Planting Ecclesiology as a way of life

Immediately apparent when commencing to plant ministries in Italy is that all people use the word church, but rarely anyone uses it biblically. The very idea of church here is something ‘private, cold, judgmental, obligatory, an event, passive, traditional, cultural, heavy, & Roman’. Therefore, we have a great crisis when it comes to the understanding of what actually constitutes a church.

Embedding Believersplanting ecclesiology

This is one of our major concerns, in that, if we enter a city and open a traditional church structure, it will be viewed through the cultural lens and automatically disregarded. Similar to the seasonal circus that comes to town, people in the general culture will ask, “What’s that?” And others will naturally respond, “Oh, I think that’s one of those foreign churches, evangelista or something…” Instantly, a perceived level of distance and safety is established.

However, if there are people who they know and have had experience with, the conversation might go a bit differently,

“Who are those people?” they might ask.
“Oh, that is the group that Daniele is a part of… you know Daniele, the mechanic that helps a lot of people with their cars over on Viale Venezia… His wife teaches some language classes and they run activities in the park with the kids.”
“Ya, that’s right — a classmate I went to school with works for him. It’s a bit surprising they opened a business in this crisis!”

We are not seeking to plant more institutions in post-catholic Europe, but rather, we emphasize planting people who are energized, holy, and evidentially part of the New City and the Christ culture. If the people of our Italian cities will find a refuge in Jesus, then, it will most likely come from people who have lived in their city with them through all of its positives, negatives, ups, and downs. These embedded believers do familiar-looking things, but they do them with an entirely different set of motives and attitudes.

“Church Work”

Embedded believers approach their lives and cities in an integral and theological way. Like an under-current that courses through their actions, they show gracious respect to local authorities but they reject that their sustenance comes from the state as their sovereign provider. Embedded believers are not getting all they can but giving all they can. In a suffocating economic market, demonstrating that you are not “on the take” but “living to serve” speaks loudly into people’s lives.

Furthermore, embedded believers are not demanding jobs, instead, they are developing them in the full realization that the “Earth is the Lord’s and all of its fullness.” With health, creativity, holy determination, persevering faith, and youth (life is said to begin at 40 in Italia) – their mission is pan-vocational because their theology is integral to all of life; impacting every aspect.

The Reformers of the 1500’s (especially Luther & Calvin) rediscovered this in their theology of work. One of their main emphasis was on the subject of consecration. They moved the emphasis off of the job or the talent and rested it upon the worker’s devotion to God. You could be a joyful, contented farmer or a deceptive, adulterous religious leader. The issue was not whether one was called as a religious leader versus called to farm. Rather, it was what kind of farmer or religious leader you actually were that made all the difference. To this day in Italia, the mindset lingers that work is unholyIt is a necessary evil and not a gift from God. Work should be avoided or oppressive and therefore, cheating others is rampant. Yet on the other hand, a person is more holy or powerful by the garments he wears or the buildings he enters. Life is divided into two categories: what to show (pride) and what to hide (pleasure).

“Home Work”

It is at this point where a marginalized, periphery church begins to touch the fabric of the city when she helps holy farmers, devoted teachers, and Christocentric entrepreneurs. Not only does the church assist these believers to establish their livelihoods, but she is also training them to grow up into the city through opening their homes for ministry as a regular rhythm of life. It is their gospel character on display throughout the city that makes them a community of light.

Embedded believers are not hidden behind their jobs where people cannot determine if they are truly kind or just trying to earn money through quality customer service. Their home is a refuge for seekers to come and find peace, and in turn, embedded believers are seekers who reach out to their cities in peace. I believe this balance of a ministering home coupled with a ministering business is critical to planting churches. It is a salty model because it does not stay confined to four walls of a comfortable structure. Integral home-life and work-life stimulate missional-life.

If you have read this far in the article, I am voicing some of our developing ministry philosophy as we face a church and market crisis here in southern Europe. I am not saying that this is a formula, but rather, an approach to life and work as missional theologians.

  • Have you experienced Life-work in this way? 
  • As you read this, would you have any helpful suggestions or comments?
  • How do you think an approach like this would impact where you live?

Missional Messiness

In a couple of our recent training sessions, we have been discussing the subject of missional hospitality. And, commonly, we hit the deep and scandalous topic of how clean should your house be when hosting other people?  On the surface, this does not seem like a problem until we start reflecting more on our motivations both for and against a cleaner casa.

Some Good Questions

welcome to our formerly clean houseHere are some of the questions we asked, and I might add that they are good conversation developers:

  1. How much cleaning is enough in our cultural context for people to feel at home and not be distracted? (for example, northern Italians are fastidiously clean by nature. Sometimes, this is greatly appreciated, and at other times, one can feel quite awkward.)
  2. How much cleaning is necessary to be tidy and yet not cross the line of presenting an artificial, sterilized, and even hypocritical version of ourselves?
  3. How much cleaning reflects a performance-to-impress attitude where we simply become Martha in our own home and miss all of the good worship of Jesus? Is genuine hospitality a dinner party or something much more familiar?
  4. How should we respond when the little humans (children-unleashed) make a mess or break something in our homes?
  5. Do other people know where you keep your utensils, serving items, and tools? And do they have access to them?

A Key Principle

Don’t allow grace and mission to be hindered over a standard of sanitation. Martha couldn’t choose ‘the better meal’ because she was hindered in her hospitality. And a Pharisee was revealed as a fool because he failed to clean his “house” properly; his mission was himself, not grace. Luke 11:37-41

In the ministry here (Serenissima), our Gospel communities are called LifeTeams. And because we are seeking to share more and more life together, a LifeTeam is all about making a missional mess. Often, Christian community is simply a mess-on-mission. Somehow when the mess comes, however, the graciousness of God is mysteriously revealed and people can rest their souls and feel more at home than in their own houses. And that’s the beginning of missional hospitality; the use of our homes as temples to God and not to ourselves.

So, how clean should our house be when hosting other people? As clean as necessary for Jesus to be seen. And that could mean letting the little humans be loved as little humans, as well as re-humbling ourselves in the whole idea of putting on a production when someone comes through our front door. For some (and we have experienced this too), it might mean a bit more effort to recognize the missional context of people with which they are working. With a nip of hyperbolic language here, leaving an un-emptied, cat-litter box in the middle of the room where you are sharing Christ — honestly — might be a distraction to some. It’s just an observation, but I don’t think I’m out of my sand-box on this one.

The Integration Principle

Another church planting principle that we’ve noticed through the years has been that believers who are maturing in the Faith also broaden their acceptance of other people from different cultures. Whereas, in the Ingress Principle, people feel more welcome with others who are like them, this principle says that believers mature toward people who are unlike themselves. So, a church should seek to provide opportunities to integrate the cultures (that are welcoming others) into a Christ-centered, alternative culture. People usually need to be warmly-welcomed and meet Jesus before they begin to appreciate and care for others that are different than they are. At the same time, we don’t want to leave the church body to be isolated into separate cultures because the fullest expression of the Gospel will be lost and enculturated back into a certain people group.
For example, in the Ingress Principle, I mentioned a group of Chinese people who are being welcomed by a group of Germans who are believers. In time (could be long or short-term), when more Chinese people are also saved, they will come to see more of Jesus in the Germans and appreciate them as brothers and sisters. This will happen not just because they’re Germans, but because they are of Jesus. They will have a deep appreciation for the Germans because the Germans originally showed them the love of Jesus. So then, we want the Chinese to be together with the Germans so that, altogether, they can simply be Christians in God’s family. These principles of welcoming (ingress) and maturing (integration) will repeat themselves through the joy of outreach and evangelism.

The Ingress Principle

Something to keep in mind when opening small groups and planting churches (among different cultures) is that people feel most at home and accepted when they are around people who are like them and things that are familiar to them. In other words, people (generally) will be more at ease when they don’t have to cross- out” of their culture to be a welcome part of a group. This might also be called the principle of homogenity. However, the reason that I call it the Ingress principle is because of the type of welcome that is involved. A Gospel welcome involves believers who are culturally like the guests with accompanying tastes, sounds, colors, smells, music, and even slang (or ways to say things that are particular to their culture).

If you have a group of Germans, it will be difficult to welcome Chinese people  — until there are one or two Chinese who are spending time with the German group AND the Germans make efforts to really affirm, adapt, and understand the Chinese. This really takes some time, energy, and understanding. It sounds missional, doesn’t it?

Remember, in this illustration we are not trying to conform the Chinese to the Germans even though, at first, the Germans are the predominant group. We are saying, because of the Gospel, the Germans are willing to be uncomfortable and uncultural in their way of life for the sake of the Chinese welcoming other Chinese.