We’ve started a new church. Now what?
This “what” should include, of course, nurturing this congregation: to teach the scriptures, disciple new believers, and train leaders. As we strove to accomplish these goals at Hopera Church over the past few years, part of me has enjoyed the organizational development, the backstage work, and seeing our church members grow as we met their needs.
But the church planter inside of me rebelled. I mean, come on — to live among Christians is thrilling, but what about that fascinating mess of a culture around us? Will we lose contact with the non-Christians who got us into church planting in the first place? No sir, I told myself. We will continue to be a church for non-Christians. We will help our people grow, and help them see that growth involves seeking the welfare of our city.
What about that fascinating mess of a culture around us? Will we lose contact with the non-Christians who got us into church planting in the first place?
To be a culturally expressive minority is a social role that many evangelicals aren’t accustomed to playing. It means, for instance, envisioning the church not just as the gathered church, but also the scattered church, made by the contributions of both the clergy and those in other walks of life. It means understanding church planting not only as the formation of worshipping communities, but as broadcasting communities. It means understanding evangelism not only as bringing people in, but as releasing people of all vocations to tell stories that point, directly or indirectly, to Christ’s story.
Example: Tell the Gospel Story Creatively with Cultural Artifacts and Events
In addition to cerebral, discourse-heavy debates, we tried to host artistic events that spoke primarily to the heart and to the imagination. Some involved simply encouraging and attending events like music concerts, photography exhibits, and plays held by artists in our church. Others were events our church sponsored. For example, we joined forces with a student ministry and other churches to put on the Mark Drama, a theatrical portrayal of the gospel of Mark. On the International Day of Women, we supported Caradonna, an exhibit featuring photos of women for women, which led to intriguing conversations. Aperitivo evenings with music, food, and short talks have also been a popular format. One night, we encouraged people to craft small objects that made them reflect on what they believe and take them home or gift them to someone.
Then, there were unplanned developments we couldn’t have imagined. One of these started when a couple — he a contemporary art director, she a singer — came to faith a few years ago. They started witnessing to their company members and friends, and a dozen of them — rappers, actors, dancers — came to faith in Christ. The play they produce each year has now become a catalyst for our witness. Using unconventional devices like the displacement of the public — who, according to their responses, may or may not see Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the play — they provoke questions for non-Christians. They also provoke long-time Christians who, accustomed to a written and preached gospel, have never imagined their faith being communicated by a surreal, theatrical storyline.
Navigate Working In and For Multiple Audiences
To be Christians who contribute to the common good is not without challenges.
A first challenge is the emotional dissonance that results from using various disciplines, genres, and languages to speak to multiple audiences. Will folks lend an ear to explicitly Christian voices? Should our art be like our sermons and always lead to Jesus? Is it okay if faith is not made explicit? And if we want to bring our faith into our work, where will it fit? Makoto Fujimura, a painter at home in both secular galleries and Christian environments, writes that “Life on the borders of a group — and in the space between groups — is prone to dangers literal and figurative, with people both at home and among the ‘other’ likely to misunderstand or mistrust the motivations, piety, and loyalty of the border-stalker” (Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care, 59). Similarly, Alan Jacobs, in an essay on the challenges of Christian intellectuals, confesses that,
I have felt for my entire career the difficulties of deciding where to speak and how. About a decade into my professional life it suddenly dawned on me that…I was never going to have a single audience. It would be necessary for me at times to speak to the church; at other times to believers from other religious traditions; at other times to my fellow academics; and at yet other times to the American public at large…. I would have to strive to be, as the Apostle Paul said, all things to all people, however disorienting and puzzling that obligation might be.
In secularized societies such as ours, people who wrestle with questions about faith will likely find larger audiences among and receive greater appreciation from fellow Christians in Christian gatherings. Outside audiences will probably be smaller, skeptical, harder to speak to, and offer more rejection than recognition. Christian communities should be hubs of encouragement along the way — giving space for early experiments, showing up for half-empty launches and opening nights — and bless professionals who try to speak in other settings.
We may often address our fellow believers, of course. But like missionaries to a foreign land, we may also want to invest years in learning new languages, sacrifice the comforts of our emotional home, and pursue a more difficult road as missionaries to the culture.
This blog is part of a longer essay called “At the Intersection of Faith and Culture: A Vision for Christian Cultural Expressiveness” in the free ebook Movements of the Gospel: Experiments in Ministry in Unfamiliar Places.
René Breuel is the Lead Pastor of Hopera, a church in central Rome that hopes to spark a movement of new churches in Italy, and is the author of The Paradox of Happiness. René loves his wife, Sarah, their two boys, and, among other things, lemon and hazelnut gelato.