The Lord has been leading me and my family into the ministry of church planting over the past year to a year and a half. The plan is pretty well established; once we sell our home here near Fort Worth, TX we will move to Syracuse, NY and begin the work of planting a church there. I approach this task with a certain amount of fear (I've never planted a church before) and a great amount of excitement.
In Bible College, I took a class on church planting that was essentially a class on doing a demographic survey. I read a few books on church planting that were disappointing at best. Some did well presenting the mechanics of incorporating a church legally while most focus on Christianized PR. Almost all of them virtually ignore what is a foremost requirement of a church planter: that he be an evangelist.
Recently, a friend at church bought me a copy of Darrin Patrick's Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010). Many friends who are also planting churches right now recommended that I read this book as well, so I was pleased to get a copy. As the sub-title indicates, the book does not deal with technicalities or trivialities, but it deals with what matters most. This, by itself, was refreshing compared to what I've read elsewhere.
The strength of this book is the section on "The Man." The chapters in this section are pertinent and perhaps the most overlooked issue when it comes to not only church planting, but pastoral ministry as a whole. The chapter "A Rescued Man" ought to be required reading in every church administration class in Bible college or seminary. It deals with the issue of false conversion amongst pastors. Yes, you read that right. Pastors.
This issue is near to me because that was my story. When I was graciously saved in November 2003, I had been pastoring in churches for about twelve years. I was an adherent to a form of the so-called Free Grace gospel (aka "easy believism") advocated by men such as Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges. I had the classic definition of saving faith in the doctrinal statement I prepared for my ordination; "Saving faith is intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel." I was deceived.
In 2003 the Lord graciously opened my eyes to my own sin, the necessity of repentance, and the power of Jesus Christ to transform my sin-soaked life by faith in His work and person. Prior to that, I can relate to what Patrick writes about a man in this situation. "The well being of the church (and its pastor) is at stake. Consider what happens to a man who tries to lead or plant a church without first having been rescued from his sins. He will either feel beat up (condemned, insecure, and inadequate) or blown up (puffed up and proud), depending on whether the church is declining or growing" (23-24).
I am convinced that my story is not unique. I have met and counseled men in ministry who have become convinced by the work of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God that they are not saved and need Jesus. What was true in George Whitefield's day is true today: the bane of the Christian church is an unconverted ministry.
Patrick's chapters on calling, qualification, dependence, skill, shepherding and determination are likewise helpful for the most part. I did find that the chapter on qualifications was a bit weak; there are better works out there that do a better job of getting to the meaning of the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (Strauch's Biblical Eldership being one of them). His position on some of the qualifications is minimalist at best. For example, much more can be said about "not quarrelsome" than the short chapter Patrick gives us on page 52. And frankly, his definition and application of "hospitable" are both absurd. After defining it as, "He loves strangers. He is not cliquish", he goes on to cite the story of a pastor in Atlanta who decided to work for a gay bar in order to relate and eventually got the owner to agree to host his church plant there. In a classic case of pragmatism and "ends justifying the means" philosophy, the pastor points out that the owner made a profession of faith and now is looking to open other gay bars in Atlanta so that more churches can be planted. Seriously. I am not making this up.
The qualification has to do with the hospitality of the elder and NOT his willingness to engage strangers with the gospel. Certainly that plays a role in hospitality when opening one's home, but it is in no way the whole idea. If the man can engage strangers with the gospel but does not open his home to the church or even to the lost, he is not qualified.
The story begs the question, "What does repentance and holiness look like?" Wouldn't her repentance include a hatred of the sin that had her enslaved? Wouldn't holiness include separating from a lifestyle that promotes hatred of God and the flesh? I'm not talking about fundamentalist legalistic standards here; just basic repentance and Biblical holiness.
I find this to be an area of concern with the whole Acts 29 movement, of which Patrick is a part. In an effort to contextualize the gospel it seems as if the leaders of this movement do not expect any great transformation in the lives of those the gospel reaches. This is ironic since Patrick's conviction on false conversion amongst pastors does not seem to reach the pew in his citing of this story.
Patrick does an excellent job writing on the pre-eminence of the gospel and the person of Christ in this section. The gospel is a historical, salvation-accomplishing, Christ-centered, sin-exposing, and idol-shattering message. I especially enjoyed the chapters on the Christ-centered and idol-shattering nature of the gospel since these are things the Lord is teaching me about as a Biblical evangelist. The gospel is not the Law of God, it is the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel ought to be continually revealing to us as Christian church planters, pastors and evangelists that we have a default worship position and we often settle for far less than God in that worship. We worship hobbies, status, comfort, pleasure, and on and on. The gospel continually reveals this in us and as we grow in grace, we realize that we are truly worse than we first imagined when we came to repentance and faith. We are brought continually back to the Cross and live daily in its shadow.
Patrick's presentation of the message is no reductionist formulaic approach to the gospel. It is broad and it is deep. However this is all the more disconcerting considering the Atlantan pastor\gay bar incident cited earlier. There is a radical disconnect within the Acts 29 movement; their soteriology (doctrine of salvation) does not inform their methodology. I am grateful for the "young, Reformed and restless" that the Acts 29 movement represents. At some point, the movement must recognize that it cannot have the doctrine of the Puritans without having their holiness.
The mission of the gospel is covered in chapters on the heart of mission (compassion), the house of mission (the church), the how of mission (contextualization), the hands of mission (care), and the hope of mission (city transformation). This section displays the major inconsistencies of the Acts 29 movement in bold relief. Yes, there is much food for thought here that will be helpful to the church planter who is looking to make an impact in an urban setting. It is an idea inspiring section. However, I contend that the issue of contextualization diminishes the value of this entire section.
Patrick cites Tim Keller at length here. Keller defines contextualization as, "...not giving people what they want, but rather it is giving God's answers (which they may not want!) to questions they are asking in forms that they can comprehend" (195, emphasis mine). Patrick rightly points out that this concept of contextualization originated with the writing of missiologists in the 1980's. The discussion at that time had a lot to do with "dynamic equivalents". If you find a concept in Scripture that is difficult to translate into the culture (e.g. "white as snow" in an equatorial climate that does not see snow), it was proposed that it was okay to translate verses using a substitute that the culture could understand. Now, in the early 21st century, church planting experts are postulating that in a post-modern culture, we need to do similar things with the gospel in order to help the gospel make sense.
In the 1980's this was a hotly debated issue when it came to application to animistic tribes, but it's not debated so much today amongst the young, Reformed and restless. It should be.
In the definitions of contextualization that are bandied about, where is there any allowance given for the doctrine of regeneration, as well as the allied doctrine of total depravity? The Reformers have taught rightly that man is totally depraved (Rom. 1-3). He is in fact "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1-3). The situation is so bad that those who are in such a state cannot understand the truths of the gospel (1 Cor. 2:14).
So what is the Scriptural answer to this dilemma? Does the Word of God teach that the gospel and\or the church must be adjusted or communicated in a culturally relevant way in order for there to be a conversion? No. This is where regeneration comes in. The Word of God (1 Pet. 1:23-25) empowered by the Spirit of God (Jn. 3:5-8) causes spiritually dead people to be born again.
Patrick (as well as the other Acts 29 leaders) ignore this crucial doctrine when it comes to their view of evangelism. Based on the examples cited of successful contextualization, it is clear that the gospel is viewed (in practice) as being the last thing rather than the main thing. Prove your value to the community and then slip the gospel in at the end. The only problem is that this methodology is unbiblical. Jesus and the apostles always made the gospel the front and center issue. Friendships flowed out of a confrontation with the culture, not an assimilation with it. Zaccheus met Jesus in the context of His public ministry. Matthew was converted as a result of Christ's public ministry of proclamation.
Patrick's position, knowingly or unknowingly, is that the process of regeneration needs our help. We must present the message in a form they can comprehend. But what do you do when the Scriptures plainly state that they cannot comprehend it? The answer is much simpler and may not sell a lot of books: proclaim the Word of God (Rom. 10:14-17). It has the power to decimate the philosophies of those who oppose the gospel and it has the power to regenerate.
This is the correct message of 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (contra Patrick's interpretation on page 199-200). This passage reveals that the message of the Cross is counter-cultural and cannot be reconciled to the culture. The message of the gospel removes the philosophers from the radar screen (1:20). The larger context which extends to the end of chapter three reveals that the wisdom of God is utter foolishness (not worthy of consideration) by the world. It is the message itself that does this, not Paul's desire to be "all things to all people". Paul did this last thing out of love for the lost, not a desire to help the gospel or the process of regeneration.
There are many redeeming elements to Patrick's work. We don't have to agree with everything in a book in order to find some value in it. But the fact remains that the primer of Reformed church planting in the 21st century has not yet been written. When it is, it will recognize the role of regeneration in the work of church planting and will emphasize a biblical approach to evangelism. It will follow Patrick's example and critique the immaturity of men in our culture, but will not slip into that same immaturity with locker room discussions of vasectomies. It will not be littered with citations of questionable (at best) authors and church growth gurus, mixed together with men such as Jonathan Edwards and Richard Baxter. Such writing is not relevant; it is simply inconsistent.