Ethical Guidelines for Church Planters

by J. D. Payne

The following eleven guidelines allow missionaries to maintain the necessary philosophical and methodological freedom in which to fulfill their callings, while simultaneously establishing healthy biblical and missiological parameters in light of the kingdom ethic.

Life in the Kingdom of God is life lived by a kingdom ethic. Since life in the kingdom consists of being a slave (Matt. 25:14-30); a good steward (Luke 12:35-48) of the king’s resources, as well as making most of the time and opportunities (Col. 4:5; Eph. 5:16); and walking in wisdom (Eph. 5:15), freedom with missionary practices should only be permitted to the extent that proper stewardship, faithfulness, and wisdom are not compromised for a lesser good. There needs to be a set of contextual ethical guidelines for church planters. The following eleven guidelines allow missionaries to maintain the necessary philosophical and methodological freedom in which to fulfill their callings, while simultaneously establishing healthy biblical and missiological parameters in light of the kingdom ethic. Such a code of ethics is not restricting, but rather liberating, assisting church planters with focus and alignment with the kingdom ethic.

Guideline #1: Since the global need for the gospel is so great, unless God reveals otherwise, we will begin our ministry among people with the greatest need and with a high level of receptivity to the gospel. It is an unethical practice to begin laboring in areas where there is little need for additional evangelicals and low levels of receptivity while there are four billion people in the world with little to no access to the gospel. Unless there is a strong calling of God to labor elsewhere, the proper approach should be to labor where the receptivity is the highest (Remember: sometimes the most receptive peoples are those with little access to the gospel). It is unethical to neglect those asking the question of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30) when others are cursing the name of Christ.

Guideline #2: Since the world consists of four billion unbelievers, with two billion who have never heard the gospel, our strategy will involve the use of highly reproducible church-planting methods. Ecclesiology and missionary practices built upon a foundation of paternalism that hinders the birth and multiplication of contextualized churches does not take the global aspect of the Great Commission with the utmost seriousness. Charles Brock is correct when he notes, “In an age when perhaps more than four billion people do not know Christ in a personal way, it borders on immorality for a planter to plant a church without considering reproducibility” (1994, 25).

Guideline #3: Since biblical church planting is evangelism that results in new churches, we will not prioritize transfer growth over conversion growth by designing ministries that will primarily attract believers. Although crowd attraction and starting a new worship service are not necessarily bad, their manifestations do not necessarily mean the kingdom has advanced. Church planters settling for large numbers of transfer growth is not the pattern of the Apostolic Church.   

Guideline #4: Since unity among churches in a geographical area is a powerful witness to the gospel, we will be concerned with other evangelical pastors laboring in the same area as our team, and will take the initiative to meet with them to share our calling, vision, and ethic. Jesus prayed that his Church would be unified (John 17:11, 23) and noted that the world would know his disciples by their love for one another (John 13:35). Whenever church planters enter into new areas where other evangelical churches are present, such church planters need to take the initiative to meet and share their callings and ethical guidelines with the pastors of those churches, making an attempt to live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18; Heb. 12:14).

Guideline #5: Since we desire to respect other evangelical pastors in the area, and desire sanctification in the lives of any transfers from local churches, we will have a systematic plan to respond to the transfers who want to become part of the new church. It is unethical for a church-planting team (and the new churches) to receive members from other churches without regard for those churches. Unless the local church is ungodly in belief or practice, the person should only be allowed to become a part of the new work after being discouraged from leaving their church family, and only with their pastor(s) and church’s blessing, and only if all parties involved believe that the prompting for such a move is from the Lord.

Guideline #6: Since our calling to this ministry, people, and location is from God (and not based upon money), we will not end our church-planting ministry in this area simply if our financial support ends, but rather will make appropriate plans for the future of our personal finances. Knowing that the sands in the hourglass of support sometimes quickly run out, many church planters begin well but decide to short-cut the work of the ministry due to lack of funds. Also, external and internal pressures to “produce results” force some to make unhealthy compromises. Long before any such funding comes to an end, church-planting teams must strategize in light of the question, “What if our funding ends?”   

Guideline #7: Since the biblical model for church planting is a team approach, and many liabilities come when working as a solo church planter, a team will be developed before the work begins. Whenever church planters “go at it alone” they fail to follow in the model set forth in the scriptures of a team approach. This lone ranger approach to missions creates a dilemma that raises the potential for missiological malpractice. It sets the church planter up for potential burnout and discouragement, and hinders sustained accountability in the ministry.   

Guideline #8: Since one of the most critical issues in missionary circles is that of stress on the family, we will not neglect our families for the sake of church planting and will begin our work with a strategy for nurturing our family life while serving as church planters. The church-planting family establishes an example for the new believers and churches to follow. Therefore, a church-planting family does not have to be next to perfect—it has to be perfect. If the family falls due to neglect, the ministry falls even harder. A failure to adequately prepare one’s family for such labors, and to maintain a healthy ministry that involves the continual shepherding of one’s family for their growth in Christ, is reflective of a missionary more concerned with accomplishing the ministerial task of planting a church and not living according to a kingdom ethic (1 Tim. 3:4-5).

Guideline #9: Since we are kingdom citizens, we will not neglect our daily devotion time with the Lord by allowing ourselves to be distracted by the numerous tasks to be accomplished in the ministry. Whenever the demands of the ministry detract from the church planters’ devotional times, an ethical dilemma exists. Missionaries cannot substitute time spent on building the church for spending time with the One who promised to build his Church.

Guideline #10: Since the task of missionary work involves effective communication, we will work diligently toward contextualization, rather than bringing our preferred church traditions to the people. Church planters face the temptations to practice paternalism or pragmatism rather than contextualization. Rather than reaching people from the harvest and teaching them how to be the Body of Christ in their local community—thus allowing church structures to develop from the people and grow with the people—many teams create the structures and try to make the people fit into such organization. Another unhealthy approach that sometimes takes precedence over contextualization is that of pragmatism—the philosophy of whatever works to accomplish the goal is what should be done. The usual result of either of these philosophies is that new churches have no biblical or missiological foundation for the structures, do not own their structures, cannot financially support them, and are not qualified to provide oversight for them.  

Guideline #11: Since integrity and accuracy are important when reporting statistics related to our missionary labors, we will strive to report only those numbers and descriptive details which are truly reflective of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our context.  The intentional reporting of inaccurate numbers is unethical. It is deceptive and bears false witness against the Spirit. Although all statistical reporting must be done without reproach, particular care must be taken in reporting numbers related to baptisms and actual churches planted. If it is not a church, then don’t count it as a church. Also, accurate reporting must extend beyond the simple reporting of raw numbers—such is especially important in areas not highly receptive to the gospel. Missionaries should provide a “thick description” of what the Holy Spirit is doing among such people. Stories need to be shared. Such stories, particularly when the numerical growth is slow, will encourage both the missionary teams as well as those who read and hear their reports.

The above guidelines comprise a code of ethics for church planters. To my knowledge, such a code does not exist. However, kingdom citizens are called to live according to a kingdom ethic. This divine ethic is not simply concerned with matters of avoiding flagrant sinful acts such as adultery, fornication, lying, and murder, but this ethic touches all of life. For church planters, the kingdom ethic especially speaks to matters related to their missionary practices, philosophies, and methods.

Brock, Charles. Indigenous Church Planting: A Practical Journey. Neosho, Mo.: Church Growth International.

J. D. Payne is a national missionary with the North American Mission Board and associate professor of church planting and evangelism at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of three books, including Discovering Church Planting: An Introduction to the Whats, Whys, and Hows of Global Church Planting.

Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 

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