Church Planting: An Interview With Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer has a long and very impressive resume full of planting, revitalizing and pastoring churches across the USA. He has also taught and mentored tons of pastors over the years as well as spend many a hour researching and surveying in state of the local church. Currently he is the President of LifeWay Research and a member of the International Mission Board’s Church Services Team.

Accordingly, his comments on church planting in North America have some weight… as in, they are worth listening too and thinking about. Which is why I recommend reading this article detailing a recent interview with Vineyard USA.

To help spur you on in reading the interview, I have posted some quotes from Ed along with some of my thoughts below.

Reflections on the Church Planting Scene in North America

“I think church planting is exploding. But I think it’s also important to note that the focus of many of these movements, and even the methods that they have used, have been influenced by the gifts that the Vineyard gave us all: a heart for church planting, new network approaches and strategies, and a passion for reaching the lost.”

Yeah…I couldn’t pass up quoting this piece as it is nice to see such favorable press for one’s tribe. Granted, Ed is talking to the Vineyard USA so it could be a simple ‘don’t bite the hand that is feeding you’ statement…but I seriously doubt that as Ed, who is not part of the Vineyard, doesn’t have a motivation to suck up to the Vineyard. If he didn’t like us, he could simply say so and walk away.

Therefore, the fact that he, as a noted missiologist and church researcher, publicly acknowledged the influence that the Vineyard has had on the wider church is amazing! I personally think that one of the reasons the Vineyard, which at 554 churches in the USA is not a large denomination, has had such a large voice in the greater church is because of our love for the whole church. From the very beginning, John Wimber and all the braze souls who started the Vineyard constantly gave way the gifts the Lord in trusted to them to the wider body. It has never been just about the Vineyard; it has been loving Jesus and His Bride (i.e. the WHOLE church).

What Opportunities Would You Say The Vineyard Has Now?

“I think the opportunity here is, will the Vineyard rediscover its roots without feeling it necessary to relive its past? I think the roots of the Vineyard are birthed in a passion for the kingdom of God, church planting and evangelistic engagement, and yes, societal concern. And I think many would say that focus has been diminished and might have a desire to go back to the glory days…. So the underlying principles that made the Vineyard an explosive movement could be rediscovered, but perhaps some of the methodological practices would not be as helpful in the future.”

I think these comments by Ed are interesting to say the least. They seem to echo the words of warning given to the Vineyard years ago from Bill Jackson in his 1999 book “The Search for the Radical Middle” and Bert Waggoner in his address at the 2008 Northwest Leaders Gathering. The warning primarily being that we are to continue to follow Jesus wherever he takes us while being careful not to fall into a cycle of routine (i.e. “we do this because it’s what Vineyards do” vs “we do this because it is what God is doing at this time and place.”).

“Many Vineyard pastors have asked, and perhaps rightly so, ‘What is the gospel? Have we reduced it too much into a transactional prayer leading to a checklist conversion?’ Thus they are exploring more experientially robust approaches. I think that’s good. However, I think it’s necessary to settle the question of the gospel and theology so the Vineyard can move on in mission and ministry… the Vineyard needs to retain its certainty about certain theological issues (charismatic practices, the views on women in ministry) and move forward, saying, ‘This is what we believe. If you’re with us, let’s plant churches together, serve the poor, and reach the world for Jesus.’”

I love the different approaches that folks within the Vineyard are trying! One thing that stood out to me a few years ago when I was studying the emerging church was often the Vineyard’s name came up. A lot of the folks out there trying to reach people in the post-modern culture were either in the Vineyard or influenced by the Vineyard. To me, this showed that I was part of a denomination that was willing to chase Jesus and love people regardless of what style or look the local church took.

However, on the other side of the coin, all of this shifting has taken a toll on the Vineyard as a whole. Sadly enough we have lost several churches over theological stands or practices that does ‘fit’ within our core values… this, as it should be, has been hard. Yet, I have to commend those in leadership (i.e. Bert Waggoner and the National Board) as I feel that they have made some good choices and have stayed faithful to our calling to be a Kingdom of God Movement. Now I just hope and pray that we can get back on track with planting churches, telling people about Jesus and fighting injustice on both the local and national level.

Oh, I also have huge hopes for Society of Vineyard Scholars as we continue to discuss the ramifications of Kingdom Theology in all areas of life.

Biggest Challenges for Church Planting Within the Vineyard?

“One challenge is, can a movement that was birthed young in the Boomer era transition as its leadership has aged?… I think it’s necessary to begin now to involve 20-something and 30-something leaders that share similar DNA and theological beliefs in considering what the next stage and the next phase of the Vineyard actually will be, and how they will participate in it.”

So true!! The reasons and foundation behind the actions and believes of the Vineyard MUST be passed down to the second, third and fourth generation of Vineyardites. Yet sadly, I’m not sure if that is happening….a few years ago I hosted a under-35 discussion group at a Mission Leaders Meeting where I asked them to define Kingdom Theology. Crazily enough, very few of them could actually express what Kingdom Theology was or why it mattered. Instead they tended to give fairly generic evangelical statements on the Kingdom of God – which, why not bad, did cause me to wonder if the core concept of the Kingdom was being passed down to them….

I might add that I myself had a hard time fully understanding Kingdom Theology despite graduating from VLI. It wasn’t that Kingdom Theology was not taught, it was just that it was implicit in everything rather than being explicit  (something, by the way, I had the pleasure of discussing with Steven Robbins a few years ago). Now some folks may enjoy implicit teaching, and there is a place for it, but to me personally I had a tough time really grasping the concept until I embarked on a four year study of the Kingdom of God.

Now, having come to a solid understanding of Kingdom Theology and seeing how different it is from other theological systems, I am a HUGE proponent of explicitly teaching the Kingdom of God. If we don’t, then our young people and new church leaders are going to slip into one of the other systems of theology that may not match with our values or with our core understanding of the Kingdom – something that will obviously have HUGE ramifications for the future of the Vineyard.

“The second challenge is, what does it look like as methodological diversity increases?… I think it will be necessary for the Vineyard’s future to have a common theological belief with a diverse methodological expression. That expression will include house churches, missional incarnational communities, multi-site megachurches, and different expressions in between. Because the expression is going to partly determine the ministry approach. I think that if the Vineyard can clearly settle what its theological DNA is, then its missiological expressions can meet in a coffee shop or a cathedral.”

Wow! Boy can Ed nail us to the wall! I think he is absolutely correct in his observation – if we can get our theological DNS (i.e. Kingdom Theology) settle, then the missiological expressions (i.e. how Kingdom Theology looks in practice) will follow.

The cool thing is that I’m hearing and seeing some amazing stories of this expression from across the Vineyard.  I mean, just look at the array Vineyard churches across the nation – there are house churches in California, emerging churches in the mid-west and even a church that meets inside an active bar in New York! The goal now is to help foster these different expressions so that church planters can plant the type of church that fits the needs and culture of the community in which Jesus as called them. We cannot get stuck in an one-size-fits-all model of doing church that restricts the Holy Spirit from moving within a community. To do so would be to commit spiritual suicide – and may the Lord us keep far from there!!!