God has greatly blessed our lives. He used my wife Becky and me as his servants in Uganda and Kenya for 14 years (1972-86) working as church planters. I have taught missions, evangelism and church planting at Abilene Christian University (ACU) for 17 years (1986-2003), and for much of this time Becky has served with me as a Missions Associate. As we now enter the third era of our life, we ask for your prayers. We have decided, after much prayer for God’s guidance and advice from many Christian leaders, to move to the Metroplex (the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area) to begin an internship for evangelism and church planting, which we call Mission Alive.
The Call of God
We have found it extremely difficult to discern the call of God for Christian ministry. Becky and I heard Darryl Tippens speak on this topic at a retreat we attended recently. He said that sometimes we choose our vocation with clarity, and sometimes our vocation chooses us, as in the case of Moses, Jonah, and Paul. This choosing or being chosen, however, always requires serious listening to differentiate the voices being heard. Our communities of faith work with us to perceive God's will in our lives.
After hearing Darryl Tippens I realized that in the past my vocation was chosen with clarity. Knowing God's desire that I become a missionary, I took steps to equip and prepare myself to become God's servant in Africa. The same could be said about my decision to teach missions and evangelism at ACU. I was asked to teach at Harding University on two furloughs, worked with some of those students as interns during the following summers, and grew to know that God would use me to recruit and train students for world missions.
This third transition in life has not been that simple. My wife and I feel a passion to be used by God to teach unbelievers, nurture them to Christian maturity, and equip them as Christian leaders. I have always viewed myself primarily as an evangelist and church planter and secondarily as a scholar in missions equipping. We have also grown to believe that we cannot adequately train people for evangelism and church planting within an institutional setting. Experience must go hand-in-hand with knowledge. Otherwise, learners are unable to place their new knowledge into categories and apply it to real-life situations.
In recent years we have felt a heightening dissonance between security and what we began to perceive as God's calling in our lives. We felt a tension between being comfortable in Zion and once again becoming full-time ministers. The decision has been difficult but bathed in prayer. Through these struggles we have grown to believe that God is calling us at this point in life to develop an internship for evangelism and church planting. The Teacher says that wisdom is determining the time in one's life and entering into it fully (Eccles. 3:1-14).
Recently Don Morrision, in a sermon at the 11th and Willis Church of Christ, where I am an elder, compared our situation to that of Abraham and Sarah. These parents of the Israelite nation heard God’s call to leave their land for another that God would show them (Gen. 11:31-12:4). Don said that in a similar manner we were giving up our ministries and secure income to go to a city that God would show us. Despite doubts, we launched out without salary or position but believing that God would guide our path. Following Don's sermon, my fellow elders surrounded Becky and me and prayed for God's blessing upon us. We were deeply touched by Don's sermon and by the elders' blessing. Although we feel inadequate to be compared with the father and mother of the Israelite nation, we do concur with them that God truly is the God of impossibilities (Gen. 18:14). Like Abraham and Sarah, we have doubted along the way.
We feel that without church planting in the United States, Churches of Christ will continue to stagnate and dwindle. Most are in the maintenance mode. They look inward, taking care of their own immediate needs. They seldom perceive themselves as God’s people on the journey through life helping fellow travelers and encouraging others to join them on this God-directed and Jesus-inspired journey.
Current trends are perturbing. Many have forgotten the biblical story depicting the reign of God throughout human history. Exceptionally busy and preoccupied Christians have allowed the church to be only marginal in their lives and in their culture. Grounded in the Enlightenment, many have focused on knowledge about God rather than on a personal walk with God. Leaders supervise the flock rather than equip God’s people for works of service. The result is a spectator Christianity. The move from rural to urban life has brought a loss of community that made the church a “place” to meet rather than a “community” of the faithful. These trends have caused the church to forget her missionary nature. Seldom does the church see herself as God’s distinctive people called out through his mission and set aside forhis mission.
New modeling of church life within contemporary urban culture is imperative. Learning to intentionally evangelize and plant churches is a significant key to the future of the Churches of Christ in this generation.
The Ministry Model
A foundational principle of our ministry is incarnation, a model of ministry imitating that of Christ, who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14). Christ entered into human life so he could communicate with and suffer for humanity. Likewise, to communicate God’s ultimate sovereignty and saving grace through Jesus Christ, we must empathetically enter into the lives of searchers. We must learn from Jesus how to speak to a Jewish leader about the New Birth and to the woman at the well about Living Water. We must learn from him how to ask questions that focus issues and determine priorities (Luke 6:6-9), that force people to think and in so doing develop an allegiance (Luke 9:18-20), and that create interest by solving dilemmas (Luke 20:41-44). We must learn from him how to work intimately and personally with disciples in spiritual formation and kingdom proclamation (Mark 3:14). As searchers experience ministers who understand them and their culture and who share with gentleness and respect, they are frequently receptive to the message of God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ.
Our ministry model will also reflect the church planting ministry of the apostle Paul. Paul did not position himself as a local preacher. He did not initiate one church and become the preaching minister of this church in order to send out others to plant new churches. He rather saw himself as a church planter working with Timothys and Tituses to initiate and nurture new churches.
This is similar to our work in Africa. First of all, we sought to personally relate to the Kipsigis people of Kenya by speaking God’s Word in their language and their culture. We attempted to “tabernacle” among them in a weak, fallible, human way as the Divine One infallibly entered into human life. Second, we sought to imitate the pattern of Paul by initiating multiple churches simultaneously working with numerous Timothys and Tituses.
We believe that church leaders and church members cannot adequately study about evangelism and church planting in the classroom alone. Evangelism and church planting must be taught and "caught" by seeing them modeled and by personal participation. This is why Jesus selected twelve apostles so "that they might be withhim and that he might send them out to preach" (Mark 3:14). Thus apostles were trained by “following Jesus” and thereby became “fishers of men.” While the classroom is an ideal forum to teach a theology and message of evangelism and to describe the goals and tasks of outreach to unbelievers, learners must also touch, taste, and feel evangelism and church planting. In other words, knowledge and experience must go hand-in-hand.
The purpose of Mission Alive is to equip evangelists and church planters through experiential training. The end result will be the planting of multiple churches, which will grow to become responsible, reproductive, and theologically sound.
The Goals: Mission Alive will equip and guide interns to . . . .
- Spiritually relate to God and walk with Jesus in their daily lives: We cannot call people into intimate relationship with God if we are not also living intimately with him.
- Accurately read and interpret the Bible for ministry formation: Plans for ministry should not be formed by human ingenuity but by the will of God revealed in scripture. For example, a biblical understanding of the church will provide an inspired picture of God's divine community.
- Incarnate God’s eternal gospel within local cultural contexts: Cultural awareness enables evangelists and church planters to define types of peoples within a cultural context, to understand how they perceive reality, to understand how they socially relate to one another, and to explain how the Christian message intersects with every aspect of culture.
- Develop strategies of evangelism and church planting uniquely fitting for local churches: Evangelists and church planters must become incisive strategic planners. Strategy formation, however, should never stand by itself as a self-contained, "how-to-do-it" prescription. The strategic question, "Does this model of praxis reflect the purposes of God within this cultural context?" should guide evangelists and church planters to root their decisions in the will of God.
- Develop interpersonal skills for relating to unbelievers, gathering new Christians into communities of believers, and training Christians as leaders. The communication of the gospel is an interpersonal task which interns and apprentices can learn only through the practice of ministry.
Types of Learning Experiences
In order to accomplish the purpose and goals of Mission Alive four types of learning experiences related to evangelism and church planting will be offered.
Evangelism and Church Planting Classes: We will teach evangelism and church planting in ministry context with learners not only seeing us minister but also learning to minister themselves. These courses, which can be taken either for graduate credit or as an audit, will provide the theological, spiritual, and practical ministry tools for reaching various types of unbelievers and for planting churches. By gaining knowledge and skills in one context, learners will be better equipped to enter intentionally into other communities as evangelists and church planters.
Congregational Training: We will invite congregations to work with us during short but intensive periods of ministry to demonstrate evangelism and church planting and to teach the practical ministry skills for becoming evangelists.
Internship: Interns will be invited to participate in a focused time of equipping for 3-4 months, especially in the summers. These interns will live in the context of ministry and will be mentored personally to walk in intimate relationship with God and share the gospel with unbelievers. They will also observe the process of church planting. Many interns will become apprentices at a later period of time.
Apprenticeship: Long-term cross-cultural mission teams and North American church planters will be encouraged to undergo a year-long training to become part of a church planting team and to develop specific skills to not only communicate the gospel to unbelievers but also to plant churches. Many of these learners, termedapprentices, will mature into effective church planters.
In facilitating this internship we will work with mission associates, who are mature leaders having the motivation and attributes to become leaders in new church plantings. They will work with us in the mentoring of interns and apprentices.
Types of Church Planting
We plan to mentor interns, apprentices, and mission associates to work in three types of church planting. While the structures of these churches will be different because of their varying contexts, all will seek to restore God’s intention for the church as revealed in scripture.
Suburban Church Plantings. Suburban church plantings are necessary if we are to be faithful to God. The Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area, with a current population of 5.3 million people, is growing in all directions. It is projected that the urban extension of Dallas-Ft. Worth will reach Oklahoma City by the year 2025. Such urban expansion necessitates a vision for suburban church planting. We pray that God will give participants of Mission Alive the guidance, strength, and wisdom to plant 25 suburban churches by 2015.
City-Wide Plantings. There is also a great need for church planting in the heart of urban cities. Too often churches in the inner city have sold their buildings and moved to the suburbs, leaving the city’s heart without adequate testimony. Inner-city ministries were later established to compassionately minister to the poor who have remained. Paradoxically, many of these North American inner-cities are now rejuvenating. New multi-ethnic churches need be planted in the hearts of our cities. These churches might become city-wide churches with small groups meeting in many locations throughout the city but meeting together each Sunday. We pray that God will give participants of Mission Alive the guidance, strength, and wisdom to plant two city-wide churches by the year 2015.
Apartment and House Churches. We will also work with interns to plant multiple churches in various types of homes and apartment complexes modeled somewhat after Mission Arlington. We want to reflect the nature of Jesus’ ministry, which he launched in his hometown synagogue with the words, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18-19). We pray that, like Jesus, “the spirit of the Lord is on [us], because he has anointed [us] to preach good news to the poor.” Some of these apartment and house churches will meet in homes, apartment club houses, rented rooms, and member apartments during the week and with larger churches on Sunday. Others will meet in their small groups three weeks a month and on the fourth with other apartment and house churches in a rented fellowship hall. We pray that God will give participants of Mission Alive the guidance, strength, and wisdom to plant 150 apartment and house churches by 2015.
We acknowledge our weakness in making such goals but feel that God desires that we have some benchmarks to measure achievement. We set these goals, however, with humility, knowing that they are beyond any human ability to accomplish. We are weak in understanding, strength, and wisdom. We realize that the glory of the gospel is conveyed by “jars of clay” demonstrating God’s “all-surpassing power” (2 Cor. 4:7).
Prayer for our Transition
We ask you to pray for our transition. Pray that . . . .
- We will not look back toward Egypt as the Israelites did.
- We will pass through the Sinai Desert without grumbling.
- We will enter the promised land of ministry to which God is leading us.
- We will not accommodate to the gods of Canaan as the Israelites did.
- God’s Shema will guide our hearts: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-5).
Mission Arlington. www.missionarlington.org.
Tippens, Darly. The Call of God. Presentation at Laity Lodge, Sept. 21, 2003.
Umberger, E. C. Interview. Sept. 15, 2003.