Declaring the Kingdom and establishing the church
It is sometimes argued that the language of church planting is not New Testament language. It is true that no-where in the New Testament is the specific phrase, “church planting”, ever used. The image of planting is certainly used, especially in the parables of Jesus but in those cases it refers to the planting of God’s word, or establishing God’s reign.
Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, reveals a movement of the people of God, declaring that Jesus is God’s Messiah, and inviting people to turn from their sins and follow Jesus. That invitation resulted in the establishing of communities of Christians who were seeking to live together in ways that demonstrated the truth of the message that they carried.
There is never an expectation that Christians would receive the message and not be incorporated into the church. The establishing of the church of Jesus Christ in local communities is clearly indicated as an outcome of the Apostolic preaching. The language of church planting is absent in the New Testament, but the practice of church planting is the norm.
That raises a number of questions about when or whether a new church is needed in a particular location. Sometimes church planting has been an outcome of a harmful church split. Other times church planting has been used in a rather sectarian way to extend the activity and growth of a particular denomination to the potential harm of other existing churches. Some leaders fear church planting because of the potential for “sheep stealing”.
From Competition to Co-operation
But in our present times, when thousands of churches have closed or are in danger of closing, when many millions of people are well beyond the reach of any existing church and when we see clearly that the western world is a challenging mission field, most Christian leaders can see the need and the urgency for effective church planting. Perhaps the most exciting development of recent years has been the ending of sectarian church planting and the growing co-operation between churches in the broader endeavour of establishing growing churches with many worship styles, theologies and practices.
Five key principles
As we seek to extend the number of new church plants, there are five key principles that we need to keep in mind.
1. Joining God in the neighbourhood
The Holy Spirit always precedes us in the business of mission. We can expect that whenever we consider any new field for mission, whether that be a particular geographic neighbourhood or a particular people group, that God will already be ahead of us. Effective mission always asks the question, “what is God already doing?” and in the light of that discovery, “how can we best co-operate with the work of the Holy Spirit?”
2. Creating communities of the King
It is always wonderful to see individual’s coming to faith in Jesus Christ. However, it is important that individuals are incorporated into faith communities. Despite the individualistic pressures of our culture, we were never created to exist as autonomous individuals. We are social beings who need one another. The concept of the family of God, meeting around table – both social and sacramental – is found throughout the New Testament. The theologian Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the congregation as the “hermeneutic of the gospel”. In other words, by looking at the life of a local church it ought to be possible to uncover the message of the gospel. Those are the kinds of communities that church planting is intended to create.
3. Discipleship as the foundation
More and more, we are realising that the goal of evangelism and mission is not conversion but discipleship. Certainly, there was a time when our whole culture was so drenched in Christian values and assumptions that conversion was almost enough. The assumptions of discipleship was the sea that our culture swam in. That is no longer the case and it has not been so for at least half a century and possibly longer. The strong individualism of our culture often seeks to recast discipleship as an individual activity. Of course, we are all responsible as individuals before Christ but the actual process of becoming disciples takes place most adequately in the community of faith.
4. Every member ministry
Discipleship leads to ministry. We used to use the phrase “the priesthood of all believers” instead of “every member ministry” but they mean the same thing. God calls us all to some kind of vocation, based on the discovery of our natural and spiritual gifting. The early church spread effectively through the witness of the ordinary people of God – travelling businessmen, sailors, soldiers, anyone who was connecting with a wider circle of people. Whether our vocation is to evangelise widely or to serve the Christian community in our home location, we all have a calling and we grow as Christians as we exercise that call. Church plants need to have in mind the development of every member ministry from the outset.
5. Leadership of a certain kind
Creating churches of the kind we have described above requires a certain kind of leadership. We can use the shorthand of “the five-fold ministry” found in Ephesians 4 or we can use other terms, but whatever the language it is clear that the ministry required to plant and grow new churches is rather different from the more traditional pastor/teacher model that the established church in the western world has been accustomed to recruit, train and deploy. We clearly need those who have entrepreneurial gifts that always led to the creation of new works and ministries. The exciting discovery of a wider range of gifts not only restores a degree of creativity to leadership but also allows us to develop those who might never have been considered as leaders in past ministry models. Church plants extends the range of those who are likely to be effective in leadership. Probably some the most effective leaders and church planters that we will experience in the next twenty years have yet to be converted but when they are, we must not miss their leadership potential. Our leadership models need to change and church planting is a catalyst for such change.
Martin Robinson Engage West Midlands www.engageuk.org.uk