A community of strangers

By Andrew Munneke

I have two young boys: Asher who is 3 and August who is 15 months old. It’s needless to say, but our house is a symphony of rambunctious screams, discordant torment, and the occasional plea for a parental figure to come and fix everything. Anyone with young children knows that your house can turn from tranquility to calamity in an instant.

This happened to me one Friday morning. Known affectionately around our house as “Dude Day,” most Friday’s I take the boys to a local bakery for donuts. (Because every “Dude Day” needs an enormous amount of sugar. It’s part of the man code.)

Now I usually have a “no cell phone” rule when it’s just me and the boys, but this particular day my phone kept buzzing with situations I needed to address. So I would glance at my boys, then look down at my phone and type. Glance up—Ok, still eating donuts—glance back down at the glowing screen and keep typing. Glance up, and just like that my 3-year-old had unscrewed the pepper shaker on the table and was pouring pepper all over my donuts. Solid prank, but a terrible seasoning for donuts.

I think for many Christians right now it seems like almost overnight, or a quick glimpse down at our phones, that suddenly everything has changed and we have been pushed into the margins of our culture. Especially here in the South, the church has had a position of privilege within our society, but we are finally realizing an environmental shift has taken place.

But living on the margins of society is nothing new for the church. In fact, the early church boomed within the Roman context in which it lived as a compelling, contrastive community that didn’t seek relevance and conformity as its goal within the culture but sought to challenge and contradict that cultural good. In other words, the church was salt and light living in a decaying and darkening world. 

The Western church has lost that, and we need to get it back.

Moving “beyond” Christianity

It is almost universally acknowledged that we live in a Post-Christian culture. This does not mean that our culture has shifted back to a Pre-Christian worldview but that it has “progressed” beyond Christianity, all while “feasting upon its fruits.” The creed of modern-day progressive elites proclaims the dignity of all human beings, the eradication of poverty, tolerance of all beliefs and worldviews, and the supremacy of science as the sole arbiter of truth.

In this creed it’s clear that there is still a yearning for the Kingdom of God and for shalom to be restored, but there is no mention of Holy God. The foundation of these philosophies is birthed out of the Christian mission and reconciliation, yet there is one major difference: the elevation and reign of the individual will.

{ The creed of modern-day progressive elites proclaims the dignity of all human beings, the eradication of poverty, tolerance of all beliefs and worldviews, and the supremacy of science as the sole arbiter of truth. }


The seeds of the exaltation-of-self began with Descartes, who famously proclaimed that all things must first be assumed as false until they can be proven true with his conclusion of, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes has been called the father of the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment). He sparked the flames of the autonomous self and the idea that the individual, not a deity or even a collective community, determined right and wrong, true and false.

We see how the fruits of this idea really took-off in the 1950s with the rise of consumerism and materialism. Happiness, identity, and prosperity no longer were the reward for hard work and diligence—they could be bought. This rise of the consumerist individual paved the way for the sexual revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s with their sacred cows of abortion and divorce. The goal of life became the pursuit of happiness and pleasure, and because “I determine my own truth through reasoning” was the mantra, no system, government, or religious institution was able to convert them.

The church’s response to this new “culture war” seemed to be running to the courts and aligning themselves with a political party that would seek to enforce a biblical worldview upon those who opposed it. While Christians sought to capture the law of the land, the progressives pursued our imaginations through creative arts and cultural engagement. Entertainment highlighted this new individualized theology with themes of self-discovery through experiment, following passions in the face of opposition, and embracing individuals’ uniqueness. 

{ The goal of life became the pursuit of happiness and pleasure…no system, government, or religious institution was able to convert them. }


These combined ideologies of consumerism and a yearning for self-discovery began to influence how the church “reached lost people.” The goal of churches changed to becoming relevant to the culture. Sermons drifted towards self-help lessons. Churches started marketing themselves using “sales techniques” to differentiate themselves from other churches in town. Even worship songs drifted away lyrically from corporate declaration of praise and morphed into a more personal experience.

Simply put, the culture turned the church into another marketplace, one that sold religious goods and services to the masses, and the result was parishioners who now seek churches to fit their own needs instead of seeking to meet others’ needs (in contrast with the early church in Acts 2:44-45).

But recently the church moved back to the margins of society. How? For the past 40 years, the dominate message the culture has received from the church is “come to Jesus and it will improve the quality of your life.” Yet because the church has certain beliefs that do not hold up to modern sensibilities, casual churchgoers are discovering that identifying themselves with Jesus actually interferes with their quality of their life. 

Now I know I need to clarify what I am saying so that I am not misunderstood. The Gospel most definitely brings joy and an overwhelming affection for Christ. However, to declare “Jesus is Lord” and not “The culture is Lord” costs you something. Only those whose hearts have been captured by the Gospel can truly say, “You can take the world because I have Jesus.” But for those in our churches who have bought into a “prosperity gospel” that says “Jesus will make you happy,” they will leave our churches in droves when a life with Jesus leaves them persecuted instead of happy.

More than a compelling community?

I know for some of you, the current trajectory of the church’s relationship with our culture is a scary reality. However, am I more optimistic than ever for the future of the church if we embrace our role as a compelling minority within our culture! Here are just two reasons why:

1. The church was born and exploded on the margins of society, and it will not die at the margins of society.

In a pre-Christian context, everybody knew that their testimony could end with them losing their life, and in that context the church boomed! This is our heritage. In a Post-Christian context, we have to know that declaring “Jesus is Lord” probably won’t lead to us being killed, but it does mean that we might lose friends, our jobs, and a certain level of approval.

Do you really believe Jesus’s words: “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church”? (Matthew 16:18) If Christ is the one who builds, sustains, and grows the body, then nothing will hold us back!

2. Because of hyper-individualism, the world needs the church.

There has been a saying that “people love Jesus but not the church,” but in a Post-Christian context what we are beginning to see is people love the church but not Jesus. Let me give you an example of this.

A couple of years ago, a movement began in London called The Sunday Assembly. If you walked into one of their services on a Sunday morning, you would see a gathering of hip millennials from all different walks and stages of life gathering for reflection, community, and renewal. The thing is…they are all atheist and agnostic.

{ The Sunday Assembly started from a group of people who wanted the good things about church…this movement has planted 480 churches. }


The Sunday Assembly started from a group of people who wanted the good things about church—community, charitable deeds, being part of something bigger than yourself—but without all of the belief. This movement has exploded to over 480 congregations. You catch that?! This movement has planted 480 CHURCHES because hyper-individualism has left people lonely, lost, and with a yearning to be part of something bigger than themselves. 

One of the reasons why millennials are flocking to church plants and smaller churches right now is because they are yearning to be known and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In other words, they don’t want to be the point of church.

What an opportunity for the church!

Welcoming & transforming

We knew when we planted The Hill Church that there were unbelievers who would not know Jesus until they knew His people first. That means we were to invite them into our community to live life with us, break bread with us, and cry and laugh with us. That’s what discipleship is! We understood that it’s a process and that different people are in different places in their spiritual spectrum.

Have you thought about how Jesus called 12 unbelievers to be His disciples? Then for the next three years of Jesus’ ministry, those disciples came to call Him Lord at different moments in time. Peter was the first of the disciples to rightly see Jesus for who He was. Thomas didn’t fully become a believer until he stuck his fingers through Jesus’ pierced hands. And Judas never confessed Jesus as Lord, but he wanted more of what Jesus could give him rather than Jesus himself. 

{ Jesus called his 12 unbelievers to be His disciples. Then for the next three years of Jesus’ ministry, those disciples came to call Him Lord at different moments in time. }


We have embraced the form of discipleship that we call, “Welcoming and Mutually Transforming.” What we mean by this is that we have a posture of humility, confessing that we ourselves are not perfect, fall short, and that we still need the cross and Christ’s righteousness. We welcome people into our community regardless of if they look like us, talk like us, or even behave like us because some people won’t accept Gods love and grace until they have experienced it through His people first!

All the while, we do not fit-in to our host culture because we are exiles. We live in this “socially awkward” tension because this is not our home. The Apostle Peter described the church as “aliens and strangers in this world.” (1 Peter 2:11)

Therefore, as a compelling community that is different than that of the culture, we must embrace our alien ethic. We must embrace that our church culture lives radically different than the world in how we handle money, sex, and power. And this distinctiveness is a good thing. I like how Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

The church must show the world something it is not—and cannot be—apart from Jesus.

You might be reading this and feel like I did at the donut shop with my boys. A moment ago the world seemed fine, but then you looked up and everything has changed. My hope for this blog is to encourage you! Don’t fall into despair but actually be excited for the potential work that God can do through the church when it is on the margins.

When Israel went into exile in Babylon, God did not tell His people to escape the city and run away from the culture. He told them to seek the welfare and the prosperity of the city. (Jeremiah 29:7)

The church needs to be ambassadors of beauty, stewards of generosity, and cultivators of renewal in the cities and the places they belong. And if we embrace the calling to live in the world for the world, then certainly nothing will overcome the people of God!  

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When religious kingdoms fall, the Kingdom of God wins

By Lee Kemp 

Today, I write this post with a burdened heart. 

I am filled with an overwhelming desire to see established churches receive church plants and support them. For them to view church planting as an opportunity to advance the Kingdom of God. For them to take on the awesome privilege of incubating a baby body of believers instead of being consumed by advancing personal religious kingdoms. For them to pass the ball to teammates, instead of attempting to win the game in glorious pride.

When churches operate with this biblical mindset, the church walls fall down, religious kingdoms that separate local believers crumble, and the kingdom of God wins!

Macedonian Model

When we look at the New Testament we see the Apostle Paul calling on churches to support other local churches. We watch as they not only give financially to these churches, but give of themselves as well, sending the encouragement and spiritual support that only arrives with the physical presence of fellow believers.

Even more captivating, and definitely profound, was that the Macedonians, to Paul’s surprise, radically assisted and overwhelmed Paul with their willingness to hold up his ministry…

1 “Moreover, brothers, we want you to experience the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia, 2 how in a great trial of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty overflowed toward the riches of their generous giving. 3 For I bear record that according to their means, and beyond their means, they freely gave, 4 begging us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of ministering to the saints. 5 This they did, not as we expected. First, they gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us by the will of God. 6 So we urged Titus, that as he had begun, so he would also complete this gracious deed for you. 7 But as you abound in everything—in faith, in utterance, in knowledge, in all diligence, and in your love to us—see that you abound in this grace also.”

2 Corinthians 8:1-8 (emphasis added)

Paul was surprised by the Macedonians’ radical willingness to be braces for his ministry namely because they were in a season of “great trial” and “deep poverty.”

When I reflect on our current realities as a Convention, it is apparent what we desire and seek… souls saved and vibrant churches experiencing a state of revival. I also understand our realities in the American church are not “great trial” and “deep poverty.” I am not ignoring that our religious liberties are being battled in the name of “tolerance.” However, we are not in a state of defending our liberties to the point where we may wave the banner of “great trial” over our spiritual state.

The Tension & Truth

One real tension church planters currently feel is the need for more “open handed” support…

  • It’s not always about money
  • Could be a physical need, such as a place to gather
  • Could be people (although beware of a planter who wants more than a handful, may not be planting the gospel, but rather just starting another church service.)
  • Could be around an event, where a helping church provides the physical blessings while giving the church plant the credit

As a church plant, we have been incredibly gifted with the biblical support of a church thus minded! Grand Avenue Baptist in Fort Smith. Not only did they take us under their wing physically, allowing us to meet for a year in their youth center, but they also have constantly supported us in the ways mentioned above.

For two years they have partnered with us, providing all the turkey dinners we need to distribute in our Timberline community, while giving us all the credit and allowing us to make the spiritual connections!

Who wins in this situation? Is it Forefront Church? Is it Grand Avenue Baptist?

Wrong question.

What wins? The kingdom wins!

Quick Filters for a Kingdom Winning Strategy

As pastors and staff, are we truly seeking to advance the Kingdom of God, in whatever that may be, or do we spend, seek, protect, and build around our own religious kingdom? How are we and/or how can we partner with church planting in light of all of our current resources?

We are thankful for churches that support Dixie Jackson, for they are partnering and supporting church planting, throwing the ball down court, and allowing the freshmen to score!

And that’s a kingdom win for sure.

Planting the Gospel vs. planting a church

By Lee Kemp 

It’s the old, worn out elephant wearing the fresh, sparkly tutu. She’s sitting in the room, and we can’t help but notice the mismatched pair. We silently observe that the glittering tutu does nothing to mask the giant, sagging wrinkles of the tired figure wearing it. It doesn’t seem to work.

Church plant launching is sparkly. It’s fresh. It’s attractive. It’s a brand new tutu. The issue at hand though is not the fact that there’s another new church plant, but rather the issue is the body that gathers under the newly sewn hems. 

Instead of reaching unchurched people groups with the gospel, new church plants often just “gather” Christians looking for some new, fresh “fabric.”  Perhaps this is what truly disheartens some pastors and other leaders when they are asked to consider being involved in church planting.

It’s the difference between planting the gospel versus planting a church.

One thing we have sought to do in starting Forefront Church is to “plant the Gospel” and not just “plant the Church.” This is the truest calling for church planters.  

{ Instead of reaching un-churched people groups with the gospel, new church plants often just gather Christians looking for some new, fresh fabric. }

Sustaining 

Let’s be honest and transparent for but a moment. This is hard, dirt busting work and this work requires us to be continually spirit-filled. The unchurched are not amused with religious showmanship (which is quite easier for us, requiring less of the spirit and more of our “churchiness”). They care not for the things that will draw existing believers by the masses. 

This work is hard for established churches as well, hence, the majority of churches gaining new members by transferring from a sister church in our area. It’s not that there’s not enough money or resources to do the work, it really doesn’t take all that. It’s that there’s not enough satisfaction for us to carry the work on. Unchurched people take much, much longer to develop into the churched folks we feel good about and want to fill our pews. 

I think if we were all deeply honest with each other, we would catch ourselves talking about how we need more magnetic leaders to grow our churches instead of being overwhelmed by reaching the lost in our community. 

With such a focus, we develop strategies and programs that are highly internal rather than external in focus.  All the creative brainstorming and focus is directed on things that really only would excite and encourage response from existing believers rather than generate response from the unchurched community in which we exist.

Plant DNA 

One thing I am realizing is that the concept of keeping focus on the Gospel and lost-ness in our faith community will run through a process of an “ebb and flow.”  Andy Stanley once said it best when he stated, “Vision leaks” (read what I mean in “The Struggle is Real…”).  

When we started Forefront Church, my wife and I moved into an inner city apartment complex and had all the church functions on site at the complex while focusing only on people who lived with us there.  In my thought process this gave us two large benefits… 

One is that anything the church would do in the future; we would have done since the beginning.  Even though we have a Sunday morning gathering now at another location, we still have a couple from our church living at those apartments and hosting weekly worship gatherings on-site.  And because of this strategy, apartment ministry is in our DNA. 

Second, since Fort Smith was my hometown where I was a youth pastor, it kept my Christian friends from joining us. Most of the Christians I know in my hometown would never join a church in an apartment complex. This may sound harsh, but it really kept our focus on the Gospel.

 

fort smith
Fort Smith, Ark.

 

“Elephantish” 

However, fast forward the tape.  Although we have started this church in what some may call radical ways, it still amazes me how I can catch my vision and heart leaning away from the Gospel. New tutus can be itchy and my elephant is pretty untrained and doesn’t act like one. Although the fresh fabric fits the fresh body, the rawness of teaching an elephant to be one can be tiresome and takes time. I am prone to wander at times and leave the vision I have from God. 

We now have a Sunday morning gathering at one of the Boys and Girls Clubs in our town, located in the inner city of Fort Smith.  The thing I continue to find challenging for me is to guard my heart from coveting or envying the leaders in some of the established churches in my town.

{ I am prone to wander at times and leave the vision I have from God. }

Their “elephant” is big, experienced, able to balance a ball on its trunk, performs well at the circus…just more “elephantish.”  “Churchiness” and churched people feel good to be around, they are excited by what excites me, they perform with ease, and I know how to get them to gather. 

We have one of the best worship bands I would argue in my area and for sure who I have ever worked with in ministry thus far.  This many times causes me to start thinking about how we should just start a huge marketing campaign and do some of the strategies I know we can do to get a crowd of people to show up.  However, the thing I also know is that most of the time, the people who you hook through these ideas tend to be already saved.

Just an old, tired elephant in a new fluffy skirt. 

They are either upset or playing the Christian church circuit (which I can’t understand why we Baptist pastors allow this game to be played…another post though.)   

Caught! Thank God! 

Before I sound like a church cynic, let me acknowledge that there are many churches reaching people with the Gospel.  Many of these churches are great Arkansas Baptist church plants too.  Forefront has seen 30 people trust in Christ this year for salvation and had 9 people last year.  Currently we average around 60 adults, which if you do the math, you know that we have not abandoned the heart of planting the Gospel.  However, I would say for a portion of this year in planting Forefront, we have gotten caught up in the details of church a little too much. 

Our leadership and people have wandered from the passion of seeing the Gospel planted and we got caught ourselves planting a church instead.  Already, we have had to repent and recalibrate our focus towards advancing and planting the Gospel. 

People sometimes ask, “Pastor, what is truly the focus of your church today?”  What is even more convicting for me is, what is truly the focus of my life currently?  And what fruit do I have to show that to be true? 

May we all plant the Gospel in our ministries!

Pray for us as we plant Forefront that our focus will stay on reaching the lost and not gathering the saved.

No more old elephants in new fluffy, skirts. It is all too easy to abandon the Gospel and start gathering the saved.  We know the kingdom of God demands us to surrender our spiritual envies and push forward with a God-sized vision.