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Friday, November 11, 2016

"Church Planting in the Secular West" (Stefan Paas)

TITLE: Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience (The Gospel and Our Culture Series (GOCS))
AUTHOR: Stefan Paas
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016, (300 pages).

Most people would already know how secular North America has become. From Canada to the Southern Bible belt of the US, the reputation of the Church have not only taken a beating but the atheist and secular influences continue to dumb down all things religious. The Church has become more irrelevant as the days go by. The thought of planting churches tend to be a phenomena for churches in Asia, South America, and Africa. For North America, the Church is generally seen to be in a decline for the past few decades. This gloomy scene is nowhere near the state of the Church in Europe. If anyone thinks that Church planting in North America is tough, the idea of even planting a Church in Europe is quickly dispelled. In other words, as far as planting churches in Europe is concerned, tough is an understatement. Having said that, there are ways in which it is still possible to plant churches in the secular Europe. According to author Stefan Paas, "most if not all church planting in secular Europe is inspired by confessional motives, growth motives, and innovation motives." While defending church planting per se, he also has criticisms for all of the above approaches. In this book, Paas aims to look at all of these approaches from a missiological perspective with regard to the relevance of the Church with her neighbours. The second manner is to look at Europe in the present Western secular context after WWII. He also uses the definition of secular mainly as "non-religious" and boldly tackles what it means to reach out to people living in a highly secularized society where religion is increasingly irrelevant and obsolete.

Before jumping into the three approaches, Paas critiques the traditional forms of Church planting and the language used. On the Church, he says that unlike the past approaches of 'church planting,' the New Testament never sees the Church as the "object." On the ecclesiology, church planting is but one root, and the purpose of church planting in the New Testament is for the universal Church rather than the local Church. In doing so, he tries to bring church planting from a localized to a globalized perspective. Mission in the medieval age takes on a three stage missionary practice: proclamation, gathering, and planting, generally based on political power. There is a strong orientation toward expanding Christendom. This leads many missions to become initiatives to form churches that can be independent. Modern church planting movements have the backdrop of desiring to expand their own Christianization in the name of the Church. Paas puts it very concisely about such efforts as a "three-stage process of evangelism (conversion), gathering (baptism and community formation), and planting (constitution)." After WWII, Europe changed and Paas describes three main ways of church planting.

The first is "confessional purity" in which a new church plant is an effort to maintain some kind of purer breed compared to the sending church. Like leaving the mother church in order to establish a new church closer to the ideals of the confession. It could be having a church closer to the New Testament Early Church. It could be a sense of urgency to solve a crisis in society. It could be about empowering the laity to do more. It could also be re-energizing members' zeal for missions. Paas calls this kind of church planting as one motivated by a desire to "Plant Better Churches." Better than their existing ones; better than in terms of doctrine and lifestyle; more vibrant; more faithful expression to their core values; and so on. He chooses "confessional" as a way to describe the identity of such churches because it sits between the labels of "sectarian" which to him is too negative, and "denominational" which is too positive. Unique to the history of Europe is the nature of confessionalism that turns "theology into a battleground" like the schisms and the reformation in the early centuries. He leads us through a historical movements of the Baptists (16C), Anabaptists (17C), Pietists/Moravians (17C/18C), Methodists (18C), and others before concluding with some missiological reflections.  He urges a re-orientation of such church planting initiatives toward a more missionary approach rather than ecclesiastical expansion.

The second is about church-growth movement churches where church planting is but a strategy for evangelism. It is seen as the most effective way to evangelize the world. In our modern world, it could mean numerical, qualitative growth, organic, or incarnational growth. He looks more specifically at numerical growth: births, transfers, and conversions. He questions the use of missions as a way to grow churches. Looking at the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 and Mark 4, he is convinced that growth is more from a minority group while Church Growth Theories tend to presume growth in terms of changing the entire world into a Church! He also critiques the pragmatism approach that sees growth that overwhelm the focus on discipleship. In fact, he believes that CGT itself may very well lead to the secularization of the Church! At the same time, Paas reminds churches that are against CGT that it is equally important to work toward getting new members. This is a biblical call: Try to win people but let God determine how many. Paas gives us some compelling reasons for church growth models too. In fact, church planting movements lead to growth in many fronts. There is an interesting Religious Market Theory (RMT) that showcases the three levels of beliefs. The "Rational Actors" assume that people join religious movements because they are "religiously seeking" individuals. The "Meso-Level" is a step above individual anthropological needs toward organizational representation. The "Macro-Level" looks at church growth in terms of various churches being challenged by other churches to grow. He supplies many empirical evidence to argue his case that while church planting can lead to numerical growth, there are other factors at play such as quality of congregational life, church networks, spiritual gifts, and other conversion growth elements. A secular Europe means a more complex environment and a need to employ multiple church growth strategies.

The third is the innovative way in which the author describes as "Planting New Churches." He cites Philip Jenkins's thinking about Europe being a "laboratory for new forms of faith, new structures of organization and interaction." This is probably the most exciting part about the book where Paas makes a case for an innovative approach for renewal. Recognizing the complex environment, he proposes approaches that are more flexible and "ecumenically sensitive." One must avoid asserting too much control. In turn, one needs to help new communities understand their own contexts and to engage with non-Christians with intentional initiatives. We need to work with people different from us.

Let me give three reasons for reading this book. First, it is a wonderful historical overview of all the church movements related to Church growth, innovation, and missionary approaches. Many of them work during their time because it fits contextual realities. In understanding how each confessional or innovative approach and the respective environments, it is hoped that we can learn from history not to apply wholesale methods but to adapt where necessary. That is why Paas title his book "secular west" which link church planting efforts to the target environment. History is a great teaching tool and the author has helped us with a clear overview of the key events of history. Second, we learn a multitude of church planting methodologies and strategies. We learn that church planting is beyond numerical growth but involves a whole lot of motivations that range from individual anthropological needs to larger church denominations and confession boards.  Third, we are challenged to develop our own innovative and unique ways of mission. Sometimes, we tend to be lazy and are tempted to import successful strategies from another place into our own. From interest over Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven" strategies to Tim Keller's "Redeemer Church" model, we tend to want to find out that magic bullet or secret formulas. Keller in Center Church has indicated a need for "theological vision." In this book, Paas challenges us toward theological innovation, not in a doctrinal sense but more in a missiological sense. Church planting is still very much relevant and essential. It is only the methods and the ways we implement that that need to be adapted.

If you are looking for secret ways and formulas for wholesale application into your church context or target, this book will not give you that. It may provide hints and clues but readers need to do the hard work of contextualization themselves. What would be better for readers is to learn from history and do the hard work of understanding the target audience and environment. As societies become more secular and complex, our need to understand has become a lot more difficult. We need God's guidance and wisdom. We need more sensitivity to the undercurrents of society. All of these means more prayer and actions that arise out of prayer.

Stefan Paas is J.H. Bavinck Chair for Missiology and Intercultural Theology at Vrije University of Amsterdam.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of William B. Eerdmans and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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