Ask-a-Missiologist: Sean Benesh on "How Can Church Planters Think and Act Like Missionaries?"

Ask-a-Missiologist is a series in which we do just that ask a missiologist a current pressing missiological question. This weeks contributor is Sean Benesh (@mtbikerguy), Developer of Urban Strategy and Training for TEAM, and author of numerous books including The Bikeable Church and Blueprints for a Just City. In addition to biking his way between Portland coffee shops, Sean has been thinking through the question:

How Can Church Planters Think and Act Like Missionaries?

As I’ve been rereading Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, it has become almost a devotional of sorts in small doses every morning. Right out of the chute in his introduction Bosch nails what I’m attempting to get at. He writes:

The difference between home and foreign missions is not one of principle but scope. We therefore have to repudiate the mystical doctrine of salt water; that is, the idea that travelling to foreign lands is the sine qua non for any kind of missionary endeavor and the final test and criterion of what is truly missionary (10).

This coincides with my large body of water theory, which is the idea that we can switch into missionary mode only when we fly over an ocean or sea. Why so? How so? Why do we still hold onto these outdated myths and misplaced notions of what is and is not missions?

It has been my belief that we need more missionaries and less church planters here on North American soil. Now let me briefly unpack that. If you will, in your mind create a two-columned list. On the left side write “church planter” and then on the right side write “missionary”. Now go ahead and list what each of these representatives are to do and be about. Go ahead.

Pretty stark contrast, isn’t it? Why the difference? Why the enormous gulf between the two? On the left side you’ll find a lot of activities and characteristics revolving around such things as preaching, leading, sermon prep, and an inordinate focus on the Sunday gathering. On the right side you’ll see a lot of bullet points like contextualization, language learning, imbedding in culture, becoming an insider, building relationships, developing a platform, finding the person of peace, exegeting culture, building relationships, and so on.

You know the dichotomy exists, but why? Would we want church planters to act like church planters if they travel overseas? Probably not. We’d expect them to think and act like missionaries over there. But that is my point—why? Why can’t we—or why don’t we—think and act like missionaries here? What would it look like if church planters here were to think and act like how missionaries did over there?

It comes down to contextualization

Are we focused on doing church how we think it ought to be done? Is it based upon our tastes, comfort, and desires? Do we simply brush aside contextualization because we’re planning here on our home turf? In Tradecraft Larry McCrary writes:

If thriving, reproducing, native churches are the end goal of our work in mission, then we must protect the indigeneity of the churches among those to whom we are called. It is in those native churches that indigenous people will find the comfort and freedom to explore the gospel and the life-change that come with it without the cumbersome weight of learning another culture in order to understand it (182).

Most of us will read the above paragraph and nod in agreement. We will recount to one another about past failures in mission history to plant truly contextualized and indigenous churches. The assumption is that now we have this mystery unlocked and this is a conversation in which we’ve “moved on”. Maybe we have and maybe we haven’t. For the moment, however, I want to spin the globe back around to here.

From the outside it appears that those who travel internationally to plant churches are keyed into this notion of contextualization and indigenous church planting. (Maybe that is too sweeping of a generalization.) My question though is, how are we doing here? Maybe the more appropriate question is, what does a contextualized or indigenous church plant look like here?

That’s the rub

What then is “here”?  Also, the “here” of Portland differs greatly from the “here” of where you are. Not only that, but the “here” in Portland is as complex and multi-faceted as our imaginations will carry us. For example, what does a contextualized and indigenous church plant look like here? Well, for starters, which Portlander are you talking about? Are you talking about the Hispanics in the Cully neighborhood or in east Portland east of the 205? The dwindling African American population in North Portland? The immigrants from all over Asia in outer Southeast Portland? The affluent in Irvington Park? You see, what then does a contextual and indigenous church look like in Portland? It all depends on the people group, whether those I mentioned above or the proliferation of hipsters throughout the city (and all of their subspecies).

Contextualization is a skill that church planters need to adopt. Let that process dictate how teaching is done, what a gathering looks like, and so on. It feels frightening because we might have to slaughter some of our favorite sacred cows like preaching for an hour, cool light bulbs on stage, hipster logos, and other things we think of as normal. This is where church planters can learn lots from missionaries. Besides, since when did church become about us and our tastes?

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash