Although Jonah never really enjoyed his mission, he could never get away from who he was. When asked by the sailors in the boat in the storm, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”, he responded, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” His identity defined his mission. Already he detested the call God made for him, his identity defined his life. If he did not grasp this, the sailors in the boat did.
Starting churches is part of our Baptist identity — our congregational DNA. As I look around my hometown at the Baptist churches, I realize that most of them were started by other congregations, not by a denomination or mission board — sheep birthing sheep. Starting new churches is part of our very identity. We can no more deny it, than Jonah could deny his identity that connected him with a universal God to a universal mission.
Starting a new church is a miraculous thing — something like the beginning of a marriage. A marriage witnesses the union of two individuals in a covenant that did not previously exist. Each marriage is its own unique entity and carries its own unique character. A new church is much like that — the new congregation is a union of unrelated individuals bound together by the New Covenant in the body and blood of Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
Starting a new church is God’s will. Where did we get the idea that God called us to his service to pastor churches? It is not a bad idea, but it did not come until very late in the development of the New Testament. God called people to start churches and every time a new church is started the body of Christ learns something new and is renewed.
Last week I had lunch with a friend who mentioned that there were too many churches in our town, and he caused me to examine what that meant about the possibility of too many churches. Then his idea began to take another thread in my mind.
Most churches start out as homogeneous units (culturally, ethnically, doctrinally, etc.) then evolve into heterogeneous, “full-service-for all” entities. And in some instances becoming their own modalities for mission.
But if, as Ralph Winter asserts in his “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission”, the sodality/modality, church as nurturer and mission as outreach model, is correct, then the heterogeneous nature of the nurturing church need not feel obligated to be all things to all men. So can churches remain homogeneous entities? African-American churches (mostly Baptist and Methodist) certainly do. They start with their ethnic emphasis (worship and preaching style, music, and dialect) as the guide to their growth and do not easily open to other cultural influences. Most Latino churches follow much the same model. Cannot Anglo churches follow also? Not out of a sense of exclusivity, but in an effort to maximize a mission to reach and nurture generations of Americans who are not only unevangelized but even unChristianized.
Not only can we become reoriented to the way we look as to the outward appearance of our congregations but reoriented as to how we communicate the gift of God’s grace.