I have pipeline anxiety. Over the last few years we have always had the next church-planting team for the Middle East queued up, in the development pipeline, in process. God has spoken to us prophetically about the queuing of planes landing at a busy airport; as one is landing, you can see the next one lining up and the next one after that on the horizon. And that is how we’ve tried to work.
See, recruiting, training and sending teams from the West cross-culturally often requires a 4-year timeline from conception to launch. A team leader might ‘make their decision’ two years before relocating, and team members one year before. Then after landing, we are looking at two years or 3,000 hours language-and-culture immersion. So, in this model, four years before the work of church planting can begin. That’s why you always need a few in the pipeline.
We must keep church planting in the Middle East as our highest priority. Because the work of evangelism and foundation-laying and local-believing-community formation is the locus for all the other things that matter. Without church planting, we can’t do these other things.
Church planting is the locus for contextualization
All the experimental, creative work of crafting and shaping and tweaking contextual approaches to mission happens through church planting to reach new places. Contextualization never lives in the abstract, or in ivory towers. It is a boots-on-the-ground reality of the grace of God encountering a new context and finding fresh expression. Contextualization needs church planting, and church plants need to contextualize.
Church planting is the locus for local leadership development
Everyone agrees that when we are reaching a new nation, we long to see local shepherds emerge. But leadership development cannot be done in a vacuum, in isolation from the nitty-gritty of local church life. Leadership development needs church planting, and church plants develop leaders.
Church planting is the locus for theological development
We are enjoying good momentum in understanding the Bible in its Middle Eastern context, in exploring Honour and Shame, in taking Middle Eastern theologies seriously. But only because we are planting churches in new places. Theology arises from the questions you are asking, and in every new context we face new questions. Reciprocally, any theology without a grounded pastoral application is no use, too theoretical. So, church planting is the R&D department of theological development, and you can’t plant churches without theologizing in context.
Church planting is the locus for refugee ministry
One of the realities all over our part of the world today is care for refugees. Wherever you are working in the Middle East, you will touch the lives of refugees, whether first- or second-generation. Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Palestinian, Yemeni. I despair of people ever understanding that the parachuted-in, Western NGO, reactive model is inappropriate and unsustainable culturally, financially and politically. Planting local churches which care and serve refugees at the grassroots really ought to be a priority. We must serve refugee communities by planting churches, and church planting must touch the lives of refugees.
We value all four imperatives: contextualization, local leadership development, theological development and refugee ministry. But they must never distract us from the primacy of planting local communities of Christ followers all over the Middle East and Central Asia. Let’s keep planting churches… to win some!