DNA: The Mechanisms of Planting

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

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surferIn the 1st session we looked at DNA understood as what was being planted.

The 2nd session takes DNA in another sense and teases out how it happens – what are the processes or mechanisms of creating or planting churches. 

In England we have nearly stopped using the noun a church plant for at least two reasons. One we have found there are many kinds of churches that can be planted so the language of church plant is too restrictive. 2nd our experience has been that too many so called church plants have been unhelpfully similar to the parent body that sent them and not well enough adapted to their mission context. If effect they were transplanted.  So we prefer to call what is being created “fresh expressions of church”. However we still think that the verb church planting is valuable, it describes a process,  and the first session partly explored why. Church Planting is the discipline and Fresh Expressions are the fruit of that discipline. So we would talk of planting fresh expressions of church. [FXC]

This connects with the first point to make about DNA understood as how planting FXC happens.  

1       Seeds are key

Going our from existing church in apostolic mission we take with us seeds – of both the gospel and church – as we saw in session one.  The seeds only get taken out and planted as the missionary journey unfolds.  These seeds then must die to take root in the context to which we are sent.   The essential principle is, SEEDS MUST BE ALLOWED TO DIE.   The report

Mission-shaped Church  talks about this both in its 3rd chapter on church planting and its chapter 5 on theology. 

This instinct is rooted in Jesus words in John 12; they suggest that dying to live is inherent in the Christian way.  This is not some weird game only those in planting FXC play. Baptism should have reminded us of that, it is symbolic enactment of, and identification with, the Death and Resurrection of Christ. He makes it clear that his patterns are to be ours.  John 12  contains the text “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also.”   It is curious and worrying that while we have taken the notion of death and resurrection into some liturgical rites, we link it to the church’s year, we embrace it in some patterns of spirituality, but we have broadly omitted taking it into mission. Yet the very person who taught mission to us said it was the pattern of his mission.   Jesus made it quite clear that his followers are committed to his pattern.  Turn on in the same Gospel, to John 20, and the same Jesus is bringing peace among the startled disciplines. He shows them his hands and his side – the cost is not glossed over. Then these missionary headline words follow, or if you prefer ecclesiological language – at this point apostolic identity, is conferred on the church.”As the Father sent me so I send you.”     What a word as is: As – in the same manner as I was sent as God’s apostle – so I send youAs – on the same journey from incarnational identification with culture, to disclosure of the Lordship endorsing counter cultural engagement – so I send you.As – in the same way as I the seed died in the ground and have now emerged both similar and different – so I send you.As I – [in the way Paul described in Philippians 2] the eternal Son was willing to die to the glories of heaven, to be transformed into the form of a dying slave – so I send you.As  – in the same way of becoming very different to become like those to whom I was sent,  – so I send you.  Have no doubt that the patterns of Jesus are for us all. They are for the whole church, most especially when it gets clear that Church is extension of the mission of Jesus.  The patterns apply to the creation of Fresh Expressions of Church. They apply in all cross cultural work.  Dying to live is normal., because it was the norm set by Christ.  

Jesus teaching on dying to live , is normative for the church. In John 12 he shows that he saw his own life and ministry, as a seed that would die,  only by this could new life come as he was raised by the Father, and would this lead to the creating of much fruit.   

Lets move from theology to practical experience. We know that to grow a plant you must sow a seed. Seeds left in an unopened packet cannot be described as planted. They must be moved out of the packet. What then happens is that they are buried in the soil. That means an intentional end of their existence.  You don’t see them again.  But then something related to the seed, but different from it,  starts to grow up, out of the ground.  Paul knows this factor of similarity and difference and he teaches it in 1 Cor 15 in relation to death and eternal life.

Let’s translate that dynamic into the church planting process in any mission context.  The seed stands for the incoming church planting team, bearing in their bones the essence of the gospel and of the church.  This seed dies to its previous identity in this sense.  These people were part of a particular sending church; which had its own particular manifestations and culture.  They have to be willing to set aside those preferences and likes, to find how to be church and how to communicate gospel in the context to which God sends them.  This is not new. It is like Paul saying in 1 Cor 9  “to the Greeks I became as a Greek”.  For some today it might mean, to the Pagans, I became as a Pagan.  So this seed will become a body, a plant, that it was not before.  The Plant and the seed are related, but also different, as 1 Cor 15 teaches.  Dying to Live is inherent in the church planting discipline and process.  The planting team [or seed], by mixing with its mission context, becomes rooted there. It draws nourishment and resources from that environment as it sends out roots and then a shoot emerges. By this process, it dies as a seed, changing from what it was. In church planting, the seed community becomes a new body of believers, as well as a body of new believers. As such the planting analogy has real strengths.  It conveys by analogy, what should occur theologically, in all mission and is especially obvious when it is cross cultural.

There are however a dangers in the planting way of thinking. One comes from a view of what is being planted. Seed is just a helpful analogy. The reality is that a Jesus centred community-in-mission are entering another area or culture in order to be gospel and create church that relates to that area of culture.  This is certainly not a mechanical process that can be totally controlled like a production line. Some teaching about church planting feels rather like that – do the following 17 precise steps and you will have church. Sorry its more organic and uncertain than that.  Nor is it even only biological, and if a few dozen seeds die it doesn’t matter because you’ll get enough vegetables in the end from ones that make it. That won’t do either – this is a human and spiritual process.  It needs the kind of love, intention, care, thought and skill that we apply to human reproduction from pregnancy to birth. 

Willingness to die to my preferences about how to do church, so that others in the receiving culture may be found by Jesus and a fresh expression of church suited to them comes to life is honourable and essential. Being mechanistic about the process or cavalier about the costs is quite another matter.

Here’s another skill we learning about in the process – of how you decide, in the dying to live process what kept and what can change.

2       Double Listening

The next principle in methodology, for all cases, is what the Church of England report Mission-shaped

Church  calls DOUBLE LISTENING.  It is related to the seeds dying principle.   To reach other people different from them, those sent have to die to their own preferences about how to do church – then what is the essence of what must be kept ?   This is very like asking what is the DNA of gospel and church within the dying seed, that grows into the roots put down and emerges to shape the newly planted church?  We looked at that content in session one.

This process of finding that out involves two things.  Both are forms of attending to what God is saying.  Double listening means entering and understanding the culture in which a church might be established, truly listening to the mission context – like Paul did in Athens in Acts 17.  It also means sifting the inherited tradition of both gospel and church and finding its essence, not its forms. This is what Paul is doing when he rejects circumcision as necessary for new Greek Christian believers.  Double listening is complex, but it enables hearing a richer more accurate sound and better for determining what expression a new church might take.

Some people misunderstand about the sources to listen to. Here is an example from the Church of England Board of Readers website

Double Listening is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us.

This builds on the John Stott view that we listen to God’s Word and God’s world.  I agree that both belong to God. I agree that the Word has a higher authority for us in determining what we believe and do. 

However this view is narrow in two ways. It separates out listening to the Word, from the listening that comes from knowing the living tradition, which has grown from the word, and helps us be more humble and flexible in returning to the Word, but which never has a higher authority than the word.  It also separates listening to the Word, from listening to the Holy Spirit, who will be active in the world and the particular culture to which any apostolic person is sent. There will also be the factor that God, as Creator, has left some finger prints of himself within that culture.  The classic NT examples of this process of listening to God through the world would be Peter learning from the Cornelius story and Paul learning from his

Athens visit. So double listening, as I meant it inMission-shapedChurch, is seriously saying that the voice of God is being sought with both ears – the ear that listens to the living church tradition and the ear that listens to the culture to which a person is sent.

  •          For the planting of churches, listening to both contemporary culture and to church tradition are vital.  Only listen to culture and you will end up with syncretism – in which gospel and church are perverted and distorted by the culture. 
  •          Only listen to the inherited tradition and the life and message of Jesus will not engage the culture. It will be disconnected, nothing is gained because it will be irrelevant.

In mission we do not come with empty hands, hearts or brains, but it is key to have open ears. In this sense there is an order to this double listening process.  We do bring what we have inherited, but we suspend that to pay attention and listen to the mission context, to culture and the world,. This comes before discerning how the inherited Christian tradition works within that culture.

Mission precedes the shaping of the resultant church, when the seed of the gospel and church roots in the mission culture.    

Some might think  listening to context is all about evangelism, and listening to tradition is all about church.   I’d say that was disastrous.  Using a farming metaphor,  that’s the way fruit of evangelism might be gained, but then it gets left to rot in the fields – because the barn of the church is no good to store it.   Changing the metaphor, though still staying biological, – Jesus talked about the need for new skins for new wine.  We work at double listening over Church and Gospel. Creating Fresh Expressions of church is two listenings – over those two tasks.

Lets go back to the order in the double listening and the different dynamics as the discernment within the process unfolds. Listening to the cultural context shapes the gospel bearing church that emerges. 

Mission shapes church.  Then the second ear of double listening – hearing our inheritance of the faith uniquely revealed in the Scriptures – validates and assesses what the expression of gospel and of church that is emerging.  Even then it is sometimes possible that those in the context will rightly challenge how we, the incoming outsiders, have understood the Word and they may be right.  Examples of this are found in the classic mission book, Christianity Rediscovered. At points Donovan found that the Masai understood better than he did, as a highly trained Spiritan missionary.

So Double Listening is a process which enables something to evolve as its context changes. It holds in tension both a creative engagement with context and a faithfulness to the good news in Jesus. It is not easy, not simple, but essential and creative. Remember too that the order of double listening is very like the theological principle of following the Jesus pattern; firstly incarnation into culture, then counter cultural engagement with it.

Let’s apply that briefly to the dominant culture we shall encounter – consumerism. Following paul we might start be saying “To the consumers I became as a consumer” but in the case of consumerism, the gospel-shaped community that grows up will have to address questions at the core of the human self, which does make choices.  Living the gospel is only partly about what and why I choose, as well as it is about who chose me.  This informs whom I serve and whom I will be prepared to die for and what I will gladly die to. Jesus will bring new choices about my supposed right of choice. 

[3D thinking ]

Listening to context, then validating it by our inheritance connects to the next insight about process. Mission-shaped

Church  chapter 6 spells that out very clearly, insisting we must ask the right questions, and in the right order. If Mission shapes Church,  it follows we must begin by asking who is a fresh expression of church for,  before going on to ask who will staff it and how it will relate to the wider church. 

Mission Shaped Church  put it like this. p 116

start with the church and the mission will probably get lost.

start with the mission and it is likely that the Church will be found.

In the language that Mission Shaped Church has adopted, To make fresh starts that are thought through, the expression of church should be formed by three considerations, 3 dimensions, taken in this order, for the theological reason that

Mission should shape the Church, not vice versa.  And for the methodological reason that listening to context comes first.

1          Who it is for    – what is the Mission goal – who are we sent to ?

2          Who is it by     – who are the Mission Resources – or the sent team ?

3          Who is it with  – who are the Mission partners -or sending churches?

You could read Mission-shaped Church  Ch 6 to see how these questions develop.

The Church of the Saviour Washington DC has created a diverse range of congregations each around a specific mission context. These are the 3 questions they always ask in the process – good questions and in my view in the right order.

I now want to give you a field observation that goes beyond what Mission-shaped Church  dared to say in full, though there are hints on p 117 about worship.

4       Don’t assume starting with worship

If we begin to realise that mission shapes church – and this creates a go shape not a come shape, this profoundly questions whether provision of worship is the obvious theological starting point in mission.

Go back to some 1990’s theory about the functions of Church – from Robert Warren. What does Church do – it worships, offers community and acts in mission. Spirituality beats at the heart of these three activities. 

Then contrast that ideal picture with much western practice. 

Then you notice a dominant circle about worship. That can be measured by investment of money time, money and personnel in buildings, programmes and clergy to run them all.


All too often the Community  who meet in this building are somewhat dysfunctional and unattractive. As some wag said – “the main reason others aren’t in church, is because we are.”  Third, in practiceMission  is a weird thing that either happens overseas or is done by enthusiasts, who thank God, are not people like us.


Try to make such a beast mission minded, let alone mission centred is difficult. So attempts to change it  often turn out only to be a temporary foray out of the fold, in order to invite a few weak minded others to come and worship with us in our way.

Contrast that to the varied mission field we now face. How do elements of the mission field and of being church connect ?

This matrix shows what we have found, on the ground in England. We have learnt to recognize there are different groups in our society. Our members who are our people, the fringe who are willing to explore being our people, the dechurched to used to be our people and they divide into those who would come back and those determined not to come back. Then there are the non churched who have never been our people.   In the Western world the proportions of these groups are different, but what is common to all places are two features. The percentage of the non churched is growing and it is larger, the younger the section of society you take. In short, it is the main mission field of the future. Here then are those groups in a table with the question how do we connect with the different groups?

Its also helpful to look at these groups by context.  Some fringe people still live as though Christendom is alive and well. But there are increasingly those who are post Christian, Anti-Christian and among young people who are children of the latter groups PreChristian.

The arrows show the overlaps between the two rows. So you will see that I don’t suggest the Open dechurched and the Pre Christians are the same group – its just that they do share one similarity I’ll explore later.


Where then do you start with each group?


Those fringe people still in Christendom mode may well be helped by more accessible worship, that is attractive to them, with a quality welcome that is not over the top. They may well even come to traditional worship if it has quality.


The open dechurched and the prechristians – because they don’t have baggage may well be open to forms of process evangelism – Alpha is the best known example, but not the only way to do it. They may welcome the chance to explore, to put their questions and observe what Christians actually do to relate to God.


However if you offer worship to the non churched they will yawn and make excuses. If you dive in with evangelism they are likely to run away. In England the second worst social sin after intolerance is evangelism – because it is seen as imposing your views on others. So you can’t do worship or evangelism. What’s left in the Christian locker?


It turns out to be living out community. That will probably mean helping other build their community and also living out a quality of attractive community among them. This had been one of our principal discoveries in the last decade. Unless our lives pose questions, the answers we might want to give cannot be heard.


What about the dechurched who are hurt and angry. I only know saying sorry. It’s a painful and slow start.

Please notice the colour coding in the table. But remember these are not necessarily attitudes to God, they are attitudes to the church.

Do notice the difference in style. We actually like to stay in control and that’s partly what pushes us to offer worship. As soon as real evangelism begins actually it’s a dialogue – more double listening going on.  With community building it can mean partnerships with those who don’t share our faith, but entering them shows if we are secure in who we are. Listening speaks for itself and requires vulnerability to be done well.

There’s one more vital thing about the table. It only works in one direction. Good community will appeal to virtually everyone. Worship actually reaches the fewest and can’t do much for the other groups.  Evangelism does work wider but for many it starts too far on. Community will lead to good questions; conversations can eventually lead to commitment, worship then nurtures it. 

So it seems from Mission Shaped Church thinking and from field study there is an inherent order in the creation of Fresh Expressions of Church. It is very unlike what we are used to.

It is essential to start with the apostolic or missional community. This group go bearing seeds of the gospel and the church. They live in such a way that others are drawn to them; strangers become friends, prompted by what they see to ask questions. 

As the planting team connect with the culture, learn its language and find its priorities, the shape of mission  to that culture or area grows clearer.  Only by being there does the specific shape to the mission emerges. It is part of connecting with discernment of what God is doing there.

Only then  as local people respond to Christ and are discipled in the Christian community does indigenous worship slowly begin to emerge.  It grows out of the stories of finding faith, stories of answered prayers, it meshes with the local musical culture and local people’s creative gifts.

What must be characteristic of the worship – is that it feeds the life, gifting, calling and aspirations of the growing community.  Monastic groups would describe this process as worship nurturing the charism of the community.

But note the order: Public Worship does not come first. Indeed it cannot – it must be grown as the community in mission co-operates with God in evolving a mission shaped church.

I want to end with an image/ an analogy – quite different from DNA. One danger of DNA thinking is that we might be tempted into ecclesial genetic engineering.  It shouldn’t be like that. and frankly when done well usually isn’t. We need to get back to surprise and not being really in control and working as junior partners to God.

[Springboard to Surfboard]

An image I offer you is that to think the Church in its mission is being moved on, from bouncing off a springboards to something both similar and different.   The analogy of a Springboard “says” take a humanly controlled risk; the diver decides how vigorously to jump off the board and what difficulty of dive to attempt.  Note too the dive is in a very often in the controlled environment of the indoor heated swimming pool.  The picture “says” – lets tap into resources that enable us the church to do better, what we have already been doing and that will be quite sufficient for what we need and risky enough thank you.   Riding a Surfboard “speaks” of a higher risk, in an environment the surfer cannot control.  The analogy suggests a way of working which is also inherently far more reactive; it necessarily involves the surfer waiting for, spotting and then getting up on the wave.  The wave itself is created by two factors.  It crests because of the immediate context of the shelving sea floor beneath it and the fetch of the wind blowing across it. To me that in turn says read the cultural context beneath you and discern what God the Spirit is doing in mission beyond you.  When you are up then it really gets fun. Are you in control ? Well yes and no.  Of course the wave may well carry you somewhere you have not chosen.  Another big difference is this, by definition all surfboarders operate in an outside, perhaps even hostile, environment.  There is similarity: both diver and surfer harness power beyond themselves.  Both diver and boarder possess great technical skills. But the diver is more in control, by deciding the forces to be unleashed by the springboard, and when and how to dive. Whereas the boarder is not in control of what occurs – only of how she/he reacts. Yet it is immediately clear that it is the picture of the surfer that conjures the  greater sense of adventure, freedom and wildness.  I suggest the paradigm of a springboard; of better ways back to existing church is being overtaken.  In surfing, a far more uncertain but creative apostolic journey is calling, as the way onwards to hitherto unknown fresh expressions of church.  Yet this route  in the wild is not new.


It is the path of Donovan and Allen, of Venn and Anderson, of Ricci and Xavier, of Aidan and Cuthbert, of Martin and Anthony, of Paul in 1 Cor 9 and Peter in Acts 10.  This way has never been very welcome. For it demands trust in the Spirit beyond obvious prudence, it makes the church bound up with mission, and forces her to surrender control of outcomes. It breaks the barriers of who may belong, it flows messily over the boundaries of how we are organized and even disturbs how we understand what we believe – again that’s not new – ask Peter on the roof top at Joppa.

Yet it is our Lord who underpins risky surfing.   His patterns are fascinating: ·         John highlights Jesus living reactive attentiveness to waves of the Father.  ·         Luke portrays his surprising outrageous acceptance of the outsider. ·         Mark shows us immediacy of response not measured tread.  ·         Matthew stresses his cultural particularity, ·        Paul in Philippians 2 tells the cost of it.  ·         Gethsemane and Golgotha show us Jesus carried to where he did not wish to go.    Surfing in Mission sounds glorious. But Death and Resurrection of the Church as we have known it might be its consequence.  I pray the Church of our day can tolerate its own Holy Saturday – or period of Exile – long enough, to sow the seeds of Jesus-centred gospel communities, so that it may be raised, different for tomorrow in the ongoing Mission of God. I guess nothing less will actually do.  What would be dreadful would be if the church only got half the point. It is very capable of saying something like. “Yes I see that waves are rather good and could be fun.  Why don’t we install a wave machine in our swimming pools. We could also start courses on responsible safe indoor surfing.”   “Let’s stay in control, let’s change the game but we’ll use the new language to try and show that we’ve got it.”  To which I say no – please not. Let’s do the real thing.  Let’s go with the Spirit of God already blowing across the face of our culture.  Let’s listen, wait watch and catch the waves of what God is already doing. Let’s risk that sometime we will fall off and sometimes we will also get the ride of our lives.  That’s what some of us meant we meant when we wrote Mission-shaped Church. Funnily enough we actually thought that only by being caught up in a particular mission could you find out what church would result. We didn’t mean Church shaped mission and don’t think it will do because that is back to the springboard.  Let’s do it knowing that even if we may look like artists actually we are totally junior partners. We didn’t make either the wind, the sea bed or the resultant wave. We just co-operated with what we spotted.

Let’s do the surfing even if as yet we aren’t very good at it, even if we can’t see where it might take us and what waves might come along, and who they might carry us to be among.  


  1. Roger E. Briggs
    March 26, 2008

    The last sentence of Section #4: “We need to get back to surprise ….” As most of us I like to have control. I like to plan and follow through step by step. By that means I am able to judge success or failure. One of the things we try to cut out from life is the element of surprise. In many ways our culture teaches us to fear ‘Surprise’. Mind you, we do not mind pleasant surprises although some of us do not care for them either because we like to ‘be prepared’! But as a father and grand-father one of the joys of relationships is to ‘be surprising’. I am so glad that George Lings said this towards the end of his presentation. For all our planning and techniques (which must necessarily be part of our stratergies – God is the God of order after all) there are other possibilities necessary for sharing the new life in Jesus the Christ. Our God, whom we call Father, is the God of Surpises. Not always pleasant surprises but always creative and life-giving surprises. From the first verses of Genesis to last words from Revelation – the Lord was full of surprises. The trouble we have is how do to build surprises into our plans! Holy Spirit surprises, I mean, that come unexpected on so many levels of experience.

  2. Pastor Jeff Tribble
    May 31, 2008

    This is an excellent understanding of the different factors that shape a church plant. We are surfingwith our antenas up, picking our waves by the unction of the Holy Spirit


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