New churches in the None Zone: practical ecclesiology and missional wisdom among church plants in Seattle
James, Christopher Beals
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This dissertation is about the future of church in the United States. In it I argue that practical ecclesiological reflection on new churches in Seattle yields promising proposals for viable, faithful, ecclesial forms of missional engagement fitting for the U.S. church’s emerging context. In response to the significant decline in religious affiliation and participation in the U.S., major efforts in church planting are underway, but there is little scholarly research on these efforts. Moreover, the literature supporting church planting reflects insufficiently robust ecclesiological and missiological reflection. This dissertation utilizes mixed methods fieldwork and multi-disciplinary analysis to identify and assess the dominant models among new Seattle churches and offers practical wisdom for the U.S. church in its task of ecclesial witness. Within the dissertation I identify national trends exemplified by Seattle that make it a suitable proxy for the emerging U.S. context: urbanization, progressive values, technological culture, and post-Christian culture. On the basis of my fieldwork and the New Seattle Churches Survey that I fielded, I develop the four practical ecclesiological models that I discern among these churches: Great Commission Team, Household of the Spirit, New Community, and Neighborhood Incarnation. I then employ four core ideas of missional theology (missionary Trinity, missio dei, Jesus as paradigm for mission, and the missionary nature of the church) and four priorities for missional church planting (discerning God’s initiatives, neighbor as subject, boundary crossing, and plural leadership that shapes an environment) as a basis for assessment. I find that the Neighborhood Incarnation model best embodies these missional ideas and priorities. In conclusion, I propose practices for renewing each model and highlight five threads of practical wisdom for ecclesial witness: 1) embracing local identity and mission, 2) cultivating embodied, experiential, everyday spirituality, 3) engaging community life as means of witness and formation, 4) prioritizing hospitality as a cornerstone practice, and 5) discovering ecclesial vitality in a diverse ecclesial ecology.