Stop Launching Churches! Instead, Covenant Together
I think we should stop talking about “launching” new church plants and instead refer to them “covenanting” for the first time.
WHY DO WE SAY “LAUNCH”?
I am a church planter myself. I’ve learned from other planters, talked to planters, read updates from planters, and read the books on church planting. And we all say “launch.”
I asked a few. Their responses were not all the same. The most common definition I have heard is, “This is the date on which our planting team ‘goes public.’” When I follow up by asking if a person from the public could have attended their meetings before the “launch” the common answer is “sure.”
So what actually happened when you “launched,” if people from the public could have attended before? Apparently, launching is different than having a child or getting married. You know when those things happen!
Here’s what I think we planters have done: borrowed a word from the business world in order to garner energy and inject life into a church from its beginning.
HOW ABOUT “COVENANT” INSTEAD?
I would like to advocate the use of the biblical word “covenant” to designate the beginning of a church, as in “We first covenanted as a congregation on June 24.”
You find a picture of the returning exiles renewing their covenant with each other and God in Nehemiah 9:32-38. And the fellowship of a church is a kind of covenant, whereby we affirm one another’s professions of faith and agree to oversee one another’s discipleship to Christ. This is the cumulative picture that you see in Matthew 16 when Jesus affirms Peter and Peter’s profession (v. 17), and that you see again (in inverse form) in Matthew 18 when the church removes its affirmation of someone’s profession of faith (v. 17).
What is a church? It’s a gathering of two or three people in Christ’s name—a society of people covenanted together in the same gospel profession. Through baptism and the Lord’s Supper we partake of this local covenant together as our localized picture of our new covenant membership. (Bobby Jamieson, in his brand new book Going Public, describes baptism as the initiating oath sign of the new covenant. And he describes the Lord’s Supper as the renewing oath sign of the new covenant.)
I don’t think Scripture compels us to use the word “covenanting” to speak about the beginning of a church. It doesn’t tell us we must. I’m not saying that either. I do think the word helpfully captures what happens in Scripture when a group of Christians organize as a church. Therefore I’m offering it as a “best practice.”
NOT JUST TRADING ONE WORD FOR ANOTHER
“Covenanting” is more than just trading one word for another word. It communicates the idea that certain actions must take place in order to establish a church, just like a wedding ceremony demands certain actions take place in order for a man and a woman to come together under the covenant of marriage.
First, covenanting demands that a particular set of expectations bind a group of Christians together, like biblical vows place a set of expectations on husband and wife. They are responsible to affirm one another’s gospel professions. And they are responsible to oversee one another’s discipleship.
Secondly, covenanting demands that a particular set of expectations bind a particular group of Christians. It makes clear who is meaningfully part of the church and who is not. We are a people “set apart” from the world.
How thin and meaningless the word “launch” seems by comparison! Covenant is a family word, a blood oath word. Launch is a rocketship word, or a widget factory word.
Finally, the word covenant communicates the idea that the church is a people, not an “event.”
THE OLD MEETINGHOUSES
If you were to walk into the back of the old meetinghouses (as they called them) where churches gathered, you would sometimes find a beautiful document called a church covenant. It would lay out a way of life that the church had agreed to live by. At the bottom would be the signatures of the church’s members.
I don’t want to make too big a deal about what we call the beginning of a church. But I do think the word covenant will help to shepherd our people into a richer, deeper, and more biblical picture of what the life of the local church is and what it’s not. Which suggests it just may be a practice worth recapturing.