I just returned from Vietnam where the church is exploding. What I saw on this trip, and have seen on past trips, is a church growing. It’s not because of Western involvement, or any other that I could detect, but from unique stories of how individuals came to faith in Christ through unexpected ways, and then wound up leading friends to faith in Christ. That led them to starting groups to pray and worship and reach out. I’ve yet to meet one who deliberately started out to start a church. It just happened because they were leading their friends to faith in Christ–just like Acts 11. Church wasn’t something they intentionally started to reach all these lost seekers. It was community that developed and emerged from relationships that grew due to their following Christ together.
Often when I speak at conferences or at gatherings of church planters, I’ll hear someone say they wanted to start a church because they wanted to reach seekers–that’s good. I’ll hear them say they wanted to be a part of something fresh and new and more culturally relevant–that’s good. Those that are theologically adept (like me!) will say they want to start churches to glorify God. The big thing now is we wanted to start something missional. Obviously, to me, that’s very good. But I’ve NEVER heard that in Vietnam or other countries where the Gospel is exploding–sometimes under difficult situations.
There are no talks, lectures, research, explanations or steps on what is “missional” and how to be more “missional” from the emerging church in the East–it’s just what and who they are. If you called them that, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. It’s fascinating. We’re dissecting the word and concepts, forming lectures and teachings on what it is, mapping out plans on how to be “missional,” and most of us have never even experienced it. It’s the rage right now. We have built a whole religious industry around it–primarily for young pastors. I was like the frog in the kettle recently in that my speaking schedule began to get too full and cramped my “involvement” schedule with how I’m actually on the ground here and working around the world. I had to choose to “speak” missional or “do” missional! At best, in the West, we’ve tried to implement a few things or activities that would be seen as “missional.” Yet, those who are experiencing it don’t realize it, can’t explain it–but are it! Neither could they give a lecture on it. This humbles me tremendously, as a Westerner, and makes me think maybe we are too confident in our ignorance and lack of production with regard to movements and, perhaps, even following Jesus.
This may be the biggest difference of how we intentionally start churches in the West and how they unintentionally start movements in the East that explode like wild fire. However, we’re all “talking” starting movements here in the West (Neil Cole would be the only one I would say who may even come close to that at this point). They don’t talk movements–they don’t know what they are. Movements just happen. I really believe it has to do with the disciple they create. You’ve heard me tell many stories. There are other stories I would love to tell but can’t for now. But, this is my observation from watching it up close the past few years. The differences in the philosophy, the focus, the expected results, the motive, are all reversed! Their philosophy is based more on discipleship where people know who Christ is and follow it together–never expecting big results. In the West, we fund, plan, and strategize our focus on starting something that grows into a movement from a single church, be it big or small, and often we get the growing church—yet, not the movement. On the other hand, sometimes but not often, they will get a growing church like in the West or South Korea, but they do get the movement.
What can we learn from them? Or should we? We’re all talking movement language because we’ve seen it “over there” and want it “here.” Yet, we’ve industrialized it. Can movements be industrialized? What motive for planting a church would be one that God would honor here–beyond converting some different kinds of people? What would it look like for us here in the U.S. to learn from the church in Vietnam, China, or Tehran?