By Kima Jude
Once upon a time missionaries traveled by horseback and sailed
overseas to near and distant lands to challenge the lifestyles of paganism,
idolatry and unbelief. Their unabashed and lofty goal was to convert whole
tribes and nations to Christ by planting churches.
Whether it was on the western frontier, in sub-Saharan Africa or mainland
China, missionaries learned the people's languages, studied their customs and
noticed how they dressed. As they took up residence in these exotic, faraway
places, they made an effort to reflect the culture while reflecting the love of
THAT WAS THEN; THIS IS NOW
Missionaries still travel great distances to share Christ and plant churches,
but others merely walk around the block to do it. Like their international
counterparts, North American church planters and churches take a missional
approach to church planting. They identify an unreached people group, learn
their language, study their customs and notice how they dress. When they plant
a church, they design it to be biblically sound and-to some degree-resemble the
people they hope to reach.
It's called missional church planting, and while it's a term that's become
vogue, it's not new.
Missional church planting-or a people-focused approached to starting
churches-is a strategy that's been around since the New Testament. However, the
term and its application are gaining popularity and attention among
evangelicals. Perhaps this is because on mission Christians no longer have to
travel far to encounter exotic cultures peopled by those who speak a different
language and practice different customs.
IT TAKES A MISSIONARY
In the great American mosaic there is such a diversity of ethnic groups that
churches intent on reaching the lost must adopt missionary practices to impact
their culture. The current missional church movement emerged, in part, because
the fertile grounds of paganism, idolatry and unbelief not only exist on
distant lands but on the very soil upon which we tread. Although building a
church facility and saying "y'all come" might have passed for church planting
once upon a time, it doesn't make much of an impression in unchurched North
America these days.
"Establishing a missional church means you plant a church that's part of the
culture you're seeking to reach," says Ed Stetzer, author of Planting
Missional Churches (B&H, 2006). This requires adopting the practices
of international missionaries who break down cultural barriers by understanding
and relating to the local culture without compromising the gospel or
scriptures. Missionaries learn the language, dress like the natives and adopt
their customs-not the other way around. You take some parts of culture and
adapt them to Christianity while challenging other parts of the culture.
Missional churches are not simply missions-minded churches either, according to
Stetzer, although a church should certainly be both. For example, a
missions-minded church may fund missionaries and mission work but not act like
a missionary in its own community. A missions-minded church may even send
volunteer teams on short-term mission trips. While it engages in a kind of
missionary endeavor, a missions-minded church may remain disconnected from the
The missional church intentionally seeks to be biblically faithful and
relevant by contextualizing church for the culture-relying not on methods that
worked somewhere else but what fits locally.
"To be missional is to move from doing missions as a program to 'it's the
essence of my existence,'" explains Fred Hewitt, NAMB regional field
representative for church planting. A missional church is on mission all the
"Churches can't think missionally without recognizing that there are a lot
of different flavors in North America," Hewitt says. "Missional churches
recognize a variety of people groups that exist and not just out there in the
uttermost parts of the world but right here in my Jerusalem-or at least my
This is vital because while Christianity was once the first choice of
spiritually minded North Americans, that's not necessarily true these days. "We
are missing a clear reality if we do not recognize that this is a harder
mission field than it once was," Stetzer writes in Breaking the Missional
Code (B&H, 2006).
Above: Pastor Doug Davis preaches at a Cowboy
Church meeting in the Triad Livestock Arena in North Carolina. Below: Pastor
Efrain Baeza greets members of the Hispanic church that meets at First Baptist
Church in Sedalia, Missouri. Bottom: 707 Ministries creates an experiential
worship service to reach young adults in Cleveland, Ohio.
For example, Jeff Smith, who founded the Cowboy Church Network of North
America, started his first cowboy church in June 2003. At the time Smith
was pastoring a traditional church, Young Memorial Baptist Church in Concord,
North Carolina, but had recently embarked on a new leisure activity-riding
horses. He quickly discovered a distinct culture that needed Christ-a world of
people acquainted with each other because they met on the rodeo circuit or
buying horseshoes and feed. "The thing that grabbed me is it's such a lost
community," Smith says.
Because these people were "not impressed with our fancy services and our
fancy clothes" Smith realized they wouldn't be coming to his church. So he
decided to take church to them. "I really didn't mean to start a church in the
fullest sense of the word."
He did, however, intend to share the gospel. With his church's support, he
rented a bull riding ring. Sixty-eight people showed up to hear him, and five
accepted Christ. "It just turned into a church right away."
Smith also realized that a church for people in this culture is a viable
option in other locations. This kind of church talks a different
language-yeehaw!-looks different-cowboy hats and boots-and rarely meets on
Sundays, because that's when cowboys hit the trail or the horse shows. But it's
church all the same-functioning as a biblical church in cowboy culture. The
bull riding ring became the chapel, and the trough a baptistry.
Since then Smith has helped establish 16 cowboy churches and counting. They
are everywhere cowboys are-North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Texas. His goal
is a cowboy church everywhere the culture exists.
In case one still doesn't grasp the cultural distinctives, Smith carefully
defines them: "You don't have to have a horse to be a cowboy." In fact, most
don't, he says. At least 25 percent are what Smith calls city slickers or
drugstore cowboys. "It's more of a mindset than owning a cow or a horse. It's a
way of life." And if the gospel is going to impact this way of life it has to
enter and inhabit the culture.
In Missouri, Mauricio Vargas, multicultural strategist for the Missouri
Baptist Convention, develops missional church plants for 28 language groups.
Many a culture is defined by its language, but Vargas has focused on the
culture within that culture. Many of the state's immigrants work in food
processing plants, and Missouri Southern Baptists have contextualized churches
just for them. Vargas has helped start 12 congregations in towns with Tyson
chicken processing plants.
"It's not just Tyson," he notes. The state is home to beef, turkey, pork and
other chicken processing plants. That unique work environment, combined with
ethnicity, constitutes a culture that needs its own missionaries. Although
congregations don't form around a single language-multiple languages are
spoken-their common bond is their employment and other-language status.
Not all missional church plants have clearly identifiable cultural
distinctives, but they exist just the same. Chris Pinion was working as a human
resources director for Hy-Vee, Inc., an upper class grocery chain in Belton,
Missouri, when he came to a disquieting conclusion: he reached more lost people
through his work than through his church.
So when Pinion, who'd moved to Missouri for this purpose, prepared to plant
a church, he determined from the outset it would be a biblical church that
reflects its community. "If the church doesn't take the gospel to the culture
and contextualize it, the world has no hope," says Pinion.
He studied area demographics, particularly average age, and asked lots of
questions. Setting his sights on young families populating the area, Pinion
used civic and community activities--including an Easter egg hunt attended by
4,500 people-to reach a culture of people disconnected from church. LifeQuest
Church (www.elifequest.com) took root in the basement of a local wellness
center and now makes its home in a building that formerly housed a
In Cleveland, Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley Community Church created a church within a
church to keep up with a culture of young adults. Although Cuyahoga Valley
would be considered contemporary by most church standards, its founding pastor,
Rick Duncan, recognized that the church, initially peopled by young adults, had
become a middle-aged congregation and no longer reflected young adult
With Cleveland's 300,000 young adults in mind, Cuyahoga Valley planted a
church within their church-dubbed Seveno-seven Ministries (www.sevenoseven.com)-and
called Dan Burgoyne to serve as its pastor. Sevenoseven conducts three Sunday
evening worship services and a Tuesday night service focused on young adults
ages 18 to 35. Although they meet in the same facility as Cuyahoga Valley's,
they differ from the mother church's three Sunday morning and Wednesday worship
services in ways designed to appeal to a younger crowd.
For example, while sevenoseven utilizes five video screens it foregoes the
PowerPoint. Instead, TV cameras often capture and project the audience on
screen. They also employ a U2-style worship band and show humorous video
"We're just trying to speak the language of young adults," says Burgoyne,
who wants to appeal to a rising multi-media- and technology-driven
But he says the gospel is still at their heart. "We just share the gospel in
a way they understand." Indeed, the name sevenoseven is derived from Matthew
7:7: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the
door will be opened to you.
The percentage of self-described
Christians in the U.S. declined 9%, from 86% to 77%, from 1990 to 2001,
according to The American Religious Identification Survey 2001 released by the
Graduate Center of the City University of New York. More alarming, research by
George Barna suggests the number of unchurched has almost doubled from 1991 to
2004, rising from 39 million to 75 million.
Prayer was the driving force, according to Nancy Still, age 27 and a student
at Moody Bible Institute. Still was part of a core group of about 20 young
adults involved in planting sevenoseven. Formerly a student at Cleveland State,
Still would walk the campus and pray "asking the Lord to bring them in."
Melissa Rosendahl, 28, had recently finished college and was working as a
card designer at American Greetings when she joined the group. She put up
posters around her workplace and still meets people who responded to them.
"From my perspective I think we are meeting the needs of young adults within
our church," said Rosendahl, who now serves on the sevenoseven staff as women's
lifegroups coach. "I think we try to communicate church in the language of our
generation," Rosendahl says. "It's still the Bible. It's the same Bible CVCC
teaches from, but we do it in a way our generation will understand."
DEFINING THE CULTURE
If by this time you're under the impression that a missional church plant must
be trendy and hip, you're missing the point. Missional churches take the
unchanging gospel into the culture they find themselves in whether that is
traditional, contemporary, emerging or something else. And for an existing
church to grow it must understand and stay attuned to cultural changes just as
Cuyahoga Valley did.
Getting a handle on the cultural influences in a community can be difficult
and requires research and attention to changing dynamics.
Hewitt suggests those considering church plants go out into the community,
stand in front of a Wal-Mart or in another public place, including the seedy
spots in town, and listen to people's conversations. "What do you hear them
talking about?" Check with local schools to find out how many students speak
other languages and what they are. Then ask questions. Find out what the people
value. Ask what interests them in church, if anything. If you really want to
learn about unreached people groups there's no substitute for spending time
To find out how your church can get
involved in church planting visitwww.churchplantingvillage.net.
Kima Jude is a writer living in Beavercreek, Ohio.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC