The Tension between the “Pastoral Context” and the “Missional Context”

Having planted a church, I’ve become convinced of something. New churches in North America must move from a purely pastoral mindset into a missionary mindset. However, in the evangelical sub-culture, the leader of any church, including a church plant, is supposed to first be the people's “pastor”... that is, the church-planter is not supposed to be first the leader of a band of missionaries to affect a culture for Christ, but rather the care-taker of the people in the church.

This is a tension for church planters.

On top of this tension, most denominations want to see rapid growth from their church plants, which usually means that the church-planting pastor has to make compromises to the mission-mindedness of the project so that the church can attract Christians from other churches in order to grow quickly.

The tension is between the "pastoral context" of modern evangelicalism and the "missional context" needed to reach new people with the gospel.

True missionary work takes time and it takes sacrifice. A church planter must make mission the priority, even at the risk of not being as pastoral as most in the congregation would like.

I felt this tension. As I pastored a new church, attempting to reach a new group of people with the gospel of Christ, some of the key people in the core group of the church began to demand that I be their “pastor.” I was supposed to care for the needs of those in the church – providing programs for youth and providing teaching and worship expriences that would be pleasing to the standard evangelical ear.

The question underlying the church-planter’s calling is this: Do you care more about those “out there” than you do for those “in here?” If you appear to care more for those "out there," the evangelicals in your midst will soon resent you.

Now, here’s where the tension was found for me. I actually wanted to be their pastor, and yet I was attempting to create an environment where we would all see ourselves as missionaries. I wanted to be able to accomplish both, and my negotiation of this tension left a lot to be desired. In the end, I’m afraid I did both tasks poorly.

It takes a special person to be the leader of missionaries as well as be the pastor of a church. Perhaps this is why church planting is a unique calling. Perhaps this is why you need more than one person at the point - a team of people to perform all the nuances of church-planting ministry. Perhaps this is why so many church plants fail – denominations do not see church plants in the same light as over-seas missions and are failing to think in innovative ways to make new ventures successful in reaching people. Funding is set up poorly, long-term viability is not pursued.

The church needs to think in missionary terms instead of pastoral terms to reach a postmodern American culture. And yet, the people in the church that is being established need to be pastored.

This is the tension of church planting. Any suggestions?

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Anonymous said...

If church plants lose the mindset that there is "a" pastor this opens up a lot of possibility. The tension is resolved by creating a pastoral leadership team which collectively covers all these bases.

Bob Robinson said...


I agree with you whole-heartedly! The problem is that so much of the evangelical sub-culture places that one single person as the head of the whole venture. That's a lot to ask of one person!!

Unknown said...

Structures that encouraged shared responsibility or even collective leadership are needed. We the members also have to take more responsibility for our own growth and our involvement, especially outside of the Sunday Service.

It's great to have you blogging again; may the Lord continue to speed your recovery and strengthen you for the work of His kingdom!

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for the encouragement.

I am thinking about doing the church-planting thing again (only this time not as the solo planter), and these comments are very helpful!

Unknown said...

I am in the middle of the start of a church plant. Trying to form a community rather than a "church". One way that the tension has resolved in my mind is wrapped in the idea of vision.
From the get go, I want people to know what we are about. Setting forth a vision of who God is calling us to be (in things we value and our encapsulating the mission of God to be lived in our lives) can be really abstract, so I am finding ways to tell people what we care about and how that might look in their life (ie, giving someone a ride to work when their car breaks down, buying pizza for your friends, sharring the story of God by sharign your story and listining to others stories, etc...).
This way, I am seeking to pastor missionaries, which default calls me to be missional as well because of servant leadership.

I guess it's also the idea in my mind that if I can help others be missional than I will gladly devote my time to them, even at the expence of being as involved in missionary work as I would like. Sort of seeing my task as empowering and equipping the missional community that I want to take part in.

Just some thoughts.

Glad to see your doing better as well. You are still in my prayers.

Unknown said...

PS... also letting people see where we are going is a great way to help them take ownership of the vision and calling for them selves, which will in turn expose those people who can join in the open source leadership.


Bob Robinson said...

Cultural Savage,

In Church Planters' Boot Camp they emphasized to us that "VISION LEAKS." They meant that we must re-state the vision of the church every few weeks in new ways to keep it always in front of the congregation and so that it does not leak away. I didn't take this advice strong enough. Vision leaks faster than leaders are aware. And when the vision has leaked away it is difficult to bring it back.

Andy Stanley writes,

"You can spot leakage by listening for three things:
1. Prayer requests. What people pray for will tell you more than anything else whether they are locked into the vision and priorities of the church. When you are in a leadership meeting, are the only prayer requests for sick people? When I'm in such a meeting, I say, "Whoa, is anybody in this group burdened for an unchurched or unsaved friend? Yes, let's pray for the sick people. Now, what else can we pray for?"

2. Stories of great things happening in people's lives. If there are no stories, then maybe the vision for life transformation has leaked.

3. What people complain about. If people are complaining about the wrong stuff, then vision is leaking. When they complain about the music, or the parking, or that the church is too big, or there are too many people they don't know, you can respond, "I know. God is blessing us." But it's a sign of vision leakage.

Anonymous said...

I commented earlier today but was booted off-line. Do appreciate this post, Bob, and the comments here.

I tend to side with what I read that Dallas Willard has wrote/said: That God's people in the church community, need to be helped in becoming true followers of Christ, which involves outreach (as well as inreach), becoming more and more a natural part of who they are, in their life in God.

Ephesians 4 says that apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers (or pastors and teachers) are to equip God's people to do the work. So I think an emphasis has to be, as was in the case of Jesus- with his followers. And in pastoring, mentoring and training them, to do so in the context of missional work, as Jesus did, when the seventy-two as well as the twelve, went out. And as he did it before them.

So I'm saying much the same thing you've said, and others are saying here, I think. And how this works out for each community will certainly vary as to who the team leaders are, and the body of people God is bringing together. Something like that, I think.


Unknown said...

Good words to heed. I would also add that vision leaks from those in leadership as well. Too often, when we don't share vision we are wrapped up in what has to get done for the church to be a success. Keeping the vision shared is a way to remind the community of leaders that this is why we are here. everything else is second, third, and 50th to this.

One thing my mentor is drilling into me is the notion of guarding the vision. Keeping it in front of the whole congragation (including the leading community) is also a good way to make sure it doesn't morph into something other than the call God has given to us.

Bob Robinson said...

Cultural Savage,

Amen to that!

Here's a story:

About two and half years into my church plant, during a leadership meeting of the core group, one of my key leaders said that the purpose of the church we were creating was to equip the individuals in the church so that they could be strong Christians, able to reach out to co-workers, neighbors, etc.

When I suggested that the idea was to create a community in which we could invite people to join in our spiritual experience of Christ, he bristled. I thought, "When did we lose the vision?!?! Sure, I want to equip these folks to reach their neighbors for Christ, but we are meant to be more than individuals coming together for "training;" we are meant to be a radical Christian community. A community is different than a training post for individuals!

Watch that vision! It must have leaked way before that meeting, and I was unaware of it!

Bob Robinson said...


I appreciate the reference to Eph 4.

What I'm contending with here is not a refutation of that text. What I'm wondering is whether or not we've loaded the word "pastor" with more than it should have.

I think we need to move from a "Pastoral Context" to a "Missional Context" - and this has little to do with Eph 4's meaning of "pastor-teacher." What I mean is this: When we, in our evangelical sub-culture, hear the word "Pastor," we think of "The Man Who Teaches Us and Cares for Us."

This, I think, is problematic when it comes to a missional church trying to be effective in reaching a particular culture with the gospel. Especially in a church plant. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Good question, Bob.

I really see the pastor-teacher of Ephesians 4 as being a part of a missional thrust, in that context. It is about getting God's people to embrace and live out the vision of the kingdom in this world. And that is certainly missional. We are the Body of Christ in the world, caring for each other, but we exist as that Body to carry on what Christ has completed in his work, and to bring the fruit of that work home, so to speak.

I really didn't think you were refuting Ephesians 4 at all. I think that text surely points in the same direction in which you are pointing here.

I agree that if the pastor is simply to be doing what pastors seem expected to do in the evangelical context, the past fifty or so years, then I'm afraid mission goes largely out the window (except for the evangelistic work the pastor himself is expected to do). We do need an entirely new mindset. Which doesn't rid the pastor of being a shepherd in feeding and taking care of God's people, the sheep. But presses beyond that, so that their following will be a becoming, like their pastor, in becoming more and more like our Lord- what following is (or accomplishes) inherently.

Bob Robinson said...


Thank you for the excellent comment! I was deliberately being a little provocative with my Eph 4 comment (not for your sake, but for ALL of our sakes!), and your answer nails it.

I was going to say more, but I can't improve on what Ted has said!

Matt Mitchell said...


What you have said is even more true of the established church pastor. At least in church planting, there is a stated goal of reaching others and a need to do that or the plant fails.

In the established church, things can be running so smoothly that no one even notices whether you are "on mission" or not. Vision has leaked out but the thing still functions! That's scarey.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post and for sharing the "vision leaks" quotation in your comments. We are in year four of a church plant and your post today (and the Stanley quote) and the comments that have followed have really helped me think through some of the things that have recently been frustrating me, and consider where and how our vision is actually leading us. Again, thanks.

Unknown said...

I wonder if the big issue here is the question of: what is a pastor? Ted writes: "Which doesn't rid the pastor of being a shepherd in feeding and taking care of God's people, the sheep." But isn't Jesus Christ the shepherd. Didn't he take on that role for himself: John 10:11.

I wonder what sort of "church" we could create if we let Jesus be the shepherd and let all members of he community be in ministry (according to their gifts) to each other?

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks, Matt, for the excellent reminder.

Thanks, Erika, for the word of encouragement. It's good to know that little blogs like this can help in some way. God bless your new church community!!

Anonymous said...

(Came over here via Blind Beggar)...

Great post! I so agree with many of the commenters---the problem is the concept of a pastor in general. NOT that pastoring isn't Scriptural, but our IDEA of what a pastor is, isn't.

In Ephesians and Romans, there is this picture of ministry giftings that span the gamut, that reach across the line to encompass everything the Body might need to grow. And not ONCE are we taught that one man is going to be all those things, much less is ever intended to.

But I think under our current paradigm, we take those multiple giftings and gather them together into one imaginary human man, the Christian version of the Lone Ranger, who is supposed to have them all, do them all, be them all.

But it's a lie. The system benefits no one. It robs the Body of being the Body, of learning to excercise their gifts, of being able to grow up and mature, and it robs the Pastor-figure of his very life blood (I can say that, as a pastor's wife--lol). It's almost like "church" sucks him dry and, once he realizes he's bloodless, then spits him out, leaving *him* to feel like the failure, instead of the system itself.

I am so NOT speaking against leadership in the church, but rather the concept that we have of it, the way we think it looks. To allow a church to depend on one man is to cripple the Body. And, as you alluded to, even if the one man doesn't think he's supposed to be the only one pastoring/leading/visioneering, unfortunately if the rest of the congregation thinks that he is, well... It ain't gonna work!

RBA Founder Xavier Pickett said...

I've felt this tension many times in my church planting experiences. I'm glad to see someone else talking about this difficult topic.

When you find more answers to this issue, please let me know what you've come up with. :-)