Next year marks the one hundredth anniversary of Roland Allen's small book Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? In that landmark text in mission studies, Allen argued that Western missionary methods had little in common with Paul's missionary practices in the New Testament. The apostle and his partners did not establish large, permanent institutions, nor did they stay in one place for a decade or a career.
Allen wrote during the height of Western optimism, paternalism, and colonialism, and it took time for his ideas to gain traction. Yet the book eventually grew in influence and helped spur the shift toward contextualization and indigenization in world mission.
David Fitch wants to do something similar for North American missions and church planting. Fitch is Lindner Professor of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the author of several books, most recently The End of Evangelicalism (not the first doom-casting attempt in recent years).
In a recent blog post that is attracting attention around the web, Fitch encourages church expansion via a missionary team model, rather relying on professional entrepreneurial pastors to plant churches. The latter model has become common in recent decades (Rick Warren is a leading example). Fitch proposes that churches, denominations, and missions organizations send out teams consisting of three or four leaders or "lead couples" who could operate as a team in under-churched contexts.
Rather than emphasizing biblical practice as Allen did, Fitch argues pragmatically and fiscally. (His approach echoes that of Allen's predecessor, Henry Venn, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society; Venn proposed indigenization in the 19thcentury in response to lack of funds and warm bodies.) Money is a perennial issue, and not just for the planting organization; Jerry Bowyer recently blogged at Forbes onmoney problems for seminarians, mixing opinion and statistics.Fitch argues that such problems are addressed by his model.
The "lost and hurting" need not wait on financial windfalls, Fitch notes.Fitch would like us to "have three to four leader/leader couples" funded by full-time jobs, which would leave each couple "15 hours of labor (a week) to work together to organize and form a gospel expression … in their context."They would plant themselves in a context for 10 years, and their careers would fund and fuel ministry to a small local group. Institutionalization and massive growth—typified by recent "suburban" church plants and the sort of large institutions opposed by Allen in 1912—would be avoided at all costs.
Mission methods that do not depend on massive finances certainly deserve consideration, and not just for the reasons Fitch cites. In the first instance, expensive church planting models are not well-suited for many contexts. In poorer locations, teams prepared to minister bi-vocationally could serve for the long-term in communities where churches have little or no chance of producing a minister's salary.Fitch's strategy also has value for those who desire to work in expensive under-churched contexts, many of which are cited by experts as locations in need of more gospel witness.
Secondly, seminary graduates increasingly struggle to find employment in ministry, thanks to the economic recession and over-saturation of the market with young seminary graduates. Joel Hathaway serves as Director of Alumni & Career Services at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis and is regularly involved in placement consultation for churches and students. When open positions are publicly posted, Hathaway sees an average of fifty and as many as 70 applicants per position.