The words contemplative and church planter do not frequently appear together. Church planters are sometimes caricatured as driven, gregarious, extroverted individuals who magnetically attract the team of followers who help them launch a new worship service. But that’s not the only way–and I would say not the best way–to plant a church.
At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, we use words like discerning and attentive to describe future leaders of new worshiping communities. New churches don’t come out of a box with step-by-step instructions that make them easy to assemble. Instead, new churches emerge when we listen attentively to the Holy Spirit, listen attentively to the people to whom God sends us, and discern in that conversation what form the Church ought to take in a given context. The fruit of such listening and discernment: congregations who speak and demonstrate God’s Word with authenticity and integrity in the communities where God has placed them. Rather than being driven by the personality of the “planter”, these churches are guided by the Spirit of the only Sower of the Seed, Jesus Christ.
What we read shapes the way we think, and in the sea of literature on church planting, books which really help cultivate postures of discernment and attentiveness are rare. These seven books have helped me develop such postures in my ministry. Some are by well-known theologians, others by local church leaders and missionaries who are living this calling at the grassroots level. With each I’ve given a quote or two, followed by a comment on its relevance for contemplative church planters. Here are 7 books for church planters:
1 Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard by Dan Steigerwald
“As missionaries, we must continually cultivate our listening and noticing capacities, comparing and contrasting what is already known about our context with new discoveries” (p. 55).
“Far too many Christians do little or nothing to cultivate relationships with people outside the Church” (p. 61).
Dan’s suggested rhythm of missional engagement begins with “Immerse and Listen.” We want to know our mission field intimately, and Dan’s advice and example show how we can.
2 Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice by Joan Gray
“Prayer saturates the lives of leaders and members in a Sailboat church” (p.51).
Gray uses the contrasting images of a rowboat and sailboat to describe how churches (both new and established) function. Many are rowboats, with members and leaders straining at the oars as they rely on human strength and direction. Sailboat churches, by contrast, are blown along and directed by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Our role as leaders and participants in such churches is to trim the sails of attentiveness to the Spirit through prayer and obedience.
3 Marks of the Missional Church: Ecclesial Practices for the Sake of the World by Libby Tedder Hugus, Keith Schwanz, and Jason Veatch
“Waking up to God’s presence means tuning-in: watching and listening for the times and places God’s word appears in our world. This awakening is even brighter when mediated through the community of faith, a shared experience among God’s people” (p. 62).
Each chapter of Marks of the Missional Church is designed like a small liturgy. This has the beautiful effect of leading the reader to “wake up to God’s presence” through the book itself.
4 The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission by John V. Taylor
“The main concern of any missionary training should be to help people to become more receptive to the revelations of God” (p. 70).
Taylor pictures the Holy Spirit’s work as one of awakening awareness, opening our eyes to perceive more clearly those to whom God has sent us. Our task is to learn to listen to the Spirit and recognize what he is doing, to become “receptive to the revelations of God.”
5 Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” (p. 26).
“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses” (p. 86).
Every Christian should read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. For the church-planter, his warnings against the idolatry of our “wish dreams” are particularly relevant. What matters is God’s desire for the people whom he loves, not our vision for a new church.
6 In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadershipby Henri Nouwen
“Jesus has a different vision of maturity [than the world]: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. . . . The servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross” (pp. 81-82).
Nouwen frames his reflections on leadership in In the Name of Jesus around the temptations of Christ described in Matthew 4:1-11. Church planters experience the temptations Nouwen identifies in even greater degrees: to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. Nouwen challenges us to turn away from self-aggrandizing ministry, and to pursue instead an intimate nearness to Christ.
7 The Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis
“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts” (p. 127 / ¶264).
Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel is a missional, holistic, and justice-seeking call to “all Christians, everywhere” to rediscover the joy of sharing the Gospel. His words about motivation are particularly poignant for church-planters: Are we engaged in this ministry primarily because of the love of Jesus which we’ve experienced? Do we take delight in inviting others into relationship with the One who loves us so deeply? Do we find such joy in Jesus himself that mission is our natural response?
This post was first published on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on September 10, 2015.