ECCLESIOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS IN THE CHURCH PLANTING PROCESS

Ronaldo Lidorio

INTRODUCTION

My goal writing these words is to collaborate with church planters who have to deal with issues that need missiological reflection regarding the local church, having in mind God’s desire of seeing his people growing maturely in Jesus Christ.

It is also a result of a perception in the last years when Rossana and I have been collaborating with planters in different scenarios, learning that the main challenge isn’t seeing a church being planted, but what to do after that.

One of the biggest challenges in planting churches is dealing with ecclesiological issues from the beginning of one or more local churches. The lack of a clear ecclesiology will take a heavy cost, both externally, in terms of bonding and accountability; and internally, especially in the doctrine and maturity of this church.

In these past years I’m seeing a number of churches breaking apart because of form of baptism, ways for appoint leaders, decision making dynamics and, overall, internal doctrinal differences.   I remember a friend who worked in Asia saying he didn’t think ecclesiology was necessary in church planting, as indigenous local churches should be free from the planter’s theological guidance. Years passed and he left that country with a church planted. Although it was a result of a great and zealous work, the lack of consensus in the community about who could baptize the new Christians (only ordained pastor or also lay Christians) was enough to divide the church and bring deep frustration to that small group of believers. Make no mistake: the lack of clear ecclesiology will have a high cost for the local church, soon or later.

A couple of definitions. ‘Ecclesiology’ here refers to the theological foundations that define the existence, structure, purpose and practices in local churches. And, ‘planters’ are those who are intentionally and directly involved in the process of seeing a church being born. May be indigenous or expatriates, an individual or a team.

Note that churches planted by denominations in their own national territory tend to follow a more well-defined ecclesiology in terms of institutional links, doctrine, sacraments and mission. But churches planted in cross-cultural missionary settings without denominational ties tend to deal with more flexible situations that demand even more reflection, prayer and, at the right time, clear definitions.

 

THE PHASES OF A LOCAL CHURCH

In the first place, I suggest that we think about churches planted in a certain region in terms of the phase they are at. Note that different churches, even in the same region and planted by the same team, are at different phases, since each church has its own history and rhythm. There are several ways to divide and understand these phases[1] in the development of a local church and, for our purpose here, we will use four: pioneering, formation, development and maturity.

Not all the characteristics in each phase are so clear and well-defined in real life. Nor are they ideal phases, just classifiers that follow the natural development towards maturity. These phases are guidelines for the church, the planter, the team or the institution responsible to observe, pray, reflect and better define the steps. The target is the spiritual maturity of the local church and also the good and smooth relationship with the planting team or mission.

The pioneering phase is the initial moment when people are being evangelized and perhaps some will be interested in the Gospel or even transformed by the Lord, becoming followers of Jesus Christ. In the meantime, it is possible that some people are already being discipled or even some small groups coming together in an incipient way. In this pioneering phase, almost all decisions, initiatives and responsibilities fall on the planters. And the focus is on individuals and families, especially on evangelization and discipleship.

The formation phase is marked by regular gatherings, at least monthly, in which the converts or those interested in the Gospel begin to meet with some frequency. The essential features of a local church are beginning to emerge, such as worship, fellowship, prayer, mutual care, the Bible and mission. At this formation phase, local believers participate in daily decisions and some initiatives, but the responsibility usually lies with the planter who, in general, still makes the biggest decisions. The focus is divided. On the one hand, people continue to be evangelized and discipled, but now the main focus is on the Christian community, its needs and dynamics.

The development phase is marked by a strengthening of the features of a local church, as well as an increase in biblical understanding, the commitment of each one to the group and the active participation of local believers in the life of the church, taking on leadership in several areas. In this phase, local believers make decisions and take initiatives, either through a group of leaders, a leader appointed by them or even through the community as a whole. The planter retreats to the position of counselor or consultant, in addition to being an active member of the Christian community. If the planter still the church leader, it happens by decision of the community. The focus of the church at this phase is the church itself and almost all other actions, including evangelization and discipleship, now take place through the Christian community and not individuals.

In the maturity phase the local church fully appropriates the biblical features of a church, makes its own decisions, supports itself and applies biblical truths to its own context. The planter's participation, if any, is on-demand consultation or, if he/she remains part of the leadership, he/she must be fully appointed and submitted to the authority of the local leadership. The mature church expands its focus, looking for opportunities for evangelization and multiplication. At some point, it begins to deal with those God has called, who will need a clear direction for theological or missionary training.

The following table is a reference for those who wish to observe a local church, discerning its phases:

 It appears that, in spite of these four phases, there are local churches that do not follow these standards because they have their own characteristics in their development. It should be expected, as the Lord guides each community in a unique way.

On the other hand, it also may appoint to some kind of challenge that need to be faced. For example, there are churches in the formation phase that don’t have yet mature believers and the planters are no longer present, putting the local church at risk of serious problems regarding biblical understanding and Christian practice due to the absence of solid safer biblical teaching. Other churches, in their maturity phase, still have a strong and influential presence of the planters, sometimes hindering the development of local leadership. Others go through the stages of development and maturity without ecclesiological definitions: what is their doctrine, what is their form of government, how are the sacraments defined and what are the fundamental features of the local church.

In this last example, ecclesiological uncertainty will take a heavy toll, which can be seen in some possible results. Three of them are the most common. First, the local church is exposed to winds of doctrine, harassment of sects and even other Christian groups with less than good intentions. As ecclesiology is still not clear and, especially the doctrine, the church becomes easy prey for groups that are heretical or have the wrong motives, or even to the winds of doctrine on the internet and social networks.

Second, the lack of a defined ecclesiology creates the environment for internal confusion and even division. In this case, a lack of a clear understanding of the form of leadership, for example, may leave a gap for multiple forms of organization and governance in a single local church, generating competition and conflicts.

Third, the absence of a clear ecclesiology can lead the church to an unbalanced experience. Some churches focus only on their essence and spend all their time, effort and resources to keep the faith, but never proclaim it. They are faithful and zealous believers, with good theology and pastoral care, but they have isolated themselves and are only concerned with their own survival, failing to see the white fields ripe for harvest. There are other churches that, on the contrary, embrace only their mission and do not take care of the essence. They proclaim the Gospel near and far, bravely and boldly, but do not care for their own. They win the world, but they lose their children. They teach the world, but local believers are weak in the faith. They plant new churches, but the local church itself is broken.

The main step, therefore, is not simply to try to fit the local church you have in mind in one of the four phases described. This reflection can be helpful, but it is only an initial step. The next step, even more important, is to pray, observe, dialogue and reflect on the Scripture about the current phase of the church, its strengths and weaknesses, and what steps it can take to mature at this moment. Therefore, the main goal is to identify the necessary steps for it to move on to the next stage in a healthy way, in prayer and through biblical and community reflection.

In other words, I believe that ecclesiological study within the dynamics of church planting should have two goals: to consolidate the church at the current stage and to collaborate so that it moves on to the next stage in a biblical and healthy way.

For that to happen, prayer and reflection are very important. During the time Rossana and I served as planters among the lovely Konkomba people of Ghana, West Africa, we learning with the local leadership the importance of that. The church in our village called Koni was at the development phase in three of the four areas: relational dynamics, leadership and governance, and goals and priorities. However, we failed in assisting the local church to advance in the area of theology and, reflecting together with the local leaders, we realized the church was, in that area, in the beginning of the formation phase, far behind.

After a time of prayer and much dialogue with the local leaders, seeking also advices from more mature missionaries in the country, we started to have regular meetings with all leaders from the churches around to study and talk about twelve main biblical themes that would guide the churches into a deeper theological conviction and engagement. It happened for about two years and we were happily surprise to see, coming to the end of this time, that newer leaders from different churches were learning with more mature local leaders with passion and conviction about the main biblical truths. After that we sensed some of the local churches were consolidating well the development phase, ready to move to the next one. The lesson we learned was about consolidation. More important than moving ahead, it is to consolidate well where we are.

 

ECCLESIOLOGY IN A LOCAL CHURCH

As mentioned above, having an ecclesiological definition is fundamental in planting and developing a local church. Before proposing the ecclesiological points to be considered, however, let me consider two dangers in this process.

The first is the definition and teaching of ecclesiology without a biblical basis or without the collective study of Scripture. Thus, ecclesiology is reduced to a set of rules and practices without a biblical understanding or conviction on the part of local believers. This occurs when the planters establish practices without teaching, customs without reflection and traditions without biblical understanding.

The form of government, for example, in some mission fields requires long biblical reflection and discussion together with cultural understanding. There are groups in the Amazon region where there is no concept of leadership as we know it. They are collectivist groups in coexistence, but individualists in leadership. Each makes their own decisions and there is no community leader, and sometimes not even a family leader. Any concept of biblical leadership, therefore, will need a long period of reflection to be understood and observed on how to apply it in the current context.

There are groups in North West Africa where the pattern of leadership is established primarily through a single chief, an individual who receives such authority and passes it on to his eldest son. The biblical concept of collective leadership, in this case, will also be challenged on a daily basis if only the practice is absorbed, not the meaning. It is necessary to respect the pace of maturity in the understanding and application of biblical truths. The extreme speed of the planters to propose forms without conviction is one of the main factors that prevent the local church from maturing in its faith, especially in the early years.

The second danger is ecclesiological uncertainty itself, which leads the local church to gradually absorb and use the values, features brands and practices of other nearby churches, and, mainly, of the planter's home church, even without understanding, reflection or conviction. The result in the medium and long term is profound frustration for everyone. It is not uncommon to find churches that, reaching maturity, begin to review various practices, forms and concepts imported from other churches, which do not apply to their context and time.

I visited a church in the Amazon that, after years of existence, was still unsure of writing its own songs of worship. They explained to me that in the early days of that church, the liturgy of the foreign planter was established without teaching about worship. Thus, the form was embraced, but not the meaning. They incorporated the songs, but not the praise. The absence of a biblical ecclesiology based on collective study of the Scriptures, with wide understanding and application by the church itself, will sooner or later cause confusion, conflict or even spiritual discouragement among the people of God[2].

All ecclesiology must be the fruit of the Word, prayer and discernment in a collective and cultic process, so that the values ​​and practices of the church reflect the desire of God and serve His glory, in the context of the local community.

Ecclesiological matters have been studied and debated by the people of God throughout history. One of the greatest contributions came from Augustine of Hippo in the late 4th and early 5th centuries after Christ. He understood that the church of his days was the continuity of the church of Christ proclaimed by the apostles (apostolic); it was the result of the blood of Christ shed for salvation in all peoples and corners (universal) and it was also based on the sacraments taught by Jesus Christ (sacramental)[3]

The Belgian Confession, written in 1561, highlights that the church is the assembly of those called by God, spread throughout the world, where he distributes gifts and guides his people by the Spirit, around the Bible, the sacraments and services[4]. The Westminster Confession in the 17th century was a reformed doctrinal position that, among many other things, highlighted the difference between the visible and the invisible church, established under the authority of Christ and the Scriptures, practicing the sacraments and meeting for fellowship, prayer and Bible study, and that Jesus Christ was the only head of the Church, which has a proclamational mission in the world.[5]

Therefore, there are many areas to be considered in the Bible regarding the church and I will give just a few brief suggestions about five, which I consider essential in the whole process of maturing churches: gathering, sacraments, leadership, doctrine and mission. 

I suggest that these five topics should be dealt with from the beginning of the church, in the very early pioneering phase, and then taken deeper and defined in each phase. It is expected that in the phases of development and maturity, the local church will have a biblical conviction and common practice of gathering, sacraments, leadership, doctrine and mission.

I understand that these five areas are crucial for a local church to have cohesion and conviction for its journey of faith. None of this, however, makes sense without sincerity of heart, love for Christ, passion for the Word and dependence on the Holy Spirit. A church is not made up of formal positions or human structures, but by redeemed people who love Jesus, follow and proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus. With that in mind, let’s reflect on these four crucial areas of a church’s life.

 

Gathering (Mtt 18:20; Acts 2:42-47; Acts 20:7; Heb 10:25)

As for gathering (either in small or large groups, open or closed situations), incorporate the essential biblical practices from the first meetings with emphasis on the Bible study, worship, fellowship, prayer and mission.

From the first meeting, if possible, Christians should have the privilege of studying the Bible, enjoying fellowship, worshiping God through songs and praises and talking to God in prayer, bearing in mind that such Christian practices are not only aimed at strengthening the believer, but the proclamation of the Gospel in the world, that is, mission. Together, the church begins to exercise the privilege of worshiping God based on essential biblical practices, understanding them and applying them in their own language, culture and context. Worship is deeply connected with God’s identity: who he is. More the Christians understand about Him in the Bible, more profound the personal and collective worship will be.

As we know, different contexts demand different gathering dynamics. There are groups of Christians that meet under a tree in the center of a village in an open service. Others have to meet in secret at homes following a protocol of security. Some meet face to face and others through virtual means. Some build a temple and others meet in a van. Some invite friends and others have to be restricted to a known small group of people. But, overall, meeting around Jesus is a great privilege and a crucial need for growing spiritually. There is certain level of spiritual growth that a Christian doesn’t reach individually. It demands a fellowship.

Some suggestions:

1. Develop an inclusive way to explore and study the Bible, letting people to engage with the richness of the Word. Encourage people to ask questions to the text and find answers in it. Stimulate dialogue about the meaning of the verses and application to the daily life. Make sure there’ll be a mature Christian in the gathering to guide it, to avoid syncretic perspectives or confusion. Value also intentional teaching, especially with specific themes from the Word.

2. Make sure the group understands the difference between singing and worshiping. Stimulate the group to worship the Lord, observing the meaning of the songs and the implication for God’s glory and our growth. Encourage some people to prepare and lead the worship time, lifting up the King with the full desire of our hearts.

 3. Stimulate people to pray individually, in small groups or all together, as appropriate, having in mind that we are truly talking to the King of kings through our Savior Jesus Christ. Prayer is probably the most intimate spiritual experience among Christians, presenting to God who we are, our hearts, gratitude, needs and desires. Encourage people to pray daily, at home, at work, while walking, to have a life of prayer.

4. Make room for fellowship, not only meetings. Fellowship in the Bible happens when people connect to each other in a deeper level. It is more connected with love than with gathering. Stimulate people to get to know and bless each other, to create opportunities to meet apart of the church gathering and to help and bless each other in their daily lives. Pay special attention to the new comers.

 5. Every gathering should have a mission’s intent, praying for the lost and for those who’ll bring the Gospel to them; praying for our neighbors, city, village, family and people; studying the Scripture about our privilege to engage in evangelism, discipleship and church planting; highlighting that mission is for all Christians and should involve our daily lives with the aim to see all nations worshiping the Lord Jesus.

 

Sacraments (1 Cor 12:13; Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 11:26; Acts 2:42)

As for the sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper must be taught with patience and substantial biblical exposition bringing about experiences of conviction and relationship with God, not just Christian rites. The church must, from an early age, note that both baptism and the Lord's Supper are visible manifestations of something invisible and eternal: the church's relationship with the Lord Jesus.

Between the phases of formation and development, the local church must have a clear understanding of the meanings and forms of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Infant or adult baptism, baptism by immersion, sprinkling or effusion, must be dealt in this phase. The strategic word here is ‘clarity’, not only about the meaning, but also about the form of sacraments, as they aren’t something that can be changed in future without much stress.

Some points need to be considered:

1. Guidance from the mission and branch leadership, as well as related local denomination, if there is, about the sacraments, especially the sacraments’ meaning, form and who could perform them;

2. Dialogue with local churches or denominations that will act as a network of the newly born church;

3. Conviction of the local church, as well as the planters, about the sacraments.

 

Leadership (Prov 11:14; Heb 13:17; 1 Tim 3:1-7)

As for church leadership, or governance, this should be studied from the Bible to the culture and not the other way around. It is the Bible that states and teaches biblical models of leadership, which, by the direction and action of the Holy Spirit, become understandable and applicable in each context. This is a journey that normally takes place only between the stage of formation and development, taking root in the stage of maturity.

Some issues should be dealt in the development phase:

1. Leaders shouldn’t be chosen based on their secular characteristics, such as being charismatic, fluent or with a high social status, but those who are spiritually mature, patient and an example for their own family.

2. The local church should have clarity about how decisions are made. It means that the form of government (whether episcopal, conciliar, congregational or other), should be clear for all.

3. Offices of leadership (such as deacons, elders and pastors), need to be understood, especially the functions of each one.

 

Doctrine (Prov 4:2; 2 Tim 4:2-4; Rom 16:17; Acts 17:10-11)

The doctrine (what we believe and how we believe), must be taught from the pioneering phase, even in evangelization and discipleship. It is an integral part of our faith. I believe there are 12 biblical themes that must be shared from the beginning: Scripture, God, creation, fall and sin, Jesus Christ, the Gospel, salvation, church, mission, Christian life, leadership, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the return of Christ and the judgment.

The lack of clarity and doctrinal conviction is the main reason, in many situations, why local churches have found it difficult to move from development to maturity. He is a summary of these 12 themes in the way I understand them.

Scripture. The Bible (made up of 66 books in the Old and New Testaments) is the Word of God. This Word is inspired, inerrant and revealed by God for knowledge, growth, repentance and obedience. It is made of several books and themes, revealing the story of God redeeming his people by his grace through Jesus, God’s covenantal relationship with his people. (2 Tim 3:16; 1 Tim 2.13; Ps 12.6).

God. God subsists in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. He is the only true God and creator of all things. God is loving, gracious, just and upright. God is sovereign, all-knowing, present everywhere and all-powerful (1Chr 29:11; Ps 103:19; Dan 4:17; Ps 33:13-15; Prov 15:3; Isa 46:9-10; Mtt 10:29-30).

Creation. Man and all creation were made for the glory of God Himself, and everything God did was good. God charged man with his creation, to take care of it, and created man to relate to him (Gen 1:1; Gen 1:26-27; Rev 4:11; Isa 43:7).

The Fall and sin. Adam and Eve fell into sin and with them all of mankind. Thus, everyone needs God's forgiveness. Sin affected all areas of life and nature, separating man from God. The result of sin is eternal death (Gen 3:7-13; Rom 3:23; 6:3; 8:22).

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. Only in Christ there is salvation, and he is the only mediator between man and God. On the cross, Jesus Christ became a curse in the place of sinners, replaced them and paid the price for the salvation of everyone who believes. Jesus Christ died, rose again, was taken up into heaven and will one day return (Lev 17:11; 1 John 2:2; Heb 9:12; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 2.8; 1Cor 15:3-4; 1 Pet 2:24; Phil 2:9-11).

Gospel. The Gospel is God's message for the redemption of his church. It is the power of God that manifests itself in the transformation of people. It is the Lord Jesus Himself, who he is, what he did on the cross and at the resurrection, and what he will yet do at his coming and judgment. The Gospel must be understood in Scripture, lived every day and proclaimed to all the world (Rom 1:1-5; 1:16; Mtt 24:14; 1 Cor 9:14-16; 5:1-11).

Salvation. The salvation of the lost comes only through the mercy, love and grace of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, death and resurrection. God's covenant with men is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus. God planned the salvation of his children before the world was made, and it is only by shedding the blood of the Lamb that the relationship between sinful man and the holy God can be restored (Ps 62:1; Isa 43:4; John 3:16; Heb 5:9; 12:2; Rev 5:9).

Church. The saved in Jesus Christ make up the church of God, which brings together people from all tribes, peoples, languages ​​and nations who believe in the Lord Jesus. The church springs from God, exists for God and serves God. It gathers to worship him and must proclaim his name all over the world. The church of God is a result of his pact with those he called (1Cor 12:27; Rev 5:9; Acts 2:42; 7:48; Eph 2:10).

Mission. It is the church's mission to make disciples among all nations. Every church is called to live the Gospel and proclaim it to everyone, especially those who have heard little or nothing about Christ. All those saved in Christ are called by God to be salt that salts and light that shines in the world. Among all these, God also calls some, with specific ministries, to build his church and spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Mtt 24:14; 28:18-20; Rom 15:20-21; 1Pet 2:9; Eph 4:11).

Christian life. All who are in Christ Jesus are new creatures and are saved to know Christ (by the Word and the Holy Spirit), to walk with him in freedom and to proclaim his name in all the world. The believer in Christ is called to bear Christian witness and show the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Prov 28:20; Ps 23:1-6; 2Cor 5:17; Gal 5:22-23; Rom 12:2; Jas 1:22-27).

Christian leadership. A Christian leader is defined by biblical qualities such as integrity, family witness, prayer life, humility and knowledge of the Word. In the midst of the church, some are called and trained by God to teach the Word and for pastoring. Others are also called and sent into pioneer evangelism (2 Tim 1:5; Acts 16:2; Luke 5:16; Phil 2:5-8 Titus 1:6-9; Acts 13:1-3).

Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The sacraments are the signs and seals of God's covenant promises. Baptism is the public demonstration of when a person joins God's people and points to God's plan since the beginning of time, washing their children from sin. The Lord's Supper is a time of spiritual fellowship between Christ and his people. It is also an opportunity for the saved to remember Jesus Christ (his death and resurrection) and to announce him until he comes (Rom 6:4; Mtt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:12; Acts 2:38; 1Cor 11:23-25).

Christ's return and judgment. Jesus will return, as he himself promised. He will come to seek his own for eternal life, when he will judge the living and the dead. At his coming he will restore the heavens and the earth and everything will be made new (Acts 1:1; Mtt 16:27; 1Thess 4:17-18; Mtt 5:28-29; Heb 9:27-28; Rom 6:23; John 5:24).

 

Mission (Mtt 28:18-20; Rom 15:20-21; 1Pet 2:9)

It is expected that in the stages of development and maturity, the local church will have also a biblical definition and common practice of mission. It should involve a biblical understanding of God’s people identity and mission, who we are and what we should do.

In this area, mission shouldn’t be presented as a program, but a conviction; not a task, but a way of life. Many things are included in the church’s mission, but essentially the communication of the Gospel by words and deeds. Some few things to remember:

1. Mission isn’t something for only the mature Christian to do, but something that will contribute to bring maturity to all Christians.

2. Understanding our calling is probably one of the best ways to embrace mission. Studying how and to what God called his people throughout the centuries in the Scripture is probably the best guide for mission.

3. A local church that isn’t missionary in the first few years of life will probably have difficult to embrace its mission in future. It should be part of a local community of believers from the day one.

To help in this reflection I’d like to present a table as a reference, dividing some areas usually included in each phase of the church: services, sacraments, government and doctrine.

 As we know, different churches grow in different ways and develop different and unique attitudes in each phase.  The frame above is a reference for reflection, to help the planters and local leaders to discern which areas should be strengthened towards moving to the next phase in a biblical and healthy way.

 

CHURCH-CHURCH & CHURCH-MISSION RELATIONS

Another important ecclesiological issue is the relationship of the local church with the other churches in the region or country and, also, the relationship with the mission or the church planter himself.

In the relationship of the planted church with other churches, it is important to clarify whether the model used is informal, formal or denominational. The informal model, in general terms, is marked by voluntary fellowship in which the local community is not associated with other churches or a denomination. It is basically an independent community. In the formal model, the church is associated with others as a kind of network, with gatherings and joint work, but with a totally decentralized leadership, without the authority of one church over another or a central leadership over the churches. The denominational model, in turn, presupposes doctrinal cohesion, leadership standards and some centralized decisions.

Such models are dynamic, so they can change. It is not uncommon for a planted church to embrace the informal model and eventually migrate to the formal model, or even a denominational model, for example. It is important, however, that the adoption of the model reflects the group's understanding and decision in the church-church relationship.

The church-mission relationship is fluid and dynamic, since both the church and the mission (and its missionaries) change. As mentioned earlier, in the pioneering phase, the mission or the planter is usually in a position of broad leadership and responsibility. As the phases progress, local members must take on leadership roles, as well as taking responsibility within their spheres of action, which leads to a gradual decrease in the participation of the planter or the mission involved.

There are, however, more subjective aspects that must be taken into account when defining the church-mission relationship in each phase, such as: the expectations of both parties, even the silent ones; the local model in the relationship between parents and children (which can reflect the commitment expected from the mission/mother and church/daughter, for example); the cultural pattern in the transmission of authority and responsibility; and personal agreements over time, among other aspects.

After observation, much dialogue and prayer, the mission and the local church must have full clarity on the present relationship and the next step. Perhaps the key word in this whole process is ‘trust’. And all involvement of the mission with the church must seek to contribute for the local church to be consolidated in its actual phase and to proceed to the next one, so that it is spiritually edified and glorifies God.

Here are some steps I’d like to suggest to achieve this. First, church and mission must study and agree on what phase the church is at (pioneering, formation, development or maturity), considering that in a group of churches, each one will probably be at a different phase. Also, it is good to have in mind that some churches will be between phases, in moments of transition with some characteristics of both phases at the same time, which is perfectly normal. So, in this first step it is important that mission and church agree on the current position of each church.

Second, the church and the mission establish a joint plan on strengthening the local church in its current phase, especially in the first three, since in the maturity phase the mission normally serves as a consultant, not participating in the daily decisions. There are several ways to do this and I suggest an approach based on Paul's theology of spiritual strengthening.

In Paul’s letters we find seven Christian practices of spiritual strengthening linked do the people of God: Scripture, worship, fellowship, prayer, holiness, good work and evangelization. 

The Vitalis approach, which we developed for this specific purpose, proposes that these seven practices should be observed in a local church for growing spiritual maturity. For that, it needs intentional investment in the weakest areas so that they can be strengthened, and also affirmation of the strongest ones so that they can be maintained and bear fruit. This is, however, just one possible approach. Regardless of the approach used, church and mission must agree, in this second step, to join forces to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the local church and invest to be strengthened in the Lord Jesus.

Thirdly, the church and the mission must look ahead, seeking the necessary elements for the church to move on to the next phase, in a healthy way. There are several models and approaches to planting a local church. In general, I observe that in the pioneering and formation phase, the relationship takes place more directly between the planter and the church. Between the phases of formation and development, the mission starts to monitor the church more closely. Thus, the relationship takes place in the triangle: planter, church and mission. Between the development and the maturity phase, it is common for the relationship to be only between church and mission, since the planters, in many cases, will already be away from the local church in this phase.

As you can imagine, there are numerous situations that do not fit well in this timeline and each situation will have to make its own adjustments in understanding and taking the next steps. The main thing, however, is that everyone involved with the local church must join forces so that, in a healthy and biblical way, they move on to the next phase. It is necessary to prepare the ground for the next step, working so that something that does not exist comes into existence. If the church is in the formation phase and intends to move on to the development phase, perhaps something needed are mature local leaders. So, they must project: what to do so that in the near future they will have mature leaders in this local church? In this third step, one looks ahead, sowing in the present for a harvest to come.

Fourth, the relationship between church and mission must be thought through in the long term, when the local church is in the mature stage. This discussion must take place as soon as possible (while still in the formation or development phase), but it is certain that it takes place in the mature phase. The current proposal is that the church-mission relationship, or even the church-mission-planter relation, if applicable, serves as a spiritual encouragement for all.

We realize, however, that discouragement and conflict in this process, which may be complex, is not uncommon. Here are some brief advices:

1. It is time for the partners to pray, to seek God and the Lord's mind so that the relationship between the partners is biblical, healthy and encouraging. Church and mission must pray together. 

2. It is also a time to freely share things of the heart. Do not leave behind anything that will take a toll in the future. 

3. No relationship is perfect, and if there is something between the parts that has not yet been revealed or forgiven, this is a great time for this to happen. 

4. There are so many reasons for joy at the Lord's goodness on this joint journey. It is time to remember and celebrate them for the joy of the people and the glory of God. 

5. There needs to be full clarity about what the relationship will look like from now on. It is necessary to talk about the silent expectations. Talk openly about financial resources, personal resources and structures. Talk also about the affective relationships, so that all are on the same page, working so that the other part is not frustrated and both can give glory to the Lord.

In this mature phase, in which the local church takes on all local responsibilities and privileges, it is advisable that the mission and church, when in common agreement, maintain a good affective bond and, if applicable, also some practical bond under the leadership of the local church.

Above all, keep in mind that Christ is the Lord of the church and will lead us to our final destination, to be vessels for honor in his hands, among his people and for his glory. Let us walk firmly and clearly on these ecclesiological matters, but also in peace, for in fact he is the absolute Lord of everything and everyone, including the church and his kingdom.

 

LAST WORDS

The aim of this article is to encourage brothers and sisters, planters and leaders to get involved in this precious privilege of growing in Jesus as a local church. We should keep in mind that our “struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).

Let’s work hard, give our best in a best way for God’s glory and his church on earth. Use all your gifts and opportunities to collaborate with the maturity of God’s people, but let’s do that in peace, knowing and believing that God himself is building his church with his power, his grace and for is glory. Let’s rejoice!

 

 

FIVE READING SUGGESTIONS ON ECCLESIOLOGY

Dever, Mark. Nine marks of a healthy church. Crossway, 2013.

Goheen, Michael. Church and its vocation. Baker Academic, 2018.

Keller, Timothy. Center church: Doing balanced, gospel-centered ministry in your city. Zondervan, 2012.

Muller, Roland. The messenger, the message and the community. CanBooks, 2013.

Woodford, Brian. Master plan: Biblical foundations for living churches. Eastwest College of Intercultural Studies, 2007.

 

 

[1] Missiologists such Johan Bavinck and David Hasselgrave used different approaches to formulate the phases of a local church, from beginning to maturity. For our purpose in this reflection, four are redefined and presented: pioneer, formation, development and maturity.

[2] In his book ‘Church: The Alliance People’ (Igreja: O Povo da Aliança. Z3 Editora, 2020), Cacio Silva says it is crucial for each local church to have a defined ecclesiological identity and suggests this should be discussed by the church planting team from the beginning.

[3] Levering Matthews. The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works. Baker academic, 2013.

[4]Belgic Confession, 1561.

[5] Westminster Assembly. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646.