Churches and Church plants, Pastors and Church Planters – what’s in a name?

Stephen Kneale has been writing about church planting and specifically about “church planters.” He’s been asking whether it is right to refer to people as “church planters.” His argument is that you are either a pastor who has a congregation to pastor or youu are someone who could be a pastor if and when you have a congregation. His main issue is with people describing themselves as church planters and their churches as church plants years after they planted.

Part of the assumption in the argument is that church planting is seen as kind of sexy at the moment. It’s the trendy thing to do. I’m not so convinced by this. I think it has become more prominent and within some circles has become the thing to do but actually it’s quite niche. Generally evangelicals will give a nod to the aspiration of seeing more churches planted but generally speaking they are not doing it.

I think there are two other reasons why people are reluctant to give up the titles church plant and church planters

  1. Making the Grade as churches

The first reason is that with a few exceptions, a lot of churches that have been planted, especially into hard places, and especially those with limited access to resources are incredibly fragile. They may struggle to find a regular premises in which to meet, they may see quite a turnover of members and still only have a handful of members. They may struggle to do all the things churches are meant to do like toddlers groups and youth groups. The lead workers may still be bi-vocational because the church can’t afford to pay a pastor.

The problem is not just what we make of “church planting” it’s what we understand by the title “church.” What is a church? Stephen’s point, rightly is that if you are teaching God’s Word and sharing communion together, then you are a church.  You may be a fragile church, you may wish you could do more but you are a church. In that respect, you are no different to many other churches.

  1. “I’m not a pastor”

The second issue is that a lot of people shy away from being referred to as pastors. They don’t believe that they have been called to do that. So they prefer to say that they are a church planter, evangelist or whatever.

I think this is partly because of how we perceive the role of pastor. First of all, we think of it as a title. So, we have people who because of their own humility, or their church polity don’t want to attract the title. So to avoid ever getting it given to them, they tell others “I’m just a church planter.”

Linked to that, there’s a perception of what pastors do. They spend their days in meetings and visiting people, offering a listening ear, not saying anything too offensive, doing weddings and funerals. A pastor is a gentle person and a church planter is by necessity tough with lots of rough edges and a tendency to be outspoken.

As suggested above, the pastor takes a salary.

Finally, a pastor is some-one who is there long term, 15-25 years if possible.  The “church planter” has itchy feet and needs to move on to start again.

So, it is helpful to remember that

  1. When we talk about pastor/teachers we are talking about a gift to the church. It isn’t about titles. Really we are talking about elders.
  2. Whilst some churches do use the word to distinguish out those leaders who are full time and paid for the work, that isn’t necessary or always the case.
  3. If it is about gifting and responsibility, then the questions should be first of all are there people who need teaching God’s Word and protecting from error. Then, do you have the gifts needed? Are you able to teach. Alongside that you need to meet the qualifications of an elder, are you self-controlled, sober, able to look after your family right? Do you have a good reputation with believers and unbelievers? Are you hospitable. I suspect if you can’t answer yes to those things you are going to struggle at church planting too.
  4. The assumption is that pastors will stay for the long-haul but of course that isn’t always the case. Some work in churches for a short period of time and move on. Now, I think there’s something to be said for long term ministry. So, we need good reasons for moving on as pastors when a church continues to need teaching and caring for. Now, it might be right at any time for someone to move on to plant a new church whether they’ve planted before or not. However, I think it’s also right to challenge ourselves and others as to whether this is right. Saying “I’m a church planter” so it’s what I do, I move on may prevent searching conversations about whether or not you need to stay.

So, let’s worry less about the titles and think more in terms of what the churches that have been planted need. They will need people to teach and to disciple. Are you able to do that? Then that’s the task in front of you. Are there gaps in your gifting? Yes of course there are. So find others either from within the church or from elsewhere who can come alongside you and complement those gifts.

For as long as God calls you and keeps you in that place, serve the church, be an elder/pastor to it.