It’s now just over 30 years since my first book on church planting, written in conjunction with Stuart Christine, was launched. It was called Planting Tomorrow’s Churches Today and the launch event was a conference called Challenge 2,000, held in Birmingham Central Church. The key-note speaker, Peter Wagner, waved the book from the platform and said it was the best book on church planting he had ever read, including his own. The bookstall sold 500 copies within 30 minutes of Peter Wagner’s endorsement. The power of celebrity!
Since then, I have written a number of other books on church planting and even more on the subject of mission in the West, which are strongly connected to the broad theme of church planting. The reason for reminding myself (and those who are reading this article) of that particular history, is that it has caused me to reflect on the huge changes that have taken place in our understanding of church planting over the last half century.
There have been three key stages in our conception of church planting.
Up until the middle of the 1980’s church planting was dominated by two ideas. First, new housing areas needed new churches and second, smaller denominations could grow by starting churches in areas where they were not represented. That kind of thinking focussed on locating those who were already believers, using them as a base and then trying to add to their numbers. The emphasis was on providing a building, locating a leader (priest, minister, pastor) and offering a programme, usually based on children’s work. Without realising it, we still had a Christendom model in our minds when we thought about starting new churches in that kind of way. In short, we were providing facilities for the faithful and tacking some evangelism onto that core start.
Largely influenced by the charismatic movement and by the growth of the new church movement, (Pioneer, New Frontiers, Ichthus etc), a new awareness began to grow that church planting was more about mission than it was about extending amenities for those who were already Christians. The previous emphasis on buildings and professional ministry and even on programmes began to be replaced by a tendency to hire buildings, notably school halls and community centres, to emphasise lively worship, particular the now ubiquitous worship band playing contemporary Christian music, combined with a strong emphasis on evangelism, often featuring events such as running an Alpha course.
However, possibly without realising it, the notion of Christendom was more deeply rooted in our imagination than we might have realised. In reality, church meant public worship, and there was a tendency to place huge amounts of resource into the worship event as compared with outreach to those who had little or no connection to existing churches. There were some notable exceptions to this tendency, especially amongst churches who reached out to university and college campuses, but many churches, without intending to, were in reality drawing many of their worshippers from existing churches. The goal was mission, the reality was kingdom rearrangement. The pattern amongst the Black and Asian Majority Ethnic churches (BAME), was somewhat different and that needs a separate discussion, particularly because the influence of these churches, especially in our major cities, is immense.
In very recent times there has come a discernible, if as yet a minority shift, towards more organic forms of church which are smaller, more contextual and which have a focus on winning people to Christ and discipling them well. Often those who lead such churches have experienced a dramatic or significant conversion experience themselves, often from a background which has had little or no Christian exposure except possibly as children or young adults. That is not a universal rule, but it is a marked tendency. Many such churches are making an impact on communities that the church has traditionally found difficult to reach. It’s early days for this development but we hope to bring you more and more stories from these kinds of churches.
Dr Martin Robinson