What is the church? What does a church look like? What does a church believe? What does a church do?
As I sharpen my thinking about what a “church” looks like I’m left pondering these questions. You see, I firmly believe there is no one-size-fits-all church that can be created and transplanted from one country to the next. The non-denominational church in Double Oak, Texas, cannot work the same if transplanted to The Hague, Netherlands. The people are different. The culture is different. The historical and spiritual baggage people carry is different. So the “big box” Bible church may do well in the Bible Belt of America but here in Holland it may be a bad idea.
One of the fundamental questions of cross-cultural church planting is, “What are the essentials every church should possess and what are the excess?” For example, does the pastor need a platform to preach from? Heck, should there even be a sermon? Does it have to be exegetical (verse-by-verse, Greek and Hebrew)? Do we have to sing five songs, have announcements and take up an offering? Do we have to meet on Sundays? Do we have to meet every week? Does the baptistry water have to be heated? (just kidding on the last one. Cruelty is another issue altogether…)
Can a church meet corporately once a month in a rented building, each time doing something completely different together? Can they meet in a pub or a dance studio? A city park or a metro station? Can there be multiple churches in one mother church, each possessing its own identity and impacting its own separate community? Can a church not have worship music, or not have a sermon? What are the essential functions and forms of the church?
These are questions church planters wrestle with when faced with the task of starting a new Christian community in a city. The very first step in planting a new church is called “embedding.” It is a period of time when a team moves into a neighborhood or genre of social interest (the arts, for example) and does life in that area. No public proclamation of the gospel, no church services, no crusades or rallies. Just simply embedding and listening. After all, you cannot effectively minister to a culture that you do not know. So we ask ourselves (and others), Who is around us? How do they think? What do they struggle with? What are they fighting against? What cultural lessons can be drawn from around them to help them see the true Christ and experience His true love?
I think of Paul, standing on Mars Hill in Athens, before a crowd of pundits more wise than even he (Acts 17). He looked around him on his way to that hill and took note of what he saw. He then used cultural examples in explaining God’s existence, his personal nature, and his plan of redemption. St. Patrick, when faced with the challenge of explaining God to pagan Irishmen, picked up a cloverleaf and explained how one God could consist of three persons.
Forgive me if these seem like random thoughts tonight. I wanted to make this point: churches look very different in very different cultures. They have the basics: community, communion, baptism, teaching and mutual edification. But they may not conform to our Western stereotype of church. Christian Associates seeks to plant culturally-relevant churches that follow Jesus in transforming their world. Some meet every week corporately. Others once a month. Some meet in bars and others own a facility. Some meet on Sunday mornings, others on Saturday nights. Some have sermons, some don’t.
So as I personally walk about Edinburgh over the next seven weeks I’ll be asking those types of questions. And I’ll be listening to others and learning about the city, its culture, and what are its greatest physical and spiritual needs? This team that comes together for the city will one day do this together and settle on a spot to start. We’ll embed in that culture and listen. We’ll practice what we believe and then invite others in. Then we’ll seek to multiply in other areas, encouraging each multiplication to also embed, listen, initiate, and extend. For knowing one’s own culture shapes how you engage that culture in the name of Christ.
These are my thoughts tonight. Just a little light reading, no doubt…