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Context is King

Context is King


My hermeneutics professors in Seminary repeated this as mantra as we would study different passages in the Bible. "Context is King," they would say, meaning the immediate paragraph, chapter and book would first determine the meaning of a word or phrase, long before a completely separate passage would.

What does context have to do with church planting? It has everything to do with it. When missionaries go out to different countries they learn the culture, the mannerisms, and the language. All of these can be summed up in one word: context. When we go plant churches, we cannot ignore the context that we plant in. The context of the city will look very different from the context of a small town. A suburban context has different cultural factors than a rural context. Even different neighborhoods hold different contexts than other neighborhoods in a city because of the demographic diversity that resides in them. Logan Square, for instance, is roughly 44% Hispanic, while West Town is about 77% White. These demographics will help shape the church that is planted there.

Hard data, like demographics, is great and essential to getting to know the context, but how, as the church, do we learn the language, the values, the hopes and dreams of those we want to reach? Or is it safe to assume that as Americans we all hold the same values? I don't only believe that it is unsafe, but would be damaging to do so. We must go into our context, Logan Square, for us with the posture to learn from the people that are there. If we don't, not only will we be seen as arrogant, we will not reach people for Christ there. We must learn to contextualize. So how do we do this?

Tim Keller, in his Redeemer Church Planting Manual, says we must be doing ethnographic research as well as demographic research. To do this, we must talk to people–not just do research on the internet. While demographics answers the "Who lives there?" question, ethnographics answers the "What are they like?" question. Keller gives several questions to ask people in order to get to know the people in your context: 

  • What brought you to [this place] and how do you like living here?
  • What are the dreams for your family?
  • What kind of church does [this place] need? What would it look like?
  • If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?
  • What's the toughest thing for you when you consider faith and spiritual things?
  • What are people's hopes, aspirations and pleasures?
  • What are people's greatest fears and problems?
  • How could a new church serve your needs?
  • How do people spend their free time? What do they do for fun?*
  • How is this neighborhood unique from others near it?*
  • Who is Jesus and what is his significance to you?*

It's only through personal interactions with those who live, work and play in the neighborhood, do we get to know how to speak the heart-language of those who live, work and play there. We do this research because it gives us a vision for the neighborhood and people who live there; it reinforces the conviction that you and the gospel are needed by the city and its people; and it removes our blindness and gives us the conviction that we need this city and people to teach us much.

And finally, in praying through the answers to these questions, we seek to have God's eyes for community to which we are called. Our goal is to love the city as God loves it, to recognize its brokenness and sin, and see how the Gospel heals and brings hope to the people who live there.

Stacey and I are headed up for a quick visit to Logan Square this weekend. We want to continually get to know our context and pray for it and learn from it. Please pray with us. Pray that God would give us a vision and hope for the neighborhood. Pray that we would be humble and learn from those there. Pray that would we be bold in asking these questions and truly hearing their answers.

*These questions I got from Dan Breed's Fox Cities Church Plant Project.

Ten Reasons to Plant Churches

Ten Reasons to Plant Churches


David T. Olson, director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, provides ten reasons to plant churches in his book The American Church in Crisis:

  1. New Churches lower the age profile of the American church, increase its multiethnicity, and better position the whole church for future changes.
  2. New churches provide synergistic benefits to established churches. Research shows that denominations that many strong churches have more healthy, growing, established church than those who plant few churches.
  3. The continued growth of new churches will extend up to 40 years after their start. The grown that occurs in years 10 to 40 is critical for creating a strong base of churches for the future. The mainline denominations have lost the influence of a complete generation of new churches.
  4. New churches provide a channel to express the energy and ideas of passionate, innovative young pastors. Church planting encourages the development of expansionist gifts of ministry and leadership. Denominations that plant few churches unintentionally focus on training pastors in stabilizing gifts. A denomination needs both stabilizing and expansionists gifts to be both healthy and growing.
  5. New churches are the research and development unit of God's kingdom. New churches create most of the current models and visions for healthy church life. Healthy cultural adaptations and theological vitality occur more often in a denomination that excels at church planting, because the ferment of new ideas and ministry solutions is more robust.
  6. New churches are the test laboratory for lay leadership development. Because top lay leadership positions are usually already filled in the parent church, new churches provide a new group of emerging lay leaders the opportunity to grow and develop as primary leaders. In new church plants that do well, most lay members report that being part of the beginning of the new church was one of the defining spiritual events in their life.
  7. New churches are historically the best method for reaching each emerging new generation. While many established churches have the ability to connect with the younger cohort, each generation also seems to need their own new type of churches that speak the gospel with their own cultural values and communication style.
  8. New churches are the only truly effective means to reach the growing ethnic populations coming to America. Every people group needs to hear the gospel in a way that makes sense to their culture. It is difficult for established churches to become diverse. Church planting can effectively create both ethnic-specific and multiethnic congregations.
  9. New churches are more effective than established churches at conversion growth. Studies show that new churches have three to four times the conversion rate per attendee than established churches.
  10. Because the large majority of Americans do not attend a local church, many more new churches are needed. In 2005, 17.5 percent of Americans attended a local church on any given Sunday. Seventy-seven percent of Americans do not have a consistent connection with an orthodox Christian church. The best and most effective way for the Christian church to keep up with population growth is to start new churches.


The Chicago Plan::Logan Square

The Chicago Plan::Logan Square

Last Wednesday morning, I awoke early to hit the road and head to Naperville.

Not quite Chicago, but close. I was headed there for a church planters connection conference put on by the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). From noon on Wednesday till noon on Friday, I listened and interacted and prayed with church planters, planting-minded pastors. We discussed church planting strategies and the deep need for prayer to run through all our work. To state plainly prayers is not just a devotional practice, something that we do while we brush our teeth or run (I'm preaching to myself here), but it is the work of ministry and especially church planting. I remember listening to a talk from Tim Keller years ago when he listed out the top 5 or so things a planter must do. Prayer wasn't one of them. At the end of the list, he took a step back and acknowledged his "oversight." But, he said, if he relegated prayer to just another of the things one must do in order to plant a church, then he was downgrading it. Prayer is the work of planting. It's priority goes well before any written list. It is essential and primary and runs through every aspect of church planting.

Please join with me in praying. We need a lot of it.

What are we praying for you ask?

Well, at the end of my time in Naperville, I continued in to Chicago to spend time with my friends and walk and pray the neighborhoods I was considering: West Town, Logan Square and Lincoln Square. I lived in West Town just before I was exiled to St. Louis. I grabbed a sandwich at Fiore's, the Italian deli across the street from my old apartment before heading over the Dominic's roof to eat it and stare at the skyline. I met up with Mark Bergin, pastor at The Painted Door, and we talked about West Town. I really enjoyed our time, but left thinking maybe West Town isn't for me.

After an evening with friends, I ate at Lula Cafe in Logan Square with more friends and we talked about planting and my vision for Chicago. I had a few minutes left on my meter, so I walked Logan, took photos and prayed. I wasn't too sure of what I should be praying for, except that God would give me eyes to see the neighborhood clearly, to see it as He sees it. I saw a lot of dogs, some couples walking to get their morning coffee, and a few parents with their young children. But mainly a lot of dogs and fixies.

I headed north to Lincoln Square. Parking halfway between the Brown Line and the expansive Welles Park, I walked along Lincoln Ave. Not as many gates infront of houses, two and three generations of families walking together. Many, many, many strollers. Youth baseball throughout the park. As I stood and watched the game and prayed. It occurred to me that we would need kids to reach this neighborhood. Don't get me wrong, we want kids, but we should have had them a couple years ago.

On to Binny's. Tasting and thinking and praying. Wishing my wife was able to be with me. Wondering what ministry would be like in any of these neighborhoods.

I was exhausted.

I decided it was nap time.

I don't know how to explain how naps usher in the Spirit; I don't have a fleshed out theology on this point. However, when I woke up it was clear to me that God was calling me to Logan Square.

Pray for Logan Square.

Pray for us as I begin to vision and write up a plan.

Pray that the Gospel would be out in front of us, moving and stirring the hearts of those who need the Gospel for the first time and the forty-first time.

Pray that God would fund his mission and work in Logan Square (right now, I'm estimating this around $450,000 for 4 years).




Chicago may be the published, formal name to the great city to the north, but it has many nicknames, both affectionate and unaffectionate. Here are a few:

  1. "Windy City"–in reference to it's politician's speech patterns, but reflective of the weather too.
  2. "City That Works"–as known to former Mayor Richard J. Daley. However, Chicago was founded on manual, unskilled labor in the 1830s, 40s, & 50s.
  3. "The Second City"–Was a derogatory term for the city in the 1950s in a New Yorker article; perhaps second to NYC. I always understood it to be a referent to the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire of 1871. One dark night, when the folks were all in bed, Misses O'Leary lit a lantern in the shed...
  4. "The Most American City"–Perhaps because of its blue collar heritage, but I can't find a source, other than Pacyga's Chicago: A Biography pictured above.
  5. "City of Big Shoulders"–Formerly the City of Broad Shoulders, so called by Carl Sandberg in his 1916 poem "Chicago"
  6. "The Jungle"–After Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel
  7. "Hog Butcher to the World"–Perhaps the impetus for Upton Sinclair's novel, but mentioned in Carl Sandberg's poem.
  8. "Paris of the Midwest"–What Daniel Burnham and his "Chicago" plan were after.
  9. "City on the Make"–referred to by Nelson Algren in his 1951 love poem to the city.
  10. "City of Neighborhoods"–There are over 200 distinct neighborhoods in Chicago.
  11. "Sweet Home Chicago"–sung by Robert Johnson, immortalized by the Blues Brothers.
  12. "Chi-Town" or "Chi-City"–as Kanye so affectionately refers to it.
  13. "My kind of town, Chicago is"–Frank Sinatra croons.

More recently, Huff Post has reported two studies calling Chicago both the Most Corrupt City in America and the Most Segregated City in America. The corruption in politics has cost the city nearly $500 million; see Rod Blagojevich. And according to a census survey, even though Chicago has experienced the second largest decline in segregation, it is still the most segregated city according to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. (Actually reading the study though, points out that Detroit is the most segregated. St. Louis came in fourth.)

Perhaps most appropriate for the Kingdom work to be done there, Chicago is known as "City in a Garden" which is a translation of the Latin on the city seal Urbs in Horto.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)




History: A young nation came into it's 46th year as the sovereign state of the United States of America, the year was 1820. At this point in our nation's youthful appearance–50 was the new 18, as far as national ages go...–there was approximately 1 church per every 875 Americans. However, during the years 1860-1906, Protestants expanded along with the West. They planted a new church for every 350 people, resulting that in 1900, we had 1 church for every 430 Americans. Obviously this is increased the amount of attendance and involvement by Americans in the local church, so much so that, in 1916, 53% of the US population were "religious adherents" up from 17% at the founding of the nation (1776). [1. Keller, Redeemer Church Planting Manual, p 32.]

At this point though, church planting ceased to increase as it had done over the last century. After WW1, older, established churches which dotted the towns across the nation resisted the addition of new churches in to their "neighborhoods." We have seen the results of this resistance. Not only is church membership down in Mainline congregations–those that most heavily impeded and apposed new churches–but many churches have had to close their doors in the recent decades. Numbers-wise: 20.4% of Americans attended a church (Catholic, Mainline, or Evangelical) on any given weekend in 1990 and dropped to 17.5% in 2005. Evangelical attendance has only slightly declined: 9.2-9.1% over those 15 years. However, in the same years we saw a net population growth of 52 million people. Illinois alone declined 7.2% in church attendance (Catholic, Mainline, or Evangelical) from 2000-2005. In fact, every state has declined in church attendance between 2000 and 2005. [2. Olson, The American Church Crisis, pp 35-43.]

I called the 1st, 2nd, and 47th Wards of Chicago today to do a quick survey of how many churches were in each ward. Each ward contains an average of 56,000 people and 25 churches. This is only 1 church per 2240 residents of these wards. Only the 47th Ward knew of 2 churches that were under 15 years old and both of them have been planted in the last 3 years. The median church size in America is 75 congregants with the average being 185. There are approximately 25 churches in these wards, then that means that between 1,875 and 4,625 out of 56,000 are going to church each weekend. Percentage-wise that's 3-8%. That's less than unemployment (8.3% February 2012 national average)!

What in the world!


Jonah comes to mind. Are we so wrapped up in our own agendas that our hearts don't break for the lost cities of the world?

But God said to Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" And he said, "Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die." And the LORD said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 person who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" (4:8-11)

Conclusion: we need more churches in the great cities of the world.