For several years I have had the privilege of participating in church planting and have watched as church planting has become a major topic at Christian meetings of all kinds. The heightened interest in the subject is indeed 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 and achieving the heights of bravery with minimal suffering. 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. 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 are distributed, posters put up, 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. How different this is from a biblical understanding of church planting!
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 building a message that meets felt-needs, a mission not requiring real 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 in three areas, at which we shall now look.
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 used Scripture, all of which bears 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, 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 association 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. 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 as ‘ministry’, the work of starting and 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 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 the pious Pharisees 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. 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. It pursues Christ, but where does Christ lead? To a cross. On the cross Christ was weak, as death approached he was afraid, as he faced the mocking crowd he trembled. 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, boasted only in Christ and was empowered by the Spirit.
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 preaching 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.
The above post by Ryan King was originally published as ‘Lessons in church planting’ in The Gospel Truth (no. 75, ISSN 0263-5216, December, 2011). The photo was taken by the author in 2010, the week before the first Sunday service of a new church plant, Grace Baptist Church in Southall, London.
Category: GBP Blog