MR #12: Church Planting is More than Pioneering

I grew up in Northeastern Arkansas, where mission and evangelism were a part of life. One of my fondest memories was working with my father and other local Christians to lay the cement blocks that became the meeting place of a new church planting. Boyd Morgan, the author of Arkansas Angels and a life-long itinerate evangelist, typified this pioneering spirit. After many years of “expanding the borders of the Lord’s kingdom,” he became the first preaching minister of the new congregation. In Arkansas Angels he described the early missionaries who planted the first churches in northern Arkansas:

“These men loved the cause for which they labored more than their lives. They toiled, they walked, they traveled horseback or by train, just a few went by early autos. They laughed, they cried, and they prayed over their problems. They worked with their own hands to support themselves. Their families also worked to supplement the meager preacher’s pay when they got any . . . . Disappointments, hardships, perils of life, hard times were legion. [These hardships] meant nothing to these men whose faith in the Bible and their God . . . was the directing force of their lives. These men were alive and active. They ceased only when the flesh failed. Their work lives” (1967, iv).

During my early years, I assumed that church planting was natural to the life of the church. To be a Christian was to reproduce, and the ultimate type of reproduction was the planting of new churches. I was nurtured within my local church to become a missionary.

Beginning about 1960 the idea of reproducing–planting a new church–was largely lost in the North American church and is just now beginning to be re-established. During these years of missions decline, church planting became a specialized art done by professionals because it was believed to be beyond the capacity of local church people. In Christian schools evangelism and missions were relegated to the periphery of religious studies. Ministry courses lost their redemptive emphasis and focused primarily on equipping ministers to serve within the body of Christ. Classes on the missionary life of the church and on church planting and development were specialized classes taken by future missionaries rather than by all ministry students. As a result, the need for church planting disappeared from the radar screens of most North American church leaders. Their goal was to develop their own church, not to plant others. “Only missionary pioneers,” they thought, “plant churches, and we are not missionaries!” The concept of their church planting another church sounded absurd. “Why should members of my church leave this congregation to establish a new church?” they reasoned. “Cannot larger churches do more than smaller ones?” In reality, however, most of these churches lost the impulse to work redemptively among unbelievers, turned inward, and forgot the world around them.

I believe that we must learn that the spiritual and practical impetus for missions and church planting ultimately flows out of the local church. The body of Christ, then, must become missionary.

Types of Church Planting

It is my hope that this Monthly Missionary Reflection will help you envision different types of church planting and stimulate you to think about the possibility of church planting as a natural response in growing churches.

Pioneering

Image first a pioneering ministry. In this model Christian leaders move into an area to start a new church from scratch. Because they are new to the community, they must learn to speak the language of the people (even in a domestic context), understand the culture of the people among whom they are working, form personal relationships within the culture, and developmodels of ministry appropriate to the context. The need for the missionary to adapt to a new setting makes pioneering the most difficult type of church planting. It requires Christians who are initiative evangelists—able to empathetically connect with the community and bring initial people to Christ.

Although the initial stages are difficult, pioneering does have some distinct advantages. The new body can be nurtured to become a missionary church from its very inception. If the church is taught to believe that the world is lost without Jesus Christ, it is likely to be more ready to understand and prioritize the redemptive purposes of God and thus evangelize both locally and globally. Non-reproductive structures and models of church can be avoided.

Our team, working among the Kipsigis of Kenya, was composed of pioneer church planters. We learned the language and culture of a new people, planted the first churches, discipled new believers to Christian maturity, trained national leaders, and handed the baton of leadership over to national leaders. All pioneer works, however, are not successful. One of my students, after finishing an undergraduate degree, was asked to pioneer a new church planting in a suburb of a major U.S. city. After four discouraging years he and his wife were unable to connect to the community, bring unbelievers to Christ, and plant a new church. They eventually gave up in discouragement.

Initiative evangelists—possessing interpersonal abilities to relate to unbelievers, administrative ability to organize new Christian fellowships and a sense of adventure—will find pioneering their forte.

Branching

Now picture an existing church giving a part of itself to initiate another church within its sphere of influence. This process, which we will call branching, is a natural outgrowth of a theology of mission. Existing churches, having a godly passion for the lost and a desire to evangelize their areas, establish other churches until they fill an area.

Especially in the early months, the new church may reflect the values of the mother church and may even be controlled by her. Because the branching community must focus on bonding together as a new church fellowship, their initial evangelistic potential may be reduced. There are, however, numerous advantages. These churches frequently begin with mature leadership and are largely self-supporting from their inception. They may also develop “distinctive flavors” attracting unchurched people previously untouched by existing churches in the community. Branching is an extremely effective—yet understudied and under-used—type of church planting in this generation.

The planting of the Oldham Lane Church of Christ by the Baker Heights church in Abilene, Texas, is an example of effective branching. Baker Heights was “landlocked” yet desperately needing larger facilities and more parking space. They considered buying a new piece of property and building a new sanctuary. However, that meant leaving behind their traditional community. The elders suggested to the congregation a different approach: plant another congregation in an area where the city of Abilene was growing and leave Baker Heights intact. This plan was accepted, and three elders, seven deacons, the pulpit preacher, and 75 members committed themselves to the new church planting. They first met in the family room of the Baker Heights church building, then moved to a vacant church building closer to the new community, and finally to their new building when it was completed. Four years later the Baker Heights church was once again filled to capacity and planning to plant another new church. The Oldham Lane church had, meanwhile, had also grown to over 500 members (Jimmy Jividen 1999).

Local churches need to branch when they are filled to capacity and when many Christians are driving in from growing areas of the city. Church leaders, furthermore, should not to leave behind the communities where their churches currently exists but develop the vision, motivation, and process to creatively plant branch churches in the new growing communities of their cities.

Paradoxically church splits are also a “branching mechanism”. “Sometimes a church is pregnant without knowing it.” When the split does occur, both parts tend to flourish, especially during their initial stages (Logan and Ogne, 1991). If branching, however, had been a part of the Christian heritage, such birthings would more likely occur through leadership consensus rather than because of arguments and disagreements.

Seeding

Envision intensive equipping of lay leaders to become God’s messengers wherever they move and where families and friends live. This equipping involves personal modeling of evangelism: Evangelists model teaching unbelievers so that they become Christians who also teach others. Thus church planting typically follows the natural migration and social patterns of the local culture. The fellowship of believers has a sense of preparing themselves and the world for the second coming of Christ. Jehovah is perceived to be a missionary God who actively works through Christians for the redemption of the lost. The church focuses not only on initial proclamation but also on nurturing new Christians and equipping of leaders. All believers are taught that since they are God’s chosen people, they are to evangelize and begin fellowships wherever they go. This seeding—the motivating and equipping of lay leaders to evangelize and plant churches—has led to the spontaneous planting of multiple churches in many parts of the world. Evangelism and church planting are understood to be a natural part of Christian identity.

The limitation of this model is that churches come into existence without adequate leadership to nurture new Christians to maturity. Consequently, the effectiveness of this model necessitates congregational equipping and leadership training so that each local fellowship becomes fully organized. Otherwise, the churches established remain small, unorganized bodies without living, public ministries in their communities. Logan advocates that this model requires a training institute to nurture converts and train leaders (1991). In urban contexts this spontaneous expansion of local churches creates significant problems because middle and upper classes expect Christians to worship in designated houses of worship. The seeding model, because it is network-based, may not meet the expectations of certain people within urban cultures, who tend to be facility-oriented. This type of church planting, however, works exceptionally well in face-to-face, informal, rural cultures and among the urban poor who have recently migrated to the cities.

This model was employed during the Second Great Enlightenment to spur great revival and church planting on the American frontier. It was successfully used among Pentecostals of Latin America when rural peasants moved into cities. During the last two decades of the twentieth century lay leaders in rural China utilized this model as they taught God’s message from family to family and village to village. Christian leaders, who were converted by missionaries who pioneered the first churches among the Kipsigis in Kenya, are implementing this model as they continue to broadcast the seed of the gospel to initiate numerous churches.

Seeding requires the blending of varied beliefs, talents, and motivations: a belief in the “priesthood of all believers,” an understanding that communities of believers can have cohesion and faith without extensive physical facilities, biblical understandings of the brevity of time and the active power of the Holy Spirit, creativity and interpersonal qualities to develop nurturing and training mechanisms for laity and leaders, and a love and empathy with the poor. God may call Christians with these beliefs and talents into a ministry of seeding.

Partnering

Imagine now churches, Christian leaders, or agencies partnering to start a new church. In this model church planters serve as catalysts who coordinate the many evangelistic and benevolence ministries used by the collaborating churches and Christians to meet the needs of a particular community.

This model is often seen in the establishment of inner-city churches in North America. For example, the Nashville Inner City Church of Christ, established in 1987, is a partnership of many Nashville churches. Suburban churches provide financial support for the inner city church and teach children from the inner city in their church buildings during the week. The motto of the Nashville Inner City church is “Reach the lost and get the army of God involved in reaching the lost.” Chris Boyce, who worked in this ministry for several years, comments that this cooperative model brings unity to area churches and gets Christians from suburban churches “out of the pews and into the war. Too many suburban Christians are ‘AWOL in the pews’”. Becoming involved in the inner city church helps them realize that lost people live in their own backyard and helps them find service in the kingdom of God (Boyce, 2000).

There are a number of limitations to partnering. First, the high involvement of partnering Christians makes it very difficult to equip local leadership. The partnering churches frequently make too many decisions on behalf of the new Christians. Consequently, the partnering churches become benefactors and the new Christians recipients. New Christians learn to receive rather than give. Instead of being equipped for ministry, they discover how to “prime the pump” for more benefits. Second, if the new church plant is unable to maintain the programs started by the partnering churches, it is doomed to dependence on outside help. Finally, the partnership model tends to surface many chiefs with differing philosophies of ministry. Robert Logan says, “Too many cooks can ruin the soup” (Logan and Ogne 1991). When these limitations are minimalized, however, partnering can become a valuable model of church planting.

God is using Christian leaders with compassion for the poor, the gift of administration, and the ability and desire to empower the powerless as effective partnering church planters.

Revitalizing

Picture a minister working to revitalize a dying or disintegrating church. Revitalizing frequently becomes necessary in urban communities where the church dies or disintegrates because of socio-economic or ethnic shifts. Because the community now has a different make-up, revitalization requires cross-cultural shifts. Evangelists, who represent the new community majority, should be hired and empowered. The message, forms, and functions of Christian life should be recontextualization so that the emigrant communities will understand the message of about Jesus Christ and be influenced to turn their lives to God. Appropriate evangelistic strategies should be developed for the new majority group of the community.

Revitalizing, while extremely important to the future of the church, is very difficult. The remnant from the original congregation frequently claim ownership of the church and insist that traditional ways of doing church are appropriate. In many cases the original church, consequently, has to die in order to be resurrected to life. Church buildings of dying churches, furthermore, should seldom be sold because they provide a foothold in a specific community. If God desires all people to hear the gospel, we should not give up on a community, but seek to transition local churches to indigenous leadership.

Revitalizing is similar to pioneering in many ways. The major difference is that the heritage of the earlier church will likely influence the revitalization. Therefore, a church planter who is working to revitalize a church must be capable of initiating significant change. He must also be patient in listening to those advocating traditional patterns of “doing church” and sensitive in introducing alternative paradigms for the future. Above all, he must effectively evangelize and disciple those who have become the dominant population of the community. Supporting churches must stand behind church planters as they make significant transitions to help these transitioning churches become indigenous to their contexts.

Church Planting is More than Pioneering

Generally missions training and study focuses on pioneering. Individuals and teams are trained to plant churches in unreached areas of cities and ethnic groups. Those without the pioneering spirit prepare themselves to minister within local churches. Consequently, an artificial barrier is unconsciously erected between preparation for ministry within the local church and preparation for missions. However, if the spiritual and practical impetus for missions and church planting ultimately flows out of the local church, then the entire body of Christ must become missionary.

The planting of new churches is natural wherever and whenever existing churches are vibrant. For example, a church fills its auditorium and classrooms to capacity on Sunday mornings. To grow further the church must decide between building a larger facility at a new location or planting a new church. Or, perhaps a family moves to a community where no church exists (or at least no church of their religious heritage). If they have a zeal for the Lord, they may ask brothers and sisters from their home church to help them start a church in their new community. They might also advertise in the new community for members of their religious heritage to start a new church. Many church planting movements are begun, not by missionaries or local evangelists, but by dedicated laity who organize churches wherever they go (Garrison 1999). Vibrant movements come into existence by churches planting churches which in turn plant still other churches.

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