Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Paul, Galatians 3:3
Christianity has achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its Founder.
H. Richard Neibuhr
How long? Not long. ’Cause what you reap is what you sow.
Rage Against the Machine, Wake Up
Size matters not.
There I was, sitting in a room in Wales, the most unchurched part of the United Kingdom, gearing up to hear the pastoral wisdom of Francis Chan. I don’t know how they got him to come to this place, of all the crummy gin joints in the world, but there he was, kicking down his radical manifesto to a crew of pastors who were very clearly not getting what he was driving at. Francis was speaking about his unconventional move to leave his thriving California megachurch, travel to the developing world, and visit the underground Chinese church in hopes of radically rethinking what church was meant to be. Free-falling into the hands of God, he was on a mission of discovery to scrape together some paradigm of ministry that he could believe in: something that nurtured discipleship, was less self-serving to the pastor, and had more practical impact.
And that’s when it happened.
He said he had begun to wonder if there was something missing in our current setup. Then he dropped the A-word (and it ain’t what you’re thinking).
It’s the new A-bomb in church circles.
It’s a word that’s used in nearly every book in the New Testament, and yet twenty-first-century Christians dodge it like Superman recoiling from kryptonite. As it echoed in the vacuum of stunned silence, the hackles rose on the nape of my neck. I thought, Holy New Testament vocabulary, Batman! This guy is going to blow the doors off the church if he keeps dropping the biblical A-bomb!
The word apostle had become like the ark of the covenant to me, and lately I was feeling the contrast between the pastoral Dr. Jones’s mundane routine of charming the ladies with stuffy indoor academic-type pulpit lectures and the alter-ego adventurer Indy inside me, desperately trying to break out. When reading the book of Acts, I’d often ask myself, “Why does what we do in ministry today look so different from the way Paul did it?” I’d been rediscovering the biblical role of the apostle for the last few years, and I realized that Francis had been brought to my doorstep so that he could be used to deliver a divine kick up my backside by being so bold as to use that word. The end result was me chaining myself to my desk and writing about what I’d begun to witness in Europe.
For over a decade I’d been involved in various forms of church planting in Wales as an overseas tent-making missionary pastor. The oldest Celtic-speaking nation and once known as “the land of revivals,” Wales has become the forgotten part of the UK. Hugging the western rim of northwestern Europe alongside Ireland, Wales also represents the cutting edge of postmodernism. When I first set foot on Welsh terra firma twelve years ago, I could see that it wasn’t going to be easy. Almost immediately I slammed into two important facts: first, the secular ethos and post-Christian mind-set were swallowing churches alive in the UK like the mighty Sarlacc pit’s digestive juices slowly eroding Boba Fett’s Mandalorian body armor. Second, I was going to have to completely relearn ministry from the foundations up if I was going to get anywhere in this God-forsaken mission field.
Those two realizations made me desperate. In the natural world, desperation creates a fight-or-flight reflex. In the spiritual realm, it’s not too different. The second you realize that it’s either sink or swim, the adrenaline starts to juice you up, and you get radical. Fighting isn’t usually my first instinct; flighting is. Nonetheless, I’ve always been the kind of guy who was willing to do anything, no matter how crazy it sounded, or how scared I was, as long as I knew God was in it.
I can relate to Gideon. I understand all of his hesitation and boldness in alternating steps. That’s usually the cadence of my footsteps as well. Although I may not like it at the time, most often I’ll eventually drag myself to the electric chair, reluctantly strapping in with Thomas’s helpless but sarcastic words ringing in my head: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
I had been called by God to make an impact in a culture that saw less than 1.6 percent of the population attending church—and I had to change. The way I did ministry had to change. So I started reading the Bible a bit more….
Oh yeah, and I started paying more attention to the book of Acts.
THE NEW TESTAMENT WORD FOR MISSIONARY
Let me ask you: doesn’t it seem weird that our missionary manifesto, the New Testament, lacks the word missionary in the English translations? Think about that.
Can that be right?
On the contrary, my dear Watson, the word you’ve been looking for has been under your nose all along. It is there. You just haven’t recognized it because of how it has been translated. It’s the word apostle. Apostolos in the Greek means “sent one” and can be translated as “missionary.”
Now what did the New Testament missionaries do? They planted churches.
What if all the buzz about church planting and missional church wasn’t something new that plaid-clad, horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing hipsters had invented, but rather something that was inherent in the word apostolos?
Before the A-bomb sends you running for cover, screaming what a freak I am, let me assure you that I mean apostle with a little a. I don’t mean a guy with superpowers or somebody who still writes Scripture in his spare time. Nor am I a member of the Apostolic denomination.
Bear with me.
Most people out there believe the term apostle belongs exclusively to the Twelve. True, the Twelve were “sent ones,” but the New Testament term apostle is not exclusively used for the Twelve. Once Paul used apostle to describe his role, there were thirteen, but did you know that the Greek word apostolos is used for nine other individuals in the New Testament as well? Oh yeah, it is, but the English translators rendered it as messenger or representative because it didn’t gel with their theology to translate it literally from apostolos to apostle.
What if the church had a theological blind spot that was obstructing a biblical theology of church planting?
What the translators fail to understand is that the New Testament knows two different types of apostles. The first group was known as “the Twelve.” They were capital-A Apostles and missionaries to the twelve tribes of Israel, and they were never to be replicated or replaced. They were handpicked by Jesus for a specific time in history. The second category—little-a apostles—was a lesser group of church planters who served under Paul. He gave them the title of apostolos. The word apostolos is definitely used for the Twelve, as in Matthew 10:2, but not for them alone. The word is also used for Paul, and he wasn’t one of the Twelve. Here are nine other people called apostles (apostolos, plural: apostoloi) in the New Testament, none of whom were part of the Twelve:
• Titus (2 Cor. 8:23)
• James, the Lord’s brother, not John’s brother from Club 12 (Gal. 1:18–19)
• Barnabas (Acts 14:14)
• Apollos (1 Cor. 4:6–9)
• Andronicus (Rom. 16:7)
• Junias (Rom. 16:7)
• Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25)
• Timothy (1 Thess. 1:1–2:6)
• Silas/Silvanus (1 Thess. 1:1–2:6)
Those are just the ones Paul mentioned. Paul worked with a network of missionaries who were also sent out by Jesus on a frontline, life-or-death church-planting commando recon mission. In fact, Paul used the title of apostle for what he did in church planting: “for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:8). He said to the Corinthians, “Are you not my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1–2). A paraphrase of that could be, “If to others I am not a ‘sent-out one,’ at least I am to you, for you are a proof or validation of my ‘sent-out-ness’ in the Lord.” His apostleship was proved by the fact that the Corinthian church existed. Why? Because apostle = church planter.
The lesser apostles didn’t meet the same criteria as the Twelve, nor were they leaders over the whole church. Instead, these lesser apostles operated as church-planting missionaries. There may be a parallel between the lesser apostles and the seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out. Although these disciples didn’t have special status or authority, their role was nonetheless to spread the word to villages and towns that needed to hear. Paul was not one of the Twelve, but he was a kind of link between the twelve apostles who were there from the beginning and those who would take his place: Timothy, Titus, and the others.
This makes sense of why, in Ephesians 4, Paul said apostles (and prophets and evangelists) are necessary for building up the church alongside pastors and teachers. Paul spoke of them as if they were commonplace.
True, there are those who say, as I once believed, that the roles of apostle and prophet faded into oblivion upon the completion of Scripture. In the modern church, however, we’ve managed to exterminate teacher and evangelist as well so that we’re left with the pastor-only model. What if, as a result of amputating these roles, the church were a dismembered quadriplegic? Would that explain why it isn’t moving? Would it shed light on why the church inchworms pathetically on its mission like a fat little grub?
If we ignore the biblical roles Christ gave us to accomplish the mission, then our structure will be wrong. If the structure is wrong, then the functionality will be limited. If the functionality is limited, then our mission will be compromised. If our mission is compromised, we won’t be as effective as Jesus intended.
We have been ignoring these important roles to our peril. The Western church is beginning to wake up to the reality that with all the sound and fury of our success, we’ve lost something. This has happened throughout history. Did you know that it’s possible for a society to go backward in its understanding? An entire civilization can devolve technologically and lose vital stratagems for engineering because they’ve forgotten certain methods.
For example, the Romans knew how to make fifty-foot-high hydraulic cement aqueducts that spanned valleys. If you go to modern Britain, you will still see their ruins towering against the backdrop of impossible landscapes. Centuries later, however, the engineers of the Dark Ages couldn’t replicate these feats because they’d lost the Roman technology to make structural cement. What if the church has lost vital biblical technology essential to advancing the kingdom of Christ? Like medieval Europe, we’d be scratching our scalps, wondering how they did it in the past, yet we’d be hindered from making real progress ourselves.
The church planting network that I run may be called New Breed, but you’re probably beginning to piece together that we’re really kicking it old school. Like, two-thousand-years-old school. If the church recovers the apostolic-style ministry that made the first century tick, then it will jump-start the church back to the threatening force that it was two thousand years ago. Like Indiana Jones uncovering the ark of the covenant in the Well of Souls, we need to unearth the divine technology that has lain hidden in the depths of God’s Word all along.
Before we do, let’s look at the current weakened structure of Western evangelicalism.
FORMULAS FOR DISASTER
Francis Chan’s dissatisfaction with the current model of evangelical hierarchy is only the beginning of the shakedown that is happening in Western Christianity. It points to cracks in our foundation.
The emergent movement began with disenchantment with the evangelical megachurch movement in America, where many of them ran like big-business enterprises. Here are the nuts and bolts of the machine broken down from the instruction manual:
How to Build a Megachurch in Five Easy Dance Steps
1. Get more people
2. More people = more money
3. More money = more toys
4. More toys = more ways to get more people
5. Get more people (rinse and repeat)
This is the model that has been used for decades in America, but to what aim? Many young men in leadership during the 1990s stood at the top of the megachurch pyramid, rolled their idle crowns on their index fingers, and muttered, “Now what?”
After the emergent movement dissed the megachurch movement, dissidents of evangelicalism flocked to these churches that put the “hip” in discipleship. When the emergent churches became “successful” in numbers, they simply reproduced what they had come from—except that now people did finger painting to punk music onstage. As history repeated itself, the emergent leaders sat on thrones built out of solid cool, forlorn with chin in palm, asking the familiar question, “Now what?” Thus history repeateth.
Why did the early church that had seen so many conversions and changed the first-century landscape not face this same problem?
Well, it almost did.
Picture yourself in Jerusalem at the dawn of the apostolic age, circa Acts 3. You had given up everything once you discovered God’s sacrificial lamb. Now you sat at the feet of eleven guys who were ordinary just like you, yet extraordinary. Ordinary fishermen and tradesmen, they were transformed, like you, by an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Their ministry was so powerful that you never wanted to leave their teaching or the warm fellowship of the community, or the fear and awe-tinged miracles that buzzed the atmosphere with supernatural power.
It had all the makings of a megachurch experience: thousands of people, money to do anything they wanted, and ministry coming out of their ears. There was only one problem. The kingdom couldn’t advance in a holy huddle. God had to give them a spiritual kick up the backside.
Enter Saul of Tarsus. Persecution smacked down on the church like Gallagher’s twenty-five-pound sledgehammer on a watermelon, splattering the seeds of the church to the far reaches of Asia Minor. If the church wouldn’t go out willingly, they’d be scattered unwillingly. That is God’s time-tested method of getting His people to heed the Great Commission. In Europe today, postmodernism has been forcing churches to venture outside to reach the unreached. There is desperation in leaders who have realized that it’s either sink or swim.
Pioneer third-world missionary C. T. Studd once said:
Some want to live within the sound
Of Church or Chapel bell
I want to run a Rescue Shop
within a yard of hell.
The churches that won’t heed Jesus’s call to get out there will die—and in fact are already dying from within. This isn’t just happening in Great Britain. The dry rot in America has already set. We’re just repeating Britain’s pattern fifty years later. In the 1950s in Britain, the churches were full, packed with families. Preaching legend Peter Jeffery recalls how on the streets of Britain in the fifties, an open-air preacher would draw folks out of their front doors, toting folding chairs so they could listen. In the sixties, however, the sexual revolution put the church to bed, and the youth slowly trickled out of the church scene. Nobody panicked. Do you know why? The churches were still relatively full. One decade, two decades later, and the silver heads woke up to the widening maw of an irreversible generation gap as they literally died off one by one. As the numbers in the church graveyard increased, the numbers in the pews decreased. When they woke up to the shrinking church—evidenced by the empty pews—the panic finally broke out. But by then it was too late.
When I returned to the United States after being abroad for twelve years, the first thing I noticed was that we’d lost the youth on a Sunday.
Nobody is worried; the numbers are still big.
Wait ten years.
Churches that depend on their size tend to rest on their laurels. That’s what happened in the early church. When the book of Acts closes, the Holy Spirit leaves us with an important message. Megachurch Jerusalem had faded to the narrative background and ceased to be an influential presence in the world. Instead, the focus of Acts is on the smaller, nondescript churches that were springing up in the most remote parts of the map. The kingdom was clawing its way outward, fighting for every inch of pagan ground taken.
The expanding church was apostolic, and that made it vibrant and dangerous. Impossible to ignore. So much so that we still look back at it for inspiration. But have we put its principles into practice?
I’m not opposed to megachurches. Please believe me. Overnight, God created the first megachurch in Jerusalem at Pentecost, but I don’t think we’re learning the lessons that God intended by studying their example. The megachurch model can be useful, but it can also provide a huge hurdle to kingdom expansion if the model is more concerned with bringing people in than sending people out. Let’s face it—that was largely the trend in the eighties and nineties.
Megachurches in the book of Acts, like Jerusalem in the early days—and Antioch and Ephesus—were biblical sending agencies, mission powerhouses. This is what God designed megachurches to be. Ever wonder who planted the seven churches of Asia? Acts 19:10 indicates that Paul used the megachurch at Ephesus as a church planting hub while he trained the planters daily in the school of Tyrannus: “This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” Rick Warren models the right use of megachurch might by using Saddleback’s accumulated money, influence, and energy to establish gospel work in every nation on earth. In the past twenty years, Warren has become a multi-church planting machine, equipping and empowering young people to plant around the globe. Likewise, my personal hero is my sending pastor in Huntington Beach. A reluctant megachurch pastor and true missionary at heart, he vowed in the 1990s to break the trend and send his best guys to the mission field without fail. Anyone who stays behind is repeatedly told that they are left behind to—you guessed it—help send others out.
The irony is that only leaders who have the priority of sending people out will foster the type of church that will continue to bring people in. You have to be willing to lose your life if you want to find it.
NOBODY USES AN EIGHT-TRACK ANYMORE
When I was a kid, people still had turntables for vinyl records (they hadn’t discovered mixing yet). They also had an eight-track.
I’ve lost half of you.…
It was supposed to be the next big thing. The problem was that somebody came up with a better format that made the eight-track obsolete. The church keeps rolling out formats that are supposed to bring the next big wave of some kind of wonderful. Like the eight-track, they get dated, lose steam, and are forgotten. Some of you reading this are actually saying, “Oh yeah, the eight-track. Forgot about that.”
Eight-tracks didn’t replace vinyl, but they opened the door for other formats. They gave way to cassette tapes, cassette tapes to CD, CD to digital mp3. Likewise, the church has replaced one format with another over the years, seeking to reinvent itself without questioning whether the next big thing is biblical. The end result is always the same. We’ve changed the format without revolutionizing the church into a time-tested format. As a result, we can’t even remember the previous formats that the apostles laid down for us.
The church is trying to play the eight-track tape of church to an iTunes world.
What if there was a time-tested model in the Bible? What if it was laid out in the book of Acts, but we missed it because it doesn’t fit our church structure? What if the next big thing is going back to the biblical methodology? If God drew up the battle plan for us two thousand years ago, why do we feel the need to draft another one?
It’s time for us to go back to the future.
ACTS OF THE CHURCH PLANTERS
Most of our modern books about church tell us how to do church. The book of Acts never does this. It never offers us a model of church that guarantees success if we follow the template. I would have thought that the basic “power principles” of church growth and dynamics would have been found there, not in a book by some author who lives in today’s anemic church culture. But Acts surpasses culture and time by refusing to provide a model and instead lists basic core components that every healthy church should have: breaking of bread, sharing with those in need, continuing in teaching, meeting together often, praying, and so on (2:42). But it never goes any further than that in telling us how to have a church service. Isn’t that a bit strange?
That depends on your assumption of what Acts was written for.
Was Acts written to show pastors how to make church good, or was it written to show how the kingdom of God expanded through church planting? The more I read the Acts of the Apostles, the more I’m convinced that it’s the script of the first-century version of How the West Was Won.
Maybe God isn’t so concerned about what the church looks like on the ground as long as those things in Acts 2:42 are all present. Maybe what God is more concerned about is that we understand how the kingdom expanded effectively through church planting so that we don’t merely hobble along in obedience to the Great Commission. If the Holy Spirit chose to invest great detail in a record of how churches got planted in a pagan world (against impossible odds), we’d be fools to ignore His advice. Like I mentioned earlier, New Breed isn’t very new. It’s really old school. It’s just not been done like that for a long time. New Breed Church Planting is using the time-tested method, tried and true by the apostles, abandoned only when the church became “successful” in the fourth century.
In roughly ten years of church planting, Paul was able to say in Romans 15:19 “that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” Did you catch that? Paul considered that he’d fulfilled his mission in Asia Minor. Having fulfilled that task, he could now move on to another area where Christ hadn’t been named.
Ten years, and a minimum of fourteen church plants later, and Paul was done. Why can’t we do this today? In trying to expand the kingdom of heaven, what on earth have we been missing?
CHURCH PLANTING IN BLACK AND WHITE
This is basically what church planting has looked like for a long time. Rod Sterling of Twilight Zone appears from the shadows and narrates what we’ve been watching for the past few decades:
Picture a man … a man who has nowhere to go up the pyramid ladder in his local megachurch … a man who is rightly dressed up for the ministry but has nowhere to go. He starts a home study in his living room, hoping to find others who are ready for change. Like attracts like, and soon he manages to reel in other cheesed-off Christians who attract even more dissidents. In his own twisted and distorted lexicon he will call it biblical church planting, never realizing that he is about to enter into what his forbears have already discovered is in fact … the twilight zone.
Duh duh duh duh duh duh dum dumb!
This model has given church planting a bad name. Why do the eyes of so many pastors widen and twitch with fear at the mention of church planting? Planting that starts with Christians rather than nonbelievers strikes fear into the heart of any established pastor because it means that horse stealing is afoot—and that’s a hanging offense in most churches!
The error, however, is on both sides of the divide. Shame on the church planter who is church planting simply because nobody will give him a church of his own! Perhaps if he keeps at it for ten years or so, he’ll have a megachurch that resembles the one he left and be at the apex of his own pyramid. King of the Mountain is fun if you’re at the top. Equal shame, however, is also due to the pastor who is afraid to lose people because he needs their money for fuel to keep the machine running.
The church is in the numbers business now, baby, and as Keith Green once said at Jesus NorthWest, “There is money to be made in Jesus’s name!”
FORMULAS FOR FAILURE
Remember the formula from earlier? Check it in reverse:
Formula 2: Fewer people = less money = fewer toys = less ability to get people, which equals less money again.
The people are just a means to an end after all.
How have we let this happen to the church? How have we allowed this machine to grow into a giant Borg that desires to assimilate all species into the mothership for world domination? It’s building your own personal empire versus building Christ’s kingdom, and make no mistake, the world out there is watching. Church can become a pastor’s own personal tower of Babel in which he refuses to spread out and multiply to the glory of God. Babel teaches us that bigger is not always better. You can tell the difference between empire builders and kingdom builders: personal empires build upward rather than outward. The kingdom, however, is not of this world and always builds outward. The size that it’s concerned about is global, not local.
Why then is the current model all about keeping people in? And why does evangelism seem to be merely a way of getting people in so that we can keep them there? Ernest Hemingway may shed light on this. In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway said that the writer only writes one pure book, and it’s always his first. The first book is written out of his heart, as an expression of literary art. After his first book gets published, and he gains popularity, he becomes accustomed to a certain lifestyle. The need to keep this lifestyle going becomes a concern, and thereafter he writes to get published so that he can continue to maintain that higher standard of living. Many are beginning to feel this way about the ministry. When the success brings affluence and prestige, they leave the reckless abandon that caused them to go into the ministry in the first place. Once-daring pastors are waking up fifteen or twenty years later asking, “Is this what I signed up for?” They wanted to impact the world, serve Jesus, and grow in the process. But this isn’t happening anymore.
Instead, pastors are reluctant to fulfill the Great Commission because their church would shrink, and with it their capacity to buy toys. Coming from a church that started out of the Jesus Movement, I’ve long rubbed shoulders with guys who saw miracles and witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a sex-crazed, drug-hazed generation. Years ago, my ex-hippie brother-in-law told me that there was a ceremony at a well-known Christian university where one of these ex-hippy pastors was asked to speak. He was known in the seventies as a countercultural, draft-card-burning, antiestablishment radical who’d do anything for Jesus, but his speech was a moralistic, right-wing diatribe that exhorted the students to “stay in school and get good grades” so they could be successful. My brother-in-law asked a friend standing nearby, “What happened to him?” The reply was, “He got rich.” It explains a lot.
We have more now, which means that we have more to lose if we invest it in kingdom expansion.
Formula 3: Having more = having more to lose.
Once upon a time, a Franciscan monk visited Vatican City with a gift for the church. The pope took him on a personal tour, displaying the vast wealth of the Catholic Church. “Never again will the church be able to say, ‘Silver and gold I do not have,’” he said. The Franciscan replied, “That may be true, but never again will the church be able to say, ‘Rise up, take your mat, and walk.’”
The more we think kingdom expansion rather than empire building, the less we’ll resemble CEOs and start looking like Neos; less businessmen, more radical revolutionaries; less pleasing to flesh, more threat to the Enemy. Are you ready to change things? Then you’ve got to be ready to change. And if you’re ready to change, then the church is going to change. It’s time for judgment to begin with the house of God. When we get it right, they’ll get it right.
When I was trying to fit into a traditional pastorate like a square peg in a round hole, I came across an article in the Ikea catalog that profiled twenty-eight-year-olds. The article said this was the age when a man was most likely to disappear, change his name, leave his family, and drop off the face of the earth without a trace. Radiohead wrote a song about it: “How to Disappear Completely.” The article clawed fishhooks into my soul. I was twenty-eight years old, and I hated the ministry. My church sucked—but that’s another story.
I would guess that many pastors are feeling the same way, but not because they shouldn’t be in the ministry. They are called, but the church only has one caliber of bullet when it fires a man out of the barrel. Some of these guys who are church planting are biblical apostles (or missionaries) and, like Indiana Jones, were never meant to be Princeton lecturers. They were born to be temple-raiding adventurers. But they’ve been told they have to be pastors to serve God full-time. They’ve been tamed, castrated, stripped of their ability to fly.
These guys either discover who they really are, and like Neo get freed from the Matrix, or they claw at the walls until they burn out, sabotage themselves, or get fired. Every once in a while one of them wakes up and begins to see the Matrix code behind the illusion. Then it’s kung-fu-kicking-butt-in-the-subway-time.
So before you turn the page, let me ask you: do you really want to take the red pill? It could cost you more than you’re willing to lose.
And I warn ya, it’s gonna hurt like heaven!