What Are We Planting?

One of the new catchphrases in the missional church world is that we shouldn’t plant churches, we should plant the gospel. By being gospel-centered, rather than church-centered (normally pronounced, “Self-centered”), the mission can be preserved. It’s also a way of saying that a missional church plant needs to put off the discussion of where and when to do Sunday morning worship, otherwise that place and activity will define what the church is.

So I think I understand the phrase, and even appreciate what is meant by the people who use it. Here comes the but…

One of the greatest corrections that the missional church movement is bringing into mainstream American church-speak is this: the church is not “a place where,” but “a people who.” The church is not the building, the budget, the flurry of activity, the programs, the staff arrangement, the organizational structure, or whatever else has been created to equip and support the people who are Christ’s healing presence in the world.

So if we can agree to this redefinition (and I haven’t met anyone who disagrees), then what problem would we have in saying that we want to plant churches? With commuter churches almost the rule, the abandonment of many of our urban centers (which is to say the abandonment of the poor, actually), and the tendency especially among conservative Christians to withdraw from their neighbors, planting a church is a necessity. Plant a community of people intent on entering the Kingdom of God together and living out the implications, who commit to their neighbors that they will not abandon them.

For the missional church plant that we are doing, this means that if you want to live out the mission with us, you’ve got to relocate to the city God has called us to love. Jesus did not save us from far away, but he came near. So many of his healing miracles involve looking, hearing, touching, and speaking that you’ve got to conclude his ministry was characterized by proximity and immediacy. And he didn’t do that just because he was being nice, and not just because he wanted to humanize those he healed (which is basically the same thing anyway). He did it because the Kingdom of God was near in his very person. How could they possibly have believed that the Kingdom of God was near, if Jesus had stayed far away, avoiding contact?

So Jesus’ gospel proclamation, “The Kingdom of God is near!” was demonstrated by his manner of ministry. Or perhaps that’s backwards. Perhaps Jesus’ proclamation was just an explanation of what his presence meant. In that case, the presence is primary, and the proclamation is secondary. To put it another way, the person of Christ is the text, and the proclamation is the interpretation, the exegesis, the sermon. Both are necessary, just look at Luke 24. Jesus is resurrected, and the text stands before the disciples. He appears, speaks, touches, and eats, yet the disciples still cannot understand. So then he preaches. He provides the interpretation for the reality they are seeing.

Granted, I may not be fairly representing what people mean when they talk about planting the gospel rather than the church. But delivering the proclamation apart from the presence is not the way Jesus did it. The church, understood as the people who have entered the Kingdom of God and through whom the presence of Christ now comes near their neighbors, is the text that the proclamation interprets. The church is the reality that the preaching points to–or, rather, points through to Christ himself. The church is the puzzling reality that the gospel makes understandable.

So plant the church, then preach the gospel once people start scratching their heads.