by Craig Ott
Three models of church-planting. Which one works best?
In recent years a number of church planting strategies and models have been produced and promoted. This is a welcome development, which has not only stimulated discussion, but also moved church planting practice beyond the "open shop" approach, which took little account of culture, reproduction, and long term developmental considerations.
A less discussed issue relates to the role of the missionary church planter. In training, observing, and consulting church planters I’ve become convinced that if the church planter does not have a clear understanding of his or her role, he or she is likely to undermine the best methods and models. The church planter’s self-understanding must match the church planting model.
Essentially three types of missionary church planters can be identified, which correspond to three broad approaches to church planting: the pastoral church planter, the apostolic church planter, and the catalytic church planter. Each has a different self-understanding, will go about investing his or her time and energies differently, is faced with particular opportunities and challenges, and is suited for a different situation.
THE PASTORAL CHURCH PLANTER
The goal of the pastoral church planter is quite simply to begin a new church and pastor it until it can call and pay its own pastor. The missionary can then move on and plant another church. The method is straightforward. Initially evangelistic efforts are necessary to gather a congregation of new believers. But once a core of believers has been gathered-often quite small-this church planter tends to shift into the pastoral care giving mode, focusing energy on preaching, teaching, counseling, and various other pastoral duties. If the church continues to grow, it is often through new members who are already believers; so-called transfer growth. The church is considered "planted" when it can call and pay a pastor to replace the missionary pastor.
This is no doubt the most common variety of church planter both in home and foreign missions. I adopted this approach (albeit unconsciously) in the first churches that I planted. I simply wasn’t aware of any other approach. Even missionaries who are committed to church multiplication and lay mobilization almost automatically slip into the pastoral mode. There are a number of reasons for this. Most seminaries train pastors, not evangelists, or church planters; thus most seminary trained church planters feel comfortable with this role. Most Western books on church planting assume this method. This is the model of ministry which we have observed and come to appreciate in our home churches, and which has been adopted in many, if not most, denominations abroad. Most of us have never experienced or observed an alternate approach. The members of the church plant often expect this of the church planter: "Be our pastor! That’s what you are trained and paid for." Because the missionary church planter usually has not only more training but also more time than lay church members, it is only natural that he, and not they, bear the load of pastoral ministry. This problem is all the more aggravated if several full-time missionaries are serving in the same church plant.
This model of church planting works well under three conditions: (1) high potential for rapid church growth, either because the people are responsive or through transfer; (2) affluence, where the new church can finance its own pastor; and (3) where there are trained national believers available to call as pastor. This is why church planting in North America has been generally successful using the pastoral church planter model.
Unfortunately these conditions are absent in most places where foreign missionary church planting is happening. If church growth is slow and local resources are limited the church will have difficulty calling and paying a replacement for the missionary church planter. The longer the missionary remains in this role, the more the church becomes dependent on him. Sometimes the missionary church planter remains faithfully at the location for ten or even twenty years, hoping that one day a national pastor can be called to replace him. Usually frustration sets in sooner. The only solution appears to be for the mission to financially subsidize the calling of a national pastor-if one can be found-so that the missionary can finally move on. This only increases the dependency, which is most difficult to break. Multiplication of such churches is very difficult and rare.
The conviction which underlies the pastoral church planter understanding is that a church must have a fully paid, expertly trained pastor to be considered a legitimate, planted church. Such a pastor may be desirable in many situations, but this is certainly not a biblical requirement to being considered an established church. The churches planted in the New Testament were virtually all lay-led. Indeed mission history up to our own day has demonstrated time and again that the most dynamic church planting movements were lay led and not encumbered by the "how can we pay a pastor" dilemma.
Furthermore, because the pastoral church planting missionary assumes that one day a professionally trained pastor will replace him, minimal effort is invested in training and empowering the laity for genuine pastoral ministry. Finally, believers in the church plant can become "spoiled"by having a full-time missionary pastor. The missionary pastor has set a professional standard, which is difficult to follow. Nationals may feel inferior, because they believe that they cannot minister as well as the missionary, and they fear that the church cannot survive without a trained paid pastor. This thinking is perhaps the single most unnecessary hindrance to church planting and multiplication in most parts of the world today. Not only are missionary resources tied up at one location for many years, but a professional attitude toward ministry is instilled, which inhibits full mobilization of local lay believers.
THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH PLANTER
The self-understanding and approach of the apostolic church planter is radically different from that of the pastoral church planter. This church planter models himself after the Apostle Paul-thus apostolic-who rarely allowed himself to become pastor of a church he planted. Instead he focused on empowering the local believers to minister, who would as laymen carry on and expand the work after his departure. Sometimes local believers would be included in Paul’s itinerant missionary team, thus instilling vision for multiplication and mission at the very inception of the young churches. Dependencies were avoided from the outset. With this model the question, "Who will replace the missionary pastor?" never arises, because the missionary never becomes the pastor. It is assumed that the nationals can pastor themselves if provided with adequate teaching and models.
This approach has been advocated in a number of current church planting models, perhaps most cogently by Tom Steffen in Passing the Baton: Church Planting That Empowers. Steffen was a church planter among the Ifugao in the Philippines. Observing that truly "three-self," multiplying churches were not being planted by his mission agency, he developed a five stage "phase-out" approach to church planting which he successfully implemented. This model maps out how the missionary must continually change his or her role from learner to evangelist, to teacher, to resident advisor, to itinerant advisor, and finally to absent advisor.
Some suggest that the missionary work in two or three areas simultaneously, thus reducing dependency and forcing local laypersons to develop their churches and ministries. Tent-making church planters also have an advantage in this regard. Because they are not able to serve the church full-time, the church tends to become less dependent upon them.
This approach demands radical rethinking on the part of most church plaining missionaries. From the outset nationals must be trained to do all essential ministries-evangelism, preaching, teaching, counseling, etc. The missionary must surrender the desire to have "up front" ministry. His or her primary role is behind the scenes, equipping others. The lay sermons will probably not be as homiletically polished or theologically astute as those the missionary could preach. But the reward will be the development of a truly empowered local leadership, which will serve the church well after the missionary has departed. The missionary is constantly working him or herself out of a job, performing a ministry only so long as necessary to train a national. Indeed, apart from evangelism and initial follow-up, if a national is not available and willing to be trained, the ministry should probably not be initiated. This makes for a slower start, but, I believe, a more solid finish for the church plant.
While most church planters will agree with this approach in principle, difficulties arise when national believers seem to lag in their willingness or ability to bear the responsibility of ministry. The missionary becomes impatient and presses forward, initiating new programs, taking on more ministry responsibility hoping that the nationals will "catch up "with a little time and maturity. The opposite usually happens: The nationals become increasingly dependent on the missionary, increasingly feeling inadequate to minister and convinced that the missionary has no confidence in their abilities. Worst of all, they learn that if they just wait long enough, the missionary will plant the church and run the program without them. The church is viewed as the missionary’s project apart from their contribution.
While on a consulting trip, I sat in on the meeting of the leadership of a small new church plant in an Eastern European city. They were discussing how they might move from semi-weekly to weekly church services. The main obstacle was the lack of a preacher for the additional services. The language skills and background of the missionary made it impossible for him to preach on more than two Sundays a month. The natural tendency of the group was to request from the mission another missionary or to look for other outside resources to meet the need. As we began to brainstorm for alternatives, it soon became apparent that several of the lay leaders would preach if the missionary were to assist them in their preparation. A solution was found, which guarded against increased dependency, while at the same time promoting mobilization of the laity and their ownership of the ministry.
The strengths of this model, however, should not blind one to the challenges inherent in it. This missionary church planter normally must change location frequently, which is difficult for families and long-term relationships. Few missionaries are trained in such an approach, and few are really willing to restrain their ministry or slow the advancement of the church for the sake of developing lay ministers and ownership. There are situations, especially in resistant areas, where local believers just aren’t suitable for leadership or are unwilling to bear responsibility. Especially where new believers are illiterate, nomadic, or come from radically non-Christian worldviews, the process of developing leaders and churches may be long and tedious. The early departure of the missionary can result in major problems in the new church, as the Apostle Paul experienced with the church in Corinth. Nevertheless, this is the approach which Paul used and which has been used in most rapidly expanding church planting movements in responsive parts of the world.
THE CATALYTIC CHURCH PLANTER
A third understanding of the church-planting role is that of the catalytic church planter. A catalyst creates or affects a chemical reaction among other elements. The potential was latently there, but the catalyst sets it in motion. The catalytic church planter is a church planter who plants a church, and remains as pastor or resource person in that church to become a catalyst or facilitator for church multiplication. Considerable energy and resources are usually invested in establishing and strengthening the initial church plant with the goal that it will become a "beach-head" or "launching base" for numerous additional church plants in the region.
The "mother-daughter," "hiving-off, " or "cell division" approach to church planting is among the most effective methods for rapid church multiplication. Such movements, however, rarely develop apart from catalytic leadership. Churches need visionary, motivational, and specially gifted leaders to move them from maintenance to multiplication. Apart from such leadership most churches evolve quickly into a maintenance mode, and fail to reproduce. Ideally a national pastor or laymen provide such leadership, but there can be a place for a missionary church planter to play this catalytic role.
Rick Warren is an example of a catalytic church planter. He pioneered the planting of the Saddleback Valley Community Church twenty years ago. Though Warren did not himself directly plant or pastor any other churches, Saddleback, under his leadership went on to plant twenty-six new churches. He was no doubt a significant catalyst used of God to ignite that multiplication of churches.
Such catalytic church planters are rare among nationals, and even rarer among foreign missionaries. Mobilizing such a church planting movement demands exceptional gifts and vision. Indeed, perhaps the greatest weakness of this model is the tendency for a church planter to overestimate his ability to provide this kind of leadership, investing much time and energy while failing to, in fact, reproduce churches. Furthermore, the church planting movement may become very dependent on the catalytic ministry of the missionary, which then ceases when the missionary departs.
But a catalytic church planter needn’t have the dramatic gifts or success of a Rick Warren to be effective. There is much to be said for remaining with a church plant until it has successfully launched its first daughter church, thus setting a pattern which can be continued after the missionary’s departure. Nor is it necessary that the mother church have thousands of members before it can launch a movement. Even in the moderately resistant cities of Germany, church planting movements have emerged largely through visionary, catalytic leadership in churches with less than 200 members.
WHICH ROLE IS BEST?
At first glance the apostolic model might appear most biblical, because it is closest to Paul’s method. A better standard, however, for measuring a method is its compatibility with broader biblical principles and its ability to reach biblical goals of church planting such as spiritual health, multiplication, indigenization, and stewardship of resources. Judged in this way, any of the three models might be the best model depending on the church planter, the setting, and God’s sovereign working in the church plant.
As indicated above, the pastoral model works best in responsive and relatively affluent populations where the likelihood of the church growing and being able to quickly call and pay a pastor is great. The catalytic model is best suited for urban areas of moderate responsiveness and with potential for multiple church planting in the region. However, the church planter must be exceptionally gifted and able to make a long-term commitment. The apostolic model is most versatile and suited for both rural and urban settings, affluent and poor populations, and seems to be the approach which God has most greatly blessed in facilitating rapidly growing church planting movements throughout the world. But this approach demands long-sighted patience and significant rethinking and retraining of most missionary church planters.
In all events, it is essential for the church planter and each member of a church planting team to be aware of the various options, to be unified in their choice of an appropriate model, and to consistently implement the model, being aware of pluses and pitfalls. These considerations will often need to be made in consultation with the national church or local believers to avoid misunderstanding and insure realistic expectations. In most cases, this will demand a reassessment of the missionary’s role and self-understanding. The effectiveness of any church planting model will largely depend on the church planter’s willingness and ability to adapt his or her role to fit and facilitate the model.
Craig Ott is academic dean of the German Branch of Columbia Biblical Seminary in Korntal. He has served in Germany since 1981 with the Evangelical Free Church Mission (EFCM), where he planted several churches. He is currently aslo Central Europe church planting consultant for the EFCM.
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