To reach people in every culture in the world, a church must be established in every culture to communicate the gospel and nurture those who become Christians. All methods of evangelism have their place, but God’s primary method of evangelizing a community is by planting a biblically functioning church to reach that area with the gospel.
Therefore, the single most effective method to reach the people of our cities and the Australian nation is to plant churches in every area, constituting a network of vital, spiritually healthy churches right across the nation.
The apostolic pattern of gospel preaching and gathering new believers into church fellowships is God’s pattern for today. It has been described as the ‘Pauline Cycle’ by David Hesselgrave in his book Planting Churches Cross-Culturally. One denomination in the USA has established a plan to plant 5000 churches in the USA over 10 years. The plan is well on track. The Southern Baptists plant over 500 churches in the USA every year! These figures may seem a little staggering to the Australian mind, but we plead for fresh thinking and a more aggressive approach to church planting in Australia.
We need to be struck by the enormous unchurched population in Australia. We are a godless nation and now a needy mission field. Something like 90 per cent of Australians have never really heard the gospel of Christ. They may have heard a caricature of the gospel and rightly rejected it. It is imperative, therefore, that we develop strategies for planting new churches. Millions of Australians are being devoured by godless philosophies and are being denied the treasure of the gospel.
Starting a church
Starting a new church is an exciting, but never easy, task. It is not an automatic procedure that is simply a matter of following proven principles and techniques as set out in a book. Although helpful, just following Elmer Towns’s 84 Steps to Plant a Church is no guarantee of success. Planting a church is an almost insurmountable task, but under God, it can be accomplished.
The origin of every mission is in the mind and heart of God. Planting churches is not a trivial afterthought. It is integral to the mission of God to the world of people whom he loves. Every established church, therefore, should be planting another church somewhere else. To ignore such participation in God’s global plan is to cause a loss of spiritual life in the established church. This is one reason, among others, why many churches exhibit a mediocrity and lethargy of spiritual life.
Furthermore, starting a church along classical lines (erecting a church building and appointing any minister) could well court disaster. The idea of ‘house churches’ was advocated in the 1960s and widely experimented with in the 1970s, and now the evidence suggests that they did not work well.
Times change. Our society is on one of the steepest curves of technological, demographic and psychological transformation imaginable. How can church planting be achieved in such a milieu?
Ways to plant a church
At the turn of the century, Roland Allen wrote that the “spontaneous expansion” of the church in the New Testament was due, in the first place, “mainly to the spontaneous activity of individuals”. Peter Wagner currently sets before us Twelve Good Ways to Plant a Church—quite probably more. Elmer Towns describes six ways to plant and 84 steps to do it. There is no shortage of advice for DIY church planting.
Experience tells us that the method used in a particular situation will largely be governed by the circumstances and the people taking the initiative. Following are three models of church planting that have been effective in various situations.
1. Mother-daughter church
‘Hiving off’ is perhaps the most common way of planting a daughter church. The first step in this pattern is taken by the established (mother) church. A survey of church families is done to determine where clusters of families live. Members from the proposed area for church planting are invited to be part of the group that will ‘hive off’ and constitute the founding nucleus of the new church. They participate fully in the praying and planning process required. These people will move out from the parent church under the leadership of the church planter.
Most mother churches testify that the space left by those who go to the daughter church is soon filled by new members. In this way, the ‘daughtering’ process is beneficial to both churches. The mother church is rebuilt and is spiritually healthier.
The wise pastor will lead a church in a constant rhythm of expanding, then church planting, re-growing, and then church planting again.
2. Home fellowship/Bible study group
This method of church planting usually involves a church or individual commencing a group in someone’s home in a strategic area, led by a layman who has a warm evangelistic heart. The long-range goal is to begin a church, but the immediate goal is to gather a small nucleus of Christians in an area and fire them with the vision of establishing a church.
Here is a living example of this pattern of church planting that has resulted in a vital church with a current attendance of over 500 people. Six steps were involved:
- Three couples were invited to share a meal to discuss the possibility of meeting in a home on a weekly basis as a home fellowship/Bible study group. The long-term goal was to establish a church in the area. This home group grew as they enjoyed Bible teaching, fellowship and prayer.
- The group agreed to commence a ‘church-type service’ in that home on Sunday mornings with an open invitation to the neighbourhood to attend.
- As this Sunday gathering grew, it was transferred to a double garage attached to the home. At this point, a layman who had theological training and who possessed the potential to become the pastor was brought into the group. He quietly assumed leadership.
- The little church continued to grow to the point where it was relocated to meet on Sunday in a rented hall in the area.
- Further growth necessitated transferring to the Seventh Day Adventist church building for Sunday meetings.
- The church purchased land and ultimately constructed a church building where they currently meet. They are now a vital congregation of 500.
3. The ‘apostolic’ church planter
This is a pioneering approach whereby a gifted young man is located in a new area. He develops the nucleus for a new church and then, after a few years, moves on to do it again somewhere else. This method is patterned on Paul’s church planting. When he went to a new place, Paul did what was necessary to get a church started, but he didn’t stay there for very long. A variation on this style could be for a denominational agency to recruit and finance a team of workers to plant a new church with this type of robust church planter as its leader.
Creativity and hard work will always be needed to break through the seemingly insurmountable difficulties involved. I know of an occasion when one man and his wife started children’s meetings on two afternoons of the week as an entry point into a certain community. Another man doorknocked and ultimately established five home groups on five successive weeknights! His immediate goal was to gather a group of people in each home, win them to the Lord and then nurture them in the word of God. Skillfully he brought this cluster of five home groups into a church gathering in a double garage and then a rented hall. Now a thriving church exists.
Profile of a church planter
What sets apart a church planter from other full-time ministers? He has the gift of an evangelist and is a multi-talented person who must be recruited, specially trained and developed to do the task of church planting. It is sad to observe a church agency appointing just any minister to plant a new church without giving a thought to the gifts required.
Not every minister can plant a church. Some essential qualifications for a church planter are:
Styles and personality traits of leaders vary considerably. However, it cannot be denied that leadership plays a crucial role in establishing a church. The Lord works through people. He takes the warm-hearted, enthusiastic leader to catalyze a group of people towards a common vision and the achievement of specific goals. Any group of people, regardless of size, location or tradition, will flourish under enthusiastic, involved leadership. Very little can be achieved in life without genuine enthusiasm.
For the Christian leader, vision is not an optional, but an indispensable, quality. The leader is inspired by a dream that provides him with the necessary direction and motivation to move a situation forward and to inspire those around him to want to travel that way.
Lack of vision or purpose afflicts many people, and where there is no vision, the work becomes mundane and aimless, and something vital is lost. Great leaders are ordinary human beings who become possessed with a cause greater than themselves. They have dreamed bigger dreams, and made a decision to ‘go for it’.
He develops a pioneering spirit and robustness that honestly faces seemingly impossible situations and, with courage and tenacity, wins through. He possesses high energy levels, and is prepared to work long and hard hours.
Prepared to take risks
There must be a balance between cautiousness and recklessness. It is nerve-racking to be innovative. Valid risk-taking entails counting the cost and carefully considering the alternatives.
Relates to the unchurched
He needs to be a ‘people person’ who is comfortable being with and talking to the unchurched. He understands their mindset and is able to discuss issues on their level.
His wife participates in the ministry and does not stand off on her own or expend her energies in other pursuits. Their home is open, modelling a Christian family lifestyle, but balancing this with an awareness of the need to protect the family.
Builds a team
Trying to plant a church without a team is a drawn-out form of suicide. A core group is essential. Equipping and pouring his life into that core group is a fundamentally important commitment for the church planter in order to develop leadership potential in others.
The importance of prayer
A recent survey amongst church planters has revealed the surprising insight that “Above all, he found that prayer is the most important principle of all”.1 Bonhoeffer comments: “For the pastor, prayer is an indispensable duty and his whole ministry will depend on it”.2
The whole enterprise of starting a church must be forged in prayer. Starting a church will be a mighty spiritual battle, and one of our principal weapons is prayer. Furthermore, “mobilizing a prayer base that bathes our ministries and people in prayer is undeniably a foundational priority”.3
God is doing some amazing things in our world. Throughout Africa, Asia and America, thousands of new churches are being planted every year. But what of Australia?
Most Christians minister in their local churches and seek to build bridges of friendship to the non-Christians they know in order to point them to Christ. This is marvellous, but it is the small picture. The big picture is being committed to seeing the kingdom of God spread throughout their city and nation. The chief means of evangelism is to plant a new church. It is my hope and prayer that church leaders will give the ministry of planting new churches a higher priority on their personal and institutional agendas. It is also my vision that every church will ponder the possibility of investing in the kingdom of God and planting a new church.
“Every church plant a church!” Is it a pipedream?
It can be done.
1 Grady and Kenall, Seven Keys to Effective Church Planting, EMQ, October, 1992, p. 372.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, SCM, 1964, p. 77.
3 Spader and Mayes, Growing a Healthy Church, Moody, 1991, p. 100.