The notion of Research and Development in the church strikes fear in the hearts of some. Why would we need it? Hasn’t God given us everything that we need regarding the nature and practice of the church in his Word?
If we introduce the concept of R&D, aren’t we on a pragmatic slippery slope that will inherently devolve into manmade distortions of God’s church? Isn’t the goal simply to uncover this singular ecclesiological model and design our planting models accordingly?
Well, yes and no.
The Bible is the essential and sufficient guide for our understanding of the nature and practice of his church. The church is, after all, solely his. He has revealed how he has created the church to function and thrive.
God has graciously given us insight into the development of the first church through the record of his Word. He has spoken clearly about the mission, practice, and leadership of the church and provided standards that cannot be improved upon through human ingenuity.
But such a high view of Scripture’s ecclesiological authority does not necessarily render any missiological R&D as out of bounds.
In fact, a high view of the nature of Jesus’ church actually demands it. Each church is embedded in a certain cultural context that necessitates wise decisions regarding how best to flesh out the mission of Christ among particular peoples in specific places around the world.
Such work necessitates contextual R&D. In fact, it is vital and unavoidable if we have any hope of transformative impact on culture.
Let’s dispel with a myth.
There’s simply no such thing as a culture-free local church. Each church, by virtue of its existence within time and space, is found within a cultural continuum from which it must make missiological decisions to implement biblical practices.
The mistake that many churches and church plants make is to neglect doing the hard work of contextual exegesis, choosing instead to merely replicate the ecclesiological practices they experienced in the past, or have become fans of, from another church context.
But even the original idea that they are attempting to replicate did, at some point in time, make healthy or unhealthy, wise or foolish, determinations about how they were going to embody God’s wisdom in biblical community in that place.
Left alone, even the best missiological practices of the past are sure to prove obsolete over time, since the nature of culture is never static. Change in culture means the church must, time and time again, revisit the question about how best to live as a biblically-faithful, missionary-propelled people of God in the day of their responsibility.
It seems obvious, in fact, that this is the very thing the New Testament church and its leaders were doing. The Epistles are missionary documents, written by divine inspiration to articulate the mission of the church in the various places where the gospel took root.
As such, these documents provide clear, unalterable standards for God’s church, but they also provide insight into various emphasis, priorities, and challenges that unique churches had by virtue of their cultural contexts or primary audiences. Herein we see a healthy path forward for the church in North America as well.
There are certain clear points of orientation from which we must not deviate; to do so would disembowel the very nature of Jesus’ church. But God has also appointed wise leaders under the authority of his Spirit to press into the unknown, with passionate, humble, faith-filled vision that experiments with the best missiological means of deploying that church within the culture and in harmony with Scripture.
Such work is never easy. Ask any business professional, and they’ll point out that R&D is costly. The work is always a project of uncertainty. We surely don’t know all of the best practices for missiological effectiveness in our day, much less how to position the church for faithfulness and fruitfulness ten years from now.
Many of our experiments are sure to fail. Often those who tinker with sacrosanct practices thought to be immovable are criticized or condemned as aberrant clerics.
In the face of such cost, why invest in R&D? Here are seven good reasons:
- Many of our current church practices are not the result of missiological reflection but simply the assumed norms based on ecclesial tradition;
- Many of our communities lack access to a healthy local church and our current ecclesiological methods are often finding little traction;
- Many of our ‘go-to’ methods which occasionally produce growth, often fail to produce evangelistic fruit;
- Many of our preferred ecclesial models have little potential to equip God’s people toward their commissioned end of becoming a multiplying Jesus movement;
- Many of our cities are radically diverse, meaning that a homogenous church form is going to resonate with a few, but sequester most;
- Many of our churches are apathetic to the grand mission of God and need to be awakened to a future that they cannot currently imagine;
- Many overlooked and unnoticed leaders are missionally zealous, filled with God’s Spirit, and gifted with missionary insight to usher the church into the future.
Over the coming weeks, I’m going to explore the fringes of the church planting world and demonstrate the fruit of effective R&D. These examples, while not a holistic survey, will be sufficient to establish that we can, at the very same time, uphold the truthfulness and sufficiency of God’s Word for the church, and press out into unknown territory while envisioning an ecclesial praxis that produces an effective missionary thrust within an ever-changing culture.
Jeff Christopherson is an author and Chief Missiologist of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). He also serves as Co-Executive Director of the Send Institute, a partnership of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and the North American Mission Board.