For some years now I have had the blessing and privilege of participating in church planting. In a context where fifteen years ago people talked mainly about churches closing, I have had the joy of seeing people begin to discuss, promote, and celebrate the idea of church planting, and in many cases, engage in church planting itself. Indeed, the subject is somewhat en vogue and has become a major topic at Christian meetings of all kinds. The heightened interest in the subject is certainly encouraging, but there are dangers to this growing interest.
Boys growing up during the Victorian era were immersed in stories of lads like themselves going off to war for crown and country, accomplishing great feats of bravery and achieving the heights of military glory with, in the scheme of things, minimal suffering. The scar or two that they did walk away with was merely external, and would win them the admiration of their peers and the affection of the story’s token female. A very sanitary version of reality, of course. Imagine the shock of those boys when they themselves enlisted and experienced first hand the filth and gore of a soldier’s life, and the mental trauma and emotional anguish that accompanied their return home. My point is this: As testimonies, books, models, and one-hundred other things about church planting are introduced to the Christian world there is a very real danger that the subject becomes glamorized. Swayed by success stories, it is possible for a person to think that if one is so bold as to step out in faith and start a new church, they will automatically win a great, sudden victory. Tracts and invitations are distributed, posters put up, adverts placed in local papers and on social media, and personal contacts are made. It is then expected that on Sunday morning the Enemy will suffer as a great congregation of new believers stands and sings.
Why do some have this picture in their heads? Because only the success stories (humanistically defined) get reported. Either that or we are naively blind to the raw accounts of great difficulty, spiritual turmoil, personal loss, emotional depression, congregational fragmentation, and Satanic attack that are more representative of reality. Church planters don’t know what’s real because church pragmatists don’t keep it real. It is this problem that leads to the presumptive church planter giving up for absurd reasons: “I was experiencing stuff I would rather not experience” one failed church planter recently told me. His dream was to fruitfully preach to thousands not to faithfully plant with ones and tens.
As the term church ‘planting’ derives from a statement Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 3:6, it seems only natural to take this letter as a starting point for a biblical understanding of church planting, as it gives us some indication as to how Paul went about it. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 reads:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Biblical church planting is not about a message that meets felt-needs, a mission without sacrifice and sanctification, or methods that draw a crowd. It is about weak men empowered by the Holy Spirit going into dark places and persevering with whatever God has given them come what may.
Proclaiming Christ in message
Paul says that he clearly proclaimed God’s testimony about Jesus Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). In Paul’s thinking, this is not just about Christ’s death but also his resurrection, for without it the cross has no meaning (cf. ch.15). This proclamation would have sprung from the Old Testament and available accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Paul preached the Scriptures, all of which bear witness to Christ in some way. He knew that to do away with Christ is to do away with the gospel in Scripture. If there is no gospel there is no power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). If no one speaks the gospel, then no one will believe the gospel. Paul did not simply live a Christian life since the Corinthians did not know Christ and had no context of understanding what a Christian life is about. He proclaimed Christ, which necessitates using words.
I was once told that if preachers talked less about Christ and more about ‘relevant’ issues like ‘the credit crunch’ then churches would still be open. I disagree. If in our message we no longer preach Christ crucified we can no longer be properly referred to as a ‘church’ but rather an educational assembly dedicated to the discussion of political, social, and cultural themes. So too if we preach Christ and people find it irrelevant, then there must be some deficiency in our communication, because Christ is immensely relevant! Church planting requires us to labour diligently and patiently in clearly proclaiming the good news about Jesus: who he is, why he came, what he did, and what it means for us. In church planting, there can be no confusion over what a church is as a body of believers committed to point to Christ in everything. If we are all about Jesus, should not our message be also?
Portraying Christ in mission
Church planting is a mission. Actually, if we properly order our thoughts and refer to charitable work more broadly as ‘ministry’, the work of either starting or strengthening churches through evangelism becomes the mission. At this point, note in 1 Corinthians 2 Paul’s words ‘I came to you’, ‘among you’, and ‘I was with you.’ These terms indicate a real knowledge of the people to whom he was ministering. He lived in the area where he was planting the church. He got to know the city, its history, people, culture, and spiritual condition. He communicated the gospel to them clearly, which necessitated relating to them in a way that they could understand. And he did all of this while maintaining personal purity and integrity in his life.
Paul’s mission as a church planter was not new. In fact, it portrays, or pictures, Christ’s Incarnational mission. God the Son came down from heaven, entering this world as a helpless baby. He learned the people’s language and lifestyle. He wasn’t fazed by who or what a person was – he was seen talking with everyone from prudes to prostitutes. He loved people and lived among them but did not sin. He got to know his people, he lived to serve them, and he died and rose again to save them. Before Jesus returned to heaven, he sent his people out, even as the Father had sent him out, so that the salvation that he had accomplished would be applied to all who believe the gospel. We too are commanded to go, and as we plant churches, we should portray Christ.
Pursuing Christ in methods
When we start thinking of church planting methods, it is easy to fall into the traps of pragmatism and isolationism. Pragmatism points to results and does anything that ‘works’ to achieve them. Isolationism proclaims truth to certain people in certain places, often emphasizing error, and results typically in either agreement or abuse. The one attracts the world and worldliness, the other the religious and rigidity.
Pragmatism and isolationism pursue human agendas. The methods of biblical church planting are all about pursuing Christ so that we may be more like him. Pursuing Christ in the methods of church planting relates to what we do: evangelism – faithfully sharing the good news of salvation in Christ alone by making disciples, baptizing them, teaching them to observe all the Lord’s commands, and trusting in his promise to always be with his people. It relates even more to how we do it: humbly and faithfully persevering to preach Christ, investing ourselves in the messy, burdened lives of the people around us with Christlike compassion, care, and conviction. Paul says to the Corinthians that he was with them in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Church planting is not about the planter. It is about Christ. Getting all the aesthetics right and building up a strong personality that attracts people has nothing to do with it. Become an actor or politician if that’s what you are after! Church planting pursues Christ, but where does Christ lead? To a cross. On the cross Christ was weak, as death approached he felt alone, as he hung naked and flayed above the mocking crowd he trembled, his lungs gasped for air and his lips were parched with thirst. His words spoken on the cross were discernable only to those who knew him well – to everyone else they were the pleas of a helpless lunatic. But in this human weakness, Christ was the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1:30). Paul believed this and so laying human pride, power, and philosophies aside, along with the privileges and pleasures of an easier life, he boasted only in Christ and was empowered by the Spirit through all difficulties.
Biblical church planters are in-and-of-themselves weak, powerless men who with prayer and fasting seek the Lord’s guidance, weep tears over the lost, and often labour in evangelism, preaching, and personal discipleship for a long time diligently, faithfully, and painfully without seeing much fruit. But, like Christ, they endure everything for the joy that is laid before them.
Church planting is not a child’s game but an assault against the gates of hell. It requires perseverance in Christ, keeping him always at the centre of our message, mission, and methods. In all the difficulties that are faced, the Lord’s words to Paul when he was planting the church at Corinth still ring true: ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you’ (Acts 18:9). We believe that he has many in this land who are his, and so by God’s grace, we plant churches.