Church Planting and Contextualization

Church Planting and Contextualization
Nelson Searcy & Brian Proffit

Brian Proffit interviewed Nelson Searcy, founding director of the Purpose Driven Community, founding pastor of The Journey Church in New York City, coach to hundreds of pastors, and author of numerous books. His book Ignite recently received an Outreach award.

Nelson, you were at Saddleback in the days when Purpose Driven first got off the ground. How did you fit into that?

I was on staff at a church plant in North Carolina and we had a network of local churches. Rick [Warren] got to know me through that. He asked me to come out and help start the Purpose Driven Community. Basically the goal was to try to track down the Purpose Driven churches around the world, and cultivate best practices from them. Then we highlighted some of them to either teach at our conferences or take Purpose Driven and teach that in various places.

What took you from there to the bizarre notion of planting a church, and why New York City?

I’d never seen myself as a church planter. I was very happy to be the guy who carried someone else’s bag. I did that in North Carolina with the lead pastor there, and I did that with Rick. Honestly, there is no other way to describe it except for the call of God. I think when God calls you to plant a church there are several calls that happen. First there is your call to start the church, and I began to sense that. Secondly, if you’re married there’s your spouse’s call. My wife very much began to sense that God was calling us.

Then there’s your call to a city. Our call was a little different than what Rick describes about praying over a map of the world, and then the United States, and then eventually Orange County. We felt from the beginning called to New York. I guess God knew I needed a more direct approach. I felt from the beginning like God said go to New York.

The last goal in the four calls of a church planter is a call to a people. New York’s a big place, so I had to figure out where we should end up, and what people we’re best equipped to reach. We ended up on the upper west side of Manhattan. I thought it would be cool to reach people like Seinfeld and he lived on the upper west side—that was where the show was set. I often joke that we reached some Jerry’s, we reached some Elaine’s, we reached some George’s, and we reached a whole bunch of Kramer’s.

We know that what works in one place doesn’t always work in another. That’s one of the big risks of listening to leaders at conferences, and getting excited about what they’re doing and reading their books. It doesn’t always work that way where you are. What lessons on contextualization did you learn by taking southern California ideas to New York?

Well, I don’t think I took southern California ideas. I tried to leave those there. I took ideas not only from Saddleback, but from every church that was getting things done as well. Having worked with Purpose Driven and with Rick, it gave me the opportunity to talk to other pastors and other planters.

I quickly realized that there are principles that transfer when it comes to starting a church. I learned from everybody from non-charismatic Bible churches, all the way through charismatic, evangelical Pentecostal churches. I just tried to find the best practices for reaching people no matter where they were from.

Certainly the Five Purposes and Rick’s thinking on the concentric circles influenced me greatly. The concentric circles are more important to me than the baseball diamond. Probably years from now that is what we will remember about the contribution of The Purpose Driven Church book. The idea of reaching people that are in the community, moving them into the crowd, then eventually discipling them into the congregation, the committed, and the core. That influenced me here because we are in such a highly unchurched area that is all I had to work with was the crowd and the community.

I just tried to find biblical principles that would work, then figure out how those principals intersected with what was already going on in our city. You do have to contextualize of course. The city has a history. The city has a present, and a future. And the best that you can do is enter in with what is already happening in that city with the biblical principals, and then take them on that path to Christ. The better you do that, the better you are going to do as a church leader.

You’re training a lot of church planters now, so I assume you’re teaching them how to identify those unique things in their culture. What would you tell them about making what they read in Ignite uniquely applicable for them?

The majority of my work these days is done with pastors in existing churches and pastors. Since 2004 I’ve coached about 800 pastors. I’d say about 20% of those have been church planters, and the rest were pastors of churches from 10 years old to one that was 200 years old.

Everything that I’ve done on church planting right now, I give away. So the only resources you can purchase are for existing churches. I still do church planting conferences, but the majority of my crowd has moved to more existing churches. Maybe that’s because I’m pastoring an 8 year old church and in some ways we are no longer looked at in that way.

What I teach mainly now, Brian, is church systems. If you’re familiar with my operating theory on church systems, I have this idea that there are 8 systems in a church. And evangelism is one of those systems and Ignite is part of that evangelism system. It’s not too dissimilar from the human body. Paul said one time that the church is a body. If you start comparing that to the human body, my body is made up of systems and your body is made up of systems. Our systems are very similar; you have a heart and I have a heart. You have muscles and I have muscles. You have skin and I have skin.

The systems are organized in much the same way inside our bodies, but the expression of that is very different. I have very dark hair and dark skin, and other people have blond hair and light skin. Yet the systems on the inside are the same but the external expression of that can be very different.

I’ve tried in my books not to get into the details of hair color and skin color and muscle development, but to give you the system you can use on the back end, just like you may have a skeletal system. How that plays out in that local church is as unique as that local church.

Suddenly the Journey Church of the City goes to yet another really different culture. Tell me about the decision to go to San Francisco.

Yeah, and we’re going to other cities in the coming years. We like to go wherever there are large populations of unchurched people. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t existing churches that are doing well. When I came to New York we already had great examples of churches like Redeemer, and Times Square Church, and Brooklyn Tabernacle, and Christian Culture Center, and dozens of other churches that were doing well here.

It is just that the population is so great that even though there were some well known churches and effective churches, there were so many people to reach that there was an opportunity for a Journey Church to be here. And that’s how we feel in San Francisco. We’re looking for areas that are 90-95% unchurched whether those are suburban areas or inner-city areas.

We have done two things in my time here: we’ve planted independent churches, like the ones we helped plant in North Las Vegas and Tampa, Florida and San Jose; and then we’ve also started intentional Journey Churches which have a connection with us. The founding pastor has either been on our staff or came to Christ with us or has worked very closely with us.

Whereas the independent churches are familiar with us but have not been part of our staff. They were trained by us but not necessarily sent by us. We’re trying to do both. Just recently we started a church in Queens, the Journey Church of Queens, and this year we’ve got some bold ideas—some that will never make it off the drawing board, and some that hopefully will, as the Lord allows. As it works out, this year we may be starting our first church in a large suburban area.

There are certainly suburban areas with large unchurched populations.

Yeah, I have a friend who pastors down in south Florida that tells me he reaches more Yankees than we do.

Nelson Searcy, author of Ignite, has planted several churches, and influenced the ministries of thousands of other pastors through his writing, coaching, and resources.
Brian Proffit brings experience as pastor, writer, and publisher to his role as chief visioneer of BP Resources, director of Preaching Unleashed, and author of the Insights on the Journey blog.

This article “Church Planting and Contextualization” by Nelson Searcy and Brian Proffit was excerpted from: web site. January 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw out the bones.”