Starting Missional Churches – An Interview with Mark Lau Branson

There are a number of good books on church planting. You can see my top ten list here.

I would put Mark Lau Branson and Nicholas Warnes’ Starting Missional Churches: Life with God in the Neighborhood in my top books on church planting for a couple of reasons:

First, Mark and Nick deconstruct current unhelpful practices of church planting, or planting (the gospel) and reconstruct thoughtful concrete ways to join God in the renewal of the local neighborhood. Second, at the heart of the book are seven encouraging church planting stories, where we learn narratively from the life experience of seven different church plants, their strengths, weaknesses and areas in which they are growing and learning. Finally, they do a great job at describing what it really means to be a “missional church” in the final chapter entitled Reflections, Frameworks and Priorities.

It’s an important read.
JRW—Tell us a little bit about yourself, your family, what you do, and some of your passions and hobbies.

MLB—I had almost 30 years in various ministries (church leadership, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, community development, community organizing, teaching in Peru, various urban organizations) and since 2000 I have taught at Fuller Theological Seminary. My ordination is from an African American Pentecostal Church (in San Francisco) and my theological roots are Wesleyan/Methodist.

Nina and I have been married for 34 years (my middle name “Lau” is her Chinese family name) and we have two adult sons (one in graduate studies in psychology, one completing a degree in cinematography). I enjoy hiking (high Sierras), black and white photography (film), and vegetable gardening. In addition to work at Fuller I am a senior consultant with The Missional Network. We are part of the leadership team of a new Free Methodist church plant.

JRW—There are a lot of books on church planting and the missional church, why did you feel it was necessary for you, Nick and others to write this book?

MLB—I have had quite a few students who planted churches. They often tell me that the classes and books on missional churches and leadership were more helpful to them than the how-to books on planting.

The various contributors to this book all noted that they had to diverge in substantive ways from the programmed approaches they had previously received. For example, Kevin Haah was inspired toward boundary crossing and Nick Warnes found that rather than just seeking the needs of their neighbors that they were engaged by the gifts and talents of their neighbors.

Also, in my consulting work with denominations and churches, everyone is aware of the high failure rates (either in the first years or about 6 years out) – and I believe many failures are traceable to the frameworks, theologies, and habits of those systems. So because I had spent years engaged with what Missio Dei looks like in praxis, I wanted to create an explicit conversation between church planting and the missional church frameworks.

JRW—Alan Roxbourgh has said, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in only one decade.” I would agree, which is why I appreciate how you take an informed understanding of the missional conversation to bring fresh imagination for church planting.

What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about the “missional” church?

MLB—The term is used to describe sending more missionaries, or restocking the food pantry, or participating in civic activities, or fostering the arts. Some of these activities are good. But overwhelmingly, churches and planters embody the late modern practices of strategic planning, cultural hegemony, commodification, and consumer marketing.

So, when I hear or read stories and strategies that include those elements, I know they have not been shaped in the new habits that Newbigin and others have advanced. The theological praxis of discerning and participating in the always-already initiatives of God in a particular place is profoundly different than the common attempts to deliver religious goods, services, and concepts to what we assume are generic neighbors.

God is more contextually engaged than we can imagine! Craig Brown and AJ Swoboda note how they were awakened by neighbors. That needs to center missional life.

JRW —I appreciate the later half of chapter two where you give us four missional priorities for starting churches. Would you give us a quick summary of those four initiatives and why you guys choose these four to emphasize?

MLB—Since these four priorities are prone to thin interpretations this brief answer will be inadequate. The narratives and thicker reflections in the book are needed if these priorities are to avoid being reduced to one more set of tactics. We believe there are important theological matters at stake, and these priorities grow out of how we embody the praxis of theology.

For example, if we really believe that God is alive and engaged among our neighbors, then we begin by listening and discerning. This counters our norm of packaging and delivering what we think our neighbors need. If God has made our neighbors and us as subjects (rather than as objects) then our mission engagement will prioritize, well, neighborliness – listening, being present, letting go of our need to control.

We are shaped by habits that promote comfort and sameness – we want to be with people like us, and we will receive others if they are becoming like us. We believe the gospel fronts social boundary crossing of all kinds – not so we can dominate but so we can be changed. We will not know God apart from others.

Finally, all of these priorities call for a different approach to leadership – not experts and entrepreneurs and curators but discerning space-makers who guide a group toward the kinds of practices that flip our habits toward loving God and neighbors.

JRW —If you had to add a fifth missional priority, what would you add and why?

MLB—These four all assume that we (leaders and communities) are reflective practitioners. This is something that is too often lacking, and is often very hard work.

By “reflective” I don’t mean the kind of meandering commentary that is often part of social media. Rather, I want to gain and promote habits of questioning our assumptions and receiving new gospel imaginations. We too often read the Bible, go to seminars, converse with neighbors, and prepare our sermons while all the time gathering anything that undergirds our current biases and frameworks. Kevin Doi’s story shows how they were changed as they gained these competencies for reflection.

It seems to me that the Trinity is frequently giving us life by disrupting our assumptions. Only reflective practices – challenging our own perceptions and thinking and plans – can make us more available to the gospel.

JRW—I found the church planting stories of Kevin Doi, Craig Brown, Kevin Haah, Nikki Collins MacMillian, Nick Warnes, AJ Swoboda and Tim Morey meaningful, messy, honest and instructive. What was the reasoning that you and Nick had behind having a good portion of the book feature seven church planting stories?

MLB—Nick and I are committed to what is called “praxis.” This is a continual movement between action and reflection. (This is meant to counter some who think we just get our theories and knowledge straight then we go apply those concepts; others critique theological reflection with absurd claims about just being action-oriented.)

We wanted the book to have the needed elements to demonstrate, through narratives and theological reflection, the priorities we have been seeing. The stories are not just added to support the concepts – these authors represent communities that are experimenting and learning on the ground. Nikki MacMillan had to keep rethinking and adapting, and Tim Morey notes how his theological praxis shifted. So these chapters provide real theological engagement.

JRW—I know Kevin Doi, Kevin Haah, AJ Swoboda and Tim Morey, and hope to meet the others some day. Each of these planters is full of life and enjoyable to be around. What did you enjoy most about putting this book together with this team of writers and what did you find to be most difficult?

MLB—We are all very engaged in neighborhood life, in our own work, and in various networks of colleagues and friends. The difficult work of writing – especially when our contributions need to be somewhat cohesive – is time consuming. So, no surprise here, we were stretched in the task of simply writing and shaping the book.

We knew we were doing something that had not been done. Each author was enthusiastic about providing the book as a gift to planters, pastors, and students – so that is profoundly enjoyable.

JRW—What is the biggest thing that you want people to walk away with after reading Starting Missional Churches?

MLB—We believe that God changed these pastors and churches as they experimented their ways into their own contexts. Sometimes they were quickly aware and able to shift; sometimes they were slower to see and adapt. Their stories are gifts – not because they have a map for others but because, to use Al Roxburgh’s metaphor, they show us how to be cartographers who are daily sketching local maps to fit the Spirit’s moves. So the stories, and the frameworks that Nick and I describe, are intended to encourage agility that is suitable to this kind of work.

JRW—If you had one last word to give to church planters in particular, what word would you leave with us?

MLB—Our team of coaches in The Missional Network is convinced of the importance of learning communities. So find some covenant partners – for yourselves as leaders but also for your churches. Spend regular time together. Buy the book and as you tell your own stories, slowly, leisurely, read these narratives and commentaries. Let your imaginations be changed, identify your assumptions and place them before God, see new experiments arise, and find yourselves transformed in the midst of life with your neighbors.

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JR Woodward
JR Woodward is a church planter, activist, missiologist and author of Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012). He co-founded the Ecclesia Network and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (UK).
JR Woodward

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