Church planting: Can two views be right at the same time?

Pre-millenialists believe that Jesus will return and reign for 1000 years. Until then, the church must patiently endure and remain faithful. There will be times of persecution including one great tribulation. Christians should expect to be in the minority.

Post-Millenialists  believe that Christ’s millennial reign is happening now, before the return of Christ. They expect great growth in the church and Christians to have influence and power, even seeing Christian governments formed.

Both viewpoints claim to have evidence that their view is right. Pre-Mills point to the way that the church is small minority and the rise of hostile secular governments. Post-Mills point to great gospel growth around the world. Evidence seems to support both perspectives because at any one time, the church is seeing fruitful growth and struggle depending where you are.

I was thinking about this when reading two articles about church planting last week. Stephen Kneale argues that church planting has become popular -it’s the in vogue thing to do and there’s a certain status that goes with being a planter.  Ryan Burton King has responded by arguing that planting carries very little honour and there’s very little interest in  church planting.

Can both be right?

I think so. My view remains that whilst church planting has become somewhat popular in some circles, it remains low on the agenda for the church more widely in the UK. I think this is less to do with our views of how to do mission and more because we still need to wake up from the slumber of church maintenance mode.

So, there are clusters of urgent church planting activity. Primarily these tend to be in cities with younger populations and especially students and graduates. Churches close to Universities are seeing students come, spend 3 -5 years with them and then joining a church plant. This means that you will see a lot of focus on planting in Birmingham and Manchester.

However, generally speaking once you move away from those hotbeds of activity things get very quiet. That’s not even because anyone is doing anything wrong per se. It’s just that this type of church planting which has become in some circles the primary way of planting is likely to have its limits. The plants will go where the graduates go and the Black Country or deprived greater Manchester towns are not on the graduate migration path.

So, if you are a pastor of a church in one of those areas, you hear a lot of talk about planting and meet a lot of “planters” and inter-church events.  Yet, you don’t see much interest from the wider church in the hard gospel work you are doing. It looks like all the focus is on the shiny church plants in the go to areas, where there’s already lots of thriving, youthful churches. 

To be fair, the 2020 Birmingham guys in the West Midlands have worked hard to fight that trend. There are pioneer church plants happening away from the “obvious areas” church revitalisation as well as planting is happening and I’ve personally found the 2020 team supportive of what we are trying to encourage.

Having said that, there’s still, especially in contemporary style/reformed theology circles no where near enough interest or engagement with gospel work on our estates and in our inner cities. I can still count on one hand the number of people who have even expressed a vague interest in gospel ministry including revitalisation and planting in Sandwell and the Black Country.

So, when Ryan looks to see if there’s any interest in people going to do gospel work in hard places where there are no churches, he sees a lack of evidence for church planting.  He sees it from the perspective of a church planter trying to encourage other church plants. Steve sees it from the perspective of a pastor of an established church trying to encourage support and partnership with existing churches. 

I want to suggest that both are in fact seeing the same problem but from different perspectives. We still have no-where near enough gospel engagement with our inner cities and estates. Until we do, then it doesn’t matter whether or not we talk about church planters, missionaries or pastors, there will continue to be a need for workers in the harvest field whilst the church will continue to enjoy comfort.