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.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. Thanks for sharing this, John. In my limited experience in ministry, I agree that the four questions you raise are seldom talked about. What would a series of Session or Presbytery meetings look like if the purpose of them was to discern faithful answers to these questions? I’m not sure, but it gets me excited.

  2. If a typical presbytery began to discuss these questions,
    it would find out that in fact there are two different religions
    operating underneath the umbrella of the PC(USA). If a session
    talked about these and could not be “likeminded,” it would show any
    number of things: a failture of the pastor(s) to engage in a
    genuine ministry of the Word; the failure of the congregation in
    choosing leaders who were bound by the Word of God, etc. In
    numerous places in Scripture we are told that we are to share in
    our unity in Christ a common mind (of course, this probably
    represents to you a view of biblical authority that we do not
    share). The old failed slogan of the ecumenical movement a few
    decades ago was: “Doctrine divides; service unites.” But then it
    found out that it was as divided over “service” as it was
    “doctrine” (for example, should the WCC give financial support to
    Mugabe and his rebels in then Rhodesia; should the WCC fund the ANC
    during a time when it used violence, etc). Ususally in mainline
    circles like the PC(USA) such calls to unity beyond likemindedness
    usually means that the liberals want the conservatives to pay their
    fare, take the back seats on the bus, and have no say about where
    the bus is going.

    • I disagree that this is “two different religions”. Never in the history of the church–or probably any religion–has there been absolute uniformity of belief or practice. Diversity is a gift of God–even a reflection of God–not a problem to be resolved. If we want to divide into like-minded fellowships, it will only be a matter of time before other differences surface. Why not strive for unity rather than uniformity? I might concede that something approaching like-mindedness is good for a congregation, but not wider fellowships like presbyteries or denominations.

  3. These four questions are already fully answered
    authoritatively in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions. That volume,
    which is Part I of the Constitution, contains the official texts of
    the confessional documents.

  4. So if doctrinal diversity is a “gift from God” then why would you might concede that like-mindedness is a good thing for a congregation but not for a presbytery or a synod?

    Also, while there has been “diversity” in the history of the church, there has been a concerted effort for likemindedness as well (Apostles and Nicene Creeds, for example). Yet, in the PC(USA) we do not even agree on whether the contents of these creeds are true anymore. I will give you an example close to home. Some years ago the senior minister of the congregation you serve wrote in the Christian Century how he accepted into membership a teenager who could not enunciate a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Yet he was willing to be “inclusive” and accept him. In ALL wings of the Christian Church that would be unacceptable. So, is there any limit to your “diversity”?

    The issue is not how many angels can dance on the head of a pen. The issue is whether denominations like the PC(USA) wish to remain a part of the holy catholic church, or becomes bastions of white, liberal, western postmodernism.

    • Agreed. An organization that teaches nothing absolutely may be intellectually stimulating and do good things in the world, but can it be a branch of the Church? As Karl mentioned, this is why we have the Confessions, going beyond even the universal creeds. Nobody is forced to be Presbyterian if theirs are not the beliefs of the Presbyterian Church.

    • I think it is simply realistic to expect that there will be some general like-mindedness at the basic level of church life, the congregation. It is rare (but not unheard of) for someone to be a member of a church whose pastor preaches a theology she doesn’t agree with. It is practical, and probably even necessary for effective congregational mission and ministry, for a congregation to be on the same page about most—but not necessarily all—basic theological issues.

      But once we move beyond the congregation, we need diversity for the sake of each other and the sake of our collective mission. I guess the diversity and heterodoxy I have in mind is really a bringing together of diverse congregations.

      As for history, there have certainly been efforts to impose like-mindedness, but I think history demonstrates—even with the early councils and creeds—that this kind of uniformity is fleeting.

      As for John Buchanan’s statement in the Christian Century, I would have to see it to discuss it with you. But I can tell you that as the pastor who is in charge of confirmation at Fourth Church, we work hard with our students to make sure that they can proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord with integrity. We recognize, though, that this profession means different things to different people and we err on the side of generosity and grace when it comes to church membership. If this is the test case, then I suppose there is a limit to our diversity because we often have students who don’t feel ready to make that profession, and we would not be afraid to counsel a student not to join if they can’t say it and mean it. But if an 8th grader is willing to stand in front of the 800 or so people gathered for worship in one of our services and publicly profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord, even if their understanding of that profession is not strictly “orthodox”, we’re going to exercise some of the love, grace, and acceptance of Jesus and welcome that young person into our community rather than reject him. I will stand my that young person—and our congregation—against anyone who says that this is unacceptable. After working with a young person like that for months or years, I won’t let anyone tell me that he or she is not a faithful follower of Jesus because they articulate their faith in a way that is different from what some people consider the one and only way.

      • The article in question, for your reference, is:
        John M. Buchanan, “Start-Up Faith,” Christian Century 120:20 (4 October 2003), 3.

        It specifically dealt with the matter of a confirmand (i.e., one who is reaffirming the baptismal covenant through a public profession of faith) whose issue was not specifically the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but the existence of God — at least as the erstwhile youth minister described the situation. I would personally have some concern about familial or social duress in this situation, but the liturgy for profession of faith in the Book of Common Worship (since I’ve not been at Fourth long enough to witness any confirmations, I’m assuming it is what we use) has certain features that would indicate that anyone willingly participating in it is no atheist, such as the renunciation of sin, acceptance of Jesus as lord and savior, and affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed. The student described in the article may not have been entirely ready for public profession of faith, based on the limited version of the facts presented therein, but I am glad to know that you encourage people to wait until they are truly ready to take that step.

  5. John,
    Your remarks remind me of a story (fictional, I’m sure, but it makes the point) a college professor once told us. Once upon a time there was a young man who went off to seminary. However, when the elders of his church heard that there was a controversy at the seminary due to a professor or two who denied the divinity of Christ, they asked the young man to meet with him on his first trip home. At that meeting the minister said to him, “We have heard that there are professors at your seminary who deny the divinity of Christ. We want you to know that we are here for you in the event that you have any questions or struggles, as we would not want you to come out of seminary denying the divinity of Christ youself.”

    The young man replied, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. My professors would never deny the divinity of Christ. In fact, they would never deny the divinity of any person!”

    When the Gospel is reduced down to simply being “what some people consider the one and only way,” when it is made one buffet option among many, then the church is in danger of not being the church much longer. For all our differences, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox have been in agreement on some of the very essential points that are being denied by Protestant liberals.

    As for our “collective mission,” we don’t have one in the PC(USA) of today. Mission is the natural outgrowth of faith, a common faith. Just as the ecumenical movement found that the old addage was not true, “Doctrine divides but service unites,” so the PC(USA) is finding it out as well. We are not agreed as to what that “service” should be.

  6. Hmm, this is actually helpful for me. I am really beginning
    to question whether we need to be a “denomination” at all anymore,
    because there is so little shared belief and purpose. We can be
    friends, of course, and a Board of Pensions, and maybe even a
    mission-sending agency simply for the practicality of the thing,
    and maybe even meet together sometimes to remember that we we’ve
    got to get along with people who think differently and maybe even
    need them, but what do we actually share as a “denomination” that’s
    valuable to “us” or anyone outside the PCUSA? Honestly, we seem to
    function mostly as a regulatory agency, but no one knows what it is
    we are trying to preserve. Thanks for naming that reality of the
    many “churchy” words we throw about without having a common sense
    of what they mean.

    • A lot of people today are arguing that the concept of denominations has run its course. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but a lot of people are.

  7. John,

    Glad for your post and thoughtful responses! Since this is the original posting I thought I register a couple of thoughts here. As regards our intention in writing Starting New Churches, we noticed that those NCDs that failed had failed to identify themselves theologically. I don’t mean the standard liberal, conservative, progressive, evangelical kinds of labels. But they had not wrestled with what they personally believed. They acted as though adherence to a statement meant we were on the same page. But this wasn’t strong enough to hold them together. The basic questions we ask begin with “Who do you say that I am?” We’re not fishing for an answer that is a litmus test for orthodoxy. We’re asking people to create a beginning point that can in turn be shared with others.
    I happen to believe this is needed by all churches. Not a statement of faith to sign and get people to join in lockstep. That would be a caricature. What we’re asking is that people get clear about Jesus, Church, Service, Evangelism and Salvation. We believe this is the core of what people believe about themselves and want to share. Otherwise, what are you sharing? What are you calling people to?
    Maybe the most important thing is that it helps you define who you are as leadership. It doesn’t mean everyone who comes after you is in total agreement with you. But it does give them information, on a personal basis, about the people you are and want to become. It’s self-disclosing.
    In a recent video we did for Starting New Churches, the interviewer asked our five questions this way: “When I say Jesus, you say….?” – fill in the blank. Most people answered “Christ”. There is no way they mean the same thing by saying Christ. So what do they mean? There’s our conversation. We want an honest conversation to ensue. All churches need this. So why not have them explore these questions and have the leadership create a series of statements that say, “Here’s where we are coming from.” It doesn’t define the other, but it does help the outside know what they’re getting into!
    Just some more thoughts.

Leave a Reply