I’m in Sterling, VA (just outside of Washington, DC) for a new church development training conference. I’m here with a group of leaders from the Presbytery of Chicago, not necessarily because we have a plan for new church development, but because we are discerning a vision for what this might look like in our contexts.
In the opening session, it was suggested that NCD planning teams need to discuss and come to some shared sense of:
- Who is Jesus?
- What is Church?
- What is Salvation?
- What is Service?
This is the beginning of developing a “foundational statement” that will guide the process of new church development.
The presenter also made two interesting points:
- If the wider church spent more time on these kinds of questions and less time arguing about theological differences, we would be in a much better place.
- If an NCD team cannot get on the same page about these foundational concepts, then perhaps they are not meant to be an NCD team together.
I totally agree with the first of these points. I wish that our denomination would in fact spend more time on these basic questions. In many ways, the debates we keep having with each other are symptoms of not talking about these foundational issues. Let’s just cut to the chase and talk about first principles.
For that matter, I wish that my congregation—and our staff—would spend more time talking about these first principles. This is my fifth year of ministry at Fourth Church. We’ve had a major strategic planning process with the congregation. Our program staff is always engaged in the complex administration of this large programmatic church. I’ve led our youth ministry in a variety of strategic planning endeavors. Never once in any of these contexts have we explicitly asked what we mean by Jesus, church, salvation, service, or mission. We either assume that we know and share a similar perspective, or we don’t even think to ask.
But I’m a little troubled by the suggestion that we must arrive at a consensus on these matters, because I’m not sure how realistic—or necessary—it is for an NCD team, a congregation, or a denomination to be in agreement on each of these questions. It was obvious to me that the presenters this evening have a somewhat different take on Jesus, salvation, and mission of the church than I do. Our small group discussion further demonstrated that we have a variety of ideas—which may or may not correspond to our variety of contexts.
Is there an underlying assumption that there is a single answer that we must agree on? If we acknowledge that our congregations and NCDs are all in very different contexts, is the assumption that we must simply translate foundational truths to particular contexts? Or, could it rather be that each context produces different answers to these foundational questions? Could it be that the process of discerning our understanding of these first principles is more important than arriving at consensus before we engage in mission or new church development? Is it possible—and likely—that many of the contexts in which we most need new church developments will be communities seeking answers together rather than communities signing on to a predetermined creed or set of doctrines?
There is a great conversation in the wider church about the value and limitations of like-mindedness. When it comes to new church development—or any expression of the church’s mission—do I really need to find people that I can agree with on first principles before beginning missional work together? Should people that cannot agree with me find people that they can agree with and go about mission in a parallel but separate way from what I end up doing with people that I agree with?
Simply based on the discomfort and creative tension I felt when I heard an articulation of Jesus, church, and salvation that is different from mine, I think there is tremendous value in not assuming that we need to agree before we join together in mission or new church development. I may be jumping to conclusions too quickly in this training, but it seems to me that we need the process of communal discernment more than we need consensus around a foundational statement.
So, thinking about first principles is critically important for us a church. But let’s not assume or expect that we need to be in agreement in order to live into our missional calling.