Saturday, December 17, 2011

Philip Jensen on church

I enjoyed this article What is Church for?

It's a challenging read. Our thoughts on church growth etc are so much compromised by ego for those of us in ministry (or married to ministers). 

You should read it. A couple of things that have come out of it for me:

Belonging vs believing.
PDJ argues that the current church growth theories that tell us to get people into church first, let them belong first, and then believe later, are wrong. The church doesn’t give us the gospel; the gospel gives us the church. The church is built by people coming to faith.

This was certainly my experience. I came to faith in Christ (through a SU camp) and immediately felt I was part of the church. So I set out to find a congregation to attend and be a part of. It was natural - and things like size and musical style didn't matter. I was looking for people who believed to learn the bible and pray with.

In the last ten years I think I've had much too much a focus on getting people into (my) church. Belonging has been what I've been aiming at, hoping that believing would follow. And there's been quite a few people who have come along. How it's generally worked (with exceptions) is that they've come along for a while (a year or two even). People have tried to make them feel welcome but eventually they've drifted out. And I've beaten myself up because I mustn't have made enough effort to integrate them. But there was no hunger for God's word there. They were not part of the church because there was no faith in Christ.

I need to do better with this.

Our church uses a connect, grow, serve model for how things are meant to work. It's tidy but flawed. Conversion is hinted at and hoped for somewhere between connect and grow. And also, what did we train for at theological college? To be socially lubricating people who can build a group of people around ourselves? 

Of course there's nothing new here. But I need to refocus.

Church planting
"There’s any number of people who are very keen to plant churches, but they’re not actually planting churches; what they’re doing is founding their own church, which they are going to stay in for the rest of their life as it grows bigger and bigger into a megachurch."

Ungenerous? Truthful? What do you think?

Building my church vs building the church
Accordingly, we shouldn’t be too concerned about which local or earthly gathering is ‘built’ by our efforts. If I evangelize someone and (by God’s Spirit) he is gathered into Christ’s heavenly assembly, it doesn’t really matter which earthly assembly he ends up in (so long as it is one in which he will continue to be built). Or if I pour time into someone to help them grow and develop and mature, and they take their gifts and do their building work somewhere else (not in my church), what does it matter?

Yeah. I think that this is where a ministry like AFES is at advantage to us in suburban churches. With uni ministry you only expect to keep  people for a few years. We expect to keep them and so our desire to see God's kingdom increase is muddied with our desire to see our church increase. Teaching RE is good for me in this. It's a ministry that I can pour myself into, praying for increase in God's kingdom without having any expectation of short term increase in my own church.

Did you read it? Any thoughts?


  1. I just read it...probably a bit too quickly to put up any kind of helpful comment.
    I think the quote about church planting being a means of founding your own church is interesting. Back in the days when I went to the Uniting Church, I think there was a rule that said a minister couldn't stay in one church location for any longer than ten years, after that they had to move somewhere else. While that model has its disadvantages as well, I wonder if something like that maybe prevents the mega-church phenomenon? (although I do realise there are a multitude of other reasons why mega-churches don't exist in that particular denomination...)
    And Jensen's point about spending all our time with other church people was very good, I thought. Sometimes it has worried me that church people only seem to hang out with other church people. Aside from the risk of this becoming a bit like a clique in which new people struggle to feel like they belong, how is there any opportunity to convert others outside the church when this happens?
    Thought provoking though. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. I read it and agree that it is a very fine article, the sort of thing everyone should be reading and inwardly digesting.

    I would have liked Philip to have recognized that often when we speak of 'church' it has little to do with ecclessia, but means more what used to be called 'the universal church', but that's a niggle.

    I think his thoughts on believing versus belonging parallel mine. I've always been uneasy with the idea that you get people to belong and then believe - that seems a recipe for harvesting a large crop of nominals in another two generations, deja vu all over again. I probably wouldn't agree with his strong contrast between the gospel gives you the church not the church gives you the gospel - obviously the church (or believers) gives people the gospel. That's the normal way that has God has ordained for the gospel to be preached, however much that an angel might do it in Revelation, and something close to that can happen in dreams. But the way that I think Philip is trying to use the contrast I would agree with.

    The quote from Philip about people's motives in planting churches I would assume comes from him listening to people as they explain their church planting plans. Given Philip's track record, I'd tend to assume that it was a 'fair call' unless I got evidence that he's offball here. I don't think he's trying to attack all Aussie church planters by his comment though. My guess is that he might have had in mind something like Driscoll's approach where you have to get people to plant a church young or they'll never be able to grow it to a mega church size. I think Philip is implicitly saying - "Why on earth is that even getting airplay as a motivation?" If it was in view, it's not a total attack on Driscoll, and the lack of specific mention to him is important - he's concerned here about the idea, not the person who said it.

    But I think Phillip's basic lack of concern as to whether he gets the value out of his work or someone else does is part of the secret of his success. It's a Zen thing - the ministers that calculate the cost-benefit thing, and resent working with someone only to have them leave tend to have a miserly approach to ministry across the board - it's a zero sum game for them. Most (albeit not all) of the more successful ministers, for all they are accused of empire building, are often more open handed. Certainly they can afford to be, but I'm not sure that you can get to where they are by being close handed.

    And yet, (and this is the Zen thing), they aren't quietist or passive or lazy in their approach to ministry. They do the basics well and work hard, but don't resent losing some people to other places. They plan and do things that should lead to growth, but if it leads to growth elsewhere they praise God.

    I think it's an important article - no new ground, but really important stuff in one place.

  3. It's often said that protestants usually have a slightly overdone individual salvation and individual conversion, and can't understand societies as anything other than something peripheral, or, at best, something made up of one-to-one relationships.

    Something I've found interesting in the little bit of Hegel I've absorbed (and first thought I'd found in John Searle) is the thought that it's 'institutions' all the way down - the individual Christian is instituted by God, and within them the various changes are changes to the way things are recognized, the way things show up. The discontinuity around the individual kind of goes away, and the church becomes more logical as an institution when you think institution is the way humans get constituted at a deep level. I always thought institutions were parasite super-organisms that maintained their life entirely at the expense of human freedom. But I have to swallow my pride and admit that I am at least as dodgy, unhelpful, wishy-washy, foolish and expensive as any diocese. The same declarations institute me and a big Us, the church.
    The question 'what is church for?' gets an answer that hews closely to the answer to 'what is a christian for?'

  4. Thanks for pointing it out. I wouldn't have seen it otherwise.

    I'm giving the leaders in our church a copy of the article to read over summer.

  5. Missing from my comment - I thought this was a cool article, and your commentary is interesting. We at our church are losing many of 'our' 'new' people as the year rolls over and they get posted away again - there is hardly time for people to belong these days, and there is a lot of competition for belonging - hobbies, sports, parenting etc. Good idea Al, I will see if our minister has seen it.