On 22 May, 2020 Birmingham was launched. I was able to attend half of the day conference, and felt a tremendous privilege and thankfulness to God as I looked round the room at such gospel-hearted pastors and church workers from across the city, most of whom I knew from my time serving the churches through UCCF: The Christian Unions.
Not wanting to miss the second half, I've just caught up on the talks from the conference.
- Bishop Andrew Watson was inspiring with personal stories on Church planting: risk, opportunity & the dynamic of gospel multiplication.
- Wes Erpen of the Birmingham City Mission gave us anecdotal history of evangelistic efforts in Birmingham's history, in The Gospel and the City of Birmingham.
- I just caught up with Jonathan Bell's presentation from NewFrontiers experience, of The gospel to the city: a church-planting strategy, which included a tour of various models of planting in Acts.
- Neil Powell, of City Church (a humanly unintended church plant?), shared the actual vision of 2020 Birmingham: a church-planting initiative for the city;
- And Al Barth of Redeemer Presbyterian, New York, gave Cities and church-planting: a global perspective.
All very helpful. I just wonder about Al Barth's perspective. I don't doubt his experience, and the number of churches he has supported in planting in various nations is wonderful - praise God. He raises interesting points about the influx of people to cities, globally, the dynamic of cities as cultural and racial melting pots, and how the church in some places largely abandonned the cities for the suburbs. But sometimes I really wondered how 'global' the perspective was. He stated that in cities, people are open to evangelism. His examples were from Manhattan. It reminded me of how I've been told of committed American church-planters who have come to the UK and given up after 5 years, because they expect to have a large church established within three. Our cultures are different, and cities are not the same world-over. Then again, Bournville has always claimed to be a village in a city. We have so much to learn from others, and from what the 2020 Birmingham steering committee indicate, we owe much gratitude to Redeemer City to City and Al Barth in particular. But perhaps it could be recognised as an American perspective rather than a global perspective. I will be fascinated to see what's made of it in Cape Town 2010 in October, when Tim Keller presents his vision.
I was encouraged to hear from all of the speakers, examples of local partnership, consultation and church renewal as well as church planting. The article by Tim Keller, on the 2020 Birmingham website, was rather lacking in this. It can't cover everything, but to me it could have easily given sociological excuses to someone to church plant without reference to other evangelical, actively evangelistic fellowships, ignoring the theology of the church. Pragmatics of reaching new people groups seemed to trump theology of the church - unity and fellowship particularly.
In terms of the pragmatics / cultural understanding, there just didn't seem to be space in the thinking of Keller's article for a church which was anything between stagnant in structures and self-care without outward movement, and a church plant/planting church. Apparently after 5 years a church loses outward vision (I want to know how this is judged and whether the statistic is American - most surveys are!) How about a 20 year old church which is faithfully reaching out, engaged in the community, continually seeing folk saved in ones and twos, discipling them, seeing some fall away or get choked by the world, seeing others thrive, sending them off as missionaries or into pastoral training, regularly re-evaluating evangelism, dropping what isn't serving the church or outreach, trying new things, preaching the word,... and staying small, and the surrounding area staying remarkably, painfully hard? Perhaps that never happens in America.
Keller's article would imply that the best thing for such a church would be for a church plant in the same area. Now, no-one would resent more workers in the harvest field, and if the second church grew, the first would rejoice inasmuch as there was partying in heaven. But the nature of the gospel is not that of business. Two balti houses next to each other get more business each than one. Usually true. But the gospel is not curry, and the reason for lack of growth is not one of taste or decor. The nature of church must reflect the nature of the God who plants: the God who invites us into his community, one in him. The non-Christian sees it as hypocrisy: 'So you believe the same things? You're not trying to recruit me for your club? Then why are you separate to the other?' Is Christ divided?
Understand, I am not suggesting that we never plant where there are already some churches. I'm just suggesting we take care that our pragmatics doesn't undermine the Christ we proclaim.
Note - those concerns were mostly with the Keller article, and don't apply to the vision of 2020 Birmingham. 2020 Birmingham seemed to address these in a very healthy dynamic of partnership. Listen to the mp3s, see what you think, and perhaps take the idea to other cities as well as coming to Birmingham!