Are church plants actually factions? A response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article

October 22, 2011 in Christian Unity, Christianity, Church, Church Planting, Leaky Jar

Editor’s Note: This post has had one line edited as it presented a critique of one of Jivanjee’s arguments in the language of an attack on his character. The author is sorry to have been irresponsible with his words and for any harm caused to a brother in Christ.

This post is written in response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article, “Faction-planting or church-planting?” per his request.

In his article, Jivanjee makes several commendable points:

  • The first, and most obvious, of these is that there exists in some American churches a sort of factionalism that fails to recognize the extent of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood across denominational lines or even across the street. Where such prideful division exists, it is certainly sinful and an impediment to the Gospel.
  • The second point to note is that churches can easily become personality cults in which the congregation’s life comes to center on the charismatic leader. This can easily lead to straying from the authority of Scripture and foster a division between the “ministers” and the “members” that denies the priesthood of all believers.
  • Third, there is a helpful emphasis on the concept of a “city church.” While I am not sure that I agree with Jivanjee’s exact understanding of the city church, I certainly share his enthusiasm for a certain type of unity and Christian love exhibited in the city church.

Going from Anecdotes to Universal Indictments

While I appreciate the above points, I find Jivanjee’s stance to be both overly cynical and simplistic with regard to actual church congregations in the United States apart from the abstract concept of American Churches. For instance, Jivanjee writes,

“There was one stretch of road in the area that we moved to that literally had a church building every tenth of a mile.  Sometimes they were even side by side!  Some were big, some were small, and some were medium sized.  Many of these buildings also had some type of pithy advertisement outside (advertising a sermon topic or some famous worship leader / speaker coming) that seemed to plead to people driving by to come to their 1.5 hour meeting that Sunday.

The competition seemed very stiff to say the least as each institution was desperately trying to get more & more people to ‘attend’ their weekly meetings.  Some of these institutions tried to appeal to a younger crowd, while some emphasized their more traditional meetings to appeal to an older crowd.  This is right in keeping with the American consumer and shopping culture. When one institution’s weekly meetings weren’t good enough, people simply left and went down the road to something better.”

While this sort of critique is not unique to Jivanjee, and most Christians know of anecdotal evidence that verifies the existence of such a problem, I do wonder whether it is right to assume that all of those anecdotes add up to a universal plague in American churches. Having multiple congregations of different denominations side-by-side can easily provoke a critique of self-centered consumerism (which is certainly a problem for many Christians in the United States), but such a critique is not founded upon any real understanding of the history of those churches. While it is possible that the Pentecostal church was planted to compete with the non-denominational church which was planted to compete with the Methodist church, this is not a given. Undoubtedly there have been many congregations planted in the history of the United States with an intention of competing with “less-than” congregations of other denominations, to assume that such motivation spurred on all or even most church planters is to put very little hope in the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation and sanctification.

If we trust that the Holy Spirit is truly capable of making a new creation out of sinful humans, of stirring up love of Christ, and of knitting Christians together into one body, one family, and one nation, then it is not a stretch to believe that many (even most) church planters have been motivated not by divisiveness and pride but by obedience to the call and prompting of their Lord. To argue otherwise, that the majority of churches were planted in direct contradiction to Christ’s command to love one another, is to see Satan, the accuser of the brethren, as more influential in the birth of new congregations than Christ, the Head of the Church. In order to justify indicting the “American Church” as he does, Jivanjee must put forth more evidence than driving past several churches in a row. Even if he found through historical research that every congregation in a given city had been planted out of spite, it would be irresponsible to derive from such information that the other thousands of congregations in the United States had similar beginnings.

Jivanjee also cites as evidence a conversation that took place between him and a church staff member. As a side note, it would be helpful to know whether this staff member was a pastor with significant theological training or secretary who might be a faithful disciple of Jesus but untrained in the in-house language of pastors, seminarians, and theologians. The overall thrust of the conversation is that Jivanjee seeks to expose the staff member to the fact that his church does not actually cooperate well with other local churches and that it has become divided from them by insignificant points. It culminates in this exchange as Jivanjee asks the staff member why a different church that meets in the same church building is a different church:

ME: “Well I know that you said that it is a completely different church, but do you know what it is exactly that makes it a completely different church? After all, it is not location that keeps you guys separate because you guys are so close in proximity that you use the exact same building.  So again, why are these two churches different churches?”

CHURCH STAFF: “Well…umm…(possibly thinking about this for the first time) because we have a completely different set of leaders, and different missional and doctrinal stances.  They even have their own marketing materials as well.”

Bingo!  That was the answer I was looking for, and I was also hoping this staff member would grasp the audacity of the situation. This is the reason that these church communities believed they were actually different ‘churches’.  It all comes down to different communities of people being factioned around different sets of human leadership and different doctrinal stances.”

Of course, Jivanjee is correct to point out that these two churches were actually part of the one and only Church made up of all Christ-followers, but this conversation does not prove a faulty ecclesiology (theology of the Church) on the part of the staff member but instead sloppy semantics (at worst). If the staff member had been intending to say that these two congregations were different Churches, as in divided from each other rather than members of the one Body of Christ, that would be noteworthy. Instead the staff member is using the word “church” synonymously with the more precise term “congregation.” This is a common (and perhaps the most common) use of the word in Christian English terminology, and it is not improper to sometimes use the term “Church” as referring to the one holy catholic Church and at other times use it to mean a singular local congregation. While it would be scandalous for Christians to claim that the Body of Christ should be divided over sets of leaders and doctrinal stances, it is simply true that two of the most important distinguishing marks between congregations are the particular leaders and doctrinal stances. In any case, this conversation primarily proves that the staff member was guilty only of using imprecise language, rather than having a faulty ecclisiology.

Is it wrong for congregations to differ doctrinally?

Jivanjee also argues that it is sinful for the one Christian Church of a given city to be divided along lines of leaders or doctrinal stances. While this is certainly true in the sense that Christians should not fail to love one another or recognize their brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ because of differences, it does not follow that the Christians of a given city should not gather into congregations that are made distinct by doctrinal stance. For instance, some Christians truly believe that infant baptism should be practiced while others believe that baptism is reserved solely for those old enough to understand baptism. What would it look like for these believers to co-exist in one congregation? The congregation can only do so many things: either it baptizes babies or does not baptize babies. There is no neutral ground on this position, and so Christians must attend separate congregations, have complete uniformity in belief, or commit to a congregation that violates their own conscience. Undoubtedly, Presbyterians and Baptists should love one another as fellow believers, but there are reasons for their being Presbyterians or Baptists.

Thoughts on the Faithful Church Plant

It must be noted that Jivanjee does not deny the potential goodness of church plants, as long as they are not actually “faction-plants.” Unfortunately, he does not offer a positive vision of what makes something a church plant, but instead offers only insights into what might distinguish a faction-plant. Because of this void, I will conclude with a few thoughts of my own on what makes for a faithful church plant. A church plant is distinguished from divisive faction-plants as being birthed in faithful obedience to Christ’s command to make disciples of all people. It is motivated out of a love for the Triune God and a desire to see the Kingdom of God break out in new ways and among people who have not experienced it. It is not formed out of a rejection of the Christian churches that already exist in an area or out of a prideful expectation of finally “getting church right.” It is, instead, built upon the trust that God has commissioned the planting of this new church as a growth of the community of God’s people in order to participate in the Church’s mission of making disciples of all people and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God in Christ. While seeking to be faithful to its own particular calling within the overall work of the Church, it has no sense of competition with other local churches but instead seeks to partner with them fruitfully in the work of the one Body of Christ. It may have distinctive doctrinal and missional positions, but it seeks primarily to be used by the Holy Spirit to glorify God through the making of faithful disciples.

I believe that Jivanjee and I agree on this overarching claim and that we share a passion for seeing the Church in its myriad manifestations among local congregations live faithfully for Christ and His Gospel.