Note from the editor: This blog post by J. D. Payne originally appeared here at Verge Network.
I recently spoke with a church planting leader for a particular denomination. As we talked over coffee, he inquired about the direction of our church when it comes to church planting.
My response was to describe our future missionary labors in terms like we read about in Acts 13-14; 16; 20; 1 Thess 1:2-10; and Titus 1:5.
He responded with much surprise as if my thoughts were coming from an unusual source.
Unfortunately, over the years, I have found myself surprising many people during similar conversations.
What does it reveal about our missiology and biblical convictions whenever we think it is strange to advocate that those first century church planting teams have something to teach us? What does it reveal about our Kingdom stewardship when we view such an advocate as being peculiar? Do we not recognize a problem exists whenever we label a church planter as being innovative, creative, or unusual for following a Pauline model?
Granted, not everything we read in the Bible is prescriptive. However, I believe our brother Paul and his example should be on a pedestal for us to consider. He was a church planter, you know.
Having the right definition
As wise stewards of the mystery of Christ, we must subscribe to a definition of biblical church planting as evangelism that results in new churches. Or, to communicate it in other terms: disciple-making that results in new churches. The weight of the biblical model is on this definition.
Imagine what would happen if we began to create a church planting atmosphere in North America whereby the expectation for new churches is that they should consist of 95-100% new believers–at the moment those churches are planted.
Consider what would happen if our strategies did not embrace methods that would result in new churches consisting of 95-100% long-term Kingdom citizens–at the moment of their births.
We don’t need more flavors
What would happen if we recognized that a wise use of our Father’s resources (e.g., money, people) should be to assist in planting churches from out of the harvest fields, instead of establishing a new work in a community to provide a different style of worship/ministry for the believers who are already there?
We do not need another flavor of church in the Baskin Robbins of North American Christianity; we need missionary bands to settle for nothing less than disciple-making that results in new churches.
What would happen if we equipped and commissioned church planters with the task of only going to the lost in the people group/community?
Yes, we say we are advocating these things, but let’s begin to question our results.
Try this. The next time you hear about a new church planted, a record number of new churches birthed in an area, or church planting goals reached, just ask the question, “What percent of the members of those churches recently came into the Kingdom of God?”
Do our actions match our words?
We say we want to see churches planted from out of the harvest, but our actions and our leadership practices do not often match our words. And the sad thing is that even when faced with such inconsistencies, we are likely to continue repeating our past behaviors–expecting different future results (Maybe the Ridley Assessment has something to say to those of us who oversee church planters?).
Whenever a biblical model for church planting is viewed as unusual, the path to change will come with pain.
In order for healthy change to occur, we have to change our ecclesiologies, missiologies, and what we celebrate, reward, and expect.
Poor definitions = poor practices
We have a poor understanding of our Commission. We act as if Jesus has commanded us to plant churches. We are commanded to make disciples. It is out of disciple making that churches are to be birthed. The weight of the biblical model rests here. Not transfer growth. Not acrimonious splits. It is evangelism that results in disciples, who covenant together to be and function as the local expression of the Body of Christ.
We have a poor understanding of the local church. If our definition is poor, then everything we say and do related to church planting will be poor. We often expect newly planted churches to manifest structures and organizations like what is observed in churches of 20, 40, 50 years of age. Our definition of a local church is oftentimes so encased with our cultural desires that we do not know the difference between biblical prescriptions and American preferences.
We operate from a poor definition of church planter. If we do not recognize the missionary nature (and thus apostolic functions) of church planters, then we end up equating them with pastors. And take it from a pastor who has been involved in church planting: missionaries and pastors have different callings, gift-mixes, passions, and functions to play in the Kingdom. We end up sending pastors to do apostolic-type work, or sending missionaries and expect them to be pastors. Such is a perfect storm for problems, frustrations, burn-out, and disasters.
Are there other ways to plant churches than what we read about in the ministry of Paul?
The problems with our current models
Yes, and I am in favor of some of those models. Are there times when a church should hive-off members to begin work in another area? Yes. Is it okay for a congregation to send out a pastor with several church members to plant an “instant” church in a community? Yes, under certain circumstances.
However, such models tend to be difficult to reproduce (in view of four billion unbelievers), pose contextualization challenges, are costly, and often do not result in a great amount of disciples made. The weight of the biblical definition for church planting is not found here. Such models should be the exception when it comes to church planting. Today, they are often the expectation.
I expect my “surprising” conversations will continue in the future. Such is necessary as we move in a direction where a biblical model is not looked upon as the exception. But until our church planting expectations change, we must ask ourselves a question and recognize the troubling answer:
What do we have whenever a biblical model is viewed as unusual?
J. D. (@jd_payne) serves as the pastor of church multiplication with The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He has pastored churches in Kentucky and Indiana, and served for a decade with the North American Mission Board and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books on the topics of evangelism and missions.