by Mark Johnson
We must know our team, our role, and our purpose, and develop a game plan for the particular situation we are confronting.
Reggie White plays football. He had a very well-defined task as defensive end-to tackle the guy with the ball. The sooner, the better. He has done well enough to lead the National Football League in quarterback sacks for his career. But Reggie was responsible for more than just tackling the quarterback. The game plan for a particular opponent might demand different types of alignments, and each player has specific responsibilities, depending upon the defensive play that had been called. Each player has to know exactly what to do and when to do it. Before leaving the Green Bay Packers, Reggie trained a replacement, a rookie drafted in the first round. He trained by example. In his last year, Reggie was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Reggie is also an ordained Baptist preacher who says what he thinks. Some of his more famous comments are related to major career changes he has faced. When he went to Green Bay from Philadelphia a few years ago, he said God told him to go. Once he retired, and then came out of retirement a few hours later. "Why," he was asked. God told him to do it, he said.
Now, what does this have to do with a church planter completing the task, you ask? First, we must know our team and our role. We must know our purpose, and develop a game plan for the particular situation we are confronting. We must pursue excellence. As missionaries, we must remind ourselves that we are not called to stay, but to think in terms of finishing the task, and of training someone to take our place. And we must hear the Lord’s voice telling us when it’s time to move on. In Venezuela, The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM) is learning to discern God’s voice in this very area.
Let’s start with a broad principle for defining a church planting plan for a given country. A church planter should have a plan for leaving at the beginning of a church planting project. It is amazing that after ten years of work in four provinces of the Roman Empire, Paul could speak as if his work there was done. The churches that he planted were truly established, and not just left to their own devices when Paul moved on to another city (Allen, 1962, 3). This is a shock to us as we consider the amount of time many missionaries, including my wife and I, spend in one location trying to get a church established. Paul was an exceptional man in exceptional times, but others on his teams and those that followed in his footsteps applied the same principles, the most important of which was dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
Tom Steffen proposes a gradually decreasing role for the church planter even as he or she maintains a role, first as a participant, then a resident advisor, and eventually as a nonresident advisor. He cites Paul as an example, as he changed roles from that of evangelist and on-site teacher to that of writing letters to churches he established and returning periodically to visit them. Steffen advocates a "church planting model that does not bog us down with unnecessary details, but instead keeps us focused on a phase-out departure." He says, "Knowing when to leave a church plant is just as important as knowing when to begin it. phaseout establishes the parameters for the entire church-planting movement because it defines a strategy for closure toward which all earlier strategies are directed" (Steffen, 1993, 6, 215). As a church planting missions agency, TEAM has used the criteria of completion of our church plants to help us determine when the mission should phase out of Venezuela.
TEAM’s purpose is to help churches send missionaries to plant reproducing churches in other nations. It has missionaries in more than forty countries around the world. In Venezuela, we work with two associations of churches. A few years ago, the home office in Wheaton started asking some disturbing questions. Are the churches in the two associations planting other churches? Well, yes, we answered, they are. So, they returned, how much longer do you think TEAM needs to be in Venezuela? We’ve been working on the answer to that question ever since.
The first thing we did was to gather information from the principal "stakeholders." These included TEAM missionaries in Venezuela and in the home office, retired missionaries from other fields that have gone through a similar process, supporting churches, and the national church associations. We asked them these questions:
1. What information do you think we should seek, and from whom, in order to develop criteria for eventual departure from Venezuela?
2. What do you think should be the criteria for the completion of TEAM’s task in Venezuela?
Our supporting churches were, for the most part, quite positive about TEAM leaving Venezuela-assuming we could establish solid criteria for why we should be leaving. They gave us excellent ideas for establishing criteria. The TEAM Venezuela missionaries had extensive input in three regional meetings held in different parts of the country, in TEAM Venezuela’s annual meetings, and by phone and internet. Some of the retired missionaries we heard from had the most difficult time with the concept of TEAM leaving Venezuela. "There is still so much to do," they told us. They are right, of course. The question we asked ourselves, in light of TEAM’s purpose statement, was, "Which of the many things to be done should be done by TEAM?"
The two national church associations had quite different answers to our questions. The president of one, the older association, told us that we would be bad parents if we left Venezuela in the near future. This association is more than 70 years old, and we had to ask ourselves how much longer we’d have to stay for this dear brother to construe us as a good parent when we left! The other church association helped us initiate the thought process that has led us to the criteria for leaving.
We decided that TEAM will leave Venezuela when we have established strategically located impact churches throughout Venezuela. This is certainly not new. Roland Allen said, "Paul’s theory of evangelizing a province was not to preach in every place himself, but to establish centers of Christian life in two or three important places from which the knowledge might be spread into the country around. This is important, not in showing that he preferred to preach in a capital rather than in a provincial town or village, but because he intended this congregation to become at once a center of light." He goes on to say that churches in the city can be made "graves of mission" as easily as churches in rural towns" (Allen, 1962, 12). It is essential, then, that a church be a "source of light" or it is not worth the effort to locate it in a strategic city.
The church association with which TEAM works in eastern Venezuela, ASIGEO, has had this vision for several years now. When we asked them what TEAM should do in Venezuela before leaving, they spoke to us in terms of establishing some model churches in the cities. The evangelical church has been fairly well established in rural parts of Venezuela, but has yet to effectively reach the large cities and especially the middle class and up. ASIGEO felt that none of their 100 churches could be considered well established. We were incredulous, and named some churches with good sized congregations with church buildings and full-time pastors. They said that one must first define what an "established" church is, and proceeded to do so for us. This became the basis for our definition of a well-established church.
An established church is a local body of believers that is characterized by the following biblical principles:
1. It is known for its dynamic worship of God.
2. It assumes responsibility for one another as a family, ministering to one another in love and humility.
3. It has a vision for reaching the world for Christ.
4. It relates to other churches of like mind.
5. It is directed by leaders who are recognized as meeting the biblical requirements for leadership.
Beneath each of these points are some practical ways these principles were fleshed out in the early church, with corresponding biblical references. We recognize that there are other definitions of the church that are more comprehensive than this one. The purpose of our definition is to give us a basis for evaluating how far a church is down the road toward becoming a well-established church. This evaluation will give us valuable information as we seek to determine which churches are candidates to become real impact churches. Our definition of an "impact" church is an established church which: (1) has a congregation of at least 200 people; (2) provides resources to other churches; (3) has an adequate locale for worship, training, and outreach; and (4) reaches all social classes, especially the middle and upper classes.
The first criteria, then, for determining the cities in which to invest TEAM Venezuela’s resources is the existence of a church in that city well on the way to becoming an established church, as we’ve defined it. We also look for missionaries and Venezuelans with a vision for establishing the impact church in that city. The city itself should be a growing city of at least a million people with a low percentage of evangelicals, and an unreached middle and upper middle class. We have sought consensus among the leaders of the two national church associations, and TEAM Venezuela’s Field Council, regarding the choice of the cities. Most importantly, we are actively praying and seeking the direction of the Holy Spirit. We have given him veto power! He may also direct us to cities we have not yet considered.
The above criteria are not mutually exclusive. We will look at all issues when determining what will qualify as a potential impact church. It may be that we have a very qualified missionary or pastor with a vision for a city that may not otherwise meet our criteria. We’ll be open to the Lord calling us to invest time and resources in that place.
We also have to be careful not to impose our criteria on a church. Neither should a pastor, no matter how well intentioned, force the church to accept change just because he believes it is right. Rick Warren recognized how important it was to allow the leaders of his church, Saddleback Church near Los Angeles, to arrive at their own conclusions regarding biblical principles of the church. He says, "Leading your congregation through a discovery of the New Testament purposes for the church is an exciting adventure. Don’t rush through the process. And don’t spoil the joy by simply telling everyone what the purposes are in a sermon. Wise leaders understand that people will give mental and verbal assent to what they are told, but they will hold with conviction what they discover for themselves. You’re building the foundation for long-term health and growth" (Warren, 1995, 96). A strong leader can impose his will on a congregation, but all too often it is just that, his will. A plan to establish a church God’s way, using biblical principles that the congregation discovers for itself, will result in God’s church.
As we’ve progressed toward evaluating the target cities for potential impact churches, we’ve learned from the experience of others. For example, Pastor Samuel Marcano became convinced that some changes needed to be made in his church, Dios Es Amor, in Maturin, Venezuela. Several key people supported his initiatives, including TEAM missionaries Danny Carpenter and Sheila McNaughton who live in Maturin. But it soon became clear that this 70-year-old rock of a church was not going to move easily. So Samuel started a Bible study with the leadership aimed at determining biblical principles applicable to the church today, and succeeded in turning things round. Our definition of an established church is based on the result of their study.
However, it would be just as ill advised for TEAM Venezuela to impose change, or an external definition of an established church, as it was for Samuel Marcano in Dios Es Amor. So, we are encouraging all of our churches to determine their own definition of an established church, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide them to a biblical definition. Based on that definition, the church can evaluate how it is doing compared with biblical principles.
The leadership in our church in Caracas has already spent a significant amount of time studying the biblical principles of the church. So we were able to do an effective evaluation in a day, where a newer church plant might want to spend weeks or months in the process, possibly during a Sunday School class. We identified key Bible verses in the following categories:
- Church leadership (e.g.: Acts 13-1-3, 14:23, 20:28-31, I Tim. 3, 1 Pet. 5:1-4)
- Evangelism and mission (e.g.: Matt 28:16-20, Acts 1:8, 5:42, 8:4-5, 13: 1-3)
- Discipleship and Christian Education (e.g.: Acts 11:26, Eph. 4:11-16, 2 Tim. 2:2)
- Fellowship (e.g.: Acts 2:42-47, 11:22-30, Rom. 15:26, 1 Cor. 16:19)
- Worship (e.g.: 1 Cor. 11:17-22, 14:40, Eph. 5:18-20, 1 Tim. 2:8, 4:13
As we studied the passages, we developed a list of characteristics of an established church. We then transferred those characteristics into an evaluation tool. (See sample evaluation at the end of this article.)
Questions should reflect the biblical principles of an established church that leaders discover from their own study of the passages related to the church. The numeric values from the evaluation questions can be assessed a lot of different ways. When we did the evaluation in our church, we took the average for each question and for the broader categories. We also counted up the "Os" and the "4s" for each question and each category. It was interesting that in our case, the "4s" were spread across all categories, except for one. And the "Os" appeared in that same category. It was clear to everyone where we needed to devote our attention over the next months.
We’re encouraging all churches to do such an evaluation, regardless of whether or not they are being considered as a potential impact church. We want all churches to be well established. In fact, as more churches become established according to biblical principles, it should multiply the number of impact churches. And when the Venezuelan church is capable of multiplying its own impact churches, TEAM will be free to leave Venezuela and invest its church planting resources in places where the gospel has yet to be proclaimed.
1. Church planting missionaries in other cultures should be differentiated from church planters in the same culture who are planting churches with the intent to stay and pastor the church they’ve started. When Christ is glorified, both are valid.
2. TEAM Venezuela’s definition of an established church was approved by TEAM Venezuela Annual Field Conference in Rubio, Venezuela, July 22-29, 1998.
3. The church is for all people of all classes. The reason for the criteria of an unreached middle and upper class is that the Venezuelans are for the most part doing a good job of reaching the lower classes. The church associations with whom we work have asked for our help in reaching the middle and upper classes in the cities.
4. A good example of verses and principles to be studied can be found in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church, in the chapter on helping a church define its purpose.
Warren, Rick. 1995. The Purpose Driven Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Allen, Roland. 1992. Missionary Methods: ST. Pauls’ or Ours? Reprinted. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s.
Steffen, Tom. 1997. Passing the Baton. La Habra, Calif.: Center for Organizational Ministry and Development.
Mark Johnson and his wife Kay are church planting missionaries with The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM). Mark is also Church Planting Coordinator for TEAM-Venezuela. They live and work in Caracas, Venezuela with their sons Gregory and Ian.
Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.
Please indicate a number after each statement on the line provided, based on the following criteria:
0: Our church has not yet thought about this.
1: Our church has talked about this, but we haven’t done anything.
2: Our church has started to do something in this area.
3: Our church is advanced in this area.
4: Our church is in excellent shape in this area.
1.1 Our church meets together regularly for unified worship of God.
1.2 It celebrates regularly the Lord’s Supper.
1.3 Our church is unified in prayer as the source of its power.
1.4 It maintains the centrality of the Word of God in teaching and preaching
1.5 Its members give unselfishly.
2. Discipleship and Christian Education
2.1 The leaders in our church study God’s Word together and help each other spiritually
2.2 New believers receive immediate attention and are baptized and incorporated into the church as soon as possible.
2.3 Believers are discipled consistently with a balance maintained in the areas of Bible knowledge, character development and ministerial skills.
2.4 The leadership takes responsibility for the ministerial development of its present and future leaders.
2.5 Men are trained to be the spiritual leaders in their families.
2.6 Older women train younger women in their roles as wives and mothers.
2.7 The members use their spiritual gifts for the mutual edification of the whole body.
2.8 Church discipline is consistently and lovingly applied to members who are in sin.
3. Evangelism and Missions
3.1 Our church’s members are involved in relationship evangelism on a personal basis with the global of reaching whole families.
3.2 It impacts the community through service and outreach.
3.3 It reproduces itself in new churches in unreached areas of its own city/country.
3.4 Our church is involved in sending missionaries to unreached parts of the world.
4. Fellowship with Other Churches
4.1 OUr church is a model for other churches.
4.2 It provides resources for helping other churches.
4.3 It recognizes its interdependence with other churches and participates with them to further the cause of Christ.
5.1 Men recognized as meeting the biblical requirements are chosen to lead the church.
5.2 The leaders assume responsibility for pastoring and maintaining sound doctrine.
5.3 The church willingly and faithfully submits itself to its spiritual leaders.