My first instinct was to write about a specific model or expression of church.

And then I recalled something I heard Brian Sanders say in an old dilapidated Dillard’s department store that had been repurposed into a training center for missionary leaders. Sanders is the co-founder of Tampa Underground, a network of more than 200 “microchurches” in Tampa, Florida. 

Sanders shared a framework from Roger Martin’s book, The Design of BusinessTruly innovative forms begin first by exploring mystery — the mystery of a particular context, with all its problems, challenges, and assets. As that mystery is engaged, heuristics emerge: these are the principles or rules of thumb about how that context functions. Heuristics lead to algorithms, repeatable best practices for responding to a context.

The problem, Sanders said, is that most church leaders are interested in algorithms — the “how to,” the best practices — when those algorithms may not actually fit the varied contexts in which church leaders find themselves. What church leaders need, instead, is to explore the mystery of their own contexts and out of it develop principles (heuristics) and practices (algorithms) that fit their context.

In other words, when it comes to thinking about new wineskins for the church in our time, we’d do better to be contextually-responsive instead of model-specific in our approach to mission. 

I learned this the hard way. When I began church planting work in Dallas in 2008, my imagination had been captured by simple / organic / house church models for mission. I entered my context committed to a certain set of algorithms, and despite the counsel of wise mentors to listen deeply to my context, I thought to myself, I know my context and I’m going to implement these strategies because I like them. The results were mixed: parts of our approach connected, and parts of it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I still love small, simple expressions of church, but I often wonder if the church we planted in those early days was more a response to church planting books than it was a response to our context.

Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, describes how the early church grew exponentially in a span of 300 years from 1,000 believers to nearly 34 million — more than half of the population of the Roman Empire. The early church did not invent the wineskin that facilitated such rapid growth. Instead, the church grew and spread through an existing structure in Greco-Roman culture: the oikos (household). Households were the economic backbone of the Roman Empire, consisting of both extended family members, slaves, neighbors, and business partners. Christian missionaries planted seeds of Christian community within these household structures in their context rather than inventing some alternative structure and seeking to attract people to it.

What if we don’t have to invent the new wineskins of the church in our time? What if they already exist? 

Already emerging are neighborhood churches, business-place churches, yoga churches, cycling churches, kayak churches, dinner churches, board gaming churches, bar churches, virtual churches, social service non-profit churches, and more — all of which are growing up out of structures already present and widespread in our contexts. Established churches are serving as anchors of stability and resourcing for these new expressions.

The truth is that Churches of Christ have trained global missionaries to respond to their contexts for decades. A context-responsive posture represents the basics of missiology, anthropology, and contextualization. 

It’s time for us to respond to our various North American contexts in the same way: to engage the mystery of our surrounding cultures and to participate with God’s Spirit to give birth to new expressions of church — hospitable, just, inclusive, and healing expressions — that make sense for our context.

If you’re interested in a longer-form discussion of these ideas, check out Elaine Heath’s presentation, “A Third Great Awakening,” where she describes the institutional dynamics of the United Methodist Church, which I believe are very similar to the current dynamics within Churches of Christ.