Stephen Eccher on Church Planting Contexts and the Needs of the People

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Editor’s Note: Stephen Eccher is Assistant Professor of Church History and Reformation Studies at Southeastern. Recently, he had the privilege of serving with Southeastern students on several mission trips to different locales and cultures. So we asked him to write up his observations about church planting in these contexts. 

Over the past eleven months I’ve been honored to lead four SEBTS mission trips to various locales around the globe. Three of the four trips immersed me in the world of church planting. After trips to Seattle (Washington), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Baltimore (Maryland) one thing remains clear to me, sin has left us with a very broken world. Accordingly, the people in desperate need of the gospel also have very unique temporal needs as a consequence of sin. The following are some thoughts on church planting contexts and the importance of knowing the particular spiritual and physical needs of the people.

If church plants are going to reach their respective communities, then knowing the struggles of the people is paramount. Here, planters must keep several things in mind about the people they serve. First, getting to know these struggles requires intentionality and patience. The planter in Seattle had grown up in the Pacific Northwest, but spent the past decade in the South. He shared what a shock it was to return; things had changed and made him a cultural outsider. A Google search can offer stats and a perception of culture, but building relationships as a platform for successful gospel presentations in that culture requires more. Here, an investment of time is critical. This is where I heard multiple church planters talk about the value of planting one’s life and family in the community. People don’t just share their struggles with others, especially in places like Seattle and Edinburgh. A planter parachuting into a community during business hours and then returning to the suburbs is not an effective strategy. The investment and commitment must be greater. The sacrifice of things like a house with a picket fence and award winning schools for the planter’s family are often required in this. However, without that full investment of life in the community, how else will valuable relationships with lost people be made?

Second, people’s struggles are often deep-seated and messy. Sin creates extremely broken systems, relationships, and lives. Planting a church requires pastors to wade into the filth to take the saving gospel of Jesus to those in need. It exposes planters to sin in a way that no seminary class can. At times this will affect even the planter’s family. One pastor in Baltimore shared how the dangers of the city had touched his family’s life. He decided that if planting in an urban context was going to cost him one of his children, then he was done. However, that pastor quickly remembered how fortunate he was that God had not embraced that same mindset. The cost of staying to his family might be great, but the cost of leaving even greater in Kingdom terms. As Dr. Akin regularly reminds prospective students at SEBTS, being in the will of God is not always the safest place, but it is the best place to be.

Third, human brokenness is so systemic that long-term fixes will take time and will not be easy. Yes, the power of the gospel leaves no one beyond the reach of God’s saving grace. Still, sin has temporal consequences that may take years to address. While working in the poor sections of Edinburgh we witnessed firsthand the devastation of addiction, poverty, and mental illness. Given the context, the church in Edinburgh moves new converts immediately into the homes of mature believers. What a sacrifice, but also a biblical picture of discipleship. The needs of people are great and often remain long after conversion, but biblical discipleship requires such an investment.

Fourth, a certain location may necessitate a ministry that is uncomfortable to the planter. In Baltimore the pervasive nature of HIV demanded a tangible response from one church. Spending hours on end with those afflicted by the disease was not on the church plant’s radar. However, they did not get to choose the problems that their church faced. The context of ministry trumped their preference in ministry.

Seattle, Edinburgh, and Baltimore are vastly different places. Sin in each of these places may look different, leaving people and ministries in need of a tailor-made approach. But that is also where the beauty and simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ is so amazing. Regardless of the context and despite the depths of the sin, the free offer of reconciliation with God through Jesus remains available to all. God is simply looking for planters and pastors who will go and tell.

 

 

In Case You Missed It

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Here are some of the blogposts to read from the week that was, in case you missed it.

1) Southeastern President, Danny Akin, writes about the Scriptural View of Marriage. This is the first post in a series.

2) At The Gospel Coalition, they are featuring some great posts from the past. Yesterday, this post by Amy Sherman on the church dropout problem (it’s a discipleship problem) caught our eye.

3) The Church Leaders blog hosted by Lifeway featured Southeastern’s Nathan Finn on why “Everybody is a Theologian.”

4) The Acton Institute, which features excellent content on the intersection of Christian theology and the rest of life, has a good post by Elise Hilton, “When Are We Going to Get Honest About Gender Issues?”

5) Southeastern alum and Pastor of The Summit Church, J. D. Greear has a new book coming out, “Jesus Continued.” Read about it and pre-order it here. 

6) From the SEND Network, a helpful post by Christine Hoover, “What Does Success Look Like for a Church Planting Wife?”

 

John Ewart on the Pastoral Leadership Equation

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Amazingly to me, part of my life revolves around conferencing. I always feel very humbled when asked to participate and never quite adequate for the task assigned, but I want to try to do my best and help if I can. This past week I had the privilege of helping lead two conferences for some really quality people. One was for a national group to which I belong that trains church consultants from all around the world. The other was a state convention event for the SBC of Virginia. Both dealt with church health, church revitalization and church leadership. They once again gave me the opportunity to consult with pastors and leaders and to hear about what was happening in their churches. As always, some of their stories were quite encouraging and some were not.

It is interesting in consultation work how often certain patterns emerge. Sometimes they are patterns of healthy practice but unfortunately, more often, they are patterns of problems and sin. It is very common for me to hear of unhealthy leadership patterns for example. Leaders who seem to lack wisdom or suffer from pride or fear are too common!

There is a statement I have taught those who served with me in local churches and seminaries over the years. It is not intended to be an all-inclusive “secret to ministry” or anything of the sort but I do believe it contains truth worth hearing and practicing. It goes something like this: “If a man could possess biblically based common sense while retaining objectivity and keeping his own ego out of the picture, he could serve well in God’s Kingdom. The problem is…one of the key parts of the equation is almost always missing.”

I refer to biblically based common sense as a superpower in ministry. To have knowledge and wisdom and be able to actually put them into practice well in ministry seems all too rare. Maybe we do not train well or we lack good examples or just need more experience. It is difficult to conduct a seminary class on wisdom and common sense. We need pastoral mentors to help the next generation of leaders grow in their ability to use the knowledge they gain in the classroom in solid ministry practice. This is one reason why I love our EQUIP Network. It intentionally places the more experienced with the less experienced.

Retaining objectivity simply means to be able to see the big picture without being trapped in some myopic vision. To see the pieces of mission and vision connect in ministry and to understand that actions here can affect actions there. I have seen so many leaders operate in silos where they become obtuse as to how their decisions, or lack of decisions, are hindering the overall progress of the church or ministry. Then we get . . . bumper cars!

Humility is the most common part of the equation missing in most of my encounters with leaders. Pride kills servant leadership. Pride is a form of fear where one is trying to protect and preserve oneself because he or she does not believe God can or will. It is a form of idolatry. It is a disease in leadership. Leaders who cannot work in such a way as to not worry about who gets the credit for something accomplished will never rise above the lowest levels of leadership. The ability to keep one’s ego out of the picture and to allow others to shine without jealousy or envy is a gift. In the end we want King Jesus to be the One truly glorified anyway!

Conferencing is an amazing part of my life. This coming weekend we host the 9 Marks conference on campus and on Saturday morning the EQUIP Network of our Spurgeon Center is hosting a special breakfast with Alistair Begg and Danny Akin. I look forward to hearing more about and observing good, biblical leadership!