Planters versus founders

What’s in a name? Does it matter if we call someone a ‘church planter’ or ‘church founder’? According to Phillip Jensen, it matters quite a lot.

What is a church planter? What theological training does he need? Playing one round of golf does not normally qualify you as a ‘golfer’; it is the person who plays golf regularly who deserves the dubious title ‘golfer’. So it is a little strange to call somebody who has only planted one church a ‘church planter’. While he is planting the church, the name may be appropriate, but generally somebody who is a ‘church planter’ plants more than one church. In this, he differs from a ‘church founder’.

It is fair to describe the Apostle Paul as a church planter. He evangelized in city after city, and wherever he went, he planted churches. On some of his journeys, he stayed in cities like Ephesus and Corinth for a considerable time, but he always went on to new work elsewhere. He evangelized new fields so as not to build on others’ foundations (Rom 15:20).

In contrast, the person who plants a church and then continues on as its pastor without ever planting other churches is hardly a church planter; he is a ‘church founder’. He may have planted the church, but his life’s work is not that of church plant­­ing, but pastoring the church he founded.

Now you may ask, “What’s in a name? What does it matter what we call people?” In one sense, it does not matter much whether a person is a ‘planter’ or a ‘founder’. But when it comes to training and selecting people for future ministry, it may have great significance.

A planter and a founder both need to share certain basic characteristics: they need to know the Lord Jesus and his gospel. This knowledge will need to shape their Christian character and convictions so that they will be able to use their particular abilities and gifts in ways that will bring glory to God and salvation to his people.

But their training and competencies may be different. The church planter needs to make quick and effective relationships with people. He needs to be able to communicate the gospel with strangers, gather resources and persuasively lead people to make sudden, significant changes to their life. He needs to adapt to any and every situation very quickly. He will be like the SAS soldier—able to fight in unconventional warfare behind enemy lines because he possesses a high tolerance for situational uncertainty.

The church founder, on the other hand, takes a much slower approach to his work. Like the infantry soldier, his approach is more persistent, long-term and conventional. He develops deep and lasting relationships as he builds the congregation in Christlikeness, as well as in numbers. Some of his initiatives can take 10 to 20 years to bear fruit.

So it may seem from this that the planter does not necessarily need the same depth of understanding as the founder. There is some truth in this observation: the pastor will preach, teach and lead the same group of people for years, and all will experience the depth or shallowness of his theological education, but the church planter will move on before people realize his inadequacies. Yet he too must have some depth of understanding. It is not simple to adapt the gospel method to different situations without adapting the gospel truth; it requires a sophisticated grasp of the essentials and non-essentials. In particular, he will have to understand the doctrine of the church lest he lay some faulty foundations for others to build upon. It is therefore important that he is either following a clear template or has thought out the theology of the church with great clarity (preferably the latter, so that he can adapt to the different situations in which he is planting).

If a person is a church founder and plants a single church that he intends to pastor for the foreseeable future, it is important that he is well-skilled as a pastor, rather than as a church planter. For the first few years of planting will soon give way to the long, slow and insightful work of pastoring God’s people.

So as we select, recruit and train church planters and pastors, we need to look for both skill sets. But we must not be confused by their differences or their similarities. The evangelist who will plant many churches is the harder person to find, but we can equip him for his work at any time, for his life is always changing as he leaves churches to move to new fields of work. The church founder is easier to find. However, he will need to undertake his training before he has planted the church, for once it is founded, both he and the church will find it hard for him to leave to be properly trained later.

As we seek to grow congregations and plant more churches, it is vital that we tailor the various tracks of education and training required for the work of planting and founding churches.

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