Magazines 2019 Sept - Oct The FT Interview with Marilyn Draper

The FT Interview with Marilyn Draper

16 September 2019 , 2019 Sept - Oct

MARILYN DRAPER is assistant professor of practical theology at Tyndale University College & Seminary. She is an ordained minister and church planter. She spoke to Faith Today about the role of story in evangelism and why we shouldn't worry so much about numbers in our churches.

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Faith Today: Marilyn, what exactly do we mean by practical theology?

Marilyn Draper: We talk about three areas – the practices of culture, the practices of the Church and the practices of God, and where those three practices meet, that’s the area of practical theology. So an example of a practice of culture would be leadership. How does culture see leadership? How does that compare with how God sees leadership and then how does that connect with how the church does? We would look at what is a biblical, theological and also practical understanding of what it means to be a leader in the church.

FT: You’ve been part of several church plants. How can we think theologically about church plants right now in our culture?

MD: So often in the past, we have just thought of a Sunday morning. "What we need to do is come into an area and we need to start a Sunday morning service." And what we’ve recognized is that this is not really thinking deeply theologically about what the church is – that the church is so much more than a service where people get together for a couple hours on a Sunday morning. So now what we do is we look at it through the lens of discernment and the idea of mission. What is God doing in a particular area?

The key question I ask a group, if they’re thinking about planting a church, is get in there and learn to see your community through God’s eyes and ask the key questions. "What is God doing in this area and how can we participate?" And then, as a result, the way the church plant develops is completely different. And often the church service ends up becoming, you know, maybe step five. Or step six as opposed to step one.

FT: How do you know? How do you find out what God is already doing?

MD: We talk about excavating the community, and that is simply spending time in the community. You would be walking the streets, you would be praying as a small group. I’m thinking you’ve actually got a little bit of a team that you’re starting with, so that you’re not totally on your own.

And so, as a team, you’re walking the streets and you’re praying, "God, what are you doing here?" And then you’re talking to people. You’re going in to talk to shop owners and meeting them. Instead of having an office in a home, or a designated church building or church place you’re actually making your office perhaps in a local coffee shop. And what you’re doing is you’re listening and you’re asking questions. "What are the challenges here? What is the great thing about living here? What are the problems about living here? What are the resources that are needed? What are the resources that are abundant?

How are people thinking in terms of spiritual theological concepts?" A lot of what you do at the beginning is simply listening. You’re listening to God and you’re listening to the community, and then you’re getting together and you’re talking about what you’ve been hearing in that process.

FT: We all want to be about building the Kingdom, but sometimes when a church plant moves into an area that has already established churches, there can be some competition that seems to happen with people moving around between churches. Can you speak to that?

MD: Competition is often the first reaction, although I can also say from experience that often what happens when you come in and you start a new church ministry is you actually end up giving more to the churches and to the congregations in that area. One of the reasons for starting a church plant on the ground and through listening is that ideally you’re going to be connecting with the unchurched people, the "nones and the dones," the people who have never been exposed to Christianity and the Good News that’s inherent in the Gospel.

Or the people that maybe were in the Church as children, but really have never been enabled in their faith. So ideally, if you’re building relationships with those people, you’re not starting a congregation that’s going to be attracting people from the other congregations because you aren’t putting on a show. You’re simply building relationships. A lot of it for the first while is not seen.

In terms of that idea of competition, I know we’ve been involved in a couple of church plants where people came to know Christ and then they started to get more excited about their faith. Well, then they’d come to us and they’d say, "Okay, now, we actually want to serve in this area, but this group is so small. We’re actually going to jump to the more established congregation because it has the youth group that we want to help out with, or the missions teams that we want to be involved in." So we actually found it’s not uncommon for us, for a small church plant, to actually give people to the bigger congregations in their area.

FT: So you are saying they would come to Christ at the church plant, and then head off to a more established church because it’s bigger and has more established programming?

MD: Yes, that kind of thing. And often it was the people who actually became Christians in the church plant, as much as the people who had fallen away from the Church, or been hurt and came back, and through relationships experienced healing, and then they were ready to make the jump back into the more established congregations.

FT: So church plants sometimes might be tending to those people who have fallen away, but it’s a safe doorway back into the Church for them?

MD: That’s right. That’s where church planting and small churches actually connect because the value of both is the value of relationship.

FT: Sometimes church plants are small churches, at least for a time. Let’s talk about numbers. It’s very difficult to disconnect from the idea that numbers mean success for a church.

MD: We very much see numbers as success. I think because it gives us a way to analyze how we perceive God working. And because we’re not sure that God is working in our midst, we say, "Well, people are coming to Christ (or we’re growing), therefore we’re good to go." And it becomes a default mechanism because it’s much harder for us to think about success being faithfulness. What does it mean to be faithful to what God is calling us to do?

So we start to think about failure and success differently. One of the ways I find really helpful to talk about success and failures is through Parker Palmer in his book Active Life (Jossey-Bass, 1999; Harper SanFrancisco, 1990) talking about instrumental action and expressive action. Instrumental action being action that we specifically look to, to achieve the ends. This is all about success and failure. Expressive action is more values – what emerges out of who we are.

I think as a congregation we look to those instrumental things – these are things that we can do, we can see these results. And so mission becomes a humanoriented project. When I am working with congregations, I like to look at those instrumental and expressive actions, and I say, "Actually God’s responsible for the instrumental." God’s action is instrumental and it’s expressed through the Incarnation, through the person of Jesus Christ, who took on flesh and blood, and lived, and died and rose again.

Our action is actually not instrumental. Our action is expressive, and we express our desire to know God and follow God, and then God uses what we do as an instrument in His hands to achieve His purposes. That helps us to take the emphasis off the numbers, and off the programs, and focus more on what it means to participate and what God’s doing in the world.

FT: So what is church for?

MD: We talk about church being for the glory of God, right? But what in the world does that mean? One of the terms that’s often being used these days is partnership, but I prefer the idea of participation.

We are invited to participate in the very life of the triune God and then the very mission of the triune God. And that’s what churches are for, so church as a congregation itself becomes what Leslie Newbiggin talked about as the "hermeneutics of the gospel," through the way that we live with one another in our communities that becomes a sign of God’s Kingdom emerging among us. That becomes a sign of what the Good News of the gospel is actually supposed to be.

And then suddenly we may step back from our congregations and say, "Oh, you know, if we only ever interact for two hours on a Sunday morning, are we truly loving one another?" And Jesus said that’s how we would be known, through our love for one another. So are we truly loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbours through how we’re actually living as His Church?

How can we as a congregation think more deeply about what it means to participate in God’s very life? And what does that look like in terms of our congregation? Are we actually in tune with that? Or has church become something that we do in time together on a Sunday morning, or perhaps in the odd activity that we do in our community?

FT: What about numbers as evidence of conversion? How do we hold those things together, that sharing our faith is important and bringing people into the loving Kingdom, and not thinking about numbers?

MD: I certainly don’t want to lessen the importance of evangelism at all. Even if we are thinking of evangelism, in terms of its more narrow sense of a proclamation, of actually speaking. But what happens is we tend to start equating that proclamation with propositions, so we think that in order for me to share the gospel it means that I have to expand these particular concepts, [such as] "God is good, but we’re sinful and we have to accept Christ."

And for some people that can be helpful, if you’re talking with someone who has some kind of a church background, and understanding that can be helpful. But where we’re leaning in terms of evangelism is to be inviting people into the story. The story of what God is doing.

So talking about Jesus is still primary, but we want to do it by inviting people into the stories. We actually encourage people to develop times that you’re going to be meeting with your neighbours, with your unchurched friends, and you’re going to be actually spending time in those stories, which are stories you take out of the gospel. Simply sharing stories of who Jesus is and what He’s done, how He interacted with people, what He said.

We are invited to participate in the very life of the triune God and then the very mission of the triune God. And that’s what churches are for….

And getting people to ask questions about those stories. "Why did Jesus say that? Why did He do that? Why did He wait?" And then as people see Jesus more as a multifaceted character and then recognize He’s not just a character, but someone who is alive, and still active and still working.

Then you’re developing relationship, not just between person to person, but between people and Christ through the Spirit as well. And that adds a whole different dimension to our evangelism. And then if we’re actually living that out as well, that helps people to see that the Good News is truly good news.

And getting people to ask questions about those stories. "Why did Jesus say that? Why did He do that? Why did He wait?" And then as people see Jesus more as a multifaceted character and then recognize He’s not just a character, but someone who is alive, and still active and still working.

Then you’re developing relationship, not just between person to person, but between people and Christ through the Spirit as well. And that adds a whole different dimension to our evangelism. And then if we’re actually living that out as well, that helps people to see that the Good News is truly good news.

And it’s a story where I’m invited.

FT: What about our own stories of change and God’s presence in our lives? Do they become even more important in this way of sharing?

MD: I think so. It’s interesting. Both in the Old Testament in Isaiah 43 and in the New Testament in Acts 1, God calls His people to be witnesses. So when you think about a witness in a court of law, what does a witness do? A witness has seen something, and then they’re called to the front to testify, and they go to the front and they say, "This is what I saw. This is what I’ve heard."

And that’s really what evangelism allows us to do, and where our story comes in. We tell people, "This is what I’ve heard from God. This is what I’ve heard from the community of the church. This is where I have seen God at work."

One of the things that I love about new Christians is they will pray the strangest prayers and God will delight to answer them, simply to give them a sense that He is at work, and to help them open their eyes and open their ears.

FT: Thank you, Marilyn.

One of the things that I love about new Christians is they will pray the strangest prayers and God will delight to answer them, simply to give them a sense that He is at work, and to help them open their eyes and open their ears.

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