Reflections on the Radius Debate

In recent years, church planting strategies have been broadly divided into two major categories: Church Planting Movements and the traditional model or what is now being called the Proclamation Model. Sometimes advocates of Church Planting Movements (CPM) prefer to call their strategy “Disciple Making Movements” or DMM. If you are unclear about the differences between these two church planting strategies, see this very helpful article by Ted Esler in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology. The table on the last page of the article summarizes the distinctions.

There has been no small controversy in the debate between proponents of Church Planting Movements (CPM) and proponents of the Proclamation Model. Blog posts and articles have sometimes included unhelpful and judgmental rhetoric.

Esler debate
Ted Esler

In December 2018 a debate was held on the campus of Radius International. Dr. Ted Esler, President of MissioNexus, represented the Church Planting Movements model. Pastor Chad Vegas, a board member of Radius International, represented the Proclamation Model. The format included a 25-minute presentation from each, a 10-minute response from each, a free-flowing discussion between the two, questions from the audience, and a summary wrap-up from each presenter. There were some contentious moments. Some issues could have used more time to clarify positions. There was not a clear “winner” in the debate. As in most debates, each side will probably make a case that their champion carried the day. In this post, I will identify key areas of disagreement, areas of agreement, and some thoughts moving the discussion forward.

Remaining Disagreements:

  1. The idea of unbelievers leading Discovery Bible Studies was a central area of disagreement. Pastor Vegas actually called it “silly.” While I do have some concerns about this practice, I would avoid such labels. The unbeliever’s worldview will function as an interpretive grid through which the Bible is understood and may significantly distort the message. This may well be addressed in the Discovery Bible Study curriculum and questions. It may also be addressed by the missionary meeting with the Bible study leader one-on-one. Some of the CPM examples Dr. Esler referenced used tapes that may also address worldview issues.
  2. Related to the above, a second disagreement was the sufficiency of Scripture apart from a human teacher. Church Planting Movements seek to lessen Western influence by limiting the presence of the missionary in Discovery Bible Studies. The Proclamation model asserts that the Bible highlights the role of the human teacher as a spiritual gift to the church. Searching the Scripture to discover its meaning is important for deep learning but that does not demand the absence of a human teacher. A good teacher will use discovery methodology. The question was raised, “Can’t we trust the Holy Spirit to lead readers to understand the Scriptures?” If we answer with an unqualified yes, how do we explain false teaching from the time of the New Testament until now? The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is often appealed to as an example of discovery Bible study, yet it demonstrates a combination of discovery and a human teacher.
  3. A third area of disagreement was the role of the missionary as teacher or coach. Pastor Vegas emphasized the missionary as the authoritative teacher proclaiming the Gospel message. Ted Esler spoke of the missionary as a coach alongside the indigenous people. A heavy emphasis on the authoritative teacher role can create dependencies and a foreign style church. Though wanting to see the missionary role as coach, Dr. Esler noted that there will need to be teaching. He stated, he “would never say to anyone you shouldn’t teach.”

Agreements:

  1. Both presenters saw a need for teaching. Dr. Esler referenced a Church Planting Movement that brings their indigenous leaders in for three months of training. There certainly is a difference in style of teaching but the debate did not elaborate on that. There were times in the debate where it seemed that extremes were assumed such as Church Planting Movements only relied on self-discovery or that the Proclamation model only relied on monologue. More discussion time would help clarify and correct these assumptions.
  2. Both debaters agreed that there is flexibility in church form and that the Western form of church should not be imposed on other cultures.
  3. A third area of agreement was the need for disciples to understand the Bible on their own. I would caution against understanding this in isolation. Input from the community of believers, locally, globally, and historically is needed to prevent the individual alone with their Bible becoming a cult factory.
  4. A fourth agreement was that people are in process and there will be issues. Even in the New Testament people who were taught by the apostle Paul at Ephesus fell into error. So there is a need for mature believers to shepherd and guide others.

Moving Forward:

Dr. Esler began his presentation with a plea to be generous with one another and to avoid rushing to take sides. Some want to avoid any discussion where disagreements will surface. There is defensiveness on both sides. We will never grow if we avoid challenges to our thinking. More discussions in a forum style rather than debate may result in greater understanding. This is a discussion between brothers and sisters in Christ who share the same goal of fulfilling the Great Commission by clear communication of the Gospel.

Dr. Esler ended his initial presentation by saying, “When your methodology becomes your theology, your missiology becomes a pathology.” This is a good reminder to both sides of this discussion.

There was much more to the two-hour debate. I encourage you to watch it on the Radius website at this link or on Vimeo.

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