A few months ago, I stuck my foot in my mouth during an important meeting at the seminary. We were discussing the creation of a church-planting track for students, and I suggested that students in such a track should be required to be involved in a local church during seminary. Seminarians are of course expected to be involved in a local church, but this isn’t always the case. Embarrassingly, I exaggerated and said that they rarely are. That’s not true. Most seminarians are deeply involved in their churches.
What is rare, though, is for them to love their churches. A friend observed in a conversation last week that seminary education does not instill love for the church. More often it instills antagonism. Students learn shocking things about the Bible that their pastors never told them. Professors or visiting speakers may make subtle remarks demeaning churches. Field education placements may use seminarians like cheap labor. Denominational committees on preparation for ministry are feared for the obstacles they place in front of candidates for ordination. Sometimes students are even warned that the congregations they serve will become their enemies. Resistant to change, demanding, full of broken and sinful people – the church is not easy to love.
I don’t think anyone deliberately tries to instill distaste for the church. In fact, I think my seminary did a better job than most at instilling a positive attitude toward the church (and from what I see of it today, my school is continuing to grow in doing so). But the truth that the church is not easy to love often comes across more clearly than the call to love the church. And we need to clearly hear that call.
Anyone going into pastoral ministry needs to work to cultivate a love for the church. Like a healthy marriage, a healthy relationship between pastors and congregations requires deliberate work toward love. This is even more important, I think, for church-planters. Ironically, a lot of church-planters get their start through a lack of love for the church. Antagonistic toward the rigidity or inward-focus or backwardness of some churches, or determined to advance their own theological views, people strike out on their own to do something new. For a while, that something new is often like the anti-church church. It’s the place where things are deliberately untraditional, where the new is always celebrated, where churchy language or symbols are deliberately cast off. And it works for a while, until it circumstances dictate that this new community develop its own structures of support, its own traditions, its own churchy-ness.
I think church-planting by rebelling against the existing church is a recipe for disaster. For one thing, a community should be defined by what it is for, not what it’s against. More important theologically, though, the Church matters. It’s not just a tool that God uses for his purposes and then discards. It’s the community of God’s beloved children, chosen before the creation of the world for fellowship with God through Christ (Eph. 1:4-7). She’s the Bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25-30), an image which suggests that God loves the community of the church as an end in itself. Church-planting in the way of Jesus Christ is not about the creation of new communities which are radically different just for the sake of being different. Church-planting in the way of Jesus Christ is about loving the church, desiring to see it grow and live into the beauty which Christ sees in it.