Church Starter or Spiritual Guide?

Charles Kiser —  April 16, 2008 — 19 Comments

What do we lead with in spiritual conversations? To what or whom do we draw people? How do we describe ourselves to people?

Do we lead with “church”—or do we lead with “God”?

This question has emerged often in the weeks we’ve been in Uptown. People ask me what I do for a living. I’m confronted with this question. People ask me to describe what we’re doing in Uptown. I’m confronted with this question. We’re thinking through marketing and perception issues for our context. I’m confronted with this question.

How do I respond when people ask what I do? I usually tell them I’m starting a church—that I’m a church starter. It’s a natural reflex. The answer reflects my own perception of my vocation. It also reflects, for better or worse, the church-centered religious heritage from which I’ve come.

A growing trend in mission, however, is to stray from framing a community or individual’s existence in terms of the church and frame it rather in terms of God’s work in Jesus. It is God’s work, after all, that brings the church into existence.

This growing trend seems to be the reinvigoration of a practice of the first Christians. The Apostles in the early church were not commissioned as witnesses to the church, but rather to the work of God in Christ. The formation of the church was a natural outgrowth of preaching about and living within the kingdom of God.

Leading with Jesus in our conversations with people is a move of humility. We point away from ourselves, the church, as a source of healing and righteousness (because we so often are not), and we point to God, the one in whom healing and righteousness are found. We don’t want people to connect with us because we’re awesome—because we aren’t. We want people to connect with God in Jesus because God is awesome.

This approach is also particularly appropriate for the next generation, urban context we find ourselves in here in Dallas. People in my generation and younger tend to be suspicious of the institutional church. Many have been burned by it. Many have negative perceptions of it in light of abuse scandals and fanatical right wing politics.

So instead of pointing urban Dallasites to the church, perhaps it’s better that we point them to the character of the God who brings the church to life. If they can connect with God in Jesus, God can be responsible for reshaping their perceptions about church (even if some perceptions are unfortunately on target). The church is certainly important; but it is secondary to the character and work of God.

Help me process through this. What do you lead with? Church or God?

How does leading with God in Jesus change how we describe ourselves to other people?

On a very practical level, if I don’t call myself a church starter, what do I call myself?

Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

19 responses to Church Starter or Spiritual Guide?


    Hmmm. That’s a toughie. This topic reminds me of how we always tell teens, and adults really, to “invite a friend to church”. Bring them to a building with a steeple, that’ll make a disciple, for sure. It’s just a part of our lingo that we’re used to.And its easier, at least for me, to tell people about a group/community/club that they can join instead of trying to explain the concept of God or God’s love. I don’t know why. It should be the easiest thing in the world.

    But I still don’t have an answer for your occupation “name”.


    You are on the right track, Chrarles. I guess in the biblical sense, you are a minister of reconcilation with a message of reconciliation. You help people reconnect to God so that His redeeming power through the Spirit can transform them and reclaim His image.

    The end-result is that a community of believers (church) is naturally formed so that followers can grow together as disciples of Jesus.



    It would be interesting to just make up a word like discipler. Then when you tell people that you’re a discipler, they’ll say, “what?” Then you can say a dis-ci-pler is someone who___________…. Maybe you can be a Followisipher. I’ll keep thinking of non words.

    I like your dliema though. Maybe that would remove the automatic stereotype that you may get put into by the person you are talking to.


    That is a tough one, and I feel your struggle in my own life. It is a struggle to go from “insider” to “outside” language. What ever you say I pray it is a conversation starter and not a killer. You are in fact a preacher which we know means your vocation is a servant. Maybe if we say that we are servants they will want to know what the person we serve is like? I know you and I know you would love to tell others about the one you serve.



    Yes, you are on the right track. But do NOT lead with church. God is a better lead.

    I remember Stanley Shipp telling about being on an airplane when the man who sat next to him barely made the flight, was angry, berating the attendants, slamming things around, etc. He sat down, they talked a bit, and he asked Stanley what do you do? Stanley replied, “I am a teacher.” The man asked again, “Oh, what do you teach?” Stanley said, “I teach people how to really live and enjoy life.” The man thought for a few moments and said, “Start teaching!” That was all the opening Stanley needed to share the gospel. Stanley was a master evangelist and this episode shows how and why he was able to connect so well with people.


    So grateful for your honesty and struggle. Lead with Jesus for the everyday person who is, for the most part not concerned about
    “Church” or at least their perceptions of church. This is not to say they do not have or need community. The challenge is to get past a “stained glass” Jesus. The existential questions of meaning, purpose, peace, etc. are ready made for leading with Jesus. I appreciate your thoughtful blogs.


    I empathize with you a lot here. I’m not sure what to tell people that I do. Sometimes I just say I’m a preacher, other times a church planter. Somedays I’m not sure what I do. I like the story about a teacher, but I think we have to be careful about misleading people, even unintentionally. I think this deals with the question of leading with church or God. My answer to that question is “Yes.” If the church is part of God’s plan, then talking about God to avoid talking about church doesn’t seem right. I don’t think we want people to feel like we have tricked them into talking about church. It probably will depend on each conversation you have and how the Spirit leads you into that conversation. If there is one thing that I am convinced of in my experience of church planting is that the power of a strategy or approach is insignificant next to the power of the Spirit within you. (I tried to make that sound Star Warsy.) Perhaps you should just be honest with the Dallasites who ask you and share your dilemma with them.


    Paul called himself an ambassador for Christ. Did he say that because the people he wrote that letter to understand ambassadors better than fishermen? Maybe so. Maybe he was just searching for a new way to describe what he was doing, in fresh terms, with better analogies. Maybe what you’re doing is the same thing. So what are you doing? What are ways to describe what you’re doing that will engage people? What if you called yourself a spiritual carpenter? Or what if you told people you were a paid consultant? How could those two things bring out two different personalities? Tailor your answer to your audience–that’s my suggestion. All things to all men, right?

    As far as what do you lead with…well, my background is in writing. That’s what I studied. So the answer to that question is that you never bury your lead. The lead would be whatever is the most important information. They also call it the inverted pyramid. What is the most important thing? How then do I get that information across? Because even newspaper reporters have art and style to their delivery. They arrange the words to suit the audience but never compromise on the truth. So use some artistic license in both your lead and your title…with every person you meet.


    Wow, you’re turning into a regular Mike Cope with all these comments…

    That is a tough one. I’ve really struggled with the idea of inviting people to church rather than inviting them to Christ. Now, we can go round and round about how closely those two are related, but for me, it’s almost a cop-out to invite someone to church. That’s the easy way to do it. It’s inviting someone to go to a place, a location rather than inviting them to a place of divine power, that really isn’t a place at all.

    So, all that nonsense to say, I would rather someone come to know the living power of Jesus Christ over “coming to church.”

    Now, just to head off the arguments, I’m not suggesting that church is not important, or that people don’t need the church, because I think both of those claims are false. Being involved and active in the life of the church is a vital element of life because of its life giving nature, since we are members of Christ’s body and heirs to his kingdom. And many times, this is not a place either…

    So then, that changes how we view the church. Church is life, it’s who we are, it’s what we do. And that life, which is our because of Christ, is lived through the church that is not a place but a life lived in a community as sons and daughters of the Living God…

    Good thing I’m not a preacher. Pillows would be the most popular Sunday morning accessory…


    I like the feedback so far that seeks the leading of the Spirit and the poetry of the moment. By the grace of God, in addition to being a church starter, you are a dream awakener, a story-teller, a justice-seeker, a Spirit-chaser, and more. These don’t sound like conventional occupations, but you’re not necessarily hoping for a conventional conversation. I see you tossing something like these suggestions out with that big Kiser grin of yours and praying for all heaven to break loose in the conversation. We’re trying to turn the world upside down, right? Blessings!


    What does Miller call himself in Blue like Jazz?


    Thanks for inviting us into your questions! I seek God first, believing He will lead me into community with His children. Our culture has made seeking God and belonging to a community of believers so complicated. We work work work like it’s our marketing, our programs, and our infrastructure that attract’s people to CHURCH (god). We call on God to bless us more than we can ‘ask or imagine’ for His name’s sake. Off my soapbox, back to your question…I agree with Micah: when the question arises, share your dilemma with the person and let them answer it. (That may be more revealing than you know!)


    Just some quick, hastily written ideas (not sure they even qualify as ‘thoughts’).

    What if you started from a point of solidarity as one who is also on a journey? What if, instead of saying you are a planter or a spiritual guide, you said that you are a sojourner, a co-traveler, an apprentice.

    Both planter and spiritual guide seem to reinforce the insider-outsider language that you suggest are troubling. By starting as fellow learner and traveler, you might establish a different level of trust and respect, especially in the upwardly mobile, ladder-climbing ethos that is prevalent in Uptown. That could also serve as a model of the counter-cultural ethic of Jesus.

    Of course, I’m not in your context regularly, so I could be completely mis-exegeting the culture in which you serve….


    Charles: You and I have discussed this before. Three reminders:

    1 – The word “church” originally did not carry the stigma it does today. The word originally was used for any gathering of people for any occasion. The ladies down by the river doing laundry was “church.” The old men that sat at the city gate was “church.” Today it carries only religious meaning, and as you implied, often not too favorable meaning.

    2 – The church is the RESULT of our relationship with God. God came first, through Jesus. After our relationship was secured, God added those who are saved to his gathering. That leads me to the third reminder:

    3 – Relgious people have given Church too much authority. We have virtually turned our lives and minds over to a handfull of men (usually) who make decisions for us concerning behavior, interpretation, schedules, practices, work habits, sexuality, alcohol consumption and more. Church has become the barrier between me and the Father (much like the pope is to Catholics). Jesus came to eliminate all barriers to God. We have full access to the Father, Son and Spirit and are to trust the Godhead in all things. (I think God would love to put elders out of business, but knowing how we need “kings” he allows elders, even though most function far differently from what God intends.)

    Bottom line: Play down church and play up Jesus through your sacrificial lives. And let the questions about who you are and why you do what you do hang in the air. Mystery is a wonderful thing…just ask Jesus.


    Oh, and about what you call yourself…how about just “Charles”? or Chuck? of Chaz?

    BTW: I’m having lunch with Kevin Conway Monday. And Ashley and Brad White are coming over for dinner Saturday night. Wish you and fam were here. Love you guys…



    Thanks so much for sharing this struggle, growth and transformation God is working within you! It is such a blessing to see the work of God!

    I really enjoyed reading Steve Sr. comment! I’m so on that page with him! So many times when “church” is mentioned it scares people away.

    Example: My mother doesn’t attend church and hasn’t for many years. Because she doesn’t have to “right” clothes, car, and life! It really breaks my heart to hear her say that. Now imagine how God feels?! It shouldn’t be like this.

    Church/God is in us everyday! When we go to work, play with our children, talk with our spouse, have dinner with friends, etc….

    I have another wonderful example to share. About 2 months ago Rob and I were talking about this very topic with our children. What is church to you?

    My 10 year old, said something a couple of weeks ago that blew our minds away! We were on our way to “church” for a leadership meeting. The kids asked, where are we going? Not really thinking about it I said, “church”. She had a confused look on her face and said, “Mom we’re at church right now!” WOW!

    You know so many times, when you don’t think the ones your sharing “the good news” with is ever getting it. Remember, God will do His GREAT works on them in time. Our blessing to God is to sow the seed and let God do the watering.

    I don’t know if I went way off there, but this is just what came to mind. Hope this helped in some way. You’ll continue to be in our thoughts and prayers!

    Blessings and Love!


    Hey Charles,

    This is Bret Wells – we met at the ACU lectureship this year. This is a great conversation. I’m sorry to jump in a week later…but I just came across your blog today.

    It seems that the general consensus is “lead with God.” And that makes sense. “Church” does carry so many other connotations. I’ve developed relationship with a family down here in New Orleans that has decided that they want me to be their spiritual adviser and friend, but they’ve had such negative past experiences with “Church” that for the longest time they wouldn’t even come in the doors of Tammany Oaks.

    That makes me really nervous for several reasons (which I’ve told them). I am woefully insufficient to serve as the source of their encouragement, teaching and spiritual friendship. Our desire to focus on God shouldn’t lead us to isolation or rugged spiritual individualism.

    I wonder how we can begin re-emphasizing community and the essential nature of being joined to the Body of Christ – without becoming bogged down in misperceptions and negative connotations? For all its many flaws, the Church is the Bride of Christ…we’re created to live in community.

    So, by all means lead with Jesus…but you don’t have to apologize for your desire to invite people into the community of Christ followers. Just be willing to walk with them long enough to shake off those past assumptions. (and I guess you don’t have to say “Church”!)

    By the way, that family I mentioned joined our Sunday morning gathering for the first time this Easter and they’ve been back several times since.

    Great post!


    We/God/Holy Spirit was starting churches in a developing(?) world nation and our Navigator friends asked us where their disciples could “go to church.” The Navs sensed or realized the need for new Christians to be part of a body. Not sure much growth occurs w/o being connected to the head along w/the rest of the body.


    Kiser, I love the way you work to think through these issues. keep hacking bro!

    Two things. First, I disagree with your denial of awesomeness. theologically I disagree. I think if you really want to be self effacing, you should say that you aren’t independently awesome. Otherwise you deny the awesomeness which is of God. think of awesomeness as a sort of gloss for “righteousness”, throw it into a pauline theology, and I think you’ll smell what I’m steppin’ in.

    Secondly, and not completely irrelevant to the first, this seems to me to be a place for nuance and balance, as so much of truth must be. I think if you completely buy into the shift you describe here, it can be a denial of the presence of Christ within the church, an assertion that we come to know christ independently of the church, and can lead towards a denial of the reality of the community of the spirit. Either/or thinking here gets us in trouble because we think of christ as independent of the church (that’s a body-less Jesus: gnostic!) or the other hand which is often the status quo, we think of the church as operating independent of Jesus. This latter often is the trap to which we institutional church folks have often fallen prey.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s