WHY JESUS NEVER COMMANDED US TO PLANT CHURCHES

Note from the editor: This blog post by J. D. Payne originally appeared here at Verge Network.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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12 comments
  1. Thank you for this great reminder from Scripture. You are a absolutely right. We may have good intentions to meet the needs of a certain people group by starting an “instant church” but the model we see in Acts ensures that the needs of the new church are met because they are the new church. May God be Glorified!

  2. Ron said:

    This is very thought-provoking, thank you!!! I would like to ask a few questions and make a few comments to clarify, only so that I can understand better what you are getting at…

    I think the non-Biblical church planting model you are talking about is what I would call “church in a can”. One guy gets a vision, goes through the training and assessment, and travels church-to-church to raise money to support his vision. This vision usually would have a larger budget than my established church, especially in the area of technology. It also does not include a group of elders for spiritual direction, but a steering committee of people who agree with the one man’s vision. (I apologize if I offend anyone in pointing this out. It is only my opinion that this is non-Biblical; I’m not claiming it as 100% fact. Nor am I saying it’s “wrong/sinful” necessarily.)

    I would like to ask: Are you challenging the title itself (“church plant”)? Can we really call something a church plant if it contains a majority of non-believers? I agree that we shouldn’t just move Christians around and say we are doing a great work, but I’ve seen new churches fail or struggle to grow in maturity because of the weak influence of Biblical leaders. How can you really even use the word “church” if it’s a majority of people who have not accepted Christ? Also, can we expect new believers ALONE to have the endurance in faith to plant a church?

    I find it difficult to stomach the idea of a church plant that does not have pastors/elders in place. Perhaps the best church planting model is to have a missionary with several pastors? I believe this model still leaves a LOT open for strategy, style, methods, etc. but it does not require sending baby sheep to a pack of wolves.

    Enough of my babbling… I would love to hear your opinion on exactly what a Biblical “church plant” scenario should look like in America. Could you possibly give a simple idea of what that process would look like?

    • Ron, great point to clarify and really important stuff to consider here.

      We simply want to point out that we are not commanded to plant churches, but to make disciples. As a result, yes, churches are planted. But in keeping with the Great Commission, in most cases, disciple-making is the most biblical way for new churches come about. So when one church sends out a “church-planting” team, they can still call it just that, but JD is here arguing that biblical church planting is basically missions. As for the leadership, while the leadership overseeing the church planting team may vary, the leadership of the new church should all be local, for it is out of the new disciples that Paul and Barnabas made as they preached the gospel their first time through each of the cities that elders are appointed in Acts 14:21-23.

      I hope this helps clarify what we wanted to emphasize. In essence, we should fundamentally be about making disciples as we plant churches.

      Thanks and blessings!

      • Ron said:

        Amen to that! Thanks for the clarity 🙂 This has been a big topic on my mind (if you can’t tell).

  3. Steve Korn said:

    Very bold observation and critique! Having planted a few churches in the past and contemplating where to focus my energy in the future, this convicted me and crystallized my thoughts – more flavors vs. the totally forgotten. Thanks for the Biblical admonition!

  4. We are missionaries in Thailand, and we will be church planters. However, I think that the way you define church planting makes sense to me. Our biggest focus as we go is not events, businesses, etc. rather it is discipling others in Jesus Christ. For us it will be a bit easier to fulfill the idea of church planting you have considering our area has 5 Christians out of 40,000 people.

    • Wow, what a need you are seeking to meet! May the Lord abundantly bless your ministry!

  5. This article left me waiting for more. Can’t put my finger on it, but perhaps J.D. Payne gives the impression of saying something revolutionnary, but at the end of the article, I’m not sure if anything’s been said.

    I’m French, church-planting in France. Maybe I’m missing something from the american discussions to understand the article?

    • Stéphane,

      I think his point is that we don’t need to do anything “innovative” or especially revolutionary. We simply need to start with making disciples, and the result will be new church plants. I’m not sure if this is what you were referring to, but I don’t think he wanted to say anything new in this regard, but simply encourage us to look at Pauline models of “church planting” from the Scriptures he referenced in Acts and Paul’s letters.

  6. tcavey said:

    I’m glad you posted on this. It’s a topic that needs to be addressed. When I read “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer a few years back I began to see that many Christian’s were falling short of making disciples (or even being disciples of Christ). There’s more to being a Christian than accepting Christ as Savior and/or going to church.

    Look forward to more posts.

  7. I am currently working with a team to plant a new church so thank you for sharing this information! I would have to agree that Christians today are focused more on planting churches than making disciples. Which is a scary thought because that could quite possibly hurt the kingdom rather than advance it. Additionally, I thought it was an interesting thought regarding planting a new church and having 90% of the original members non Kingdom-citizens. So many churches in America are just reshuffling the Christian deck causing diversion within the church and cities. Nevertheless, great post and awesome app, I really enjoy it!

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