Tuesday, November 21

When is a church a church?

In a previous post "The church in your house" Bro. Tim Rogers asks a good question:

"The process of this type of church plant sounds interesting. When do you determine if it is a legitimate church?"

For us it is a fairly simple process. Church is not a complex institution. It is a living, growing organism. Therefore what we consider "church" is far simpler than what many think of when contemplating First Baptist Church, Bible Belt, USA.

There are basically three stages to becoming a church. All are undergirded by prayer.

1) engage in some type of evangelistic outreach to win people to Christ,
2) meet as an outreach group with these new converts until some are baptized,
3) become a church.

Before proceeding, just a word of clarification. We don't try to start churches with people who are already believers, or members of other existing churches. We only target non-believers and it is with new converts that we do all our church planting.

All that is needed to start a new church is a worker, a church planter, and a little bit of training. Therefore prayer to the Lord of the Harvest for laborers is high on our priority list.

Once we have a laborer (preferably a pair), we train them in much the same fashion as Jesus did with the 70 in Luke 10. We teach them to...
  • work in pairs (vs.1)
  • pray (v.2)
  • go (v.3)
  • don't take...(v.4)
  • find the person of peace (v.5,6)
  • stay in that house (v.7)
  • eat and drink with the POP (v.7,8)
  • heal (minister) (v.9)
  • proclaim. (v.9)
Once we have a group of people who have made professions of faith, the discipleship process continues but in group fashion. The group meeting can be anywhere from 2-3 people, to as many as fit inside the meeting place. They are called an "outreach group." Outreach groups will sing, pray, study the Word, minister to one another, even collect offerings, but they are not a church.

New believers in outreach groups are led to understand the security of their salvation experience. They are shown in Scripture that new believers are baptized.

This is the first real test whether or not they have truly given their hearts to Christ. If they back out or want to postpone baptism (for whatever reasons) we continue to work with them as an outreach group. For us the key that opens the door to becoming a church is baptism. Why?

Many Latin Americans with Roman Catholic backgrounds realize that being re-baptized is a clear break with the religion of their fathers. It is a major step. Much like it would be for Baptist readers deciding to make a break with their own church to join the Mormon church. Many times new believers are hesitant to take this step. Sometimes it takes several weeks, even months for them to come around to what we would consider a genuine decision of turning one's life over to Christ.

Once one or more people are baptized, they simply become a church. No need to make a big deal out of what already is. There are no other in between stages (mission, Bible study, preaching point.) Usually the same day as the initial baptisms we will also serve the Lord's Supper. From that point forward they are no longer considered an outreach group, but a church. They will, of course, continue the disicipleship process begun with their profession of faith. From the very beginning they are a self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating church. Church only becomes complicated when we begin adding extra-biblical requirements.

Just as a new born baby is a real human being, a group of new born babes in Christ is a real church. As long as they have someone to nurture, lead, and guide them (a church planter), and hopefully apostolic workers behind them for backup and encouragement, the new born church has a good chance to grow into a maturing body of believers. But as in real life, especially in the third world, many times new born babies die prematurely. The same thing is true for new churches. In our own case we have a high percentage of new church plants that die. Some of the reasons for this have been shared in an earlier post "Why do so many of our church plants fail?"

So therefore, a church is a group of baptized believers who meet regularly together where God has planted them and function as a NT ekklesia.

There is more to it than we have been able to briefly describe here, but this is essentially how we define "church." Any questions, clarifications, observations, etc. are welcome.

10 comments:

Strider said...

God started a church in the course of our ministry many years ago which had some tough questions. They were all women with women leaders. Now we were content to call it a Bible study but those pesky women actually read the Bible and decided on their own that they were a church. For four years they went on like this and my boss used this church as an example of women in ministry on a number of occasions. After four years a couple of men joined them and now the head leader is a man- not because he is a man but because he is a gifted pastor. I decided then that the church is exactly as you have described. Could the church have been 'healthier'? Well, of course. All of those women wanted the men in their lives to come to faith and join them. I believe God wants families and lots of them. But in the meantime we are all growing and changing and that makes ministry messy- and the church messier.
Once again, too much ramble from me when I should have just said, 'Great Post!'

GuyMuse said...

Strider,

Thanks for the good comment. We too are learning, as Stepchild wrote, church planting is more an art, and less a science. When we try to force things to fit our notions we run into trouble. When we let Jesus be Lord of his church, He has a way of working things out beautifully in his time. For a while things may be a bit messy, but I certainly remember the years we had little ones around the house, it was often messy too!

Bryan Riley said...

Great post. It seems we often complicate things in our human "wisdom" without placing faith in God working beyond our wisdom.

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Guy,

There is an old man that has taken over your blog. His picture shows up on your blog but your picture shows up in the comment stream. I just thought I would point out this glitch in your blog because that old man looks nothing like that man who sits on the beach;>)

Seriously, some questions. The planter or planter pair that you begin with, are they new Christians from another church? Also, when the Bible Study produces the first baptismal candidates you at that time consider it a church. Is that right? If it is, does the church planter do the baptising? Could you clarify how you keep the new believers from acquiescing into baptismal regeneration? From your article you say; "If they back out or want to postpone baptism (for whatever reasons) we continue to work with them as an outreach group. For us the key that opens the door to becoming a church is baptism." Once they stop being an outreach group and become a church does the discipleship training change? Also, is there any kind of lesson guide that you use while they are still an outreach group? How long does the outreach group remain an outreach group? In other words are there outreach groups that have been in the process for years but have never produced any baptisms?

Great post. I am very interested in tranposing this into the US setting. It does not cost money so it may go over very well here.;>)

Blessings,
Tim

GuyMuse said...

Tim,

What "old man" are you talking about? I see a young, handsome picture showing up on my blog site! :)

Now to your questions...

The planter or planter pair that you begin with, are they new Christians from another church?

They are simply baptized believers. They are usually from an existing church, and many times are themselves new believers.

When the Bible Study produces the first baptismal candidates you at that time consider it a church. Is that right?

No, at that point they are an "outreach group". Once they have baptized the first batch of people they become a church.

does the church planter do the baptising?

The usual pattern is for the church planter to do the baptizing themselves, but there are many times when for one reason or another the church planter will ask someone else to do the baptizing.

Could you clarify how you keep the new believers from acquiescing into baptismal regeneration?

This really hasn't been a problem with us. They understand that salvation is by faith in Christ and that baptism is the outward sign of what has taken place on the inside. Baptism is what people do who have decided to follow Christ.

Once they stop being an outreach group and become a church does the discipleship training change?

The discipleship doesn't change, it simply continues. We use what we call a "Discipleship Route" that goes through several stages, but from the time a person prays to receive Christ, they are "in" the discipleship process.

Also, is there any kind of lesson guide that you use while they are still an outreach group?
This one is harder to explain without sitting down and actually showing you what it is we do, but basically we use what we call "open groups" for outreach. An open group is made up of believers and non-believers who study Bible lessons together. For those who are believers, the lessons are "discipleship." For those unbelievers atending they are evangelism lessons meant to win people to Christ.

How long does the outreach group remain an outreach group?

There can be several outreach groups going on at the same time in different places. They are considered "outreach groups" until the first baptisms.

In other words are there outreach groups that have been in the process for years but have never produced any baptisms?

If an outreach group hasn't become a church in six months, something is definitely wrong and needs to be helped. In our way of thinking, there is no such thing as an outreach group going on for years. If there aren't decisions within a few weeks, we usually literally follow what Christ said to the 70 and "shake the dust" off our feets and move on.

Hope some of this helps. I would encourage you to try starting open outreach groups. I don't see any reason why they wouldn't work there in the States as well.

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Guy,

Thanks for the information. It does look interesting and I believe I can adjust it to fit in the US.

Pray for me!.

Blessings,
Tim

knoxalan said...

I don't know why I have just stumbled on your blog. You are seeing God do some very interesting things... some things that I am interested in seeing him do here. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
- Alan

GuyMuse said...

Alan,

So glad you "stumbled" onto the site, and thanks for the encouraging words. Come back anytime, and feel free to share your thoughts as well.

Kiki Cherry said...

Guy,

Your blog site has been like a handbook for us in this church planting process. I'm so glad that you are willing to publicly wrestle with some of the challenges that church planting entails.

We are just past the "honeymoon" phase of the new church, and now encountering some of the obstacles. And hopefully we are about to launch two more house churches, which will probably encounter similar questions.

We have a new believer whose family is livid that she has forsaken her religious tradition. We have two new believers wrestling with the whole concept of baptism, since both consulted priests, who told them that their infant baptism was their only legitimate one.

Then there is the question of WHERE to baptize. In the swimming pool? But what about the pool regulations? The Allegheny river is a little too scary, plus it's 20 degrees outside.

Then there is the whole issue of communion. We had a long discussion this past Sunday (during our 3+ hour long church service) before we actually had our first Lord's Supper together.

But the question was raised as to whether we could partake in a worthy manner if we had some varying beliefs about the elements within the group. A couple of people believe that the elements are actually transformed on a spiritual level, because of the power of the Word of God spoken over them. Others believed the bread and wine were merely symbolic.

Then there's the whole subject of tithing.....

Starting a new church is certainly NOT cut and dried. Sometimes it's incredibly messy.

Thank you for your honesty and transparency. It's encouraging.

GuyMuse said...

Kiki,

So good to hear from you again. Sounds like you've been keeping pretty busy with the house church plants and everything else you've got going on!

Yes, there are many obstacles along the way. Just look at Paul's Epistles in the NT. Most of what he writes is dealing with particular problems found in each of the newly planted churches. Whenever I think we have got it rough here, it just takes a few verses of 1 Cor. and I realize "we're OK"!

You mention the baptizing. In my post I stress how important this step is for us. We don't force it, but until people come to the conviction that they need to be baptized, we don't consider the group a "church." There are those of us who would debate this stance, and have good Scriptural points to back them up. Our view, however, comes from working with people coming almost exclusively from a RC background where simply being part of the Church saves one. We don't want anyone thinking that the Church saves--Jesus alone saves. Hence our strong stance on baptism.

I can really empathize with you on the other matters you bring up (tithing, Lord's Supper, where to baptize, etc.) It is indeed messy, but certainly part of truly understanding who we are as a church. It is much better in the long run to go ahead now and struggle through these issues and come to a group understanding, rather than having an authority figure dictate the "final word" which leaves some people satisfied, but most are not convinced in their heart.

We too are going through some very muddy waters these days. Most of it is divisive and stuff embarrasing to even bring up in that it has to do with power struggles going on within newly planted churches. In one of the cases money has become an issue and personality clashes...

We'll pray for you guys, and would love for you to remember us as well!