by Johan Lukasse
This way of church planting has stolen my heart. We began working with our first church planting training team in 1972. In one year a church was started.
This way of church planting has stolen my heart. We began working with our first church planting training team in 1972. In one year a church was started. A second smaller team followed up that effort and in two years there were 50 adults attending with three elders and two deacons. That church produced a second congregation two years later, a third one four years later, and still another church some time after that.
We have used this team-year approach because we have found it to be biblical, practical, and effective. Although we have made mistakes, and the Lord still has much to teach us, we have been able to start 15 churches in eight years.
In church planting, we need to consider not only the approach used, but also the steps involved, potential obstacles, and the ultimate goal.
A church planting team is usually made up of career missionaries or short-term workers helping a missionary church planter for one or two years. In some cases, the team is a mix of career missionary couples nationals.
Sometimes, the team lives as a community. At other times, families are spread over a specific area of, for example, a town and operate from a central place such as an existing church building.
We use teams of young people (20 years of age and up) under the leadership of an experienced church planting missionary. They are recruited through Christian magazines, conferences, Bible schools, and seminaries to give a year to this program.
When completed, a team is a combination of people with training (such as Bible school students) and those without. Members also vary in age, background, interests, education, and spiritual gifts. Together, the team members take part in an initial two- or three-week training period. Afterwards, they move into the target area where a house is rented. There they live in a community lifestyle under the direction of a missionary couple. (It is very important that moral standards be high, so in some instances two houses might be rented-one for the men and one for the women.)
Once in the community, the church planting team goes into action. First, each team member joins at least one or two social or cultural groups-such as a sports-but only one team member to a club. As a result, they will be able easily to contact and penetrate that part of the population. This is a natural way of getting close to all levels of society and opens tremendous doors.
Second, members begin to follow a program of different evangelistic approaches. During this time, they can build relationships and get to know people. Some also do additional research into the local situation to complement the initial work done prior to the selection of the target area. Then each young person decides on how he or she can best communicate the gospel to that particular segment of society in which they are working.
The results? There are as many different ways of sharing the gospel as there are team members. Some immediately begin inviting people to meetings, or start Bible studies and Sunday services. Others prefer to work through several home Bible studies in different areas, at different levels, and bring the results together at a later stage. Still others adopt the cultural bridge-building method of communicating the gospel.
While the young people do outreach, they also get training in subjects such as church planting, church growth principles, and effective witness. Heavy emphasis is placed on evaluation and a lot of the learning is by doing.
Why do we do church planting this way? In the past, we had seen some team efforts that were just too swift-they passed through villages and towns and left again without consolidating the fruits they were given.
So those of us at the Belgian Evangelical Mission spent much time in prayer and in studying the New Testament. As a result, we believe that the Lord has shown us this way of working.
Our first biblical principle is drawn from Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." The key question here is: How can Jesus Christ be in the midst of us? He must be more than just living in our hearts-he must be detectable. He must be revealed as we are gathered together in his name.
Look at Jesus during his public ministry. He chose 12 disciples and lived with them day and night. He walked and talked and shared his life with them in all circumstances. And all the way through, he revealed his Father, for that was one of the main reasons he came to earth John 1).
When Jesus left his disciples, he told them that they should love one another as he had loved them and that "by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love for one another." We must communicate this agape quality of love as he did. If we act in love, the world will sit up and take notice that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.
The second biblical principle is unity. In John 17:20-24, we read, "that the world might believe that thou hast sent me." The world will believe that, if we are one just as Jesus Christ and the Father are one. As Jesus revealed his Father, so we should reveal Christ by the very way we act and interact with one another.
We also find this principle of love and unity in practice in Philippians 2:1-4 and Philippians 1:27. In Acts 4:13 we see that the disciples were recognized as those who "have been with Jesus."
This demonstration of love and unity is only possible in a group. Christ can be in our midst if there are two or three or more of us. That is how he wants to reveal himself to this world, not just by our words-preaching, and singing-but by the very life he lives through us.
An example of this approach is Paul and his colleagues. Nowhere in the New Testament was he alone; Paul was always teamed up with other people like Silas, Timothy and Luke. In Acts 20:4, 5, we find names of atleast eight people who were traveling with him as a team. The only place where Paul was alone was in Athensâ€”and the Bible does not record a church there. The great church planter was part of a team.
PRACTICAL AND EFFECTIVE
Not only do we believe this particular team approach to be biblical, we have found it to be both practical and effective. The team sets an example. It is already a group of people who are more or less already a church. When local people come to know Christ, they join this existing bodyâ€”which is much easier than being the first converts in the area.
The new members follow the example of the team. They sing as the team sings and they read the Bible because they see the team members reading the Bible. They confess their sins because they hear other team members doing the same. And they reach out to their family because they see the team members reaching out to people and telling them about Jesus, To them this is normal Christian life.
But this method is still only as strong as the team itself. The principle of the team multiplying itself always applies. It is at the same time the strongest and weakest point of this method.
One team, for example, quarreled endlessly about details. Some would say, "We must pray before we go out to do door-to-door work," and others would say, "No, we can pray when we come back because now is the right time to go door-to-door." Today in that place there is a tiny church, and do you know what they do all the time? They quarrel.
A strong team, however, means a strong beginning for the new church. Once a man came into one of our team houses just to find out if we were genuine. He visited morning, afternoon, and night for up to 10 minutes at a time.
One night when he came, a team leader announced the start of the prayer meeting. This man was about to leave when another team member insisted, "No, you had better stay and see this because we walk in the light. You are welcome to stay."
When the prayer meeting was over, the man asked, "Some of you are praying for a ‘contact.’ What is a ‘contact?"
The leader replied, "A ‘contact’ is someone who has been listening to the gospel. Maybe he has understood it, or maybe he has only partly understood it, but he has not given his life to the Lord Jesus Christ yet. Someone like that we call a ‘contact’." This man came to know the Lord a couple of weeks later. And when he came to the prayer meeting, the very first thing he prayed was, "Lord, give me a ‘contact’."
This man and other new believers join the first nucleus-the team brought in from outside the local area. Then after the year is up (or longer if necessary), the first nucleus of Christians leaves. Then the local people who have come to know the Lord stay and continue under the church planter’s leadership. From that moment on, they become a team.
A tremendous by-product of this particular team approach is that the young people receive a valuable practical training. Working on such a team also serves as a screening process. Some young people who join the church planting effort believe they are called to be missionaries. In the team they are sorted out by the Lord and the other team members; they reach home having seen they weren’t called to the mission field and instead become active in local churches. On the other hand, the Lord very often uses this team approach to call people to further training or to the mission field.
Experience has shown that team efforts by career missionaries only have not been as successful as those by young people. One reason for this is the risk of the foreign image. As a result, some missions work with mixed teams-nationals and missionaries together. This combination makes it easier to produce local leadership.
HOW WE GO ABOUT IT
Like other approaches to church planting, the essence of this method is contacting people and challenging them with the gospel. But you not only want to bring them to Christ, but also to gather them together out of the world, so that they become the ecclesia. How do we go about this?
1. Look for people who are open. Rather than starting with the vision of converting the whole town, it is better to find people who are open and receptive. Lead them to Christ, train them, and gather them together. They will, when the Lord by his grace gives a local church, be the people who will present Christ to the difficult cases with whom the team might lose precious time.
For example, in one of our church planting situations, there was a man who kept us occupied for hours with questions about evolution. Finally, we decided to stop discussing it with him. He was angry about it, but we were firm, so we lost contact with him. Four years later, when a local church was established there, some of the members came into contact with him again and reopened the discussion. He came to know the Lord after a long time, when the church was there and had time to do the work.
2. Form a nucleus. Paul not only brought people to Christ, he brought them together to learn principles of Christian living and what it means to be part of Christ’s church. Paul made not just converts, but disciples.
We have to demonstrate the new society in the midst of the old society. They have to taste the new wine and to demonstrate Christ’s power and love to the world. Forming a nucleus is teaching people to live the Christian life. We do this by our own example, our blessings, our failures, and our victories.
3. Train them. Training is preparing a soldier for the battle. It is learning by exercising and repetition. It is following courses and putting them into practice.
Training also involves learning how to defend one’s faith. In continental Europe, apologetics plays an important part in the training of new converts. These new Christians frequently have their faith attacked by family and relatives. If they want to win their loved ones to Christ, they will have to answer some tough questions.
4. Make the discipling process continuing. We must make disciples who soon learn for themselves how to make disciples. I had the privilege of starting a church through a home Bible study. I led this in the home of one of the Christians, teaching the Word of God with enthusiasm, and calling them to recognize the authority of the Word and to obey it. These members began bringing other people. After six months we had these new people raising the same questions as the first ones had done before.
Once when a question came up, the Lord led me to ask those who had been with us longer: "Who knows the answer?" One or two started to answer, but I said, "Stop, don’t answer now. I will finish by 10 o’clock and then you can answer. Is that all right?" All agreed.
We had several questions like that in one evening. Then when the Bible study stopped, I reminded them that several had to answer questions. And so the real thing only started when they began teaching one another. Disciples making disciples while I was disciple-making.
5. Making the disciples co-workers. The next step is to bring the disciples alongside the church planter. The Christians in Thessalonica not only became imitators of Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ, they became examples.
6. Make them leaders. This means stepping aside and giving them responsibility and authority. Occasionally, you have to come back to give them additional training or to help them with problems. But you must "throw them into the water," so they will have to exercise their gifts and training. Often they will do much better than we ourselves have done.
Yet in any church planting situation, there are potential pitfalls. Some of the most common ones are:
1. A bad example. The poor example of a team reproduces itself in a poor church. Yet the same could happen if there was only one missionary couple whose family life was not as it should be. We can be examples in the way we act, teach, and expect new converts to react. We will always reap what we have sown.
2. False starts. Let me give you three examples of false starts in church planting that I have seen during the last 10 years. In the first situation, there was an overemphasis on youth. The church ended up with lots of young people and no couples. If this is your emphasis, you could find yourself with a great number of young people who have no one to go to but you, the church planter. You will be overwhelmed by problems and questions.
This church struggled for years until some of the young people married. Slowly the church stabilized and some of the problems were solved.
In the second instance, a church attracted difficult social Problem cases right from the start. We preach a gospel of love. So people who are living on the margin of life of life realize that they are fully accepted in our circles and are attracted to us. But if a team starts with several of these kinds of people, it will carry that image. Other people hesitate very much to join this group.
It is much better to start with "normal" people and take care of the social cases later. Of course, the church has a responsibility towards the people who live on society’s edge, but you must have a church before you can take care of them.
A third false start I have seen is when a church planting effort collects "religion runners." In one town, several people joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses when they began a group, but after a while these people left.
When the Mormons came, the "religion runners" joined them, too, but also left the group after a while. Then we came along, and there they were. So then the whole population already "knows" we are another sect. One of the best ways to forestall this problem is to begin with a home Bible study rather than immediately starting with Sunday services.
3. The foreign image. This is often a problem for North Americans who are planting churches in continental Europe. Cultural sensitivity is very important.
4. False emphasis. By this I mean giving our doctrinal hobby horses too free a rein, I have seen men trying to start a church and on whatever subject they preached, they always ended with the return of Jesus Christ. It was the only thing in their Bible.
5. Weak continuation. Many evangelists and church planters know how to preach the gospel, but little more than that. The result is that this nucleus of new believers will remain very weak, since the church planter is an evangelist and not a teacher.
In one area, some of the local people confronted the church planter after two years. They told him, "It is better for you to leave because we have already heard whatever you have to tell us." We must be able to teach them the full counsel of God. If we are not able to do so, then we have to find people to help us.
6. Weak training. One great weakness is in training local leaders. Elders are of vital importance in church planting because they represent biblical authority, local insight, and knowledge. They are the people we must train and equip, continuing to do so even after the church planter has been gone for a long time.
7. Late appointment of local leaders. There must be a fine balance between how long to stay and when to leave. If the church planter leaves too soon, he leaves behind a weak baby who will struggle for a long time before starting to grow. But if the church planter stays too long and does not appoint local leaders quickly enough, he might become an obstacle himself. "Get out of the way!" is an important step in missionary work.
8. Lack of discipline. Especially at first, we tend to be slow in disciplining people. Why? Because the group is small and if we discipline one or two, we might have a few less. As a result, others might also leave. So what we are actually doing is placing quantity above quality.
This approach is totally wrong, because we then lose respect and the image of Christ in the area suffers. This will be terribly hard to overcome at a later stage. Rather, it is much better to follow the Lord Jesus who said to his disciples, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" and to receive Simon Peter’s reply: "Lord, to whom shall I go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."
WHAT IS OUR GOAL?
Even if we manage to follow these steps precisely, and avoid the most precarious obstacles, we are still faced with this question: What kind of church do we want this particular group to be in 15 or 20 years?
Our goal and vision should be not only to start a church that reaches its own area and has a worldwide vision. We need to plant churches that will become the image of Christ. These churches will adore our great God, become the presence of the Kingdom of God, and demonstrate the quality of life that reveals God’s purpose for his creation.
This is the highest goal. If we are going to reach a target, let’s aim high. Let us pray that God will multiply this vision for planting churches that express Christ’s likeness.
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