If I am being honest, I’m not generally a big fan of books on church planting. My lack of enthusiasm stems from two primary observations.
First, many books on church planting are authored by people who actually have surprisingly limited experience in church planting or whose credibility rests on a single (relatively meaningless) criterion—their ability to draw a large crowd.
Second, a preponderance of books on church planting that seem to gain popular traction lack any meaningful theological foundations and/or framework for their proposals.
The Church as Movement by my friends, JR Woodward and Dan White Jr., I am thrilled to say, subverts those stereotypes and gives me fresh hope for a new breed of resources in this area.
Here’s why I say that.
Subverting Stereotypes, Giving Fresh Hope
Right out of the gate, Woodward & White call out the “Christian-industrial complex” as a paradigm of church (planting) ministry that has to be recognized and repudiated. They comment, “In our American imagination success means growing bigger, collecting more resources, consolidating power, creating strong hierarchical structures and growing rapidly,” which “unintentionally turns spirituality into a product, church growth into a race, leadership into a business and members into consumers” (24-25). In opposition to this enculturated vision, the authors are committed to “recovering a way of being the church of God in the way of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, and allowing God to bring fruit in whatever way he sees fit. Our focus is being faithful and joining God’s mission, trusting him for fruitfulness” (33).
For the authors, all this begins and is rooted in what they call dogmatic depth—a vision of church planting that hinges on convictions in the areas of Trinitarian missiology, the doctrine of the missio Dei, a holistic understanding of the gospel, the missionary priesthood of all believers, and a missional reading of Scripture. This is not a list of “doctrines to believe,” but a theological grid for understanding the very nature and purpose of the Church. Without this, church planting devolves into the franchising of social clubs under a religious banner.
As I read it, this is what forms the backdrop and shapes the content of the rest of the book. Under the headings of Distributing, Discipling, Designing, and Doing, the authors unpack what they see as the most essential elements of taking a truly theologically missional approach to church planting. Without really going into the meat of these sections, each comprised of two chapters, allow me to just point out the moves they are making and why they matter.
Distributing is all about acquiring a movement intelligence and understanding polycentric leadership. Movement intelligence is counter-intuitive. “We’d rather have fast, furious, fantastic growth. Yet we must pay attention to the small,” where “disciples are formed and sent into neighborhoods,” and where “communities learn to gather under the essentials of being the church” (23).
Polycentric leadership will also require significant unlearning as “we move from solo leadership to team leadership—people with mutual authority leading together and submitting to one another, this serving as an example for the entire community” (53).
Discipling is, unsurprisingly, all about being and making disciples. Here the authors observe that “a movement of disciples who launch and care for missional-incarnational communities will not be sustained by dynamic personalities. . . . Movements are built on character” (73). Furthermore, “discipleship is the work of shaping disciples to carry the seeds of the entire mission…not the transfer of information through a sermon or a book,” (89) thereby requiring an entirely different set of skills and commitments.
Designing focuses, first, on the priority of equipping “disciples and the communities we form in a full, rich theology that can be practiced.” The authors note, “[the] how is important, but why is the driving force behind our activism,” (119) meaning missional theology will always need to be at the heart of truly movemental churches.
Additionally, “movements must be accessible and relational for people to access the pulse of the movement” (143). This means that great care must be given to the formation and communication of a community’s ecclesiology—how and why it organizes itself.
The final section, Doing, first addresses community formation—the shaping of a people with and for one another. The authors suggest “a community well-oiled with love, listening, hospitality, and grace-filled friendships will multiply, birthing new communities” (171). The section then focuses on incarnational practices. These are concrete actions people and communities can take to truly inhabit their neighborhoods, “the places where marginalized people, forgotten people, people not interested in a slick worship service fall through the cracks” (191).
All this is obviously more summary than review, but I offer it as a means of offering a snapshot of what JR & Dan are after in Church as Movement. Anyone familiar with church planting literature will quickly note how different this approach is, and hopefully also how needed!
Practical and Formational
Two more things must be noted about this book. First, while the authors wisely ground their reflections and proposals in essential theological categories, the book is still enormously practical. Each chapter is jam-packed with real-life examples, illustrations, and tools that practitioners will find tremendously useful.
Second, this is as much a field guide for church planters/planting teams as it is a treatise on a more faithful approach to church planting. Each chapter features “Formational Learning” sections where readers and groups are presented with questions for discussion, reflection, and practice.
Quite simply, it’s essential reading not just for active church planters, but all those who wish to see God’s mission flourish in the life and movement of the Church.