by Dan Brown
Two half-truths: (1) Church planting among Muslims is an impossible task; and (2) God must intervene in a special way to reveal how to do it.
Two half-truths: (1) Church planting among Muslims is an impossible task; and (2) God must intervene in a special way to reveal how to do it. First of all, in a sense it is impossible. When you consider all that’s stacked up against seeing a movement of Muslims coming into the kingdom, it seems almost ludicrous. Second, who can debate that without the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart, no one’s eyes are opened. Yet in our brief experience, Frontiers’ 91 teams across North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia are seeing churches planted. God is forming his church out of Muslim-background believers (MBBs) in nearly every country. So is it impossible? No.
God does not expect us to make this up from scratch. Sure, we depend on him to lead in specific ways and to provide the keys that will “unlock the doors” in each location. But we now see that he has already revealed in the Bible most of what we need to know about getting the job done. Much of it comes down to a steady aim.
We see a strong correlation between the narrowness of a team’s objectives and its eventual effectiveness. When a team goes into a Muslim city with the singular aim of planting a church among the Muslim majority—and is committed to doing nothing else except what will lead to that goal, and having some clearly understood stages in mind—then usually MBB fellowships emerge.
Where teams go in with broad multiple goals, having only a vague notion of how to get there—and conflicting views on strategy within the team—then usually there are little or no results. When you see a church among an un-reached people group, it’s like finding a turtle upon a fence post: Clear intentionality from an outside party was involved.
Our “Seven Phases of Church Planting” has grown out of such a context. While some may object that there is no magic plan in the Bible for church planting, we believe that in fact there are definitive stages indicated in the New Testament. Common sense tells us that before you can have a church, you probably first have a gathering or fellowship of believers that may not yet have the minimum New Testament characteristics of “church.” Before that you must have at least one from the target group who has come to Christ, and into whose life you are building the faith. And that presumes you have been evangelizing. So it’s no surprise that we find these basic stages (with some variation) in each of Paul’s church-planting situations.
Multistage church-planting models are not new (for example, David Hesselgrave’s “The Pauline Cycle”). Other models have certainly influenced our seven phases, which have been contextualized to our Muslim church-planting teams and agency ethos.
To illustrate, Frontiers’ teams (including those in prefield preparation) are currently at these phases:
Phase 1, “Launching the Team”—19 teams
Phase 2, “Preparing to Sow”—16 teams
Phase 3, “Sowing”—9 teams
Phase 4, “Discipling Begins”—12 teams
Phase 5, “Beginning the Church”—26 teams
Phase 6, “Training Leaders” 4 teams
Phase 7, “Reproducing and Exiting”—5 teams
This shows a healthy movement up the ladder. Also, our sister agencies who are likewise working to plant churches in the Muslim world are seeing similar progress. It’s been our privilege to cross-pollinate with them and share resources, and therefore we rejoice together.
Promoting and using the seven phases widely in our organization has proven invaluable. Some examples:
- When a team has a clear picture of what the next one or two steps are, it is able to work with greater confidence and intentionality (e.g., language learning). Simple tools work best, and much time can be saved from always needing to figure out the next step.
- When a new team is formed in Frontiers, it is linked with 90-plus other teams working at the various phases 1 through 7. This provides a great milieu for peer-to-peer coaching, and faith is energized that the new team, too, will eventually be at Phase 5, 6, or 7, by God’s grace.
One of the biggest causes of conflict and ineffectiveness on field teams is mismatched ideas about goals, strategy, methods, time allocation to specific tasks, etc. The “Seven Phases of Church Planting” provide a common vehicle that the team can use to discuss all those crucial aspects of team planning. Using it reduces conflicting expectations, and individual team members can more readily see where they fit into the bigger picture.
The seven phases also give us a common language across the whole organization to identify progress levels, strategy, and activities.
What the Church-planting Phases Are Not
They are not a cookbook: “Just do A, then B, then C, add 3 pints of Bible, then voila! you’ll have a church.” In seeking to establish communities of believers in some of the most hostile, unreached, and dangerous places of the world, nothing is so easy or automatic. Of course, there is spiritual battle, persecution, ingrained sin, false conceptions of God, falling away, and betrayals. And it never goes as you expect it to. Our teams still require help and course corrections from leaders and coaches.
Likewise they are not a precise road map. There remains great need for the team’s creativity and Spirit-led ingenuity. As someone has said, church planting is an art, not a science. Frontiers comprises wide diversity in evangelical theology, philosophy of ministry, and ideas about “church.”
That’s okay, as this is certainly not intended to be a cookie-cutter approach to missions. The seven phases are intended to encompass a variety of church-planting models. For example, one team intends to plant house churches. Another a cell church. Another team will plant a large traditional or normative-type church. Specific philosophies of ministry have been kept to a minimum for the sake of broad applicability.
What the Church-planting Phases Are
They are a good tool to show where a team’s work is at, where it needs to go, and to give many specifics on what the team should work on in each phase. Each phase has four parts.
1. The Phase Title. E.g., Phase 5 is “Beginning the Church.”
2. Definition. A brief thumbnail of what the phase is. E.g., Phase 2 is “Learning the language, adjusting to the culture, becoming ‘belongers’ in society.”
3. When Begun. One of the crucial aspects of the seven phases is to differentiate between one phase and another, that a given team can unambiguously know which phase members are in—like a mark on a yardstick, to clearly distinguish between 35 3/4 inches and 3 feet. E.g. in Phase 4, “Begin regular discipleship with an MBB of the target group (regardless of how he/she came to Christ).”
4. Activities. Very specific objectives or tasks that should be accomplished during the given phase. However, let me hasten to clarify that these are suggestive only. Not every activity needs to be done in each situation.
Specific activities and styles are going to vary greatly from ministry to ministry. For example, Activity #19 in Phase 4 is “Disciple the new believer to become familiar with God’s plan for the extension of the kingdom, from the book of Acts.” That may be perfect. Or it may be that the discipler has a different way to teach those truths. Also, they’re not comprehensive, as other things will usually come up that are not anticipated in our list.
Some Real Life Examples
We have a team of three families in a large Indonesian city. Having started a growing MBB fellowship, they are in Phase 5. The fellowship has around 20 adult believers, plus children. A spiritually mature, middle-aged MBB couple gives primary leadership within the group. The expatriate team leader and wife are very close to this couple and are discipling them, now focusing largely on ministry and church matters—a fine example of 2 Timothy 2:2.
But the situation is far from being one-dimensional. Various team members must work hard at discipling MBBs, training other leaders, learning the language further (especially for newer members), carrying out the necessary governmental work related to projects and other logistics. Also, some of the team members are not highly involved in the MBB group, as the cultural dynamics don’t allow for too much of an expatriate presence. So they focus mainly on evangelism and training some Christian background believers in Muslim evangelism.
All the while the team needs to pay attention to its own life and growth. So under the Phase 5 umbrella, they still remain active in many facets of previous phases (e.g., language learning, evangelism, discipling, etc.). Nonetheless, this team needs to moveon toward Phase 6 (later aspects of work just prior to full “church-ship,” such as majoring on leadership development) and also keep an eye on Phase 7 (appointing elders, ensuring a mode of reproduction, and exiting). Keeping these two later phases in view prevents the team from straying into cul-de-sacs or nice ministries that don’t contribute to the main thing: church planting.
A very large team in Kazakstan has planted a large MBB church and some satellite groups in other cities. As in the previous example, lots of work remains, with much variety, so that team members can operate in areas of their gifts, whether they be teaching the Bible, discipling, evangelizing, serving, counseling, leading, music, youth work, administration, etc. Being at Phase 7, the work concentrates on multiplication—starting new fellowships and churches.
Another team has worked for years in a major Arab capital. After experiencing many setbacks and waves of opposition from the government, the MBB fellowship they started has grown in size and maturity. This church is comprised of around 20 adults plus children, and two MBB men have been recognized as elders through their active leading and teaching.
However, one of these elders, highly gifted as a church planter, is yearning to move his family to a new city and start afresh. So this ministry must focus on both Phase 6 and Phase 7 priorities.
Phases 2 and 3 in particular are difficult to persevere in. There’s usually a strong temptation to give up. More commonly there’s the danger of getting diverted into other good things: heavy tentmaking involvement, working wlth ethnic Christians, creating media, “computer work,” lots of team activities, or simply spending time with Muslim friends, but never challenging them to a decision point for Christ. All these may be worthwhile pursuits, but which do not really lead toward planting a church. Therefore the seven phases are a constant reminder and discipline to pull them back toward the main thing, and hopefully give some good ideas of what to do within Phases 2 and 3.
Finally, Frontiers has several teams at Phase 5, that is, they have started and are giving leadership to an MBB fellowship in their target city. But some are tempted to conclude, “Great, we’ve accomplished what we came here for. We’re done. Praise the Lord.” The seven phases force them back to realize that in fact the work is not at all done. Much is still required if they are to leave their work in a similar ecclesiastical condition as Paul and Titus left the churches in Crete, i.e., as real “churches” under a plurality of qualified elders in each place.
Three Signs of a Church
This begs the question, “What is a New Testament church, and how do we know when we’ve planted one?” Such an issue is beyond the scope of this paper. However, I believe that by New Testament examples and criteria, three things must be true for the church planter to be able to walk away and say, “I planted a church there”:
1. There must be some “critical mass”—in other words, some minimal size and social makeup. A group of three single men is not a church. A fellowship of 15 adults plus children may be. The New Testament doesn’t give us a magic number, and that’s probably because what is a minimal critical mass will vary from one situation to another.
2. There are two or more men who meet the qualifications for eldership and are willing to serve as such. I say two because I believe the New Testament teaches a plurality of elders in a given church; and again, no number is given. Three or more is usually a whole lot better than two.
3. These elders are installed and assume the leadership authority and responsibility. If the believers are still looking to the foreigners to call the shots, the church planting is not yet done.
As we stand near the close of two millennia of the church’s efforts in obeying the Great Commission, clearly the task remains unfinished. Yet the signs are that God is pouring out his mercy on more and more unreached people groups,and pioneer church-planting teams are seeing results that in many cases are unprecedented. We believe that the main thrust of the church’s work to extend the gospel to “those who were not told about him, and those who have not heard” needs to be church planting. Tools such as the “Seven Phases of Church Planting” can aid in this task.
SEE SEVEN PHASES OF CHURCH PLANTING in the same issue of EMQ.
Dan Brown serves as field director in the international headquarters of Frontiers in England. Previously he was a church planter for ten years in the Middle East.
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