“So… I think we may have planted a church.”
I’ve heard that statement no less than two dozen times since March of 2020. Actually, it often sounds more like a question—“I’m Ron Burgundy?” COVID has invited much creativity across the global Church, and despite the odds (or maybe because of them), God has started new churches, even during a global pandemic.
On one hand, some new churches started intentionally; on the other hand, some may feel like they accidentally fell into starting a church. I know of small groups across the US who began gathering independently from their larger congregation. I know families who began meeting with neighbors, saw God make and grow disciples, and have now wondered about becoming a house church together. And I’m one of those crazy individuals who was intentionally sent out by our church’s elders, in part as a response to COVID, to form a core team for a new, decentralized church on mission in our city.
So if you’re wondering if you planted a church, first be encouraged: you’re not alone! At the same time, Saturate wants to help you. Our very heartbeat and purpose for the last decade is to equip disciples and leaders in everyday discipleship, relational mission, creative cultural engagement, and finding the balance of biblical ecclesiology and decentralization.
The purpose of this series of blogs is to help discern whether you’ve planted a church. And whether you intended to or not, we’ll see what to do if you realize you have planted, as well as what not to do.
What Makes A Church, A Church?
If you asked Siri if you’ve started a church or Googled “What is a church?”, you’ve been overwhelmed by the hundreds of definitions of “church.” Depending on the site, podcast, or vein of theology you find, you’re concurrently a church anytime two people have coffee, and also you’re one only when you’re in a cathedral under the oversight of a hierarchy of authority, and everything in between.
The question of “essential ecclesiology” is one that’s been debated for centuries, and is overtly on people’s radar again in this COVID season. After years of study, prayer, thought, and considering various theological and historical factors on this topic, here’s a summary definition of a church you might weigh against the Scriptures. The goal is to define true essentials. Everyone will likely add more to this list, but the question is what must not be taken away. And again, this is a summary; each of these marks deserves to be fleshed out further. But at minimum…
- A church consists of multiple people, generally from multiple families. First, a church involves more than one person. Most commonly, it involves multi-generational people from more than one nuclear household. While Christ dwells in every believer through His Spirit, the Bible calls the local church a “priesthood,” a body whose parts are needed for the good of the whole, God’s family, and a spiritual household.
- A church is comprised of believers who gather regularly for discipleship. A church’s goal must be discipleship: seeing people come to know Jesus and be increasingly formed into His likeness and love together. Whether via Sunday worship, classes, groups, or Zoom, we find ways for God’s people to devote themselves to one another’s growth. Discipleship requires believers to communicate with each other and be in relationship consistently, somehow.
- A church declares the gospel and is shaped by the Spirit and the Scriptures. The good news (Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, kingdom, and return) is the church’s central message, and must be proclaimed both in gatherings and in everyday life. God the Spirit and the Bible are the church’s final authority on life, belief, and godliness. The Scriptures invite us into God’s story and shape our lives as we increasingly abide in Christ.
- A church worships God in various ways. A church helps people understand and participate in worship. The Bible describes song and prayer as worship, as well as using our spiritual gifts, serving others, sharing the gospel, giving, celebrating, working hard, resting, and obeying God. Almost everything in life can be worship, if in spirit and truth. Since the earliest forms of worship involved sacrifice and selfless giving, modern forms should follow suit.
- A church serves each other and its mission field(s). Each Christian has gifts, stations in life, and resources which God uses to bless Christians and non-Christians. From including and caring for foreigners, to practicing hospitality, to being generous with finances and belongings, a church stewards God’s resources for God’s purposes. Sacrifice is an outflow of being first loved and served by God, and displaying the gospel can open doors to declare the gospel.
- A church carries out baptism and communion. Whether defined as “ordinances” or “sacraments” (and while different churches add other acts to these), a church follows Jesus’ example and carries out baptism and communion regularly. Water baptism symbolizes baptism of the Holy Spirit and the entrance into God’s covenant community. Communion remembers and declares the broken body and shed blood of Christ until He returns.
- A church defines and trains God-given human leaders. Jesus is the head of His Church. And the New Testament shows us churches led by teams of Biblically-qualified servants, who humbly equip the saints for the work of ministry. The Bible calls these “elders” and “deacons.” A church has a way to approve leaders per the Bible’s standards. Developing leaders leads to stronger local churches and in many cases, sending leaders and multiplying churches.
Context and Creativity
I expect that everyone who reads the seven elements above is now thinking “Yeah, but…” and “What about…?” Different organizations will have different stances on, for example, the mode of baptism or who can be ordained. Some will rely more on God’s sovereignty and others on human ability, for salvation or for Christian growth.
There are innumerable musical styles, service or sermon lengths, and liturgies followed in church gatherings. And every healthy church will contextualize these elements to best fit its mission field. Biblical faithfulness to these elements will likely look different in Shanghai than Seattle; in Paris, France than Paris, Texas. And so on.
Again, those are things that are great and need definition—but they are not among the essential, clear, and biblical elements that universally make a church, a church. Every church and organization is one small piece of a much larger global and historical pie. All we are saying is that while every church likely holds to more than these elements, no biblical church can hold to less of them.
Why Does All This Matter?
Zooming out from our current moment, the definitions of terms like “church” and “worship” matter, both far before and far after COVID is around. My hope is that the elements above help bring clarity, especially as many churches seek to decentralize and we all look for creative ways to continue growing and living together as the Church, the Body of Christ, in this unique time. If it’s less than these marks, it’s likely a group of Christians who would be wise to be connected to a church that meets this essential ecclesiology.
In the realm of church planting, there are plenty of things to focus on, plenty more to avoid, and more. Those are the topics of upcoming posts in this blog series.
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