plant-250x200Church planting can teach us two very important lessons about mission. First, church planting helps the church to be there where people are. And second, church planting points to the connection between the church and mission. Let me discuss these lessons separately.

Be Where the People Are

The American church growth apostle Peter Wagner has become quite famous because of his claim that, “[t]he single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches”.[1]  While it is difficult to verify where new growth comes from, there is some logic that lends plausibility to Wagner’s claim.[2]

For a starter, new churches want to grow. If they do not draw new people, they will not survive. So, a new church will usually go to great lengths to connect with new people. It will do research in the neighbourhood, it will evangelize, it will make itself accessible, and so on. Also, new churches usually are more flexible and informal, so they have fewer barriers for newcomers. Moreover, new churches have fewer differences in status between long-term members and newcomers. In other words, newcomers have more possibilities to influence the church, and therefore they will feel more empowered. Yet another reason is that planting new churches will extend the range of options for religiously interested people. In our complex society there is a wide range of spiritual interests, and we need many different churches to meet those interests.

As far as I can tell, there are indeed some indications that young churches generally receive more converts – new members with a non-Christian or a nominal Christian background. I must underline, though, that there is little good research in this area, and a lot of missionary rhetoric.

 

Empirical data suggest, however, that location may be even more important than age. In studies in the northern parts of the world growing churches are mostly inner city churches, immigrant churches and suburban churches. In suburbia this growth can be explained out of the presence of new housing projects. As for the cities, it is interesting to see that the most declining and the most flourishing churches can be found there. But some churches, younger as well as older ones, seem to profit from the renewed attractiveness of the cities for young professionals.[3] In our movement much growth occurred around establishing churches in new housing areas. What this says, is that it is important for churches to be responsive to demographic shifts. Church planting helps the church to be flexible, viz. to renew its presence where it is needed. This is, I think, another reason for us to take church planting seriously.

Church and Mission

During the last decades many churches have found out that the classic approach of evangelism, rooted in the revivalist heritage, did not work anymore. It simply assumed too much knowledge and belief. Evangelism 2.0 entailed a more extended period of communication, usually through a course. The Alpha Course was introduced in the 1990s, and many others followed, such as Christianity Explored. But already early in this millennium it was recognised that something was going wrong. Although many people went through these courses, only very few found their way to the church. Usually, they preferred to remain in the group where they had started.[4] The most natural consequence of evangelism, it seemed, was the formation of a new community. Apparently, as soon as you start with evangelism, you will encounter the question of the church. In my opinion, this leads us to a set of theological (instead of merely pragmatic) arguments for church planting.

In the modern history of missions, the role of the church has often been neglected. Tim Chester points to the eschatological character of the church in the New Testament. Across barriers of race, sex and class, Christians are united in Christ (Galatians 3:28). The unity of the church is a foretaste of God’s purposes for all creation (Ephesians 1:9-10, etc.). The church is the place where God reigns in peace and justice. Therefore, initiating people into the church is not drawing them away from service in the kingdom of God. On the contrary, the church is the community of the kingdom, and everyone who is initiated into the church must be initiated in the service of the kingdom.[5] The church is essential in God’s plans. Church planting, whatever we think of it, reminds us of the importance of the church in God’s purposes.

Second, in post-War missiology the missionary nature of the church has been rediscovered. There is a widespread consensus that the church is not there for itself but for God and his mission in the world. Church planting, if it is to be more than a simple reproduction of existing models (as is often the case), can be an opportunity for churches to think through their identity as a people called for mission.[6] When we commit to church planting we are continually forced to consider profound questions of ecclesiology, mission, and contextualization. This is especially important on ‘old’ ground, since, according to Tim Chester the church tends to accommodate to a culture when it has settled there long enough.

Through mission the church is able to break free from external conformity to culture and internal conformity to tradition and rediscover the vitality of the gospel. Church planting is vital for the health of the wider church. Good church planting forces us to re-ask questions about the gospel and church.[7]

Thus, church planting puts on the agenda the important issue of the continuing reformation (semper reformanda) of the church.

A third argument pertains to size. When churches attract new members they tend to accept without further consideration that they will grow bigger. However, by an increase of size the internal dynamics of church life will change. In most social contexts this process will begin already when communities have more than 50 members. Relationships will be stretched, because many members will not know each other. This will make it more difficult to maintain naturally New Testament directions for church life, such as mutual love, comfort, correction, forgiveness, and so forth. Leadership will become more distant, formal and bureaucratic. It will be more difficult to apply church discipline in a loving, personal atmosphere. Large churches tend to be run by a relatively small percentage of its members, thus turning the majority into more or less passive consumers. Of course, there are advantages to size, such as the capability to offer more programs, while small churches are more susceptible to sectarianism and suffocating relationships. But generally small churches are able to reflect the communal life of the New Testament church much more naturally. It is remarkable that theological questions are seldom asked when churches grow, but that they abound when churches reproduce. Would it not be a wiser course to split the church when it grows, and create two smaller human-scale communities instead of one large congregation? Without turning this into a new law, I believe that there is good theological ‘circumstantial evidence’ to advocate church planting as a strategy for growing churches.[8]

Finally, a good theological defence of church planting can be found in reconsidering the relationship between evangelism and church formation. One could ask whether evangelism does not normally presuppose the existence of a Christian community. Let us remember that neither Jesus nor the apostles used to go to people alone.[9] Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs (Luke 10). Paul used to travel together with companions. The idea of the solo evangelist, so deeply rooted in our modern Western history, is not an image that we find very often in the New Testament. It is interesting that the first evangelization of Europe also happened by two different ‘models’. Those who were sent by the Church of Rome would present the Christian message, invite pagans to believe in Christ, and would then welcome them into the Christian community. A different model was practiced however by the monks from Ireland. They would first establish a community that accepted everyone who was interested. Within this fellowship people could see the gospel ‘work’ in conversations, ministry, prayer and worship.[10] In this way they would hear a message that was much more complete (or ‘incarnate’) than just a verbal address. The life of the community, together with (spontaneous) verbal invitations, would move them into a decision for or against Christ. This practice reminds us of the famous dictum by Lesslie Newbigin, that the congregation is the ‘hermeneutic of the gospel’.[11] As Jim Wallis says, “[t]he power of evangelism today is tested by the question, What do we have to explain to the world about the way we live?”.[12]

Again, all this does not mean that church planting is the only course to take. Existing churches are addressed as well by this call for reformation. But whenever we try to find ways into new groups or locations in our pluralistic societies, it may not be the best course to send a ‘talking head’. For theological and contextual reasons the formation of a community of Christians committed to live out what they preach should be the first step to undertake.[13]

What Next?

Finally, what must be done if we want to give church planting the place it deserves? I want to conclude with a brief list of recommendations.[14]

Find leaders. As I have said, it is better to select people whom you trust, than to rely on institutional control mechanisms. How do you find these people? In my experience, some of them may be found in theological training. But usually, apostolic pioneer types do not have the patience to be in an academic environment for years and years, nor do they have the reflective attitude that this environment requires. So, it is important to have different recruitment mechanisms. Maybe we could use an assessment for missionary pioneer ministry. This helps us to find the people with the proper spirituality, experience, and attitude to be sent out in church planting.

Supportive structures. We have an advantage that we do not have structures to wade through to plant churches. This suggests that we do need some supporting and permission giving mechanisms, and ways to display accountability and learning to our wider church community.

Training and mentoring. It is important to have different types of training. In my experience, academic education is important, especially for those apostolic pioneers who have come into a more reflective stage of their ministry. However, we also need shorter training, more practically oriented, to help people get started. Connecting beginning pioneers with more experienced people in a mentorship should be very helpful.

Build networks. Meet with other church planters. Use those encounters for sharing vision and peer review. These are wonderful opportunities for training and reflection. To these networks we add representatives from our Service Providers, teaching staff, mission board members, those with financial and pastoral support. It is important to keep people in conversation, as much as possible.

Research. Finally, research is needed. In a challenging missionary context like New Zealand, we need people who look deeper into missionary initiatives, and ask what can be learnt from them. We must know our context and the process of discovering what the gospel means within that context.

If you want to interact further with this and want to take a greater interest in being a part of church planting in New Zealand, feel free to contact me. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tags: Church Planting | Director | gospel | grow | location | Missions | models | New Zealand | Russell Thorp | size | Training | vitality

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