Are church plants actually factions? A response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article

Editor’s Note: This post has had one line edited as it presented a critique of one of Jivanjee’s arguments in the language of an attack on his character. The author is sorry to have been irresponsible with his words and for any harm caused to a brother in Christ.

This post is written in response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article, “Faction-planting or church-planting?” per his request.

In his article, Jivanjee makes several commendable points:

  • The first, and most obvious, of these is that there exists in some American churches a sort of factionalism that fails to recognize the extent of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood across denominational lines or even across the street. Where such prideful division exists, it is certainly sinful and an impediment to the Gospel.
  • The second point to note is that churches can easily become personality cults in which the congregation’s life comes to center on the charismatic leader. This can easily lead to straying from the authority of Scripture and foster a division between the “ministers” and the “members” that denies the priesthood of all believers.
  • Third, there is a helpful emphasis on the concept of a “city church.” While I am not sure that I agree with Jivanjee’s exact understanding of the city church, I certainly share his enthusiasm for a certain type of unity and Christian love exhibited in the city church.

Going from Anecdotes to Universal Indictments

While I appreciate the above points, I find Jivanjee’s stance to be both overly cynical and simplistic with regard to actual church congregations in the United States apart from the abstract concept of American Churches. For instance, Jivanjee writes,

“There was one stretch of road in the area that we moved to that literally had a church building every tenth of a mile.  Sometimes they were even side by side!  Some were big, some were small, and some were medium sized.  Many of these buildings also had some type of pithy advertisement outside (advertising a sermon topic or some famous worship leader / speaker coming) that seemed to plead to people driving by to come to their 1.5 hour meeting that Sunday.

The competition seemed very stiff to say the least as each institution was desperately trying to get more & more people to ‘attend’ their weekly meetings.  Some of these institutions tried to appeal to a younger crowd, while some emphasized their more traditional meetings to appeal to an older crowd.  This is right in keeping with the American consumer and shopping culture. When one institution’s weekly meetings weren’t good enough, people simply left and went down the road to something better.”

While this sort of critique is not unique to Jivanjee, and most Christians know of anecdotal evidence that verifies the existence of such a problem, I do wonder whether it is right to assume that all of those anecdotes add up to a universal plague in American churches. Having multiple congregations of different denominations side-by-side can easily provoke a critique of self-centered consumerism (which is certainly a problem for many Christians in the United States), but such a critique is not founded upon any real understanding of the history of those churches. While it is possible that the Pentecostal church was planted to compete with the non-denominational church which was planted to compete with the Methodist church, this is not a given. Undoubtedly there have been many congregations planted in the history of the United States with an intention of competing with “less-than” congregations of other denominations, to assume that such motivation spurred on all or even most church planters is to put very little hope in the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation and sanctification.

If we trust that the Holy Spirit is truly capable of making a new creation out of sinful humans, of stirring up love of Christ, and of knitting Christians together into one body, one family, and one nation, then it is not a stretch to believe that many (even most) church planters have been motivated not by divisiveness and pride but by obedience to the call and prompting of their Lord. To argue otherwise, that the majority of churches were planted in direct contradiction to Christ’s command to love one another, is to see Satan, the accuser of the brethren, as more influential in the birth of new congregations than Christ, the Head of the Church. In order to justify indicting the “American Church” as he does, Jivanjee must put forth more evidence than driving past several churches in a row. Even if he found through historical research that every congregation in a given city had been planted out of spite, it would be irresponsible to derive from such information that the other thousands of congregations in the United States had similar beginnings.

Jivanjee also cites as evidence a conversation that took place between him and a church staff member. As a side note, it would be helpful to know whether this staff member was a pastor with significant theological training or secretary who might be a faithful disciple of Jesus but untrained in the in-house language of pastors, seminarians, and theologians. The overall thrust of the conversation is that Jivanjee seeks to expose the staff member to the fact that his church does not actually cooperate well with other local churches and that it has become divided from them by insignificant points. It culminates in this exchange as Jivanjee asks the staff member why a different church that meets in the same church building is a different church:

ME: “Well I know that you said that it is a completely different church, but do you know what it is exactly that makes it a completely different church? After all, it is not location that keeps you guys separate because you guys are so close in proximity that you use the exact same building.  So again, why are these two churches different churches?”

CHURCH STAFF: “Well…umm…(possibly thinking about this for the first time) because we have a completely different set of leaders, and different missional and doctrinal stances.  They even have their own marketing materials as well.”

Bingo!  That was the answer I was looking for, and I was also hoping this staff member would grasp the audacity of the situation. This is the reason that these church communities believed they were actually different ‘churches’.  It all comes down to different communities of people being factioned around different sets of human leadership and different doctrinal stances.”

Of course, Jivanjee is correct to point out that these two churches were actually part of the one and only Church made up of all Christ-followers, but this conversation does not prove a faulty ecclesiology (theology of the Church) on the part of the staff member but instead sloppy semantics (at worst). If the staff member had been intending to say that these two congregations were different Churches, as in divided from each other rather than members of the one Body of Christ, that would be noteworthy. Instead the staff member is using the word “church” synonymously with the more precise term “congregation.” This is a common (and perhaps the most common) use of the word in Christian English terminology, and it is not improper to sometimes use the term “Church” as referring to the one holy catholic Church and at other times use it to mean a singular local congregation. While it would be scandalous for Christians to claim that the Body of Christ should be divided over sets of leaders and doctrinal stances, it is simply true that two of the most important distinguishing marks between congregations are the particular leaders and doctrinal stances. In any case, this conversation primarily proves that the staff member was guilty only of using imprecise language, rather than having a faulty ecclisiology.

Is it wrong for congregations to differ doctrinally?

Jivanjee also argues that it is sinful for the one Christian Church of a given city to be divided along lines of leaders or doctrinal stances. While this is certainly true in the sense that Christians should not fail to love one another or recognize their brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ because of differences, it does not follow that the Christians of a given city should not gather into congregations that are made distinct by doctrinal stance. For instance, some Christians truly believe that infant baptism should be practiced while others believe that baptism is reserved solely for those old enough to understand baptism. What would it look like for these believers to co-exist in one congregation? The congregation can only do so many things: either it baptizes babies or does not baptize babies. There is no neutral ground on this position, and so Christians must attend separate congregations, have complete uniformity in belief, or commit to a congregation that violates their own conscience. Undoubtedly, Presbyterians and Baptists should love one another as fellow believers, but there are reasons for their being Presbyterians or Baptists.

Thoughts on the Faithful Church Plant

It must be noted that Jivanjee does not deny the potential goodness of church plants, as long as they are not actually “faction-plants.” Unfortunately, he does not offer a positive vision of what makes something a church plant, but instead offers only insights into what might distinguish a faction-plant. Because of this void, I will conclude with a few thoughts of my own on what makes for a faithful church plant. A church plant is distinguished from divisive faction-plants as being birthed in faithful obedience to Christ’s command to make disciples of all people. It is motivated out of a love for the Triune God and a desire to see the Kingdom of God break out in new ways and among people who have not experienced it. It is not formed out of a rejection of the Christian churches that already exist in an area or out of a prideful expectation of finally “getting church right.” It is, instead, built upon the trust that God has commissioned the planting of this new church as a growth of the community of God’s people in order to participate in the Church’s mission of making disciples of all people and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God in Christ. While seeking to be faithful to its own particular calling within the overall work of the Church, it has no sense of competition with other local churches but instead seeks to partner with them fruitfully in the work of the one Body of Christ. It may have distinctive doctrinal and missional positions, but it seeks primarily to be used by the Holy Spirit to glorify God through the making of faithful disciples.

I believe that Jivanjee and I agree on this overarching claim and that we share a passion for seeing the Church in its myriad manifestations among local congregations live faithfully for Christ and His Gospel.

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~ by Samuel on October 22, 2011.

3 Responses to “Are church plants actually factions? A response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article”

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  2. Samuel,

    Thanks for your response to my article. After reading your response, it is clear to me that you do not understand the position that I have taken. I do understand where you are coming from, however. If all we have ever known is the factional institutional religious system, it is hard to imagine the church outside of such a factional system. While I am confident that there are many believers who love and seek to faithfully serve the Lord in the institutional church system, I can assure you, however, the church that Jesus is building looks nothing like the ‘religious system’ that many call church today. With that said, I’d like to add a couple of things to your comment.

    First, I take issue with your assessment that my critique is overly simplistic. As a stand alone blog, I could see where you may have a valid point, but my blog was simply meant to be an overview of the difference between churches and factions. Obviously, a single blog post is not adequate, however, to completely address this issue. Because many Western Christians have never heard the institutional religious system questioned, they assume the one questioning the system is naive, or hasn’t thought these issues through.

    With all due respect, I think your view of ‘church unity’ is overly simplistic to the point that it is non-existent in real life. In my opinion, it is pointless to agree that in ‘theory’ there is only one church in a local area, but then deny that truth on the ground, so to speak. We do not see this in scripture at all.

    There are distinct reasons why the institutional church system in America is so factional. I also do not assume that the motivations of the hearts of those who may have started those institutions or denominations are wrong, rather I intend to examine the actual flaws in the religious institutional ‘system’ itself. I wrote an article
    detailing the two reasons why the Western institutional church is factional and unbiblical. I strongly encourage you to read it. Here is the link to that article: http://goo.gl/akCXo

    Also, I must strongly disagree with your understanding of the ‘mission’ of the local church. While ‘making disciples’ may sound like the biblical ‘mission’ of the church, what most mean by that statement is actually foreign to the New Testament church. This ‘missional’ confusion is a major part of why the church remains so factionalized. Most institutional Christians are largely ignorant of what the true
    ‘Mission’ of the church really is. I wrote an article about this ‘missional’
    confusion that will be helpful for you. Here is a link to that article: http://goo.gl/3psyk

    Thankfully, there have been many others who have successfully and throughly questioned the factional religious system that many assume to be normal Christianity. I would strongly recommend that you become familiar with these resources as I am convinced that every Western Christian should read these books:

    1. ‘Pagan Christianity’ by George Barna & Frank Viola

    This is a well documented book that details historically how the institutional church system began and what it is rooted in. It is a very eye-opening book to say the least. This book can be purchased on Amazon. Here is the link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Christianity-Exploring-Church-Practices/dp/1596446315/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1319308076&sr=8-1

    2. ‘Reimagining Church’ by Frank Viola

    This book was written as a sequel to ‘Pagan Christianity’. ‘Reimagining Church’ takes a look at what the New Testament church really is outside of the institutional system. The title of the book speaks for itself. As a student of the church, it is certainly one of the best books that I have read about what the New Testament church really is. This book can be purchased on Amazon as well. Here is the link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Reimagining-Church-Pursuing-Organic-Christianity/dp/1434768759/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319308446&sr=1-1

    3. ‘A Church Every 1/2 Mile: What Makes American Christianity Tick’: by Jon Zens

    Jon Zens is a scholar and maybe the most qualified to write about this subject. In this book, Zens explores how the institutional church system has become factionalized to the point that we now see a ‘church’ every 1/2 mile in many places. Jon brings experience and many years of research to the table regarding this subject. This book can also be purchased through Amazon. Here is the link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Church-Building-Every-Mile-Christianity/dp/097652225X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319309167&sr=1-1

    I hope you will be able to take the time to obtain and read these books. The implications to your understanding of church life and church planting could be radically shifted. Unfortunately, you probably will not hear anything like this in seminary. Blessings to you on your journey for the truth.

    • Hi Jivanjee,
      Thank you for your reply.
      It would be helpful for me to hear your thoughts on what real church unity should look like on the ground in a city. From my end, it seems that if the congregations of a city were to mutually recognize one another as members of a united Body of Christ, were to serve and work together, and were to worship together from time to time, that the unity of the Body would be apparent. You seem, at multiple points in your articles, to deny that two congregations sharing a building or working cooperatively is a true expression of Christian unity. What should Christian unity in a city look like for you?
      Also, after reading your article on Francis Chan’s talk from Passion, I am left unsure as to what you mean by declaring the western church “factional.” Given the many ways you use the term over multiple articles, it seems as if “factional” is a catch-all term for “wrong” or “unbiblical.” If I am wrong with that understanding, please help me to understand what you mean when you use the term.
      I agree with your assessment that it is unbiblical to have a clergy/laity divide in which it is assumed that members of the clergy do the ministry and members of the laity consume the ministry. The priesthood of all believers and the ministry of every member of the Body of Christ is a teaching that has always been very dear to me. It seems from your argument on this issue in the Francis Chan article, though, that you have taken this issue further than Scripture in denying that there should be any particular leaders in the Christian congregation. The same Bible that tells us that no one is to be called Rabbi because we ultimately have one Teacher, and that tells us that all Christians are priests, also tells us that “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13). It also repeatedly sets the example of appointing elders to lead churches and shows that the apostles served as leaders to the community. There is no contradiction between all these passages, but rather the truth that all Christians are gifted and called to minister and that those gifts differ from one another but serve the same Lord (1 Cor 12 and Romans 12). Some of the gifts are specifically for tasks such as teaching, preaching, pastoring, leading, and administration, but this does not deny the fact that those Christians who are not leaders within the community are faithfully serving as priests and ministers to Christ.
      On your second point in that article, concerning the Temple existing in Christ and His Body, the Church, I wholeheartedly agree. I have known of many churches which recognize and practice the priesthood of all believers and know that their building is not what makes them a church, though, and am not sure that these errors are quite so rampant in the Western church.
      Finally, in response to your thoughts on the mission of the church, I do not deny that it is the mission of the church to be the Body of Christ, the people of God in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. But, it is clear from Scripture that there are actions that naturally flow from that identity and that one of the foremost of those actions is the making of disciples. I am sure that you are not ignorant of Matthew 28:18-20, in which Jesus commanded His disciples to go and make disciples of all people. Furthermore, if the Church is to manifest the life of Jesus, then it must make disciples because Jesus made disciples and continues to make disciples through the work of His Body, the Church.
      Thank you again for your response, and if you do not have the time to answer everything in my response, I do ask that you would help me understand your definitions of “factional” and “institutional,” and that you would share what you think Christian unity in a city should look like.
      Thanks,
      Sam

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