Church planting, contextualization, and church planting residencies aren’t anything new. These have been practices of the missional church for centuries, and in comparison to what is passed off as contextualization today, our early planting fathers possessed greater missiological insight than most of us.
Gregory the Great (540-604) was the most influential bishop of the 6th century. Some have argued he was the first Pope, in which case, he would not have been the best bishop, especially given some of this politicization of the faith. All this is debated. Nevertheless, Gregory would have made a great church planter. He was an apostle of sorts, sending missionaries to Briton to ‘make the Angles into Angels”. His choice emissary was Augustine of Canterbury, who with 40 monks, set up mission base at St. Tours. Like many of his Celtic predecessors, Augustine realized the strategic value of having a mission training and sending center among his target people. And I’m willing to bet it was much better than most “church planting residencies” we have today. Here’s a few reasons why.
Augustine implemented great missiology received from Gregory. That missiology, as Tim Tennent has pointed out, can be summarized with three words: Adaptation, Gradualism, and Exchange.
- Adaptation – To adopt a cultural form for Christian purposes. In Augustine’s case, he adopted heathen temples and turned them into church buildings. Gregory wrote to him: “Detach them from the service of the devil and adapt them for the worship of the true God.” Many Christian leaders and Christians would frown on using a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall for a church building because their conception of church is so narrowly conceived. Since my first day in Austin, I have been praying that God would give us a male strip joint called La Bare to meet in and do mission from, located the corner of Riverside and Congress. We are currently meeting in a downtown Theatre where we frequently pick up beer bottles off the floor before people arrive. The bathrooms are covered in graffiti and smell terrible, but the aroma of Christ fills the Hideout every week and is slowly changing that part of the city. This isn’t about being cool; its about adopting Austin’s cultural forms, creating common cultural space for non-Christians, and using these forms for Christ-honoring purposes.
- Gradualism – Implement Christian ideals slowly recognizing that individuals are undergoing and entire worldview shift. Don’t expect radical holiness from your new converts. If they have embraced Christ but still smoke pot or occasionally drink too much, don’t beat them up for their behaviors. Instead, shepherd their hearts, lead them into the gospel, and allow their inner joy to transform their outer joys. Gregory wrote: “If we allow them these outward joys, then we are more likely to find their way to the true inner joy… It is doubtless to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as a man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.”
- Exchange – The creation of an entirely new cultural form in exchange for an existing idolatrous one. It is one thing to use pagan temples for church buildings, it is quite another to participate in pagan sacrifices. For instance, if your people consistently go to happy hours to get wasted and have a social life, create a more God-honoring context for socializing. Gregory wrote: “People must learn to slay their cattle not in honour of the devil, but in honour of God and for their own food…” We need to work creating more social spaces for our people to exchange sinful social spaces with holy social spaces.