In his recent Briefing article ‘What is church for?’, Phillip Jensen suggested that we are “somewhere between everywhere and nowhere as to the importance of church”.1 The same could be said about church planting.
At one level, church planting is the flavour of the month (or perhaps the decade). It’s the default evangelistic strategy for many congregations. The path to growth is not so much to seek to grow the current congregation of 150 to 200, but to carve out 30 or 40 keen members, set up shop a suburb or two away, and try to grow both congregations back to 150. And this has been a fruitful strategy for some churches.
Church planting is also the ministry of choice for many of our keen young men in Bible and theological colleges. If given the choice between launching a brand new, cutting-edge congregation, perhaps in an under-served inner city region, or going to take up an assistant’s job in a struggling outer-suburban congregation… well, it’s hard to blame someone for dreaming of building their own thing from scratch, and fixing all the things they’ve always wanted to fix about church in the process.
And yet, for all its popularity in some circles, church planting remains stubbornly unpopular in many others, for the same reason that we don’t like evangelism, three-bean salad or a second airport for Sydney. We are in favour in principle, just not so much in practice, and especially in our own backyard.
So how are we to think about church planting? What is it exactly? And should we be doing it?
What does church have to do with evangelism?
We first need to remind ourselves what ‘church’ really is before we can discuss planting new ones. Phillip Jensen’s description in his Briefing article is as good a working definition as any:
So the distinctively Christian gathering or assembly, that historically has come to be called ‘church’, is made up of those whom God has saved and redeemed in Christ, and who now in repentance and trust gather around him to listen to his word, so that they may persevere and grow in holiness and righteousness2
In this sense, the church does not have a mission or a goal; the church is the mission and the goal. The aim is to ‘build’ (or ‘edify’) the assembly of God’s people. And so the gathering of Christ’s people that we call ‘church’ is not primarily centred around or aimed at non-Christians. The church is not ‘for’ evangelism in this sense.
However, even though church is best thought of as the end point or result of mission and evangelism, the church is also an engine of evangelism in two important ways.
Firstly, a faithful church will generate evangelism, because as its members grow and are edified they will grow as gospel-hearted, evangelizing Christians. Those who are gathered around Christ in repentance and trust will heed his call and commission to be disciple-makers, to go out into the world with the gospel on their lips.
In this sense, it is not the church that is ‘sent’ on a mission into the world in the New Testament, but disciples who are sent from the gathering into the world, to preach the good news of the kingdom, and to make disciples of all nations. Churches that listen repentantly to Christ’s word will be churches full of outward-looking, evangelistically-motivated believers who long to reach out to the lost of their communities.
A church gathering that is not teaching, equipping and motivating its members to be missionaries to their families, their neighbourhoods and their workplaces is simply not being obedient to the Great Commission. To be a good and faithful servant of Jesus is not just to hold onto doctrinal purity, but to do all that we can in his service. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is a sober warning about doing nothing with the gospel that Jesus has entrusted to us.
There is also a second way that faithful churches generate evangelism, and it is a necessary consequence of the nature of church. Given that godly churches gather around the word of Christ and speak it to one another—given, in other words, that church is fundamentally a gospel gathering—it is inevitable that our church meetings will be theatres of evangelism. Outsiders and visitors of all kinds will turn up in our churches, as they did in New Testament times (e.g. 1 Cor 14), and if the church is even remotely good at what it does, visitors and outsiders will be gospelled while they are there. They will be gospelled by the public proclamation of the Word, but also by the Christ-centred conversation of the disciples they meet.
This applies to all kinds of different people who turn up in our churches. Some are totally ‘unchurched’; some are church-school dropouts who have some of the basics but are otherwise uninformed; some are youth group converts returning from a sojourn in the wilderness; some are refugees from calamitous church splits or scandals; some are confused or poorly taught Christians from confusing, poorly-taught churches; and some have simply moved into the area and been prompted (often by a strangely random reason) to try a local church.
People of all sorts turn up for all sorts of reasons. Some may even have been invited by a member! And as they sit there in our gatherings, and as Christ’s word is faithfully and prayerfully spoken, then who knows what God might do by his Spirit? He might breathe new life into them, and open their eyes to the truth of his word.
So even though it is quite right to point out that church is not ‘for’ unbelievers or evangelism as such, as if that is its nature, rationale or focus, yet church gatherings should always be evangelistic occasions for all those who are present, because our assemblies should be filled with the word of Christ. The article ‘Better church: The why and how of running Sunday meetings’ in our last Briefing covered this. Summarizing briefly: to say that church meetings should be evangelistic and welcoming to the outsider is not at all to suggest that they should be ‘outsider-driven’—where everything is designed to fit around the outsider and meet their needs. It is simply to say that with a little thought and consideration and kindness and a willingness to change, our meetings can be significantly more welcoming, hospitable and intelligible for outsiders who attend.
It is well worth taking an honest look at the cultural trappings and non-essentials of our church meetings. Does the familiar way we do things make it difficult for certain people to come or to stay? For example, if there are very few men visiting and/or remaining at our church, is it in part because the whole feel of our meeting is feminine?
In passing we might also note that this is why the ‘missional vs. attractional’ debate is so strange and sometimes so confused. For the uninitiated, the ‘missional’ approach emphasizes that the church is sent out into the world to evangelize, and so our church activities should be focused on ‘out-reach’ not ‘in-drag’. The ‘attractional’ approach, by contrast, aims to get non-Christians to come to us, and therefore focuses on constructing and running church meetings that are ‘attractive’ and effective for evangelizing outsiders.
According to how we have defined the terms, church is neither missional nor attractional. The church is not ‘sent’ into the world on a mission, yet neither is the church primarily designed to attract unbelievers. However, as we’ve outlined above, churches are engines of evangelism, both outside their walls and within. Churches send out disciples into the world to reach the lost, and churches warmly welcome visitors and outsiders into their midst and evangelize them.
This is why planting new churches is such a useful and important evangelistic strategy. By planting a new church, you are planting a new ‘evangelistic engine’ within a particular community, or in a new area, or as part of a new network of relationships. This new evangelistic engine will generate gospel growth, both by sending its members out into the community with the gospel, and by preaching the gospel to those who visit the gathering.
By church planting, we mean one of two things:
1. The Transplant: A mother congregation sends a team (perhaps of 30-50) to a new location or time-slot to begin a new gathering. The mother congregation will usually support the ‘daughter’ church for a time financially. In fact, they may remain part of the same parish or presbytery or whatever structure operates in your part of the world.
2. The Small Platoon: A church-planter, perhaps with a very small team of helpers, starts working in a new evangelistic field, and builds a congregation from scratch. The Small Platoon doesn’t usually start with a public meeting, but works its way towards that over a period of months or even years. Again, a mother church may send a Small Platoon, and support it for some time.
So far so good. But we are still left with an important question: if churches are (or should be!) engines of evangelism, why plant new ones? Why not simply keep the engine running where it is? After all, planting a new congregation is usually costly, time-consuming and relationally difficult. Why go through the pain?
There are good and compelling reasons to go through the pain (and only those who have done it will know just how much pain there can be). But before considering the good reasons, it is worth reflecting on some poor ones.
Three poor reasons
1. Alpha male hubris
If the motivation and rationale for planting a new church is that I want to run my own show, build my own little kingdom, and maybe (just maybe) become a success and a celebrity pastor… well, let’s just say that this is a recipe for spiritual disaster, both for yourself and for those unfortunate enough to fall under your spell. We need to examine ourselves. Are we attracted to church planting because it’s the best use of our gifts and opportunities, or out of pride?
Sometimes we long to plant something new because we think by doing so we will be able to walk away from all the chronic problems of our current church. We’ll be able to design a whole new thing just the way we like it, and build a new culture from scratch. And to some extent this is true. Sometimes in a new congregational setting we can ‘start again’ with a fresh culture and a new format.
However, church plants have problems all their own. You may escape some problems, and some problem people, but that is a poor and foolish reason for planting a new church.
3. A cover for a lack of disciple-making
Sometimes the impulse to plant can come from a desire to show that ‘something is happening’ when in reality very little is. We can generate excitement, buzz, and a sense of achievement that we are doing something outward-looking and gospel-hearted—and yet if people are not being converted and grown as Christians in our existing church, what makes us think that this will magically start happening in a new context down the road?
Unless the team that plants a new church is made up of evangelistically-active, gospel-hearted Christians—unless they are disciple-making disciples—then the most or best that will be achieved is some shuffling of the deck chairs. We might gain a bit of transfer growth, and make everyone feel better that we are making progress, but there is a deeper underlying issue that will soon manifest in the new plant.
There are no doubt other less-than-worthy reasons for jumping onto the church-planting bandwagon, but let us turn to some good reasons for pursuing church planting.
Five good reasons
1. The engine is producing growth, but current resources can’t continue to accommodate it.
This is the simplest and most straightforward reason for planting a new congregation out of an existing one. If your building is now pretty full, and if extending your building or building a new one is not a realistic option, and another space is available, then it’s an obvious step. Carve out a chunk of your ‘evangelistic engine’, plant it in the new building, and watch the growth continue—both in the mother church (which now has some room again) and in the plant. That new space might be in a building nearby, or it may be a vacant time-slot in your own building.
However, the resources in question may not be physical (such as buildings). It may be that your leaders (including the senior pastor) are not equipped to handle the increased administrative and management demands of a congregation that is growing to 200 and beyond. It may be more efficient and more suited to the gifts God has given to grow two congregations of 150, rather than attempt to grow one congregation of 300 and fall apart in the attempt.
2. There is a need and/or opportunity to plant a new engine somewhere where it could do good.
It might be a housing area or suburb without a viable biblical witness. Or it might be a location some distance from your existing church, where a number of your members already live and where there would be fruitful opportunities for inviting friends and neighbours to a more local gathering.
If there is such an opportunity, and you have the capacity to plant a new ‘evangelistic engine’ there, who knows what God might do as his word is proclaimed in this new context?
The new ‘location’ might not be geographic but cultural or affinity-based. Perhaps you have the opportunity to plant a new ‘evangelistic engine’ within a particular sub-culture or network which has its own set of norms and relationships, and in which fruitful gospel work can be done.
3. If the evangelistic engine is only running on two cylinders, or has seized up through long inactivity, it is often easier to restart it in a new context.
Congregations age, just as we do, and our bodies do. Over time, churches almost always become more conservative, less flexible, more comfortable, and more resistant to change. They come to prefer neatness to excitement, and familiarity to innovation. We know how things are and we like them that way.
Nearly every church wants to grow, but very few churches want to be genuinely flexible so as to promote growth. Sometimes it is significantly easier to start a new work with a keen core group than to rejuvenate an aging congregation that has lost its vision and its will to live and grow.
This is not rejecting the need for ‘church revitalization’, but we sometimes forget that every church was at one time a church plant, started with fresh vision and energy. Sometimes ‘starting again’ can also provide the impetus for the mother congregation to once again see itself as an agent of evangelism, both within the congregational meetings and during the week as its members go out into the world.
4. Releasing and raising up new leadership.
This reason is related to the previous one. Sometimes well-established mature churches are difficult places for new ideas and new leaders to gain a hearing. In a new congregation, everyone has to step up and play a role. People who would never have dreamed of doing things or trying things in the old congregation find themselves thrust into the front line, and by God’s enabling find themselves rising to the challenge.
5. The urgency of the hungry.
When we are small and lean, with 35 members and trying to make it all work, there is a sense of urgency. We need to try things, we need to keep sharp, we need to treat every newcomer like gold.
Once we get to 120 and the budget is more comfortable, and we have a sense of being established and stable… it’s amazing how the urgency starts to leech out of a congregation. The engine starts to slow down and just tick over in idle.
The most important reason
Behind these five largely wisdom-based motivations for church planting lies the more profound theological reason, which we must not forget. In obedience to Jesus’ commission, in faithfulness to his example, and in love for those around us, we are to lay down our lives for the sake of others’ salvation. As the Apostle Paul puts it:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Cor 10:31-11:1)
If there are people and opportunities available, what holds us back from church planting? It can be anxiety or lack of confidence. It can be complacency or even laziness. It can be too much caution or fear of failure. It can be the desire for our churches to just stay the way we like them, even though we know that they are declining.
But who said the Christian life was an easy, safe, comfortable ride? It’s a life of sacrificial service; of intentionally choosing my own discomfort and disadvantage for the sake of others; of deciding to plant a new church for the sake of gospel growth rather than remaining warm and safe in our own.
(Al Stewart is one of the directors of The Geneva Push, a church planting network that aims to raise up a new generation of church planters dedicated to evangelizing churches into existence across Australia. For more information, go to thegenevapush.com.)