In defence of church planting and Church planting movements

Church planting and church planting movements have been the big talk in Global Missions over the past few years. Internationally there’s Acts29 and City to City. Here in the English Midlands we have our own 2020 Birmingham which started with an aspiration of 20 church plants by 2020 and now is seeking another 3o by 2030 with the prayer that each of those churches will plant one more.

Not everyone is happy about this though. On certain parts of the inter-web questions are being raised.  The underpinning theme is “Is this Biblical? Or is it human strategy?” These are vital questions and as I’ve been asked them directly myself I want to respond to them.

The thesis behind this is that:

  1. That we are in danger of creating a special class of super Christian – The Church planter. In other words, we risk idolatry and inflated egos.
  2. The New Testament does not talk about church planting, it simply talks about making disciples. Therefore, a lot of the energy that goes into church planting – particularly the focus on building partnerships, seeking resources (especially financial support) is a distraction from Gospel preaching
  3. That these activities, planning, seeking partners, trying to learn “how to do it”, fundraising etc suggest an over-reliance on ourselves and a lack of faith in God.

Now, I remember one person I interviewed for a Theological College project about another aspect of Christian mission complaining that there were people quick to criticise them when all they were seeking to do was obey the Great Commission. It would be tempting for church planters to respond in the same way. And yet, I believe it is right to stop, listen and be ready to be challenged. This pushes us back to God’s Word and makes us think. Often this can be a deeply healthy process as we listen more keenly to what God says. So here I want to engage with those questions:

  1. Church planters on pedestals

I agree with those making the challenge that:

  1. Our calling is to make  disciples and that this is a sacrificial call to serve Christ with our whole lives
  2. That Christ is the head of the church and that it is his work to build his church and the work of the Holy Spirit to revive it
  3. That all are called to make disciples and that we must not leave the work to some or put them on pedestals
  4. That we need to examine ourselves. The risk of doing things for the wrong reasons is always there and it is good to be challenged and warned because we can easily do things to make a name for ourselves, a denomination or network or out of legalistic duty.

I also know that there are people who preach and also plant for their own gain -and this is always a temptation to anyone called into Gospel ministry.

However, I can only speak knowledgably about those whose lives and work I know personally. My observations here are mainly about 2020 and CPI but also one or two other church planters

  1. Most of the men I know that are involved in church planting are respected for their ability to teach and preach well. Additionally, several have voluntarily left senior employment positions, senior and middle managers, lawyers, medical professionals.
  2. In the UK at least, church planting and church revitalisation work is not glamourous. Many of them are in areas where the ground has often seemed so hard to the Gospel. I know men who have put their hand to the work not knowing where the next pay check is coming from.
  3. Whilst we talk about church planting as an aspect of Gospel ministry the actual percentage of the time when planting is talked about in church life is small.
  4. Similarly, I know that the vast majority of time spent by those involved in 2020 is in prayer, evangelism, preaching, 1-1 discipleship and pastoral care in the context of their local churches.

So, it is good to be challenged and hopefully we will keep challenging each other about the dangers of following our own dreams and ambitions but we also need to be careful not to rush to unfair assumptions about what motivates brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s the difference between challenging and encouraging one another in the faith and becoming accusers of the brethren.

Additionally, the point that making disciples is not something that an elite group do but is something for the whole church is well made. There has always been the risk that an elite group are put on a pedestal and that Gospel work is subcontracted to them whether that is pastors, evangelists, missionaries, youth workers or pastors. We must always beware that.  At the same time, body ministry does mean that we bring different gifts to bear and it is the job of the church together to make disciples not individuals on their own so that not everyone will be a preacher, elder, Bible study leader but we can all play a part in Gospel work.

  1. Is church planting Biblical or a distraction

The argument is that Jesus only commands us to make disciples, not to plant churches.  The phrase “church planting” is not found in the Bible and that the practice of people like Paul was simply to do Gospel preaching so that church plants were an incidental by-product of Gospel preaching not a planned priority.

It’s worth remembering at this point that just because a specific word or phrase does not appear in the Bible that this does not mean that the doctrine or principle isn’t present and often very explicitly (for example The Trinity). What about church planting?

Here are two vital reasons why I believe church planting is an important Biblical activity.

  1. The full text of the Great Commission requires us to make disciples by baptism them and by teaching them to obey all of Christ’s teaching (Matthew 28:18-20) Christ calls us to love one another (John 13:34-35)  God’s word calls us to not give up gathering together  (Hebrews 10:25). We are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). The church is also to resolve disputes (Matthew 13:15-20) and discipline sinners (1 Corinthians 5 & 2 Corinthians 2:5-13) as well to take responsibility for caring for its vulnerable members (1 Timothy 5:3-7). All of those things mean we can say that it is at least implicit in Jesus’ command that when we make disciples we plant churches.

In other words, we cannot exclude the essential practice of gathering together as church from what Jesus and the wider New Testament commands. Therefore, church planting is an expected and primary outcome of disciple making. Or to put it another way, when we make disciples:

 

–          Where it is possible then we will encourage them to join with an existing congregation – this is the context for discipleship to take place.

–          Where no church currently exists or it is not possible for new disciples to gather with an existing church e.g. because a church venue is full, there are language barriers or the church meets at a time of day when they have to work or tend to their family, then this will include church planting.

–          Teaching them to obey all things means that there may be times when people are called to serve in congregations where there has been a neglect of Gospel witness and Biblical truths leading to falling away and decline of the congregation’s health.  Their priority will be to call people back to obedience including the call to go and make disciples.  This is essentially what church revitalisation is about.

  1. Intentional church planting was clearly the practice modelled by the Apostle Paul. It was his practice to visit places systematically and leave churches in each place, taking as much time as possible to see them rooted and established and then returning on further visits as well as sending regular correspondence. Further, he gives instructions to his co-workers, Timothy and Titus to appoint elders in the churches and to train up Gospel workers (1 Timothy 3 ; 2 Timothy 2, Titus 1:5) note Titus 1:5 talks about what needs to be done in line with the Apostle’s instruction suggesting that this was something planned. This shows that the planting of those churches was actually at the centre of the strategy and not merely an incidental side effect. If we are making disciples then we will be asking right from the start “ How will they gather, how will they share one another’s burdens, how will they be taught, how will they use their gifts?” (See Acts 13:30-38 for example).

But what about church planting movements and the risk that organisation, fund-raising and partnership building is a worldly distraction? Well, there is as strong Biblical practice of financial giving to help the believers in one or other part of the world (Romans 15:29;2 Corinthians 8-9, 2 Corinthians 11:7-11)).  This is why we give a significant proportion of our own church  finance towards mission by supporting churches and missionaries overseas. We treat it as legitimate for those churches and missionaries to share their needs with us.  I believe it is also legitimate for churches elsewhere in the UK and in the wider world to support mission activity onto needy estates in the UK. This is really what is happening when people agree to partner with 2020 or to our own more localised ActBC initiative.

It is worth remembering that we are all members of the body. This means that each has different gifts.  I agree that those who have the gift of preaching should not be distracted from that gift. This means I am thankful that others have the gift of administration which is what is used when partnerships are formed, when buildings are provided where the church can meet and resource such as books, tracts etc are sourced. In so far as others use their gifts, it frees new up to preach, So, we should be thankful and honour those gifts (See 1 Corinthians 12). Actually, even Paul takes care to see how his abilities can supply the wider needs of his mission team (See Acts 20:35). So as a leadership team together at Bearwood Chapel we are looking to ensure that all of those involved in Gospel outreach are fully equipped and resourced. This means providing suitable training, not so people can have diplomas but so they are able to handle God’s word properly and guard against false teaching. It means providing venues where believers can gather and where the Gospel can be proclaimed. It also means we have set apart specific people to help with mission in different ways. Finally, it means we seek financial support to enable workers to be set apart for Gospel work.  In an established church, that local congregation will try to raise the support but churches will also partner together so that Gospel mission will not be hampered by one church’s lack of resources.

This leads us on to the third and final issue.

  1. Does planning, partnering and seeking financial support add up to a lack of faith?

This brings us back to the age-old question of how faith interacts with action and how God’s sovereignty relates to our responsibility. We are not fatalists and so trusting God moves us to action.

Christians must be fully dependent upon God’s grace and provision. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict and save. It is Christ who builds his church.

However, I do not believe that this excludes planning, organisation and work on our part. Indeed, as we have seen above, this is exactly what Paul and the Apostles do. There is a counting the cost and a purposefulness to their Gospel ministry.

Another example is found in the Old Testament. King David had faith in God’s promises. He knew that God would keep his promise to enable his son Solomon to build the Temple. David knew that unless the Lord built the House, the labourers would labour in vain.  However, David also laboured, preparing and planning, bringing in the provisions so that Solomon would have the resources he needed to build the Temple ( 1 Chronicles 22).

Indeed, it is through obedience, thoughtfulness, preparation and co-operation that God works. Faith results in action not fatalism.

Here are a few examples of this.

  1. On a smaller scale, I believe that God will give me the words to say when I preach and for each of the preachers every weekend. It is exactly because of this that we plan a teaching programme and we prepare our sermons. When I study and when I use commentaries, I am not relying on human strength but trusting God to equip me with the words to say.
  2. The story of our Nueva Vida congregation is one of faith and unexpected surprises as we on the one hand simply set out to communicate the Gospel. However, there were also numerous examples of planning, preparation and hard work.  Bearwood Chapel members had met, prayed and believed it right to open up the building to create space for new gatherings. One member had learnt Spanish and spent time in South America to be better equipped to evangelise, disciple and preach.  These are examples of decision making enabling resources such as the building as well as people with gifts to be available to support the work.
  3. I think of one example of a church planter.  I know personally.  He has stepped out in faith. This is at significant cost. He has forsaken the prospects of a large church or well-paid job to work on a hard estate. However, he has also done this in the context of a church planting   partnership encouraging fellowship among Gospel workers as they seek to see church plants in some of the country’s toughest areas. The partnership has also been able to request and receive prayer support, encouragement, workers and financial support from other churches.

Conclusion

It is good for those of us involved in this kind of work to be challenged especially when this drives us back to Scripture and a greater reliance on God’s Word. Some of us can too easily be caught up in our own plans and efforts, we need to be reminded that it is God who builds the house.  At the same time, hopefully this will also challenge others to see that this is a vital and Biblical aspect of Gospel ministry. Hopefully, it will give some who see the ministry in individual terms and only see themselves stepping out in faith will have their eyes opened to wider body ministry and the active planning and preparation of others which is an equal and necessary response of faith and enables them to step out in faith to do what they are called to do.

Let’s be busy about the masters’ business trusting Him alone to fulfil his purposes.

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