In Ecclesiastes 7, the Preacher tells us to be neither “overly wise” nor “overly foolish.” Meaning, don’t put too much trust in your own wisdom, yet don’t neglect the role that wisdom plays in navigating complicated endeavors. Find the balance.
One of the biggest pitfalls in church planting is forsaking this balance. It’s easy to either overestimate or underestimate the role that “entrepreneurial aptitude” plays in planting a church. To some, even hearing the terms “entrepreneur” and “church planting” in the same sentence is alarming, while others may assume you could learn everything you need to know about planting a church in Business 101.
Wisdom and strategy have parts to play in effective, sustainable gospel ministry.
Should we be careful not to trust too much in entrepreneurship or rely too heavily on our own innovation? Of course. Yet we should also recognize that wisdom and strategy have parts to play in effective, sustainable gospel ministry.
The apostle Paul resolves this tension, showing us what it means to employ wisdom and think strategically while also embracing the scandal of the gospel and trusting in the power of the Spirit. His sums up his approach this way: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22–23).
Entrepreneurial aptitude is just that: becoming all things to all people.
Content and Context
But this aptitude involves carefully untangling two things that often get conflated: content and context. Paul did this masterfully. The content of his message was fixed: it was the gospel, something objective he clearly defines (1 Cor. 15:1–5). But he also adapted to the context in which that gospel was presented and applied.
Some planters fear that considering context will inevitably lead to a distortion of content. But Paul’s ministry shows otherwise. He knew that he wasn’t planting churches in a vacuum, and so he thought intentionally and strategically about how to permeate these new areas with the gospel. He was mindful of things like cultural practices and the existing religious framework of his audience (Acts 17:16–34; Rom. 14:14–15). But Paul’s careful attention to such things was not an end in itself; it was for the sake of effectively bringing the good news of the kingdom to bear on people’s lives.
Too often, churches tout themselves as “faithful” because they refuse to contextualize. Again, we should be wary of too eagerly “changing with the times” or sidestepping the biblical marks of a church. But faithfulness to the gospel—as Paul shows us—requires that we never waver from the stumbling block of it (1 Cor. 1:23) and, at the same time, intentionally and thoughtfully remove any stumbling blocks that might hinder people from hearing it. Doing this takes hard-won wisdom.
This is why Ecclesiastes 7 is pertinent. We must heed the Preacher’s call to not be “overly wise,” placing too much trust in our systems and innovation. All of us can likely think of extreme examples where entrepreneurial efforts—whether intentionally or not—seek to replace the true power behind the gospel’s advance. It’s sobering to think how easy it is to begin with intentions of being “wise” or “strategic,” only to slip right down the slope toward metric-driven pragmatism.
It’s sobering to think how easy it is to begin with intentions of being ‘wise’ or ‘strategic,’ only to slip right down the slope toward metric-driven pragmatism.
Planting a church is not less than starting a new venture, but it is far more—and our Enemy rejoices when we forget that. He would love for us to believe that our models and strategies have the power to make someone a new creation in Christ. He would have us go on in our staff meetings about “market share” and the “competition.” He relishes in the pastor’s decision to drift away from the ordinary means of Word and sacrament in favor of more “engaging” alternatives.
This is the guardrail on the other side of the road. Because while Paul demonstrates the value of thoughtful contextualization, he also reminds us that when it comes to gospel advance, trusting in human ingenuity is an exercise in futility.
He reminds us that God’s “foolishness” is wiser than man’s ingenuity (1 Cor. 1:25), that what makes a qualified pastor isn’t intellect or charisma but godly character (1 Tim. 3:1–7), and that “lofty speech and wisdom” are no match for the timeless, transcendent scandal of the cross preached in the power of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:1–5). So, while the New Testament commends wisely exercising entrepreneurial skills, it also warns us there’s a way to do so that simply becomes functional atheism.
As we pursue becoming all things to all people for the sake of the gospel, we must hold in view one more self-description Paul offers: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
Here is the source of saving power for all people in all contexts. We are made alive in Christ not by relevance or cleverness, but because he is alive. And that news—of an empty tomb and a risen Lord—deserves all the intentionality we have. The more precious the cargo, the more attention you pay to the delivery route.
While Paul demonstrates the value of thoughtful contextualization, he also reminds us that when it comes to gospel advance, trusting in human ingenuity is an exercise in futility.
As we give the gospel its due attention, we rest in the fact that it is powerful enough to free us from self-reliance. God’s new-creation project will never be hindered by our lack of business acumen. In fact, he loves to accomplish his work both through us and despite us.
So be creative and strategic as you ponder how best to love the people in your context. But in all your efforts, trust the work of the Spirit, trust the ordinary means of grace, and trust the gospel—for it, and it alone, “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”