Recontextualizing Church

Many churches do a good job of making converts, but if you were to listen to Gen Xers and Millennials you would hear the voice of those crying out for discipleship and authenticity in community.  People want relationship, and disciples are made through long term relationship.

The problem I see in many attractional-event and program-driven churches in the West is their system does a good job of producing converts, but not necessarily of producing disciples who are equipped to make disciples who make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Many churches in our country seem to have drifted from the biblical concept of “church” and have redefined it as the place, a building, where ministry happens. Hence, many evangelicals have built large centralized institutions using what seems like marketing as a formula for success: utilize attractional events to draw a crowd, and then develop programs and depend on professional clergy to keep people coming back. While this may have worked to build large communities of worship in the mid-to-late twentieth century, it has also consumed many of the smaller churches like a Wal-Mart monopoly putting out of business the mom-and-pop shops. And often when the pastor of a program-driven church leaves the ministry, that church tends to lose sight of the vision as it struggles to pull together in unity, and the congregation shrinks as people transfer to the new, next, and better program-driven church that meets their family’s needs. I would argue this doesn’t build biblical community; this fractures community among local churches as the competitive mindset takes over and as church leadership begins to use marketing techniques to promote their brand to attract church shoppers, and thus congregants shuffle from church to church.

This book explores the challenges church leaders and congregants face in shepherding a program-driven church to begin to reach out to the community outside of the four walls of a church building. Take this journey with me as I evaluate Jesus’ and the Apostles’ method of outreach and discipleship and seek to find ways to apply their methodology in today’s context. We will explore various small group models throughout history and in today’s contemporary Western context. We will look at the necessity of corporate worship and small groups to stimulate spiritual growth. I have interviewed Jeff Vanderstelt, Steve Timmis, Joel Comiskey, and Dan Braga to glean wisdom from these leaders in how to successfully shepherded churches through this kind of recontexualization of the local church. In the end I have mapped out a strategy for how church leaders can lead their churches through this transition from attractional events and programs to the missional home community and cell-driven model, which resonates with this generation disenfranchised with church.

I believe there are many methods of ministry that can work to make converts, but in order to make disciples that multiply requires an authentic faith community. This is what an unbelieving world is longing to see, a church that has closed the gap between their rhetoric and reality.

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This book is a result of a Thesis Project for Gordon-Conwell Seminary Doctorate Program in Outreach and Discipleship.


What is biblical membership?

What is membership? In Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 Paul speaks of the concept that the church is a body with many members.

Scant evidence of 'global market' for executives

We are members, one of another” Romans 12:5

In Judaism a child became a member of Israel on the 8th day after birth by going through the circumcision ritual.  The parents were accountable were accountable for their child until age thirteen.  The role of the parents during this time was to teach their children the Laws of God (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).  When the child would reach age thirteen, the child would go through a ceremony to become a “child-of-the-law” (bar-mitzvah).  From age thirteen onward the child was a full fledged member of the community who was responsible for themselves to God, His laws, and to the community.

In the secular culture of the Greco-Roman world, there were many kinds of membership: to the city, to a guild, to a religion.  To become a member the various religions had ceremonies and expectations for their adherents.

Similarly in Christianity the early believers were called “disciples” meaning followers of Christ (or “Christian” meaning “adherents of Jesus and His teachings” – Acts 11:26).  They were together and had all things in common (Acts 2:42-47)through religious fellowship / membership.  They were known as “the people of the Way” (Acts 9:2).  The “way” meant three things:

  1. Jesus is the way to salvation – meaning belief that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, that no one comes to the Father (Yahweh) except through Jesus (John 14:6).
  2. Commitment to preaching Jesus is the way – meaning the commitment to proclaiming to people who do not know that Jesus Christ is Lord.  To say Jesus is Christ means you believe He is King of kings.  To say Jesus is Lord means you believe He is Lord of lords.  to say Jesus Christ is Lord is to say Caesar and all other so called “gods” are not.  In that culture, to profess to believe Jesus Christ is Lord resulted in two things: (A) promise of salvation (Acts 16:31); and (B) persecution because you are not pledging your allegiance to the Emperor.  This is not a pluralism.  This is exclusivism, not because you or I are exclusive but rather because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is exclusive.
  3. Adhering to the ways and teachings and ethics of Jesus – meaning there are expectations by Jesus for how His followers will live and interact with each other.

These three concepts are the essence of membership.  When a person became a member of a church it was signified through baptism (Acts 2:38-41) and they were fully devoted to the Christian community including submission to the Apostles’ teaching as authoritative, and the sharing of communion and prayer, as well as practical needs in everyday living (Acts 2:42-47).  They were committed (or rather “devoted” – Acts 2:42) to one another and they were on mission together as a community to try to make disciples through preaching the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20).

Their membership was seen in what is known as the “church” meaning “to gather.”  Their gathering was “to Jesus, for worship, and for mission.” (Jeff Vanderstelt, Saturate)

We also are called to follow Jesus with other Jesus followers in the community called the church.  But it is kinda hard to do this when people are not “devoted” to one another.  Without making a commitment of devotion it is like saying you are part of a family but you never spend time with them.

I am not advocating for people only joining my church.  But I am advocating for people joining a church as a sold out member to try to make it better and work together with a group of people to go fishing together for men and women who need to hear the gospel and be saved to Jesus and biblical community (Matthew 4:19).

So may you not just “believe” in Jesus and go about your way.  May you also commit to being a biblical Christian, a disciple, a follower of Christ, and become part of the “people of the Way.”


What is a “Missional” Community? Interview with Jeff Wall

Soma in Tacoma, WA is a church that has been leading the way in the Northwest in developing “Missional Communities,” which have been highly successful in reaching people for Christ.  The pastor of Soma (until recently) has been Jeff Vanderstelt.  I heard him speak at a CBNW (Conservative Baptist Northwest) conference in 2005.  He was speaking on the Gospel and how to reach people effectively in the Seattle / Tacoma area.  He started by talking about what does not work anymore.  He shared how churches in the West traditionally have been able to build a church building in a community and that many people would automatically attend because, for the most part, everyone was either Christian or had a Christian worldview and knew that they were supposed to be in church.  He pointed out that the reason this doesn’t work in the greater Seattle area is because a large percentage of people are un-churched and have no desire of ever setting foot in a church building, and that a large percentage of Washingtonians are de-churched (they once attended church but for some reason do not desire to come back).  Vanderstelt pointed out that a majority of people who have never been to church only know what they know from the media and first hand experience with Christians.  Therefore, depending on the experience, there are a lot of misperceptions out there and it is our job, as disciples of Jesus, to fulfill the great commission by sharing the gospel with people and showing them what true Christian community is all about.

Pastor Vanderstelt gave an illustration when he shared about his experiences trying to get to know his neighbors and from there trying to start a missional community.  He shared that the neighborhood he moved into was relatively disconnected.  He and his wife started trying to get to know their neighbors and invited people over for dinner.  Pretty soon they were being invited over to other people’s houses and eventually the topic of the gospel would come up.  But Jeff and his wife focused on other people, being intensely interested in them, their interests, and needs, taking the spotlight off of themselves and showing love to others.

One night the Vanderstelt’s had a couple over for dinner and they asked the question, “So, Jeff, what do you do for a living?”

Jeff said, “I’m a pastor.”

The couple said, “You’re a Christian! Wow, you’re so different than the other Christian in the neighborhood…”  and then that couple proceeded to make fun of the other Christian and complain about him for being a jerk (you see, the other Christian was a Seminary Professor, and he had a private parking space in front of the condos, which reads, “No Parking!” – and so whenever someone would park there, like a friend or neighbor coming over for dinner, the seminary professor would put glue on the windshield of the car and stick a sheet of paper to it, which said, “Can’t you read?”).

As Jeff Vanderstelt heard his neighbors talk about this other Christian he cut them off, politely, and said, “You know, he’s a friend of mine, you should really get to know him…he is not like what you would think.  I know it is wrong of him to stick a piece of paper on your friend’s windshield…I’ve talked with him about that and he feels bad.”

The couple then felt a little uncomfortable, but eventually agreed to have dinner all together with the Vanderstelt’s, the Seminary Professor, and the un-churched couple and the relationship was resolved and peace was made.  In other words, Jeff was able to bring about what only the Gospel can begin to bring about in people.  Eventually this turned into a “Missional” community and many un-churched people from the neighborhood became Christians and started attending Soma in Tacoma.

This last week I had the privilege of meeting with my area mentor, Pastor Jeff Wall from Soma Communities in Tacoma.  He has worked with Jeff Vanderstelt and has been a part of leading and shepherding “Missional” communities.  You might ask, What is a missional community?” A missional community is a group of Christians who live in a neighborhood and who are intent on serving one another, being the church to one another, and saturating that neighborhood with the love of Jesus Christ eventually earning the right to tell the story of the Gospel.

Jeff Wall’s group meets weekly on Thursdays at his home.  In the Fall they use curriculum called The Story of God, which goes through the story of the Bible from Genesis to the cross of Christ.  Each week there is one rule, you need to answer the questions related to the Bible story for that week and you are not allowed to rush ahead to Romans or some other story in the Bible.  The goal is for everyone in the room, no matter their biblical knowledge, to start at the beginning and come together as a group as the learn the whole story together.  By the time they get to the cross everything is in its proper context and the light bulb goes on for many people because the cross is the climax, which has been built up to in the Old Testament and in the life of Jesus.  Those who respond to the story are given the opportunity to continue the story in the book of Acts and beyond to learn to form a church community (an EVERYDAY church as Chester and Timmis would call it).

Then when summer begins, Jeff Wall switches his group from Thursday nights to Friday nights and they invite their neighbors to a weekly bond-fire, BBQ, roast marshmallows, hang out and build relationships between the churched and the un-churched.  Then at the end of the summer the invitation is given to all to join the group starting on Thursday nights and they would begin again The Story of God.  The one rule about joining this group is that if a person has been through The Story of God, then they are not allowed to come unless they bring someone who has not been through it before.

This is awesome.  This is a missionary way of living the gospel on the mission field called “Chronological Bible Storying.”

Friends at Grace Church Seattle, if we live in a mission field and if 42% of the people in our community have not been to church and have no intention of going to church, then what could we learn from above about how to tell the story of the Gospel to reach people for Christ?