by J.D. Payne
This article offers some necessary theological and missiological shifts to help facilitate church planting movements.
And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number. (Acts 5:14 NASB)
The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7 NASB)
Fact or Fiction? In Southeast Asia, a strategy coordinator began working in 1993 in an area of more than seven million people, with three churches and eighty-five believers. By 1997, the number of churches had soared to over 550 with approximately 55,000 believers combined.
A missionary in western Europe noted that in 1998 both he and his wife started fifteen church cell groups. Following a six-month departure, they returned to discover that at least thirty churches now existed.
In China, from 1993-1997, more than twenty thousand people came to Christ. The final result was an increase of more than five hundred new churches.
If you guessed that each of the above situations were factual, then according to David Garrison of the International Mission Board and author of the popular sixty-page booklet Church Planting Movements, you are correct. Around the world, church multiplication is becoming commonplace. Church growth that compares to that of the first century is happening now in the twenty-first century. New churches are multiplying at a rapid rate. Indigenous leaders are coming from the harvest and returning to work the harvest. Though the aforementioned factual accounts are occurring throughout the globe, the North American church is not experiencing such growth.
Though the concept of church planting movements is as old as the first century church, Garrison has reintroduced missionaries and missio-logists to church planting movements. Within his work, Garrison discusses various aspects of movements that are currently being reported across the globe on several continents except North America. According to Garrison, a church planting movement is “a rapid and exponential increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment” (1999, 7). As a professor of evangelism and church planting, Garrison’s work compelled me to ask the question, “Why not here in North America?”
The purpose of this article is to address this question and offer some necessary theological and missiological shifts to help facilitate church planting movements.
We Must Be Aware of the Problems
The Scriptures are very clear that unless the Spirit of God moves across a people, then true church multiplication is non-existent. Ultimately, then, the spontaneous expansion of the church is left up to the Sovereign Lord. However, our theologies and missiologies can facilitate or hinder a church planting movement. Though it is beyond the scope of this article to offer a comparison of the theologies and missiologies of those church planters experiencing a church planting movement and those who are not experiencing such a movement, I do believe that there are significant differences.
For North American church planters, it is within these theological and missiological differences that the problems hindering church planting movements can be found. I am not stating that the origin and continuation of the movements can be simplified to only one or two contributing factors; however, I do discern a correlation between a missionary’s theology and missiology and church planting movements.
Church planting expert Bob Logan offered a very keen insight into this issue when comparing the historical ministries of two evangelists, George Whitefield and John Wesley:
George Whitefield and John Wesley were contemporaries during the 18th century. Both of them were godly men who were spiritually empowered and culturally relevant. But when you look at the lasting results of their ministries, there’s a startling contrast.
Whitefield had thousands upon thousands of people who professed faith in Christ, but very few disciples who were added to the church. Whitefield himself recognized the lack of a lasting harvest. Near the end of his ministry, he said, “my converts are like a rope of sand.”
Wesley, on the other hand, left behind a movement of churches that have grown primarily through evangelism, reaching whole different segments of society the church had ignored. At the end of his life there were some 76,000 people registered in their societies, and the generation after Wesley’s death won more people to Christ than even during Wesley’s life.
What was the difference between Whitefield and Wesley? The critics of John Wesley correctly identified the secret. They derogatorily called the emerging groups “Methodists.” (1996)
Reflecting on this historical situation, Logan continued:
There were not enough leaders in existing churches to handle the great harvest, so by necessity Wesley developed reproducible systems to allow new converts to grow into leadership positions while they themselves were making disciples and multiplying groups and churches. It was the reproducible methods or systems that empowered these ordinary people to do extraordinary things!
As Logan observed, sometimes the hindrance to the expansion of the church is not on behalf of God, but on behalf of his servants.
Once Upon a Time…
Logan’s observation can be illustrated by the following story that has been repeated in various forms in numerous missiological publications: There once were some missionaries who ventured out to evangelize a nation. Their missionary training had informed them that the people to whom they would be ministering would be a different people. The people’s worldview was radically different from that of the Judeo-Christian worldview of the missionaries. Because of this different way of thinking, the people’s moral and ethical attributes were questionable. The people’s work ethic was different from that of the missionaries. They reared their children in a different fashion. Their celebrations and festivals were at times blasphemous, crude and immoral. Religiously speaking, the culture was as pluralistic as the first century. Many varieties of syncretism could also be found.
After spending much time in prayer and trying a variety of evangelistic methodologies, the missionaries were able to reach a small group of people. A meeting location had been provided by a source from which the missionaries had connections. Subsidies poured in to provide musical instruments, musicians, promotional pieces, utilities, a sound system, etc. Immediately the small group of new believers and the missionaries were meeting for worship services, Bible studies, and leadership and discipleship training classes. After all, these things were seen as necessary for a church to be a proper church.
Since the people had not been trained in the Western theological seminaries or established churches, dependency on the missionaries for church structure and organization was needed. The people did not know how to lead the Western hymns and contemporary praise songs, preach in a Western monological style, conduct a Western business meeting or lead a Western Bible study. In summary, the missionaries made all the plans, designed the overall organization and established all the structures and functions for the new believers to exist as a church.
The missionaries led the services, studies and training since the people were new believers and were not able to do such things. They were inexperienced and too immature in the faith for serious ministerial tasks. Months, possibly years would have to pass before the new believers could take over the important leadership roles. Some leadership roles would never be available to them. The people would require much preparation time before indigenous leadership developed. The missionaries taught the new believers how to “do church” as they themselves were taught in their cultural and theological training. The process of devolution was a requirement: over time the missionaries would gradually allow the people to take over the important positions within the church. In many cases the dependency was to last indefinitely; the missionaries would remain as pastors over the believers.
Evangelism training was another issue. Most of the training was accomplished in a classroom setting using the teaching styles and evangelistic strategies and methodologies of the missionaries’ culture. Because the missionaries had created the expectation that the new believers should be at church every time the doors were opened (which was several times each week), the believers’ contact and influence with the unchurched population diminished. The missionaries had good intentions. They realized that the people were immature in the faith while living in an ungodly culture. The people needed to develop strong friendships with other believers; fellowship meetings were a regular part of the new church’s life.
Some interesting situations began to occur. As already mentioned, the influence and contact of the new believers with their old friends and acquaintances began to diminish. The unchurched population saw that their peers had a new religion which required them to participate in and assimilate into a different culture. From the perspective of the unchurched, the new cultural practices were often bizarre. The unchurched population was not so much offended at the offence of the cross, but primarily they were offended at the thought of changing their culture. Donald McGavran’s church growth axiom was true: people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers. Since the missionaries had not only brought the message of the gospel to the people, but conveyed more than the basic components for a church to exist as a church in any given culture, the expansion of the church was hindered. The bridges of God had been badly damaged and, in some cases, were beyond repair. Becoming a follower of Jesus in this environment was synonymous with adopting a new culture that was characteristic of the missionaries’ culture, rather than the culture required to be part of the New Testament church.
Now. . .The Rest of the Story
What about the tragic story just described? Was it about a day and time in which missionaries crossed sea and land to establish mission stations, or was it a contemporary story reflecting a common trend in North American church planting? Re-read the story, but this time read it with your eyes on North America. Are we repeating similar mistakes here on this continent that our predecessors made on other continents years and years ago? Obviously, the situations are not a one-to-one-ratio, and obviously I have made some exaggerations, but the similarities are startling.
We Must Avoid Culture Blindness
What is the difference between a missionary who goes to another country, preaches the gospel, and congregationalizes the new believers into a church which is heavily dominated by the churched culture of the missionary, and a North American missionary who preaches the gospel to a group of North Americans and congregationalizes the new believers into a church which is heavily dominated by the churched culture of the North American missionary?
We have been committing the fallacy of culture blindness. Just because the people whom I am evangelizing speak English, live in the same community in which I live, are the same skin color as myself and are an American family, then we are of the same culture. Right?
Culture blindness is a major detriment to North American evangelization today. Culture cannot be assumed based on externals. Culture is intimately involved with the world-view of the people, the intellect, and the thoughts. The North American worldview is far from homogenous. Urbanization, communications, pluralism and individualism have all attributed to the death of any grand unified North American worldview.
Unfortunately, many church planters have spent several years in a Christian classroom being prepared for church planting. Unfortunately, many church planters have spent years training in traditional church settings. Though neither of these situations are necessarily bad in and of themselves (I fall into both categories), they do tend to keep church planters isolated in Christian ghettoes which, in many cases, never have nor never will prepare church planters for the real postmodern world.
We Must Understand that Worldviews Will Collide
Upon receiving the coveted undergraduate or graduate degree many church planters venture out into a North American culture which looks like that of the church planter, but in reality is a worldview apart. Even if the cultures are indeed similar, at the very least, the gospel and the nature of the unregenerate individual represent two divergent worldviews. Church planting is about the collision of world-views. Evangelism is about the collision of worldviews. Missions is about the collision of worldviews.
Church planters are being told to learn from the successful church planters. Though I completely agree that some pragmatism is healthy and that we should not necessarily reinvent the wheel, many church planters are entering into a culture basing their understanding of the church, mission strategies and methodologies on what worked in communities which predominantly manifested a different worldview. It is ridiculous to believe that North American culture is the same as it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago.
In many cases, North American church planters are not taught to think in terms of culture and to plant churches that are indigenous to the people to whom they are going. Many of us would not feel comfortable in churches like those which manifest themselves in non-North American areas where missionaries are planting indigenous churches with indigenous leadership. We should then ask the question: “Are we trying to plant a church in which we would feel comfortable with the music style, sermon delivery style, overall structure and organization (i.e., culture), or are we trying to plant a church in which I as a missionary convey as best as possible the most basic elements for the church to exist as a church among new believers?” I greatly fear that many church planters are being taught to believe in church planting as a romantic concept in which they are to clone the church culture in which they are themselves, without all the traditional church problems, of course.
I greatly fear that many church planters have created and are creating similar problems that historically dominate many non-Western mission fields. Or, that many are being taught to put the cart before the horse by importing the church planter’s cultural church structures, organizations and methodologies onto the new believers, thus creating a dependency of the new church on the church planter.
Church planters are in the ministry of crossing cultures, including worldviews, to preach the gospel and to teach followers of Christ to obey. Church planting is evangelization with a congre-gationalizing attachment. Church planting is not about planting a church in my image, planting a church because I am sick of all the traditional problems, planting a church so I can have a salary, planting a church so I can pacify my ego, etc. Church planters must ask themselves at least the following two questions: 1) How can I best reach these people with the gospel; and 2) How can I best teach the new believers the most basic elements for a church to exist as a church, with as little of my culture as possible?
We Must Remember the Past
For missiologists and church planters to fail to reflect on those thinkers and missionaries who have gone before us is a grave mistake. For us who are laboring in North America to refrain from allowing the writings and thoughts of those primarily focused on an international context to influence us is ethnocentric, and possibly a form of arrogance. For the most part, North American church planters have failed to learn from the historical problems that developed outside of the North American borders, which hindered church planting movements. Because of this failure, we are repeating variations on past mistakes.
We Must Make at Least Three Shifts
What is a possible solution to the problem at hand? Assuming that the Sovereign Lord desires to move across North America in a dynamic fashion, as is being reported worldwide, there must be at least three shifts that will assist in the facilitation of a church planting movement.
First and foremost, North American church planters must have a shift in their understanding of the church and the Holy Spirit. The greatest contemporary problem in North American church planting is theological in nature. An unhealthy understanding of the church will affect every aspect of the church multiplication process. Many church planters and denominational workers do not have a biblical understanding of the nature and purpose of the church. Granted, we can exegete our passages and have well developed systematic theologies, but we fail miserably in the area of practical application.
We have a very difficult time separating our church culture from the biblical understanding of the church. Of course, no one can come to the Scriptures with a blank slate, but we overwhelmingly convey too much of our church culture to the unchurched. In many cases, what has been labeled seeker-sensitive is sensitively teaching unchurched people the church culture of the church planters. Instead, we ought to ask ourselves, what are the minimum (i.e., biblical) necessities for a church to exist as a church in the target culture? We must prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in teaching this minimum alone. Of course, there will always be a cultural fingerprint of the church planter on the church, but in second and third generation churches, the trace of the fingerprint should be gone.
In conjunction with an ecclesio-logical shift, church planters also need to have a shift in their understanding of the Holy Spirit. New believers may be immature in their faith, as compared to the church planters, but the same amount of the same Holy Spirit is indwelling those new believers as he is in the church planters. Paul was able to spend a short amount of time with a new congregation and move on to plant other churches. Though he did assist and guide the new believers through his writings, visits and other workers, he did not refuse to turn the churches over to the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit. A shallow understanding of the Spirit will result in the church planter focusing more on himself/herself and the new believers, than on the Spirit and his abilities.
Church planters should be more apostolic in nature. There is no better model than the Apostolic church’s approach to evangelizing their world. Why are we so dependent on and why do we require professional pastors and church planters who can pass an assessment interview? Why are we so dependent on financial resources for church planting? Why do church planters have to be individuals who are skilled in fund raising and business management? Why do we allow the nature and power of the Spirit to be overshadowed by the potential problems that could arise with young churches? Why do we focus more on what could possibly happen without the heavy hand of the church planter, rather than on the reality of the Spirit?
The second shift is strategic in nature. North American church planters must develop strategies that are highly reproducible. If new believers cannot reproduce what the church planters have done to plant the church, then the strategy should be held in abeyance until the necessary changes are made. The people are watching everything that the church planters do, from the initial contact with the lost people until the birth of the church. Church planters are constantly a model in progress. Unless the people can reproduce the strategy, then the church will continue to be dependent on the church planters for church multiplication. Also, our unhealthy desire for reproducing other church planters’ methodologies, resulting in the cloning of churches, must cease.
The final shift is methodological in nature. North American church planters must embrace a context-ualized phase-out methodology. Tom A. Steffen has written much about this approach in his book Passing the Baton: Church Planting That Empowers. The church planters evangelize and congregationalize an area, and then move on to another area to plant another church. In major urban areas, it is very possible to remain in one geographical region for a lifetime and plant churches with a phase-out methodology. History and missiology has taught us that generally, when a church planter remains as the pastor of the church, church multiplication is hindered. Though not to belittle the “plant and pastor” methodology that has been in vogue in North America for a number of years, it is time that we realize where this methodology has left us in regard to church multiplication. It is time that this methodology becomes the exception, rather than the expected.
The Sovereign Lord has been moving across the globe producing church planting movements resulting in numerous conversions and churches. North America is ripe for her own church planting movement; however, the majority of the saints are not ready for a church planting movement. Until most church planters are willing to make the necessary shifts, we will continue to plant many churches which are highly dependent on church planters/pastors and sterile when it comes to multiplication.
Garrison, David. 1999. Church Planting Movements. Richmond, Va.:
International Mission Board.
Logan, Bob. 1996. “Keys for Advancing God’s Kingdom,” accessed 13 April 2000, .
Steffen, Tom A. 1997. Passing the Baton: Church Planting That Empowers. La Habra, Calif.: Center for Organizational and Ministry Development.
J.D. Payne is assistant professor of Church planting and Evangelism in the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at the Souther Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 220-228. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.