Customized ads are the normal experience of our digital lives. From the devices that listen and pick up our conversations, to the places we frequent on the internet, data is collected that provides us with tailored advertisements for goods and services.
I’m not sure whether to be impressed or freaked out when an ad pops up for me that not only appeals to a felt need or curiosity but also matches a preferred aesthetic. Who knew that beard balm and skulls are a match made in heaven for my beard care needs? Now, I do!
You see, I am a consumer. So are you. We can mitigate our consumeristic tendencies, but they crop up in unexpected spaces. Sadly, when consumerism is a normal part of life, it can creep into places it shouldn’t be – unquestioned and unchecked.
Like, for instance, church planting.
If we are not careful in the early stages of planting a church we can spend more mental energy, focused attention, donated resources and time trying to determine what people want from a church than actually delving deep into the Scriptures to draw out what Jesus has told us His Church should be like.
Early in my church-planting journey, I received a book that used an illustration of how a church planter got started in the community he desired to plant in. They scheduled a big meal event, invited all the non-Christians they could find and polled them about what they desired from a new church in their area. The author praised how informative and insightful and helpful this dialogue was for developing their church plant’s strategy.
Wrong … foot … forward!
Church planter, I know you love lost people and desperately desire to reach them with the gospel, but do not take cues from emissaries of darkness for an outpost of heaven. The dying sinner does not need another social outlet that appeals to them. There’s yoga and CrossFit for that. They need your compassionate care and tender, bold declaration of the gospel.
Think carefully about what makes the local church uniquely different from anywhere else in the world:
- It’s not entertainment
- It’s not coffee
- It’s not merch
- It’s not excellent and entertaining programming
- It’s not fashion
- It’s not religious goods and services
Rather, the church is the place
- where light is overcoming darkness
- where the gospel of the Lord Jesus is heralded
- where sinners encounter the living Savior
- where mourners are comforted
- where pride is crushed and humility is built
- where hopeless people find hope
- where you champion the name of Jesus and He builds his Church
The first list doesn’t represent a supernatural work of God. Even if the coffee is excellent, it isn’t distinct from many other offerings of the world.
The second list is what makes your plant a church – and if you have great coffee, that’s a bonus!
But here’s an idol you may need to destroy in your heart. Ask yourself, what do I really want? Early in my planting journey, I had to look in the mirror and confess I really wanted a crowd, a platform of recognition, the praise of peers in my theological tribe. I didn’t want the bride of Christ; I wanted my own warped version of prosperity.
Now, as much as that may sting, I want to say I am not against working hard to be excellent in how you plan, build and begin the church you aspire to plant. This isn’t intended to be a curmudgeonly rant. Instead, I want it to be one sinful, self-righteous brother encouraging others to resist the temptations common to church planters. When it comes to the local church, I hope you will prioritize in your thoughts the same things Scripture does. As church planters we have to work to resist the temptation of treating people like consumers and trying to put out the best product to draw people.
You have the best news in the universe: the message that Jesus saves sinners! Jesus promised, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:35) Preach this glorious message, but I also would encourage you to be diligent in building the type of community that gives and receives the gospel in all gatherings.
Let me point this out from an underrated and overlooked biblical book, Philemon.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a portrait of the power of the gospel to rescue sinners and construct a church where the gospel is given and received.
Briefly, Philemon is the host of a church which meets in his home (v. 2). Philemon is a faithful Christian who loves to serve other Christians so much that Paul affirms his faith and his service (vv. 4-7). But there’s a situation, Philemon’s former servant, Onesimus, who presumably left Philemon’s service in a hurtful and sinful way (vv. 10-11). Onesimus encounters Paul and comes to faith in Jesus, and Paul is sending him back to Philemon (v. 12). Paul sends him back for the purpose of reconciliation and forgiveness (vv. 13-14), even going so far as to explain that perhaps the Lord’s purpose was that Philemon could release Onesimus from being a bondservant and receive him instead as a brother in Christ – that Philemon would receive him back into his home and presumably into the church which met there (vv. 15-16). Paul then pleads for forgiveness and reconciliation to take place between these men, whose relationship once was master and servant but is now brotherhood in Christ (vv. 17-20).
What is happening in this young house church? The gospel message has taken root and is building a gospel community where Jesus is exalted through people who aren’t present to consume, but rather to give. They have come for what the church offers them, but the offer isn’t programs and coffee, it is the renewal of the inner person through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. The letter does not mention programming, service style or member preferences – just the glorious gospel of Jesus being heralded and applied to broken people, resulting in lives changing to look more like Jesus.
This is what the church is: the place where wounds are healed through the blood of Christ, where walls are torn down between those who sin and those who are sinned against, the place where Jesus is restoring us and shaping us into His own image. The message of the gospel and the community it creates distinguish the church from any other organization.
Church planter, in the early and ongoing stages of planting a church this the supernatural message and supernatural community should be where your greatest building efforts should be invested. You are not planting an entertaining service, multi-faceted programming or the coolest show in town. You are planting a place where the dead come to life through the power of the gospel and that new gospel-fueled life is shared in community!
Helpful resources for further reading:
An All-Round Ministry, Charles Spurgeon
The Gospel, Ray Ortlund Jr.
Church Planting is for Wimps, Mike McKinley
The Compelling Community, Jamie Dunlop and Mark Dever
Published June 1, 2022