A Call to a Bigger Vision for Being Together Planting Churches
Together for the City: How Collaborative Church Planting Leads to Citywide Movements is a delightful and inspiring read that tells the story of a group of churches in Birmingham who decided to work together in a way they had never done before. Their vision, known as 2020birmingham, was to plant 20 churches by 2020, now extended to 30 by 2030 and 100 in their lifetime.
But this is a story told with intent. It is Neil Powell & John James’ conviction that ‘the more willing we are to find ways to collaborate, the more effective we’ll be in reaching our city for Jesus’. As such, it also functions as a succinct textbook laying down principles and a pathway for others to follow.
An Effort Rivaling Dunkirk?
Firstly they make the case for localised collaborative church planting movements, both their necessity and definition. The authors use the analogy of Operation Dynamo in 1940, where a flotilla of fishing boats, steamers and yachts rescued 338,000 stranded British soldiers from Dunkirk: ’what if there is a way for faithful churches across denominations, ecclesial styles, and theological traditions to partner together in a rescue effort that would rival Dunkirk?’
Secondly, they unpack the ‘how’, using the equation: core + cause + code = collaboration. Many of us will naturally identify with churches who either share a similar doctrinal ‘core’ or ministry patterns. However the authors argue this isn’t the same as collaboration. For the latter, one also needs a ‘cause’, i.e. a shared ministry goal for our shared context, as well as a ‘code’, meaning not a set of rules but a commitment to the gospel enfleshed in gospel values and postures.
The final section is a stirring call to action. The book is littered with inspiring and varied snapshot examples from Birmingham, but this section also features a number of international case-studies.
For many of us, the book’s challenge will likely lie in whether we’re truly willing to work with other churches for the sake of the lost. Powell and James both pastor FIEC churches and identify as reformed/conservative evangelicals, yet they offer our constituency a challenging call to a bigger vision. This is explicitly more than ‘just join your local gospel partnership’, and one that will test both our generosity and our humility. They make a strong and nuanced case. That said, they aren’t arguing that we plant churches together, but ‘to be together as we plant churches’, a subtle but liberating difference.
Relevant and Provocative
Any concerns that the book might seem a world away from my ‘small town’ context were soon dismissed and I was pleasantly surprised by how applicable it was for us here in Barrow. Whatever your situation, Powell & James’ worked-through principle of collaboration-leading-to-effectiveness remains.
As the authors acknowledge, this is a ‘provocative’ book, but this reviewer is persuaded such provocation is deftly argued, apt for our times, and stirring to boot.
I first came across Stephen Witmer through his writing for the Small Town Summits initiative, which encourages gospel ministry in the small towns of New England. He has served as the lead pastor at Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Massachusetts for eleven years, and his work on God’s heart for ‘small places’ has been a real inspiration for me in my own context.
Stephen was kind enough to share a final draft of his new book, A Big Gospel in Small Places, with me as I worked on my MA dissertation on a similar theme in the UK context. The book has released this week and Stephen generously took the time to answer a few questions:
– Stephen, thanks so much for writing this heartening book. In it you speak very openly about your own journey, both in terms of ministry aspirations and in terms of geography. What has led you to write this book?
A Big Gospel in Small Places is an overflow and expression of my thinking and wrestling over the past decade of pastoral ministry in a small town. I grew up in a tiny, remote village, but decided as a young man that to make something of myself, I should be living far from home in a big city. I aspired to city ministry – the message I was hearing from those I most admired was that the best way to make my life count was to influence influencers in a big city. All through my twenties, I was on track toward that future. Then, unexpectedly, I was called to pastor a small-town New England church at the age of 32. In the eleven years since, I’ve fallen in love with my church and town. I’ve come to see that ministry on the periphery needn’t be peripheral ministry. I’ve also had to work through pride, ambition, and how my life fits with the evangelical prioritization of ministry in big places (cities and suburbs). I’m hoping that what I’ve learned about small-town ministry and about myself will be helpful and encouraging to many others who are living and serving (whether as lay-leaders or pastors) in small, forgotten places.
– Can you give us a summary of what you are trying to do in the book and who might find it helpful?
My goal in A Big Gospel in Small Places is to build a theological vision for rural/small-town ministry, akin, in my own small way, to what Tim Keller has done for city ministry (Tim Keller is a hero of mine and has profoundly influenced this book). The way to build a theological vision is to consider your place and to consider the gospel, and then to consider how the two engage. In the book, I argue that small places are both better and worse than we often think they are. They’re much more needy and broken than we see when we idealize them (as our culture often does), and they’re much more beautiful and valuable than we see when we despise them (as our culture often does). The gospel of Jesus Christ opens up a broad space for the kind of small, slow, ‘unstrategic’ ministries that we often find in small places, because the gospel is the news of a patient God who brings a mustard seed Kingdom and lavishly pours out his love for ordinary people. So, gospel logic itself gives us permission and encouragement to do small-place ministry, and it gives us instincts for how best to do small-place ministry once we dive into it.
I’m praying that small-place laypeople and pastors will find this book very encouraging – that it will renew their understanding that what they’re doing matters very much. I’m also hopeful that the book may cause some aspiring ministers to be more open to God’s call to go to a small place. Finally, I’d love pastors in big cities to see and celebrate what God is doing in small places – and also to read and engage with my critique of the ‘urban apologetic’ literature which seeks to prioritize city ministry. I find many of these arguments unpersuasive and believe it’s important to allow God to prioritize for each person where he wants them to minister.
– As you point out, it’s very easy for us to aspire to ‘bigness’, in church size and location. What would you say to those perhaps just beginning in full-time ministry as they aspire to a life of service? What would you want them to consider or ask of themselves as they evaluate those aspirations?
I’d encourage every follower of Jesus to be fully open to God’s call and to follow him wherever he leads, even if it’s in a surprising direction. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to have a big impact for God, as long as it’s really for God and not for ourselves. I’ve been struck again recently by God’s words in Isaiah 48.11: ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.’ God’s not willing to share his glory. John the Baptist had it right when he said of Jesus, ‘He must increase, and I must decrease.’ As Ray Ortlund points out, John doesn’t propose a glory-sharing arrangement (‘He must increase, and I must increase’). I’d encourage every aspiring minister to long to leave a huge impact for God – whether in a big place or a small place. When it comes to the numerical increase of our churches through conversion growth, we should want it more and need it less. That is, we should work and pray for revival, never settling for the status quo. But we should never need revival in order to validate ourselves or our ministries. The gospel already announces our acceptance with God through Jesus Christ.
– In the book you engage with the work and writing of Tim Keller and particularly his emphasis on the importance of planting in cities. Can you give us a sense of what you’re trying to do with that engagement and why you felt compelled to do that?
I’ve read a lot of the ‘urban apologetic’ literature that calls for prioritizing city ministry. Much of it is written by my ministry friends and heroes. Some of my best friends minister in great cities and I love their ministries. I’m a huge fan of city ministry. But I’m not persuaded by the call to prioritize city ministry as an overall strategy. Because I had never seen any extended, thoughtful engagement with the urban apologetic literature, I thought it was important in this book, as I develop a theological vision for small-place ministry, to charitably, critically engage with this important stream of writing. It’s all there in the concluding chapter of my book. I don’t think I’ve answered (or even asked) all the important questions, but I hope that last chapter will further what I think is a very important discussion.
– Obviously you’re now living and ministering in the US, but you have spent some time living and studying and indeed speaking in the UK. Do you have any sense of what those of us in the UK might particularly need to hear in relation to the issues raised by this book?
Yes, my four years living in the UK were some of the best of my life! I’m married to a Brit, and we have many close, ongoing relationships in the UK. I’m deeply encouraged by the small-place ministry I see occurring throughout the UK. I was recently in tiny Rathfriland, Northern Ireland, speaking at an Acts 29 Rural Collective event. There were many church planters from the north and south of Ireland gathered that day, and I was blown away by the caliber of these folks – really impressive, Christ-loving, faithful church planters. One of my friends, John Hindley, moved several years ago from Manchester to a tiny town in Norfolk to plant a church. He’s doing fantastic local ministry, as well as doing some very thoughtful, helpful speaking and writing on rural ministry. I think most of what I’ve written in A Big Gospel in Small Places maps directly onto the UK scene. The call to value what is small, forgotten, and overlooked is every bit as important in the UK and the rest of the world as it is in the US. That’s because the gospel is true everywhere. We’re meant to proclaim its content and to allow our ministries themselves to be gospel-shaped, to be see-through to the gospel, to embody its values.
Since January our church family has been spending time in the New Testament book of Titus. I think this little gem has been really good for us in our context – and so helpful for me personally. Here’s five reasons why…
1. The goal of planting is godliness.
Of course, on one level the ultimate goal of anything is God being glorified – but you can emphasise that in such a way that it ends up meaning nothing. In Titus, the apostle Paul’s goal seems to be ‘godliness’. He begins by explaining his own apostolic role as “furthering the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” (Titus 1:1). In other words, he proclaims the apostolic gospel – the promise of the hope of eternal life – and he fully expects that it will lead to changed lives, i.e. people reflecting the revealed moral character of God: “self-controlled, upright and godly” (2:12). When you’re planting a new church, the pressure can be to think your aims are to establish a meeting, or put yourself on the regional map, or make a name for yourself in the community. But having godliness as the ultimate goal puts these aims in perspective. Of course, this will look messy and will feel uncomfortable. We inevitably resist changing and our churches will feel like construction sites. But lives that are taking on board God’s truth and are being changed into his likeness bring God glory.
2. Leaders/planters/elders must be being changed by God’s truth themselves.
Basically this is the first point, but pushed home for me as a pastor-teacher, which is the expectation Paul lays out in Titus 1:5-15. And that’s a wake-up call. God’s goal for me is to be changed, transformed, sanctified. Again, it’s so easy for my ‘to do’ list to be getting meetings in the diary, preparing teaching, working on the website. But more important than all of that is my own holiness. I remember reading Bonar’s famous little biography of the Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843), who himself nails this with his famous line: “My people’s greatest need is my own personal holiness.” Maybe we first read that and can think it almost egotistical. Isn’t this to fall into the trap of thinking God can’t do stuff without me? Well, of course he can do stuff without us. But that’s not actually the danger here. After all, that’s not the opposite of me growing in godliness. The opposite of me growing in godliness is me “claiming to know God, but by my actions denying him” (2:15). That was the disastrous situation in the churches in Crete into which Titus was given his mission. And so Titus was to be an example of everything that Paul expected in the church community, in order that – unlike the church as it had been prior to the letter – those who opposed Titus would ultimately be ashamed as they had nothing bad to say about him (2:6-8).
3. Keep the gospel on repeat.
I’ve written before about how it’s been so helpful to think of these past three and a half years as ‘planting the gospel’, rather than planting a church. I think Titus underlines this. It’s the truth that leads to godliness, and this truth is articulated in Titus as the message of God’s grace and kindness, shown in the first appearing of Jesus Christ (2:11-14; 3:4-7). So the gospel isn’t simply a message we hear when we first put our trust in Christ. As Tim Keller has said, it’s not just the ABC of the Christian faith, it’s the A to Z. Why? Because it’s this message of grace that trains us to live the godly lives that are so important in Titus (2:12). And so we must keep the gospel on repeat. That’s what Paul is getting at when he tells Titus to ‘stress these things’ (3:8; 2:15), and conversely why not getting distracted by ‘foolish controversies’ is so important. Keep the main thing the main thing. And I’ve found it particularly challenging to see that holding fast to the gospel is actually part of the list of moral qualities needed in a church leader. Maybe we scan through the list in 1:6-9 and think that the first three verses are about morality and the last is a competency issue. But it makes far more sense that the requirement to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that [the leader] can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” is just as much about integrity and godliness as everything else in the list. Which in turn underlines that there will be a temptation to shirk from it. So keep the gospel on repeat.
4. It doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to ‘blessing the community’ vs ‘gospel proclamation’.
Whilst godliness is obviously at the heart of the apostle Paul’s aims for the church in Crete, there is another goal in mind too. Paul repeatedly stresses that godly lives will make the “teaching about God our Saviour attractive” (2:10), an idea reworded earlier (2:5,8). Like a beautiful wedding dress adorning the splendour of the bride, so our lives adorn the message we believe. The ultimate focus is not on the dress, but the bride. In other words, our godly lives show off the gospel. One of the key adjectives to describe these lives of godliness in Titus is doing or loving ‘good’ (1:8; 2:3,7,14; 3:1,8,14). Godliness is not some pious, inwardly-focused posture that turns its back on the community around us. No, it’s a generous pouring out of goodness as we realise afresh how the Fountain of Goodness has poured out his triune kindness upon us. And if it’s keeping the gospel on repeat that transforms us, then more gospelling should lead to more communal goodness. I heard one preacher put it like this, “social action is personal godliness worked out in society”.
5. Our ordinary lives and the different situations into which we find ourselves are intrinsic to the mission, not an obstacle working against it.
To put it another way, godliness is always done in context. Paul especially unpacks how the different seasons of life we’re in mean will mean we all have different and crucial parts to play (2:1-8). And that means that your age and stage of life is no barrier to God’s plan for gospel growth. Likewise, as employees (2:9-10) and citizens (3:1-2) we are called to live in a way that accords with ‘sound doctrine’, trusting that as we do so, we present a way of life that is compelling – and in turns points people back to the gospel. Perhaps sometimes we can think of our workplaces as an obstacle to God’s mission – as if what is really useful is what we do at church or amongst Christians. Likewise, perhaps the relationships and families we’ve been placed in can seem a different sphere to where God is at work. But this is to miss out on the wonder that God uses the way we go about our ordinary lives to showcase a gospel that has redeemed and set apart a people eager to do good (2:14).
What about you? Have you spent time in Titus recently? What things hit home for you?
Hello, my name is Robin. Welcome to That Happy Certainty, where I write and collate on Christianity, culture, and ministry. I’m based in Barrow-in-Furness in South Cumbria, England, where I serve a church family called St Paul’s Barrow, recently merged together from two existing churches, St Paul’s Church and Grace Church Barrow.
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