Dear Church Planter,
I’ve been sitting on this letter for a while. I’ve thought through and prayed through the wisdom in writing this and gone back and forth several times on whether or not I should make this public. I have some important things to say I think, but I hope you’ll take it in love.
I am praying that God would stop the effort of affinity-based and attractional based churches and I hope that after reading this letter you will start doing the same thing, and concentrate all your efforts in being used by God to make our church planting efforts the most biblical they can be.
First, thank you for your desire to see people saved. I am personally convicted as I reflect on this as I consider my own motives and strategies for seeing people come to a saving knowledge of Christ. You challenge me to think more creatively in considering the people in the community that God has placed me in and how to reach them with the gospel. Thank you for your zeal.
I am not sure how much background is necessary here but let me back up just a bit before discussing the main reason for me writing this letter. Just a couple of decades ago the Southern Baptist Convention did something that no other major denomination has done: fought the fierce dragon of liberalism that had begun to devour seminaries, denominational positions, even local churches, and won! As the dragon lay dying it appeared that the SBC was primed to lead evangelicalism into the new millennium with great hope for true reformation and revival. And certainly in part, this was true, and there are many reasons to be grateful for what God is doing in our denomination. But something else has happened too. Something that I think we are ready to own up to now as a denomination – we are declining. The Lifeway statistics were pointing in this direction for a while but it seems that they have been undeniable over the last few years for sure. In my own state of Arkansas, it has been reported that 80% of established churches are either plateaued or declining numerically.
As mentioned above, you have shown us your cards on this: you are concerned and desire to see people saved. I am thankful to God for that. You could just look at the research, see the realities of what’s happening, and spend your time rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic slowly sinks. But you’re not doing that. You see the decline and you desire to actually do something about it, which is greatly commendable.
Here though is where I am hesitant. And to be honest hesitant is really more of a political term because it’s not that I am hesitant; it is that I disagree. I don’t disagree with anything I’ve written above. I don’t disagree that we are in great need of revival. I don’t disagree with the end that you seem to desire. I disagree with the means. I disagree with the methods. I think biblical methodology matters. I think a battle over the sufficiency of Scripture is at stake.
I’ve heard statements like this for those that support affinity based church planting: “You can evangelize everyone but they like to go to church with people like them. We’ve got to plant churches for those folks.” I disagree. Let me illustrate why.
Not that you would carry this to these extremes but what if we applied this to strippers, divorcees, drug addicts, or people who hate the color blue? What a mess we’d get into! Stripper Church, Divorcee Church, The Addiction Church, UnBlue for Jesus Fellowship – not only are these names terrible but so is the concept. I’m not opposed to ministries: youth ministries, cowboy ministries, outdoorsman ministries, senior adult ministries, ministries to those in addictions or precarious life situations, etc. But let us remember, they are functions of the local church, they are not to be local churches.
I understand that many churches in the SBC are white and middle class. This is our ‘affinity’ some say and I understand the argument. However, I don’t think the problem of us being predominately White Middle-Class churches is solved by planting White Rich Churches, or White Poor Churches, or any other ethnic or affinity-based church. It’s like the 6 year old playing baseball who keeps putting his glove on the wrong hand. The solution isn’t to just buy a different brand of glove. That’s not going to fix his issue. The problem isn’t really answered by Cowboy Churches, or Biker Churches, or Football Churches, or Outdoorsmen Churches, or Xbox Churches, or Clown Churches, or Race Car churches. Oh, it may temporarily seem to work because pragmatism always seems to provide a good answer, but now I turn to Scripture which I believe speaks clearly and sufficiently against the supposed wisdom of planting affinity based churches.
Have you considered the beautiful parallel that exists between Genesis 11 and Acts 2? In the former chapter God is dispersing the nations and in the latter He is bringing them back together. How marvelous! So, Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Could you imagine Paul planting a Jewish Church? Or a Gentile Church? Or Manly Church? Or Woman Church? Paul missed a great opportunity for Gladiator Church! Yes, there were churches in the New Testament that were predominantly one ethnicity but they weren’t supposed to be characterized by being that, rather they were to be characterized by being one in Christ. There is no ______________ church. There is only the church.
Paul says in Philippians 2:3-4 (v.1-11 for context) “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.” And this is why affinity based churches may be the most dangerous. If I’m in a church that looks like me, thinks like me, likes the same music style as me, is basically me multiplied, then I miss a tremendous gospel opportunity for growth. If I never have to deny self, if I never have to be last, if I never have to sacrifice my wants or even if I have to do those things but only rarely, then I’m not exercising the mind of Christ and I’m not growing to be like Jesus at the pace that I should. I’m not counting those unlike me as more significant than myself. I’m never crucifying my preferences.
Jesus says “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). I love to go to Razorback football games. While I’m there, and the Hogs are winning, I get caught up in the moment. I don’t care where the folks beside me are from or what they like or who they voted for for president. I’ve got Hog fever and I “love” fellow fans! Is this any testimony to the world? Is the world shocked when Razorback fans love fellow Razorback fans? No. They are shocked when Razorback fans love LSU fans. They are shocked when cowboys love city slickers. They are shocked when outdoorsmen love gamers. They are shocked when Jews love Greeks. They are shocked when youth love elderly. They are shocked when rock-n-roll loves country. Do not even the lost love people like them? Not to be overly dramatic but I believe the display of the power of the gospel is at stake. The good news of Christ is for every tribe, tongue, and nation so that we will worship our One true King, together. This is missing when we segregation is the drive of our church planting efforts.
How should we attract people to our churches then? As I write to you I am reminded of John’s opening 4 verses in his 1st epistle and I think they come to bear on this discussion immensely. Christ came in the flesh as our only way to God. He lived in the flesh, died in the flesh, rose again in the flesh and it is in Him alone that our joy can be made complete. Our fellowship with God through Jesus is what leads to our fellowship with one another. John’s letter is saturated with Jesus. The point is, Christ is the attraction for Believers.
If Christ is not the attraction to a person’s coming to church, then the person is not a Christian. The local church is not an “evangelistic center” by which we attract the world to come in so they can hear the gospel. The local church is (literally) Christians. We gather to worship our resurrected Lord, to participate in the ordinances, to pray, preach, teach, instruct, reprove, exhort, discipline, disciple, rebuke, learn, fellowship, and encourage. What I put forth to attract Believers together is Christ. Not music style. Not a sports team. Not hunting. Not cowboys. Not dress style. Not lattes. Not technology. It is Christ. Is that going to look different in different cultures? Of course. But cultural specifics are not our banner. Our banner is Christ. We gather under the desire to, as much as possible, make things on earth as they are in heaven. Every preference and cultural identity, as much as possible, fades into the background as the people of God worship Him together as one. Not because we were already united in the eyes of the world, but because the gospel has united us as one.
So, we gather as Christians and our draw is Christ, but then we scatter to share the gospel with others. This is where we engage culture. We take the gospel out to businessmen, country folk, students, teachers, poor, rich, people of all tribes, tongues, nations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and as they are brought to repentance and faith by the power of the Holy Spirit they are brought into God’s big family which is represented by the local church. What a beautiful picture of the lobe of Christ for the Nations on display!
So, my problem is twofold. Not only do I believe spending our money on planting affinity based and attractional style churches only perpetuates the problem that we already have (being too much alike), but it also seems convincing to me that it is contrary to the Word of God. And it is this point that gravely concerns me. How can we expect the Lord truly bless our efforts while we do things against His revealed will for His church? How can we be okay with anything contrary to God’s Word but especially something as pivotal to God’s mission as the local church? How can we, as Southern Baptists, support church planting efforts that are contrary to the Word? God has given us so much as a denomination, and I am truly grateful for His blessing upon us. But, He also requires much from us. We must not bury the talents He’s given us into the frivolous sands of affinity-based churches.
Let us not just affirm the sufficiency of Scripture only in our mind, let’s live it out. Let us not just rest in the message of Scripture but also its methodology. Let’s resolve together to believe that God’s Word gives us all we need to know for the advancement of His Kingdom through the ministry of local churches. And when kingdom growth happens we won’t point to our innovation or creativity. We will simply say, “to God alone be the glory.”
So, thank you for your passion to plant churches. Would you consider the words I have written and rethink your commitment to affinity and attractional based churches? Would you repent of these efforts and seek to do all in your power to plant and support biblically healthy churches?
Your Fellow Laborer in the Gospel,
Allen S. Nelson IV