Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Missiology Questions - Spontaneous Expansion and Fruitfulness

I have been reading some books and articles in the field of current and popular missiology. Some of it is wonderful. Some of it is challenging. I've written several things over the past few years about some things I was coming across. First, as I was being introduced to the current trend of short-cycle church planting, I wrote this blog as a push-back, essentially saying, "What about heresy, lack of depth, long-term shepherding, and trained leaders?"

Then, as I was encountering a big name in the Training for Trainers movement, I had some intense discussions on house churches and how these principles should be applied in my life here in the US (attending a mega-church, I might add), and I wrote about it here.

And finally, as we moved towards heading across the world ourselves and increasingly saw missions moving away from theological education, I wrote in defense of training and education here.

So, while I have certainly been exposed to all of this (and you will be if you enter the evangelical missions world right now, because everyone is talking in these terms nowadays), the past few months have been intense as Isaac and I sat under direct training on the topics and discussed what we will do overseas, how we will apply or not apply these ideas in our work, etc.

One observation I've made is that most of the books and speakers on the topic of missiological church planting are either Southern Baptist missionaries (International Mission Board/ IMB), trained by Southern Baptist missionaries, or at least worked/used to be with the IMB.  This is true of the books T4T, Church Planting Movements, Any 3, and several local mission organizations near me. I was not raised a Baptist or really familiar with the Baptist world at all, but I've been constantly exposed to the various parts of the Baptist world in the US since moving back here. It helps me to connect these ideas to the Baptist world to understand their context, which emphasizes congregational authority and the autonomy of the local church.

 I would say that the Baptist's low-church ecclesiology has enabled them to be a fast growing group both historically in the US and in current missions work, and, hey, multiplication as missiology is a logical conclusion. Among the Baptists there's been an emphasis on the simplicity of the gospel (Billy Graham being a good example) that has at times become anti-intellectualism (see a discussion of the question here). This all helps me put these ideas in their cultural context, and helps me understand my reaction to them.

So, I'll be featuring a few quotes with brief commentary on them, and I'd like to open the floor for you to join with me. I'm trying to learn. I'm trying to think. I'm trying to listen. I need wisdom.

This then is what I mean by spontaneous expansion. I mean the expansion which follows the unexhorted and unorganised activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church for men who see its ordered life, and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share; I mean also the expansion of the Church by the addition of new churches.  - Roland Allen

So - spontaneous expansion. It's an idea I keep coming across, said in several different ways, which is an assumption that the church grows. Apparently Roland Allen was an English missionary (died 1947) whose writings on missiology have been deeply influential since that day. He wrote a lot of things that were revolutionary at the time about local churches and believers being self-sustaining instead of dependent. I guess he's one of the first that detailed this idea of "spontaneous expansion".

I keep hearing people talking about fruitfulness. They use New Testament parables about fruitfulness to talk about how anyone and any church really connected to Christ WILL bear fruit and grow and reproduce.

I keep asking - is this true? Does the church, when healthy, always grow and multiply? So much of this idea is built on the history of the church in Acts, but that was the beginning of the church, and I guess I don't see much evidence of a promise of growth in scripture.

Seems like a lot of the things about fruit in the New Testament have to do with the heart and change in how we think, act, and live. I don't see the word used in terms of growth in numbers.

I do think that people are often compelled when they see the beauty of a growing, dynamic body of Christ. I do think that if we believe what we say we believe, we want others to join into this beautiful grace we live in. However, I don't think that response in others is promised?

I don't know. Any thoughts?


Melissa said...

i also thought "fruit" in those contexts meant fruit in the life of a believer, in terms of a changed heart, way of life, actions, and reactions, etc. not that those things wouldn't result in others coming to believe too, but i didn't think that fruit necessarily meant anything related to numbers either.

Nate Johnson said...

First, this is kind of an aside but I hope it's helpful. If I remember correctly, Roland Allen is also cited a lot by a Catholic priest named Fr. Vincent Donovan in his book "Christianity Rediscovered". Fr. Donovan worked as a missionary in Tanzania, and his book was fairly widely read (and has also been pretty strongly critiqued from a couple of different angles.)

Fr. Donovan was himself somewhat frustrated with the very institution heavy evangelization that a lot of Catholic missions emphasized in Africa (schools and hospitals primarily), and through Roland Allen cited Paul as an example of a simple proclamation of the word, with the fairly rapid creation of local Christian communities. So I guess there's something appealing about that model even among some who take the continuance of a sacramental ministry through a Church hierarchy for granted.

That aside, I think that a healthy Church will always be engaged in mission, but will not necessarily be growing numerically.

The over-reliance on quantifiable, continuous, exponential growth among some in the evangelical missions world may be more the result of borrowing from a corporate model than the application of a Scriptural model. If there is a time to sow and a time to reap, then I think some people's whole lives are rightfully expended on the former.

While some soul-searching may be appropriate when no numerical growth is present, it seems dangerous to move into a mindset where fidelity, orthodoxy, and success all seem to somehow be inexorably tied to or synonymous with constant numerical growth.

Kacie said...

Absolutely Nate, I'm with you. I am seriously absolutely surrounded by this mentality, this assumption that numerical growth = health. I am also surrounded by a deep love for implementing corporate business models into missions. Hate that.

So yes, I think you are right. I've had to step back and evaluate my defensiveness a bit, though. The idea faith is infections if we are truly living it out has something to be said for it, and my lack of boldness and intentionality is something I've wrestled with.

You are right, though. This is huge fault in evangelical missiology today.