Why Church Planters Need to Innovatively Engage Unbelievers

By Doug Logan

Connecting with your community is no easy feat. Yet it's the example Paul gave us throughout the New Testament. Here's how–and why!–God has called you to be creative as you engage the lost around you.

Your Cosmic Calling

Many planters lack the apostolic imagination fueled by God’s history of miraculously leading the least, last, and lost from all nations and neighborhoods to the saving knowledge of Jesus. Planters can often forget that the call of Matthew 28 to reach the nations was not a typical commission but a cosmic calling for the church to apply to all people. This cosmic commission should be pushing at the heart and gospel imagination of every church planter to devise ways to reach the lost people in his neighborhood. Throughout Scripture, we see God redemptively using regular people across various cities, towns, countries, and groups–reaching people with the gospel message. At SEND Network, we want our church planters to always be thinking about and developing innovative missional strategies for reaching the lost in their city. Missional strategies that are most effective are contextualized without compromising biblical principles.

Clarity of Purpose

Lost people matter to God, so they should always be a priority of the church planter. Now, there are a plethora of things that the church will seek to accomplish, yet the primary reason the church planter aims to start a new church is to reach lost people with the gospel and see them converted. The church planter is challenged to cultivate the unirrigated soil of lostness. The church planter must consider innovative ways to be fruitful in these spaces. From city to city and state to state, people are very different, not to mention the diversity of race, socioeconomics, and historical backgrounds of people groups within those cities. Therefore, the church planter must always consider developing innovative missional strategies to reach his diverse and unique neighborhood. Sadly, some church planters seek to brand their denominational affiliation or network ideals rather than reach lost people for Christ.

Contextual Exegesis: Acts 17:16-18

I like to constantly assess the missionality of the church planters when I coach. Missionality is a simple term that, in essence, describes the thoughts and plans devised in the planter that flow from God’s Word. City analysis is a regular part of the church planter’s thinking and planning for reaching the neighborhood. Therefore, missionality refers to the characteristic thought patterns and behaviors that drive the planter’s decisions in fashioning gospel-centered, effective missional strategies for the neighborhood in the rapidly changing American landscape.

We can learn about missionality and innovation in church planting from the gospel globetrotter, the Apostle Paul, who had a robust, gospel-centered missionality. Paul had millions of frequent mission flyer miles under his belt through his mission trips to various countries, peoples, and cultures. Paul always had a prayer-bathed, Spirit-driven, contextualized, and innovative mission strategy for reaching the least, last, and lost wherever the Lord took him on a mission. We see his Christ-exalting and innovative brilliance as he engages the people of Athens, Greece, in Acts 17. Paul employed various missional strategies with one thing in mind: reaching the lost and building Christ’s church. In Acts 17, Paul arrives in Athens, the citadel of the many Greek gods. In that city was the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, where a council of civic leaders met and took charge over religious and educational matters in Athens.

Constant Missional Contact

Lost people in the city matter to Jesus. At SEND, the church planter must join Jesus on mission to the lost in his city. And we have been sent with a cosmic, transforming gospel that can change even the hardest Jesus hater. Yet we need the right strategy to forge a plan to effectively reach the lost people in our cities. The planter must always be praying, thinking, and seeking ways to be more effective while leading his team to reach the lost with the gospel. The planter’s missional innovation is relationship-building at its core. It encompasses the simplicity of being a good neighbor and real friend to those on our block. Missional engagement builds regular contact with others, hoping to build authentic trust, real relationships, and the opportunity to live and share the gospel with our lost neighbors over the long haul. The innovative element of missional engagement must be contextualized to the community’s unique needs. To rightly develop contextual missional strategies, the planter must thoroughly analyze the city in which he is planting.

Analyzing the neighborhood for evangelism, as demonstrated in Acts 17:16-21, is a strategic and biblical approach to sharing the gospel effectively. I like to use the term exegeting the culture as it emphasizes a deeper, analytical study loaded with prayer that goes beyond typical demographic studies. In Acts 17:16-21, the Apostle Paul demonstrates a robust cultural exegesis of Athens. In this passage, the Apostle Paul thoughtfully engages with the Athenians, which offers valuable insights to planters who seek to implement relevant gospel engagement. Exegeting the culture involves identifying various platforms and settings where conversations about faith can take place. Cultural exegesis involves a culturally sensitive approach that considers the community’s beliefs, contexts, and intellectual climate. Demographics play a vital role in exegeting the city. As the planter better understands the age groups, cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses of residents, this practice helps craft relevant missional engagement strategies.

Paul’s distress at the idolatry in Athens reflects the importance of understanding the prevailing beliefs and practices of the neighborhood, as well as grasping the community’s spiritual and cultural landscape. Notice how Paul goes to both the marketplace and the synagogue, demonstrating the need for church planters to have a multifaceted approach to missional engagement. From Paul’s cultural exegesis, he could contextually engage the Athenians as he quoted Greek poets and philosophers to make a theological point about humanity’s relationship with God. Like the Apostle Paul, church planters must be ready, willing, and able to engage in intellectual discussions with their context’s philosophers, influencers, and identity cults.

Commitment to Patience

Sadly, instant gratification is the standard expectation for church-planting growth and success in the fast-paced, evangelical world in which we exist today. Yet as planters seek to be missionally innovative in their approach to reaching the lost–rather than just seeking to attract existing Christians who love their brand–the concept of patience often seems foreign in the context of evangelism. However, as we continue to explore Paul’s missional strategies in Acts 17:30-34, we see the Apostle’s extreme missional patience with God, bringing people to trust in Christ.

Acts 17:30-34 shows the Apostle Paul calling the Athenians to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Our missional strategies should include a clear invitation to respond to the gospel. We must call unbelievers to turn from sin and to trust Jesus as Lord and Savior. What stands out in this passage is the varying responses among the listeners. Some mocked, while others expressed a desire to hear more. But what’s crucial is that Paul remained patient and steadfast in his message.

Being patient in evangelism means understanding that people come from different backgrounds, beliefs, and life experiences. Just as in Athens, responses will vary. Some may immediately embrace the gospel, while others may mildly consider it and need more time to ponder. Missional patience recognizes that the work of the Holy Spirit is ongoing and that hearts may need time to soften and minds to open. Paul’s patience bore fruit when a few Athenians believed and joined him. This reminds us that the seeds of faith sown in patience can eventually yield a harvest of transformed lives.

Your Community Engaged

Missional innovation must be present in the church planter’s mind and mission. Many of our traditional models and strategies for mission are irrelevant and ineffective. The cultural landscape of North America is regularly and rapidly shifting. The races and the faces are constantly changing as communities are gentrified. Therefore, the church planter must always use his Bible and apostolic imagination to think and design gospel-centered, missionally innovative, relevant gospel-engagement strategies.

Published February 19, 2024

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Doug Logan

Dr. Doug Logan, Jr. is the President of Grimke Seminary and College and Grimke’s Dean of the School of Urban Ministry.  He also serves as the Director of Urban Church Planter Development for the Send Network.  He is the Pastor of Church Planting at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA.  He is also the author of On The Block: Developing a Biblical Picture for Missional Engagement. In 2011, he planted Epiphany Fellowship of Camden, NJ, with his wife, Angel. They have three adult sons, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.