April 1, 2014

The Church Planter Ping Pong Ball Test.

I didn’t go to the Tim Keller conference in Sydney last week (he didn’t come to the Steve McAlpine conference, so I guess we are even – Ed), but I heard how good it was.  Things in life and home didn’t coincide to make it a great time to take four days out and fly to Sydney (apart from the fact that I am an angst-ridden flyer).

One of the good things I heard from the conference was Keller’s commitment to working with others who are pretty much in the same ball park theologically as he vis-a-vis church planting and mission/evangelism in New York.  So, without having to sign up to every doctrinal jot and tittle Keller said that Redeemer Presbyterian’s church planting arm has helped conservative Anglican groups (Episcopalian) in New York, and a black Pentecostal church group also (audible gasps etc, etc).

Which got me to thinking.  It seems to me that many of us on the more theologically conservative end of the spectrum assume that if we have theological alignment with another crew, church or network, they will be “right-on” when it comes to our commitment to planting and our understanding of the needs for cultural contextualisation and mission. We assume that they will, eventually, line up with us on what we are doing and why.  Well, if my experience, and the experience of friends is anything to go by, this is far from the case. And, further to that, in line with what Keller was saying, it seems that we may be missing out on the mutual support and encouragement of not-yet-friends who do not tick all of the same theological boxes we do. In other words, why do we assume that someone whose ministry, on paper, looks like ours theologically, actually is? And why do we assume that someone with some theological differences or emphases that we do not hold, does not “get it” when it comes to evangelism and philosophy of ministry – or for that matter, the gospel? So I decided to conduct a little test.

Enter stage right (stage left surely – Ed) The Church Planter Ping Pong Ball Test (patent pending).

1. I have thirty Ping Pong balls.

2. I have three large jars:

           Jar 1: Theology

          Jar 2: Philosophy of Ministry

          Jar 3: Mission and Contextualisation

3. Each jar is capable of holding ten Ping Pong balls.   A full jar indicates total alignment with that other person/church/network in that particular area, e.g Theologically you are both Evangelical/Reformed/Credo-Baptists with week-by-week expository Bible teaching through consecutive chapters of books as normative (try fitting that on your website home page -Ed).  Now granted, part of that overlaps with the Philosophy of Ministry jar, but just try to not get too uptight about it – it’s an illustration, ok!

My question:  If you decided as a network or church plant that you would align yourself with any group that could manage 22 balls across three jars (assuming your jars are the standard 10 each totalling 30), how would you go about divvying up the Ping Pong balls?  I think the answer to that question determines whether you are really serious about church planting in the current cultural context in a way that reaches out to others who are church planting also.

My suspicion is that many who attended the Keller conference would like the jars to look like this:


In other words  – get the theological jar filled up – first – and then, and only then, get on with the other jars in descending order.  And not only that, without ten Ping Pong balls in the first jar, we aren’t moving off the plate, never mind getting to first base (using baseball cos Keller’s from NY!).  But, as I have said, my experience, and the experience of others I know, is that theological alignment with others has not resulted in partnership or even “No thanks, but go with our blessing”, but has often been met with suspicion and acrimony.  Not always, but enough times for me to be grateful to Tim Keller to bell the cat about this.

FWIW, I am pretty happy with my 22 Ping Pong balls arranged a little like this:


And if I am feeling particularly racy I might even swap that around a little bit and would be happy to lower the number in Jar 1.  All of which is to say that I think that as a conservative evangelical church planter I have seen too much time wasted – and too many spaces at the table given – to those with ten Ping Pong balls in the first jar, but with precious few in the other jars.  In other words it’s possible to waste a whole lot of time and energy on trying to convince people about church planting/contextualisation/mission etc who are never going to be convinced, who don’t see the need for it, and who are in some senses, openly or quietly hostile to the idea of new expressions of church springing up.  And conversely, we have given too few seats at the table, and spent too little time, with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye on everything theologically.  Keller said that this betrays a lack of confidence. True that, and it is an indicator that we are more about circling the wagons and keeping it pure, than actually going out into the frontier.

I say all of this as someone for whom theology matters a lot, but for whom my neighbour’s salvation matters even more. And if my grumpy, “leave me alone” neighbour comes over to my house one day walking and leaping and praising God in other tongues, rather than dropping empties into his recycling bin on the quarter hour I may be tempted to join him in his doxology.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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