Local churches as eunuchs?

Church Plant[1]

Historically, local groups of Christians (churches) have multiplied in three basic ways:

1. The groups themselves multiply. There is variety in how this is accomplished: they hive, they divide, and all too often, they experience nasty splits.

2. An entrepreneurial, apostolic person starts a new group. I.e., a “church planter” with the gift of evangelism acts as the catalyst to start a new group or groups.

3. A apostolic team (missionaries), most often part of a larger apostolic movement, begins a new group or multiple groups while maintaining their own sense of community and apostolic, sodalic identity.

There are numerous variations and themes on these three basic models. But by and large, all church planting in any cultural context over the past 2000 years fits into one of these three categories.

It is also true that all three of these models are needed. However, a good historical case could be made for the fact that the majority of such new local church starts have been through models 2 and 3. The oft quoted mantra of “churches planting churches” (mode #1) as the primary way the Christian movement expands is simplistic and shortsighted.

While the ideal is always to build a bias toward multiplying into the DNA of any new group of Jesus’ followers, the reality is that the church in its local, 1st decision form is structurally limited in its ability to reproduce. Hence, the vast majority of local churches struggle not to be “structural eunuchs.” Local churches have their best opportunities for multiplying within their own cultural context, what missiologists call “M-1” cultural distance.

But when faced with cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic and geographic barriers, the church in its local form is structurally ill-equipped to reproduce and models 2 and 3 are needed. Even the very best, missionally committed groups of local believers face such structural limitations. The fact is that the reproducibility of the local church is greatest when in an interdependent and synergistic relationships with models 2 and 3 above. This is the biblical and historical pattern.

“The Whole Church taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World” is the slogan of the Lausanne Movement. Unfortunately, this vision has scant possibility of fulfillment without an accurate understanding of what comprises the “Whole Church.” Such a slogan is devoid of meaning if the definition of Church is limited to those expressions that are local in nature and ignores those essential apostolic structures that do the work in models 2 and 3 above.

Any portion of the Christian movement—because of truncated ecclesiology, lack of historical perspective, or missiological naivete—which bypasses that equal part of the Church in its apostolic, missionary form, does so to its own peril. The inevitable result is a net loss to God’s kingdom purposes in the world and many lives that may remain untouched by the redemptive presence of Christ.

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