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.