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By Dr. Martin Spoelstra BRE, BA, MA, DMIN

Over the past few years, as a church planter, I have been asked many times to have conversations with existing church pastors about how they can implement and practice some of the things that church planters have used to grow their church and to integrate into existing culture. There is a hope that church planters have somehow figured out how to connect with people and that they have tried things often enough that they’ve seen some success. 

I think the reason that these questions are coming up repeatedly in my conversations with our denominational regional leader and other church planters is that there is a recognition that innovation has stagnated within the CRC. That new ideas and new ways of thinking can no longer be just the purview of church plants. 

Innovation must also reside within the existing church.

In his article “Why Plant Churches” (Keller 2002), Tim Keller states that we should stop thinking about church plants and church renewal as two different things. Church plants often serve as the research and development department for the church. Church plants try new things, develop new ideas, train new leaders, and have bandwidth to take risks. Like a research and development department in a large corporation, church planters' research and risk-taking is eventually incorporated into the organization. At least the good things are. Church plants and church renewal should function in the same way.

And, in many ways, church plants reflect a particular view of success. Church plants are more likely to reach new people and new people groups than existing churches. Church plants are more likely to attract younger people and families (Keller 2002). But the way in which church plants do that is a skill that can be learned by existing churches, and thus can contribute to church renewal.

In Galatians 2, Paul speaks to the church and tries to communicate to them his position as apostle to the Gentiles. He reports on his meeting with the apostles in Jerusalem and his time with Barnabas and Titus. He shares with the leaders in Jerusalem the message that he has been preaching to the Gentiles and he wants to make sure that they are in agreement. 

7 Instead, they saw that God had given me the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as he had given Peter the responsibility of preaching to the Jews. 8 For the same God who worked through Peter as the apostle to the Jews also worked through me as the apostle to the Gentiles. (Galatians 2:7-8)

Paul makes the statement in verse 8 that both he and Peter were commissioned as apostles, but to different groups: Paul to the Gentiles and Peter to Jewish Christians (the established church of the day). What we have is an apostolic ministry to the unreached through Paul but also an apostolic ministry to the existing church through Peter. 

If we consider that a good deal of the work that needs to be done in our current cultural context in the CRC is with the existing church, then understanding the role that Peter played as an apostle takes on new meaning and importance. 

Church planting is likely to extend Christianity and start new movements on new frontiers of the church, but church renewal is likely to to rejuvenate the mission of the church as we know and experience it. To rejuvenate the mission of the church is to have systems in place for making disciples, developing leaders, and engaging culture.

Peter’s Role as Apostle

Peter brought his agrarian simplicity, his practical approach, and his Jewish concern for ritual purity to his calling as apostle. During his formative years, Jesus prepared him for this apostolic ministry by giving him experiences that he would need. Peter would’ve remembered when Jesus had declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). He would have remembered his confusion when he returned to the well only to find Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman (John 4:27). Jesus was preparing the disciples for the expansion of the church beyond its Jewish boundaries.

After the church was scattered Philip was the first to preach in Samaria and the apostles decided to send Peter and John to see what was happening there. They had a chance to lay hands on new believers who had not received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John preached in many Samaritan cities on their way back to Jerusalem which set the groundwork for Peter’s apostolic mission.

Jesus’ preparation of Peter led him to understand that even though he was called to the church of the day, he was also part of the way in which the church would become welcoming to people from all different cultures. Peter gives us an example of the intra-cultural function of the apostle residing within the church who is willing to step outside of the church to be innovative in reaching them. They are primarily called to serve the existing people of God. In Acts 9:32-42, Peter visits two predominantly Jewish cities of Joppa and Lydia where he spends the majority of his time. His primary work was in and through the church itself in many people were converted to Christ.

For 15 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the church existed as a sect of Judaism. Yet this group of people resisted innovation. For the most part, the centre point of this young church's gatherings was still the Jewish temple. While ministry to a new, Gentile people group the Samaritans was growing, the church in Jerusalem was reluctant to make changes. It was Peter that God used to bring about openness to Gentile believers. Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is the preparation he needs in order to accept the testimony of Cornelius, a Roman God-fearing Gentile, who wants to be baptized.

It’s clear from his formation that his roots lie within a simple faith of Judaism that would reflect ritual purity and the teachings of Jesus. Jesus himself sets Peter on the trajectory of focusing his calling upon the church with the threefold challenge to feed his sheep. It’s also clear that he was open to sharing his faith and the message of the gospel with the Gentiles. The apostle Paul focused on the marketplace and the philosophical discussions in forums while Peter visited the predominantly Jewish cities of Joppa and Lydia. These were “churchy environments” where the gospel was preached, and the message was spread to the Gentiles. The Bible tells us that many were converted as a result of this ministry (Acts 9:32-42). While the apostle Paul was “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Acts 14; 16-28), Peter served as a bridge to hold together the diverse people, both Jewish and Gentile, of the early church (Acts 15:6-19). 

Even Peter’s first letter to the churches is filled with descriptions of the Gentile believers as being in some sense replacing the nation of Israel as the people of God. From the beginning of the letter to the end, Peter describes the church with terms that have been used in defining Israel. They are the “elect” and “scattered” ones (1 Peter 1:1) and a “holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). Especially the significant phrases used in 2:9-10 which is the language of the covenant (“chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”)

The Petrine model (Hirsch and Catchim 2012, 122-136)

Petrine apostles tend to have a more internal focus and are less missionary in the cross-cultural sense. They are called primarily to serve the already existing people of God. 

  • They have a greater tolerance for more traditional contexts and flourish in reframing and reinterpreting an existing institution or organization. 
  • They might go to new places but not to unreached groups of people. They would rather go to existing churches in a region and work from within to bring about the mission of God. 
  • They work towards positive change, often taking radical action that falls just short of getting the person fired.
  • Petrine apostles tend to mobilize existing communities to become and remain Missional. 
  • Petrine apostles can be described as intrapreneurs - those within an organization who take direct responsibility for turning an idea into a viable outcome through assertive risk-taking and innovation.

Hirsch and Catchim use two definitions to describe the work of the Petrine apostle. They described them as Miners and mobilizers.

Miners focus their energies on the faith community finding the intrinsic motivation and the identification of unused sources of human capital and identifying and removing internal barriers to the mission of Jesus’s people. They explore the structures that might block or assist an organization in its response to mission. It’s about digging deep into the congregation and bringing out the theological, systematic and ecclesial treasures. These ecclesial treasures are the unique gifts and talents that reside within the existing church. A Petrine apostle will help identify unused resources and remove internal barriers to the mission. We can see the character of each church coming to the surface in the ways in which they are engaging with culture. These treasures are the desires, hopes and dreams of a unique church in a unique location given a unique Missional challenge.

Mobilizers develop an approach designed to address the community’s inherent capacity for mission. Mobilizers connect the church to its core theological truths and to mission. Mobilizers tend to reveal both the community’s dysfunction and its potential to accelerate the process of mobilization for mission by becoming creative and entrepreneurial. They do this by developing momentum in the following ways:

  • They remind the church that it is sent as part of the redemptive movement of God into the world.
  • They deepen the incarnational aspect of Jesus' ministry by engaging the community and culture in incarnational ways.
  • They help people remember that the church is the recipient and carrier of Jesus' message, and they are responsible to deliver that message.
  • They create holy urgency that reminds people that the Lord is returning soon.
  • They recognize, understand, and communicate that the church is part of a movement and not just a local phenomenon.
  • Leaders who function as an apostolic Peter are permission givers and legitimizers of where God is at work, and they encourage God’s people to participate.

Petrine apostolic leadership would most likely begin within an existing congregation. These leaders would bring the church to question its mission by having them engage the culture to which God has called them. This was the missionary context of the early church. The community (congregation), not the individual, is the primary witness to the bigger gospel.

Application Of Petrine Apostolic Leadership

One potential application of this kind of apostolic leader would then move the congregation to form incarnational community where a small band of “Missional people” intentionally integrate into the lives of the unchurched. They would build authentic relationships with people in close proximity. The apostolic leader would help create a new environment for those “Missional people” that provides a better witness to the culture and is the best way to see the kingdom lived out in concrete ways. That incarnational community will then go together into the culture and form a bridge between cultural engagement with the world and the corporate structure of the church.

The congregation forms an incarnational community that engages culture. This could manifest itself into starting a new missional ministry with a group of people from the existing congregation whose purpose is to engage culture (Halter and Smay 2010). Some examples of incarnational community are:

  • Celebrate Recovery
  • Breakfast clubs for schools or low-income housing
  • Adopting a School
  • Food pantries
  • Divorce care
  • Ministry to International Students
  • Newcomers
  • Moms of Tots

These incarnational communities and many others would focus on intentionally engaging the culture. Once the culture is engaged, discipleship can happen.

It’s also from inside this structure that you can shepherd the sending group. Shepherding people into change that will facilitate the mission, instead of forcing it, is a great way to begin the process of the apostolic ministry inside an existing congregation. This requires someone who has a sense of mission but also a pastoral heart for the congregation. These leaders have an incredible love for God’s existing church. They are people who are willing to create missionary structures and to create momentum for incarnational community.

How can you do this? Pilot programs are often the best way to introduce these new, missional ideas into an existing church community. These programs allow the congregation to experiment while under the care of the existing church, while still  giving individuals a way out should the program not work well. 

Setting aside a small amount of money or a zero budget to kickstart an incarnational pilot program gives the program space to grow. When fruitfulness is evident, the church can then invest more deliberately with finances, leadership development, or staff time (Halter and Smay 2010). This apostolic leadership structure also provides an opportunity for the leadership to develop the discipleship skills of the missional members while engaging the culture.

Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformata - The Church Reformed Ought Always to Be Reforming.

Our covenant relationship with God and His people is not just traditions to be observed or remembered. It's a living relationship between God and his people. Faithfulness is not just retaining past forms and thinking. The speed at which innovation is required is disproportional in our current cultural context. In the past, every innovation eventually got to a place where its potential was realized and winds down. One cultural innovation can completely become irrelevant in another generation. 

If a church doesn't innovate, it will inevitably move towards cultural and theological stagnation. We will continue to see the decline of the church. Innovation is deeply rooted in our reformed theology, but the inertia of existing church and traditions often make innovation difficult. The need for apostolic leaders like Paul and Peter, people who go to new places with new ideas and reimagine of the church’s mission, is greater now than ever before in the CRC. Despite all previous efforts, we must now admit that as of yet we have not developed satisfactory solutions to arrest—much less reverse— the decline in the Christian Reformed Church. The rate of decline in the CRC from 2016 projected into 2026 has been projected to be a decline of 21% (Christian Reformed Church 2023, 391).

The church at large is in decline. The CRC is in decline. The need for the apostolic leadership in the church has never been greater. 

Innovation comes from apostolic vision. That vision is characterized by holy discontent, constant change, adaptability, and development. If the church is just a place where believers are cared for, where they are taught the basics of the faith, then it will likely lack the energy needed to generate new ideas and implement them. Every Reformation in the church came from a vision that things can change in the world, and we can be an instrument in God’s hands for that change.





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