Church Planting Movements and Missional Communities

As I mentioned in a previous post, we are at the end of week 4 in our season of prayer in preparation for the launch of Intentional People. In the next couple weeks we will also be starting a new missional community (or house church or whatever you want to call it), planted out of Christ Journey in preparation for the formation of a new church planting movement in this area.

I’ve been asked if there is a difference between forming a new missional community and a church planting movement.

The answer is simple: yes, and no…well, sometimes, sorta.

Here’s the reality: the Church is intended to be the Body of Christ, at work as ambassadors and agents of God’s Kingdom. The Church is meant to be a worshipping community, gathered in the name of Christ, committed to discipleship in the Way of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit as active participants in the mission of God.

How this gets expressed is something that needs to be worked out within the local context. It may take the form of thousands of people gathered in one place, or a network of thousands gathered in smaller communities, or two people committed to living the Way of Jesus in their community and inviting others to join them as they go along.

How we are structured matters. Not because there is one approved structure, but because the way we organize affects the way we function together. We have seen/are seeing the danger of becoming institutionalized and yet there are also problems associated with jettisoning all intentionality and organization.

When I (and others) speak of a church planting movement, we’re referring to churches that plant churches that plant churches. This can, and does, take different forms. So long as those forms serve to support, rather than limit the participants’ call to be BOTH the gathered AND scattered church (the ones called together to worship and sent out by the One they worship), then…great.

We live in a context that is increasingly post-Christian, which is an extremely difficult place to plant the gospel. Unlike a pre-Christian context where the news of Jesus is fresh and new, or a Christian context where the news is accepted and normative, a post-Christian context tends to start from a “been there done that/ thanks but no thanks” mentality. I have seen first hand that this response can be overcome when people are introduced to the life-affirming, meaningfulness producing, adventure of following Jesus.

The process of initiating a church planting movement should include what missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenan describes as the “missional helix”: theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective and strategy formation. These commitments force us to take our context seriously; to exegete our culture and ask the questions, “How does the good news impact this place?” and “Where is it already breaking in?”

While it isn’t flashy or inspiring, there’s also a need to discern mundane matters like: “Will we incorporate as a legally recognized (by the IRS) church?” The answer to that may be “no,” but either way there are ramifications which need to be considered.

I distinguish all this, in part, from the formation of a new missional community, particularly when the missional community is being formed with several disciples who are already pursuing the way of Christ together in a given place (not relocating to a new community). They will still need to engage in these same processes of reflection and discernment if they seek to plant new churches in the area, but it does not necessarily require the same level of planning and preparation BEFORE they begin. Similarly, the churches/missional communities planted “from the harvest” as it were, by a church planting movement will also often start and exist simply in similar fashion.

The beginnings are different, in my opinion, for a family or even a couple families, sent into a new area fur the purpose of church planting – even if they plan to begin simply with a missional community. In such a situation, it seems wise to begin working through the aspects of the missional helix (or a similar process) before they attempt to “officially” launch something. Such a process forces them to get to know their new neighbors and community (which is the only way to start a simple church anyway); they begin to learn the history of the area, what’s been done and how its affected people’s perspective.

Granted, in some models of church planting (ie the highly organic models proposed by Neil Cole, Frank Viola and others) there may never be an intentional engagement of the missional helix, even in the process of cultivating a planting movement. Personally, I have some doubts about the ability of these approaches to sustain ongoing movement, discipleship and missional engagement beyond a couple house churches.

Neil Cole and Church Multiplication Associates will point to their rapid multiplication as evidence to the contrary, but I have my suspicions about the long term viability of “rapid multiplication” movements in this culture – not just from the perspective of the lifespan of a “church,” but from the depth of transformation and ongoing discipleship of individuals and families within those churches. I could be wrong, and those who believe in that approach have my prayers of encouragement.

It seems, given the context of North American culture, that there is value and a need for organically but intentionally structured movements which help train, equip, teach, inspire, organize and communicate the continued shared vision. Such movements also function together as a larger extended family that worships and works together.

The structure doesn’t exist to supersede, control or micromanage. However, it does allow for the smaller communities to also collaborate, worship and serve with an extended family. Perhaps this looks like a church of 80-150 or so people, sharing life together daily in 5-10 missional communities, but gathering weekly to worship, share stories of God at work in the community, and to continually rehearse the alternative narrative of God’s in breaking kingdom. Each missional community contains the dna of complete church and can/should give rise to new communities, but they are not left alone in the cold.

This is just one possible way such a movement could be expressed. Our preparation for such a movement will begin (in this case) with the formation of one missional community…and from there we will discern together, through prayer as well as theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical awareness and then strategy formation.

So…how’s that for a simple response?


Posted on May 21, 2011, in church planting, church planting movements, Gailyn Van Rheenan, Missional church, missional community, missional helix, strategy, theological reflection. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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