewer friendships with unbelievers. One of the best ways for churches to become more effective in their mission and more open to refreshed biblical ways of doing ministry is to plant new churches. Now in a new church plant we have no utopian dream that we have the answers. But it is refreshing to be in an urban area and start something new. I don’t expect much of this to resonate with guys who are not actively engaged in planting urban churches. So there is a limited audience for what I write (and limited benefit for all). And I still have much more to learn. It’s a journey. Didn't mean to write another article.

Steve

Steve Davis's picture

B Thomas

You missed the point. There is no one position. I don't speak for other churches or criticize them if they have a different position than mine on these minor areas. They are free to embrace what they believe the Lord wants them to be and do. I don't claim to have the one and only position. I have mine informed by Scripture and history, lived out in the realities of the 21st century. To claim to have the one position in areas where there is no scriptural authority is "to go beyond what is written" (I Cor. 4:6).

Steve

B Thomas's picture

Steve,

In the article it seemed like you were claiming to have hit the bullseye regarding urban church planting in that you have achieved the intricate balance of not accommodating the world or cultural Christian traditions. However, I will take you at your word and not press it any further.

Thank you.

Rob Fall's picture

All I know is at HSBC we don't have many problems with the churched. Mostly because the "churched" are folks who have been saved and/or discipled in out ministry. As for outside "churched", the axiom is nobody comes to San Francisco to go to church.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Rob Fall wrote:
the axiom is nobody comes to San Francisco to go to church.

I can believe that!

Steve... I think I see a distinction you're making that I wasn't seeing before: the idea discarding a tradition vs. not "transferring" one where it doesn't exist yet--i.e., a new plant. In my own thinking, many of these (and older) traditions actually are in place (or used to be) in the Body of Christ in America and other Western locals. So I'm still biased toward seeing non-transference as requiring some justification as well, especially if these are traditions that do not hinder anything of consequence.
That said, if I were planting a church would I insist on traditional Sunday AM attire? I don't even insist on it at our 70+ year old rural church. But it does irk me to see folks come to church dressed like it's a Fri night football game. But "irked" is about as far as it ever gets. In truth, in a church plant I think I'd be a bit stronger on this (and several other practices going by the wayside) because it seems like it would be easier to build this from scratch that to restore it where it's already become a new tradition to do otherwise.
So, in many of our churches, we already have traditions that have replaced the 19th and 20th century (and in many cases much older) ones. So we are really talking about which traditions to pursue, not traditional vs. non.
I don't want to seem stuck on dressing up for church but it's a useful example of what I mean. This was not a suburban invention of the late 20th century that should not "transfer" to 21st century urban churches. This was a much older custom that has long been replaced with the newer suburban (and more recently urban) tradition of not dressing up... for much of anything (this really all started in the corporate world I think, but I'm not sure. Would be interesting to read some work from a historian).
My own bias toward the dressing up thing is that--in the back of my mind--I'm looking for ways to elevate Sunday worship above the ordinary routine of daily life. I'm interested in ways to do that via the music as well. I believe people should be very conscious that "this is not a ball game, back yard barbecue, party, family reunion or day at the office." (Admittedly, in the past, dressing up made it more like a day at the office for many).

Anyway, I see your distinction between preserving vs. transfer when you look at local churches individually. It's just not a distinction that is very large in my own thinking.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Quote:
I don't want to seem stuck on dressing up for church but it's a useful example of what I mean. This was not a suburban invention of the late 20th century that should not "transfer" to 21st century urban churches. This was a much older custom that has long been replaced with the newer suburban (and more recently urban) tradition of not dressing up... for much of anything (this really all started in the corporate world I think, but I'm not sure. Would be interesting to read some work from a historian).

I've attended funerals and formal weddings where guests looked like they just rolled out of bed. It may be culturally acceptable to wear sweats and T-shirts 24/7/365, but it still conveys a thoughtless disregard for sacred or momentous occasions. I don't see anything wrong with conveying to one's congregation that a sign of respect is to wear one's best. Obviously one's best is going to be based on the content of one's closet, and it doesn't necessarily mean a suit and tie, but the principle is still there, I think.

In general I agree with the OP. There are so many levels of spiritual growth in the pew and amongst the leadership... it seems to me that much of the behavior modification that became part of Fundamentalism did not have expected effect, so we ought to re-examine how we engage both the saint and the sinner about heart issues and build churches on criteria besides dress codes and music styles... changes in those areas will naturally follow when a Christian is being regularly edified, admonished, and equipped to serve.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

After reading the article I have two questions:

1. What is the working definition of "urban" here? Who or what qualifies as "urban" and if it cannot be answered rather definitively than it would be hard to move beyond that so I imagine there must be some clear parameters at least as to what falls within this word "urban".

2. Why must the formula presented for a new church be assigned heavily to an "urban" setting? It sounds to me like a functional scheme for any setting?

Steve Davis's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

In truth, in a church plant I think I'd be a bit stronger on this (and several other practices going by the wayside) because it seems like it would be easier to build this from scratch that to restore it where it's already become a new tradition to do otherwise.

I don't want to seem stuck on dressing up for church but it's a useful example of what I mean.

Aaron:

I would have to disagree on being "stronger' on this in a church plant. We've only been meeting a few weeks but we have college students, people bringing unsaved friends, will certainly have some homeless with us, and live in the third poorest legislative district in PA. For me dress standards are a non-issue. I care little what people wear (as long as they wear someting). It doesn't mean that I like everything that people wear or that I'm coming in ripped shorts, t-shirt and sandals. I am far more concerned with pointing people to Christ, discipling them in the Word, and watching the Holy Spirit transform their lives. It might be time for Christians to stop looking at how others dress and meet people where they are in order to become engaged in their lives.

Steve

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think I've explained why I care about that... not saying it's for everybody, but I suspect I could not sleep at night if I were not laboring to build even in brand new believers (maybe especially in them) the idea of our gathered worship being elevated above the daily routine, as well as the idea that dress has meaning and we need to be reflective about what our dress is "saying."

Steve Davis's picture

Alex Guggenheim wrote:
After reading the article I have two questions:

1. What is the working definition of "urban" here? Who or what qualifies as "urban" and if it cannot be answered rather definitively than it would be hard to move beyond that so I imagine there must be some clear parameters at least as to what falls within this word "urban".

2. Why must the formula presented for a new church be assigned heavily to an "urban" setting? It sounds to me like a functional scheme for any setting?

Alex,

Let me refer you to a brief article that I've written on our church leadership blog.

http://blog.gracechurchphilly.org/index.php/page/2/

There are significant challenges in planting churches anywhere. There are special challenges in planting urban/inner city churches. I'm for planting churches wherever - but I do have a profound sense that cities, particularly here in the Northeast, have been largely abandoned by evangelical Christians. I can't tell you how many churches (read white churches) have fled the cities over the years, along with their members, to regroup and stay more like they were in suburban refuges rather than stay and change. I'm not passing judgment on all the motives for those departures from the city. As a realist I don't expect a reversal of that. I do encourage churches which took their resources with them to invest in church planting in the city where resources are scarcer. Of course there are some churches here in Philadelphia like 10th Pres (formerly pastored by James Boyce, now Phil Ryken) which have maintained a strong presence.

City living, city church planting is not for everyone. But maybe it should be for more. I simply want to encourage church planting in cities that have been forsaken. Thankfully there are some real urban church planting movements which God has raised up (i.e. Tim Keller in New York). Here in Philly the PCA has a robust church planting presence. If you really want a definition of “urban” then come visit us. I can define it but seeing it is better than a definition.

Steve

mbruffey's picture

It seems quite reasonable to consider seriously the assertion that modernity is in the midst of her last gasp. Some cannot accept this idea at all; others embrace it with open arms. FWIW, I think the conversation Dr. Davis is driving in this thread arises in direct connection with this state of affairs, our ability to accept it, and the myriad of questions that naturally ensue. I have found that my recent readings in the following two works provide useful perspective; perhaps you too will find them useful as well:

Olson, Roger E. Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology. Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007.

Olson, Roger E. How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative. Zondervan, 2008.

I do not intend by this recommendation to imply that any participants in the conversation here fit neatly, or necessarily at all, into Olson's category "Postconservative Evangelicalism." I merely suggest a little reading that might help you, after some reflection, understand the conversation a little better.

Mark

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks, Mark. Maybe you'd be interested in writing up somewhat detailed reviews of these books?

Anne Sokol's picture

i really think we should be careful about this, about dress. Because people's reactions and thinking processes are so very different. I will give two examples,

1) a teenager--for some (most?) teenagers, the way they dress is a direct expression of who they are as a person. So convincing them that "dressing up" like we mean it (suit, tie, button-down, etc) is the way that we show respect to God might be totally backwards to what it means to them. most modern teens express respect by accepting someone as they are; they dress weird almost as a test of who will accept them or as a sign of what group they are accepted into. in the business world, suit and tie is dressing up respect, but it's not for other people

2) i'm working with an unsaved belgian couple, and the man does a lot of humanitarian work in very poor countries. he actually seems to try to live in a concsiously simple way.

his partner is birthing at a very wealthy hospital, and I (half)jokingly said one day that he could dress up in a suit the next time they visit so they'll think they are rich and she'll get nicer treatment. He just made a serious comment about how he is exactly against that type of monetary-based treatment and wearing a suit was not an option for him in this context. I got to thinking how it is true for him in his line of work, he sees and intercedes for so many disadvantaged people that he would have issues with rich-looking dress. i have never seen him in anything even near a suit.

i htink that would really affect how he sees people at church too. dressing up, for him, is a sign of wealth, it's not an expression of showing respect to God really. He identifies simple dress with helping the poor.

very intriguing case.

Smile

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