DNA: The Essence of What is Being Planted


This lecture was delivered at the Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto Feb 2008: Session 2

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I share the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury that we live in the most creative time, that has occurred for many hundreds of years, over thinking about what church is. As the 21st century unrolls our questions have become more searching and more foundational because of a raft of external contextual changes and also because of creativity from within the church.  Here are some external reasons that have overtaken us:


1.      Nearly all institutions are regarded with suspicion; this makes the past dominant model of Church as institution, with its ponderous structures, emphasis on buildings and a separate caste of clergy rather unconvincing.

2.      With the burgeoning interest in a whole variety of spiritualities,  church is seen as foundering in a muddy backwater of religion. We are thought to be into repression of feelings, concern with outward form and instincts to control others.

3.      Cultural and intellectual pluralism, together with the high value placed on tolerance of others views,  makes obsolete any concept that “one size of church fits all”.

4.      Consumerism is possibly the dominant force in westernised society and this has injected a questionable high level of choice into church affiliations. It has increased the transfer rate between them. It may have changed committed members into worship tasters.

5.      The dissolving of Christendom and the rise of society based on networks has led to a double sense of liminality. By that word I mean going through what is both a threatening but also promising transitional stage beyond an old certainty. This liminality is characterised by the church both being at the edge of society, rather than being at its centre. It is also about existing in a world that no longer has centres at all, which is very different from our territorial instincts based on place.


There are also some changes from within, that I believe have arisen not just because of external changes in society, but have their genesis in the creativity of the Missionary Holy Spirit.  I am not saying each new development is perfect, or above criticism. I make a more modest point that despite our muddles and imperfect experimentation, God is at work among us and I rejoice in it.


I then notice the following:


1.      The creation of fresh expressions of church, and that very language, has prompted new questions about what church is. Crucially these questions are unanswerable by using the skills of how to sustain existing churches, nor are they much helped by talk of how to increase the size of existing forms.

2.      Some examples of fresh expressions of church, like Cell Church and its derivatives, and the equally recent but growing group of people, who have what, Alan Jamieson calls, “Churchless Faith”, point up sharply that some assumptions about Church are just that. Sacred buildings, congregations, paid and ordained ministers are no longer seen as essential to being church. Not all would agree with that view but the question has been logged.

3.      The variety of fresh expressions, and indeed the inherent provisionality and partial character of the very phraseology “expression”, has further opened up the realisation that no one expression of church is complete and none of them, either the emerging or inherited church, can fully represent Christ, whose body the church is supposed to be. As Rowan Williams put it. ‘If Christ is the embodiment of God, and the Church is his body on earth, then no single expression of church can ever exhaust Christ.’.  In that sense no local church is completely church. It is only an expression of church.

So then we find ourselves in a time when the question “what is church?” is more live than for a long time. This is actually very helpful in our mission context of needing to plant churches. The worst thing we could do would be to simply replicate the expressions of being church that have partly led to our problems and which only appeal to the current dwindling insiders. Yet at the same time we need some clarity about what church is, otherwise we shall not know what to plant.  In this context people have turned to the analogy of the DNA of church.  They may mean quite different things by it and I will use the two talks to explore the two most helpful meanings.

1       DNA as isolating the essence of Church


People are now reaching out for ways of talking about the essence of church, that go behind any specific form, to what is generic about it.  [In an organic world that favours emergence, the analogy of DNA also has become one way of trying to talk about its essence in such a way as enables its  principled ongoing evolution.]  This talk of DNA means the search to encapsulate the irreducible essence of what needs to be reproduced to deserve being called church.  This use of DNA language appeals to the search for a portable minimalism and for yardsticks to assess all expressions of church.  At worst this could be an illusory search for simplistic answers to a complex reality. I like the aphorism “Simplicity on the near side of complexity is useless; simplicity on the far side of complexity is priceless.”

But at best here is a search for ways to talk about church that are meaningful, accessible and useful for today’s mission context.


The second way to look at DNA is to talk about it as the mechanisms by which something is reproduced. This is fair to the analogy and a legitimate question. It will be the controlling metaphor in the second talk.

What then is to be planted, or reproduced?

I detect in the UK there are two equally flawed positions seeking to understand this which we need to avoid. Some are not sufficiently ecclesial and some are blatantly not missional. Neither will do.

Two distortions to avoid

One is an undue emphasis on the Gospel. Some evangelists are guilty of this; it is what I call the “Jesus is great, though the church is awful”, approach. It is a view that the Gospel changes lives, while church is just a holding receptacle for them. It’s a view that focuses on the harvest and complains about the barns.  Another picture could be to say the Gospel is the active ingredient, like yeast, while the church is passive, like a lump of dough. This view says we plant gospel and reap church.  It colludes nicely with the belief that Mission precedes church. And in the story of the NT it is true historically that the mission of Jesus had to occur before thechurch ofJesus appeared.   

At the other end of the spectrum, others over-emphasise Church. Creating fresh expressions then becomes no more than improving a worship service, or perhaps offering another one in the same ecclesial location. This is no more than the fading actress putting on lipstick and hoping she will attract new fame and suitors. Perhaps worse it assumes that church attendance by outsiders is the aim of the game.  The Cyprianic view, that he who would have God as his father, must have the church as his mother and there is no salvation outside the church, has been co-opted in an unhelpful ecclesiocentric view. 

Why they are distortions and their dangers.

The view that only Gospel is needed is blind to the realisation that there is no disincarnate Gospel. It always has a bearer, who is part of the church. Indeed its embodiment in people is a key part of the witness to the Gospel. We are finding in the UK that those communities who by their life together demonstrate the life of Jesus are those which pose helpful questions to surrounding society and draw people to Christ. “See how these Christians love one another” is the gospel embodied.  Over emphasis on gospel also leads to unsustainable activism, the leaders driving congregations, often through guilt, to the point of rebellion, resignation or exhaustion, and it confuses the growth of the church with the purpose of the church.  This becomes like the odd situation of a couple only getting married in order to have children. I would argue

Mission is not the identity of the church, though it is within its DNA.

The over churchy view is dire for other reasons. In places with such a distortion you will notice the person of Jesus is seldom mentioned for that would be embarrassingly personal, the idea of the church as a counter cultural force engaging with society is missing and discipleship, involving a changed life, is not talked about. As opposed to activism, the danger is quietism. As opposed to existing for others, these churches exist for themselves.  Worship and reactive pastoral care become everything. Yes, these are in the DNA of church, but they too are not its identity.

A way forward

In church planting it really matters what we think we are planting, because the worrying reality is that we can reproduce our own distortions of church. Let me try to suggest a better way. I have always thought that the language of Church planting should help us here

Here we meet two words, Church and Plant. The first is obviously ecclesial and planting rightly sounds missional. I want to suggest that Church and Plant, ecclesial and missional, are not just like pancakes and maple syrup, which go well together – but more like chicken and egg. With those two it is hard to say which came first. Yes, historically the mission of Jesus led to the Church, but ever after they are intertwined. Church is the foretaste of God’s ultimate purposes, it is what Gospel produces. Yet, people made fully alive by encounter with Christ, in such a way that how they relate to each other shows the life of Christ, embody and bear the gospel to others. So Gospel and Church are a more like a helix, interweaving with one more visible at particular moments, but both needing each other.  The need for connection is was graphically put over 50 years ago by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. “An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary church”. A monster is language we use when something created has gone badly wrong.  I have shown you what those distortions look like.

I think there are yet deeper reasons why the two, Church and Mission, must co-exist. We best come to know what Church is, that is the people of God, the body of Christ, the Temple of the Spirit, by what God the Trinity are. This was hinted at in the theology ofMission shaped church presented last year. Let me put it another way this year.  Eastern Theologians like Zizioulas for many decades have been insisting that we think of God as Communion or community more than singularity.  Some Western theologians like Barth and Bosch for a similar length of time have been recovering for us the missionary character of God. It is time to insist that these two rather disconnected streams of thought be brought together and must belong together. Thus I am finding it both helpful and persuasive to speak of God the Trinity as community-in-mission. 

I am entirely serious about the order of those three words, that Community is put first. Missional Community is an alternative term, that is not so good. Here are a few reasons. The Godhead existed in loving community before the mission began, though the mission was the natural overflow of their loving life. Being is always deeper than doing, and identity is prior to activity.  Thus communal love comes before missional purpose.  Then we see the same in Jesus.  He came from the Trinitarian Community before the mission unfolded. His identity preceded his activity. He was God the Son in the manger before he had done anything at all.  God the Father expressed his approval of his Son at his Baptism, before the public ministry began.  Jesus himself then chose his followers before they had much of use and note the order in Mark 3.13.  “He called to him those he wanted… He appointed 12 .. that they might be with him, and that he might send them out”. Community-in-mission is the better order of words to speak of the Trinity. Their own mission embodies the same order. This sets the pattern for the church.


What then is being planted?  Why, Jesus centred community-in mission. Consider the definition the Church of England came up with in Mission-shaped Church, in 2004.

“Church planting is the process by which a seed of the life and message of Jesus [that’s a way to say gospel] embodied by a community of Christians [in other words church] is immersed for mission reasons in a particular cultural or geographic context. The intended consequence is that it roots there, coming to life as a new indigenous body of Christian disciples [ecclesial] well-suited to continue in mission.[missional]


But what will that community look like, what will it do? How will we know it is church?

[Let me immediately put in a caveat. For me this is like asking the question, what is human? – not what is adult, or mature, much less what is white, male and middle aged? It is a generic question and it deals with inner identity, not outward features, size or success. It also embraces potential, more than measuring performance. Babies are human though all they will become is not yet clear. This way of thinking also requires modesty; for which of us is perfectly even the particular human being we were created to be – let alone an embodiment of all the talents that the human race possesses. We are, if you like, only expressions of being human. None of us is the completeness of being human. Our very gender makes certain of that and our ages underline it. Perhaps its like that with church, the new humanity. There are only incomplete expressions yet there are marks upon them that are diagnostic.]

I confess that my knowledge of the science of DNA is limited to an enjoyable reading of Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Yet I learnt from Bryson that DNA has four chemical components. The list is adenine, guanine, cytosine, thiamine. They are apparently all very common substances. The genius is not in some highly specialised existence of one or more of them, but rather in the way they interlink; the particular way they pair in the now famous double helix.  Because I am not the author Dan Brown, who wrote the Da Vinci Code,  I do not seriously suggest to you that these four chemicals are actually secret code for the four marks of the Church; One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.  Yet in some Anglican circles these four dynamics are being taken as DNA like components that do need to be reproduced in any further expression of church.  Last year John Bowen gave conference attendees my mapping of the four historic marks of the church, [One Holy Catholic and Apostolic] onto the directions and labels of four simpler words:  In, Up, Of and Out. Here’s the diagram by way of reminder.  Let me now push that a bit further, not least in terms of Bryson’s point that the interlinking of the 4 is crucial.

The pleasant thing about the 4 directions diagram is that it is cross shaped. It also suggests that the four key roles of the church are distinct and that all matter. Mission is no substitute for worship and vice versa. It also suggests that there is a centre at which they all meet.  I could call that being Jesus centred and that church is community, centred in Jesus. That is what it is, from which all these directions need to be explored.

Here’s another shape – a pyramid – that does some other work we need. It’s technically a regular tetrahedron and it has a couple of other virtues. Unlike the cross shape, with four directions, going in different ways, so that they only meet at the centre and only some are next  to others,  in this shape every one of them is connected to all the others.  This is far more like it is in church life. The mission needs to be sustained by the community, energised by its meeting with God in worship and supported by the wider church. The worship is fed by resources from the wider church, needs to spring out of  the ongoing life of the community and to be in conversation with the mission.  The four are dimensions more than directions and they are far more interrelated than the simple four directions diagram visually suggests.

Its other virtue is that however you look at it, there is always some element you cannot see. This reminds us that the church will always defeat our attempts to fully describe it. There is always a sense of mystery. This is partly because the church is on earth only partly what she is called to be. She is the bride who awaits consummation, the temple not yet in New Jerusalem, the New Israel not yet in its promised land, the people on pilgrimage. The New Testament testifies to this mystery by never fully defining the church and using a riot of images to describe her. Read Paul Minear’s Images of the Church or Dulles’ Models of the Church if you require a second opinion about how essential the mystery is. Of course the Church must be mystery for it was called into being by Grace and who knows exactly how that works, it is indwelt by the Spirit and there’s a constant source of disturbance and surprise, and it is described as the body of Christ – an image that is desperately familiar and yet the longer you ponder it, the more elusive and mind boggling it becomes. As Pope Paul VI put it at Vatican II “The church is a mystery. It is a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God. It lies therefore within the very nature of the Church to be always open to new and ever greater exploration.”  

So let me push the four marks a bit further. Not as demanding measurement to condemn what has been done so far, but as what a group centred in Jesus might aspire to. I also want to explore them as two pairs because it is also clear that the four marks derive their meaning and dynamism not so much from being utterly separate from one another, but through their interconnections.

1          Apostolic

I have looked at how some current thinkers understand the Apostolic. I suggest what is held in common is that this is a dimension of the church that connects across time, and yet stays faithful.  It looks back in time to its origins in God, Christ and Scripture that give it authenticity and authorisation. It also looks forward with momentum from that very past. Apostolicity is concerned for how those foundational values are faithfully transferred, whether in human lives, by doctrine, ordinations or all of them. By it the church is also called to look forward, through mission, to what is not yet; sending members out and beyond itself into the world and into the future. That journey will take it to fresh locations, though today these will also be defined by culture, not only places or territory.

But being apostolic is more than an existing ecclesial community learning to face outwards, it includes some members leaving and starting a fresh further community elsewhere, as was the case with the Trinity, shown in the Incarnation, and then by Christ calling disciples. Planting fresh expressions by reproduction is closer to this divine pattern than much attractional mission practised by existing churches, let alone the barely missional existence of many churches, for whom apostolicity is too much about authenticity brought by past links. Reproduction by definition then leads to the birth of related but non identical churches. Here note that the apostolic mark alone cannot encompass this. Principled diversity, by which there can be churches that remain apostolic in faithfulness, yet differ from inherited patterns needs engagement with views both of oneness and of catholicity.

2          Catholicity

This is in effect a complementary relationship to the Apostolic; Catholicity is concerned for the dimension by which the church exists and connects across space, and across difference.  It seeks to express the wholeness of the Church in each place, through insisting on enduring connection between its twin callings of both universality and particularity, but without the universal degenerating to uniformity. Catholicity enshrines all Christians as being in relational connection. This repudiates us seeing ourselves primarily as individual Christians or independent churches. Relational connection with others, who are to some extent unlike us, is what gives us identity as persons. Our model for this is the diverse yet united loving community of the Trinity. Connectivity is also with the communion of saints, for ultimately there is one church and one new heaven and earth. Connection with others unlike us also informs the mission to all, so that the Christian faith may become more universal in geographical scope and yet remain particular in each cultural context. In this sense Catholicity is a mandate for inculturated mission and church.

Reproducing churches is a process which reminds all churches that they came from an outside yet relational source. They were generated humanly speaking either by a founder or a group from another sending church. They are inherently part of something greater than themselves. Such newly born churches have relational catholicity with their apostolic forebears. Here the dimensions of being church across both time and space meet in an obvious way.  Young churches should be very conscious of a wider belonging, or catholicity, that gave them birth. Such a birth reminds them of grace and of receiving a gift of life from beyond themselves, rather than a focus on their own power and ability. 

So to the second pair

3          Holiness

I suggest this mark enshrines the dimension of how the church lives its existence as belonging to God. What is common across recent authors is language of calling, being set apart, being positively different to those outside but without a world denying withdrawal.  This is the vocation of the church. To exist for God becomes also the call to become more like God, morally and spiritually. As Dulles puts it, “The church must be characterized by holiness otherwise it could not be a sign of Christ”.  Its public worship should be one means by which engagement with God makes it take on his characteristics, but this will be cashed out in discipleship. “Be holy, as I am holy says the Lord”.  However the call will always be clearer than its realisation or achievement. Dulles links this to the abiding relevance of the church’s penitential parts of liturgy, and the parable of the wheat and tares is also helpful here. So any claim to holiness must have self aware modesty as well as awareness we are called for a purpose.

Belonging to God and for his purposes will connect holiness to the apostolic mission. An emphasis on calling however opens the question of election, with its attendant temptations to pride and insularity. A corrective is supplied by Newbigin, who is consistent across his writing that calling, with all its gifts and privileges, cannot be separated from missional identity. “They are chosen not for themselves, not to be exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving work, but to be bearers of the secret of his saving work for the sake of all. They are chosen to go and bear fruit.”  The reproduction of churches takes this specific calling very seriously and it embodies linkage between holiness and apostolicity.

The emphasis on holiness then reminds those starting churches that novelty is no substitute for integrity, character and spirituality.  Doing what has become popular or fashionable is also no substitute for seeking and hearing the calling of God.  And worship at any expression of church should never descend to self indulgence, either in classical or contemporary tastes, but is to be response to God, in order to be transformed to become more like God in grace and character. 

4          Oneness

I suggest that this fourth mark complements the third of holiness and describes the dimension of how the church lives out belonging like God.  It deals with the how the church community understands its internal relationships, because of its externally derived identity.  Common to the contemporary writers is that oneness finds its deepest source and understanding from the relationships of the Trinity and the prayer of Christ in John 17 that those who follow will be one like Christ and the Father.  There is also some reliance on the list of ones in Ephesians 4: 4-6. Those seven factors are:  one body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, God and Father.  Notably these seven features include allusion to the Trinity. John Stott argues that the four remaining qualities are dependent on the Trinitarian three. The Father creates the one family, Jesus creates one faith, baptism and hope, the Spirit creates the one body.  Whether or not the Stott argument is sustainable, the Trinitarian base for unity immediately puts diversity on the table alongside it. Today any view of unity that disallows diversity has become suspect.  The Trinitarian base is fertile for holding together unity and diversity.

Have you ever asked yourself why do have the order as One Holy Catholic and Apostolic? Does this wrongly give the oneness a hermeneutical authority over the other three?  It is arguable that this goes back to 3rd century North African Bishop Cyprian and his Roman legal cultural background that prized oneness and singularlity.  He notably compared the Church to a Roman Army camp – and they were identical throughout the empire.  Thus oneness became code for one centre, one leader, one form – a universal uniformity. Trinitarian understanding has profoundly challenged this and the communal view embraces unity and diversity. Arguments for overseas contextualisation and indigenisation have fuelled the fire. The creation of fresh expressions of church at home has added pragmatic examples of ways of being church that are both different from the inherited and yet clearly are still church.  It is as though we used to be mono cultural about church and we have been forced to realise there are other cultures that are as valid.

Such an emphasis does however increase the overlap between understandings of catholicity and oneness.  I notice even M level students find it hard to maintain clear borders between them. 

Mission-shaped Church follows my suggestion that Oneness today deals more with the dynamics of diversity within a local group of Christians and how they belong together in ways that follow Trinitarian unity and diversity. Catholicity deals more with wider connections across space and thus the bonds and relations between groups of Christians in different places or cultures.

However the reality is more complex.  Firstly, earliest use of the word Catholic is of the local church and is about its wholeness there.  Secondly, at least in theory, the Oneness of the Church is universal both in time and space, thus Catholicity and Oneness do intertwine.

So these four marks remain though they continue to be reinterpreted and clearly interact. Hence my three sided pyramid diagram that insist they are interconnected dimensions. These I suspect are deep in the DNA of church. They do not say everything that might be said but as a start for an equivalent to the helix of adenine, guanine, cytosine, thiamine, they are not bad.


I think the OF or Catholic dimension is usually the base. Up In and Out are all action words, whereas OF is a being and belonging word. Christians are the Body OF Christ. Our identity is fundamentally and miraculously to be made part of his identity. We are those who are in Christ. Thus we share in his communion with the Father and the Spirit, we join their mission and are reenergised and redirected by encounter  with God.

I have explained DNA as an analogy to explore what is the essence of God.

So then a group may be called Church when a diverse community is formed by transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. Called to follow him, this community lovingly responds through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, seeking to live and act as signs of God’s Kingdom. Their call is to be the people of God for a particular place or culture, will be shown by the emergence of the following:


1          By their presence, acts and words they communicate the reality of Jesus Christ, continuing his mission.

2          Living out faithful commitment to one another, they reflect the loving and diverse oneness in the Trinity.

3          Knowing they are an integral part of Christ’s universal people, they love, learn from, and support Christians beyond their own group.

4          By their worship of God the Trinity, they encourage transformation into his holiness, including the practices of attending to Scripture and doing Baptism and Communion.


I’d end by saying we need to trust the DNA of church


Here are my wife Helen and myself.  Then I pose a question. What will our children look like?  If you have never met them, of course you cannot know.  However when you see them, the links become obvious – facial features, face shapes, even casts of mind. Looking back we can see the family likeness, but we also encounter individuality. So it is with DNA and All Expressions of Church.  You can’t know what they will be like at the start. When they are grown, the parentage will become apparent.


[1] Dulles. Models of the Church. He argues that the Institution model was dominant in Catholic thought from Constantine until 1950.  Since when he detects no less than 5 other models.
[2] For example the creation of a workbook for churches to chart this locally.  Hollinghurst, Richmond & Whitehead. Equipping your church in a spiritual age.
[3] Mission-shaped Church : CHP 2004London, 9-11
[4] This is very uneven and in the UK there are still rural areas where it looks strong and inner city areas that it is virtually absent. Similarly wide differences are detected across different age groups. 
[5] Alan +Roxburgh : The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality : Trinity Press : Harrisburg 1997
[6] Perhaps Phil  Potter, The Challenge of Cell Church, is the most persuasive to English readers.
[7] Jamieson  Churchless Faith,  93. More accurately this could be called Congregationless Faith as the majority have evolved some level of meeting in small groups.
[8] Cited by Graham Cray in a lecture to Network Church Planters . Sheffield 2004
[9] Newbigin L: The Household of God : Paternoster 1998:  p201 originally published in 1953
[10]Mission-shaped Church : CHP 2004:32
[11]Mission-shaped Church Ch 5 explores these categories to re-examine church, as does my own Encounters on the Edge No 5, Joining the Club or Changing the Rule, which begins to explore how we know whether a new body is in fact church.
[12] Dulles 1988: 18
[13] Avis: 2000: 65 acknowledges the latter distortion. “Catholicity … in the past has often been a byword for authorisation, uniformity and crushing of local traditions”
[14] Dulles 1988: 133
[15] Ibid: 134
[16] Two markers could be taken. It is implicit in Ch 6 of his 1953 Ecclesiology Unto the Nations and explicit in the 1989 work The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Ch 7 The Logic of Election.
[17] Newbigin L:  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society: SPCK 1989: 86
[18] Stott J: God’s New Society :  IVP 1979: 150
[19] Ibid 1979: 151
[20]Mission-shaped Church : 2004: 99

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