by Glenn Kendall
How did the rapid growth in Rwanda happen in such short time?
Fifteen years ago the Association of Baptist Churches of Rwanda was a small, regional group with 1,100 members in the northwest corner of the small central African nation of Rwanda (pop. 7.3 million). Today the association has churches in all prefectures and over half of the townships; membership has passed 17,000.
How did this rapid growth and geographical spread happen in such a short time? What made it possible for a small regional church to expand so quickly, with an aver-age of only three missionary couples per year?
The key is using new believers to plant clusters of churches. A church planter gathers new believers, whom he trains to plant churches among other new believers. The national leader is the most highly qualified, available pastor who is already successful in his local church ministry. He sets a goal of starting a cluster of up to 12 churches in five years, which, because of their size and geographical spread, will have strength for further outreach.
Mission thrusts – large, association-sponsored evangelistic campaigns in places where clusters of churches are to be formed – help the national church planter to get started. These efforts generate enthusiasm and bring many new converts. I myself worked closely with 12 of these church-planting nationals, up to five at one time, and was in turn able to participate in starting 30 churches or more at a given time. Having a big goal – to start clusters of churches rather than individual ones – challenged us to think big, work hard, and plant many churches. In 14 years together, we started over 300 churches.
The national leader spends his time training new leaders to minister to new believers, rather than finding new believers. Finding interested people seems to work better with lots of people and lots of noise in the mission thrust. Discipling and leadership formation works better in smaller follow-up groups. Evangelism on a mass scale that generates enthusiasm and helps the leader to find interested people—combined with consistent training in the target areas—produces dramatic church growth.
Gary Scheer, a Conservative Baptist missionary in Rwanda, and Ezechiel Baberakubona, former association leader and church planter, list several advantages as well as disadvantages of this method of church growth.
Sending a national leader to plant clusters of churches, combined with mission thrusts:
1. Makes it possible to start a number of local churches in a short time. For example, five to seven churches can be started during the mission thrust, and up to a dozen churches in three to five years.
2. Makes it possible to start new clusters of churches far from previously established churches. The first cluster of churches was 120 miles away, even though the roads were bad and gasoline and transportation were not readily available.
3. Makes for a firm foundation in the new area. A group of churches is stronger than one church by itself. People from nearby churches get together for fellowship and realize that they are part of something bigger.
4. Encourages local churches to plant other churches, by providing a workable model.
5. Teaches practical evangelism to Bible school students, pastors, and others during the mission thrusts.
6. Draws out new leaders. New believers see evangelism first-hand in their own community. Some volunteer are selected for training. Immediately, they start to lead new groups. Some continue training by extension classes, while others go to Bible school. Five years after the initial thrust, Bible school-trained men are leading a majority of the new churches.
7. Encourages unity in the association. Each church association sends representations to the mission thrust. They have great fellowship and interaction. All of them feel that they have a part in the formation of the new cluster of churches.
8. Makes an impact on the local people and officials. By the end of the mission thrust, everyone knows that something is going on. General interest is stirred up. People come out of curiosity and are converted. Others are reached and respond. Still others who are spiritually hungry hear about it by word of mouth, from neighbors and friends, and they seek out team members and are converted.
9. Does not require a large missionary force.
1. Sometimes the association does not find enough trained leaders to follow up the new believers. With 1,000 or more decisions, it’s difficult for one person to train adequately all the new believers, using new Christians to do this. However, new leaders do develop quickly.
2. Sometimes the association and the new believers do not have enough resources to build adequate church buildings.
3. Sometimes if the cluster area is too large, the new churches are so many and so scattered that the national leader cannot adequately supervise them all.
THE STRATEGY IN DETAIL
Select a target area. We started to plant churches first in the most receptive areas: new immigration areas and places were people were open to change. Often, the area has few or no evangelical churches. Sometimes we pick an area because of its location— to tie together a couple of clusters of churches and make the whole stronger. Or, a man or group will ask us for help in starting churches. We chose one area because for years we had passed through it on the way to evangelize other areas. Some pastors developed a burden for this place. "Why don’t we start churches here?" they asked, and so we did.
Select the national leader. More than on anything else, the success of the new cluster of churches will rest on the ability of the national leader. From the beginning, we put much thought and prayer into this, and it has paid off. The men chosen to start the first clusters of churches were key leaders already successful at starting daughter churches from the churches they were pastoring. Given the freedom and challenge to work in an even broader area, they usually did even better starting clusters of churches. Then they became leaders of the new local association of churches. These men gained a great deal of respect and a useful by-product is that other men are now eager for the same opportunity. They consider it an honor— even a promotion— to be asked to start a cluster of churches, in spite of the fact that it is hard work, with low pay, and means living away from friends and family.
Establish a budget. It is assumed that in a five-year period the new leader will establish a cluster of churches capable of supporting him as the association leader. We spell out a descending scale of minimal support. The mission board helps for the first two and a half years and the national association for the last two and a half years. This is made clear at the beginning, so that as outside support diminishes this is not taken as a lack of approval. Appropriate ceremonies at various intervals add prestige to the withdrawal of funds.
Survey the site. Before the leader actually moves to the area, he does additional survey work to select a central location for the proposed cluster and then seeks housing near that area. He also looks for a location near good transportation.
Move to the site. Fanfare accompanies the leader’s move. His home church sends him off, and, in keeping with the culture, many people come to say good-bye and wish the family well. Some even bring gifts to help the family get established in their new location.
Locate new church sites. Once on location, the new man looks for areas relatively near the central location where the people might be interested in the gospel. Contacts come through relatives and friends of existing association members in the home areas. They also send names of possible contacts. The new leader also looks for contacts on his own. One man walked up various valleys that converged at his chosen central place. When he sat down to rest, first kids and then adults came to see him and hear his teaching. Today we have a cluster of churches there, all of them about an hour’s walk from the original base.
Keep the sending churches informed. Sending churches must be kept informed about what the leader is doing. They need this to maintain interest and prayer. Also, when the time comes for the initial mission thrust, these churches are excited about sending their pastors to help for an extended time.
Seek permanent church sites. Early on, the association seeks land from the government. (In Rwanda there is no private ownership of property.) If that doesn’t work, or if someone does not donate their land rights, then we have to buy the land rights. It’s best if the site can be obtained, and if the leader has permanent housing and a starter church building before the evangelistic campaign begins. The leader starts to gather new believers around him, especially at his central site, while looking for additional sites. Some of these new believers become future leaders.
New buildings provide shelter for the mission thrust guests and give a sense of permanence in the target community. Something will still be around after the excitement surrounding the campaign dies down. In new settlement areas we often use temporary shelters, or we rent older buildings. We encourage new Christians in the area to help prepare and cook the hundreds of pounds of food needed for the campaign.
Prepare for the mission thrust. We begin with strong prayer campaigns in all the churches. Next, we arrange transportation, housing, food and water, and cooking facilities. The cluster church planter firms up the new church sites and seeks one or more guides to walk with the mission thrust team members to the selected site and introduce them to the target communities. These people become important links to the target community. The guide often is not a Christian, but many times is one of the first to believe the gospel. He often goes on to become a leader of the new group.
Conduct the mission thrust. The evangelistic campaign lasts 11 days. All arrive on Thursday and leave after services the second Sunday. Each day starts with Bible study, teaching, and prayer. On the first day, the leader teaches basic evangelism. On succeeding days we hear reports of the previous day’s work. This builds a sense of accomplishment and allows those who have seen good reports to share them and encourage others. Those who faced hard situations describe them and ask for prayer. Others discuss possible solutions. Numerical reports are sent back to the supporting churches.
After lunch, groups of about six fan out to prearranged places. After an hour or so of travel, they arrive at their target location and break into teams of two for door-to-door witnessing and inviting people to a public meeting later in the afternoon. After team members gain experience, some of them go alone.
The outdoor service is held when the sun is not as hot and before it’s time for the women to do their cooking. The crowd includes who were invited earlier, as well as others drawn by the sound of the drums singing. During the service people are invited to profess their faith in Christ. They sign up as participants in the new church. After the campaign ends, these people are discipled.
The mission thrust also includes specialized outreach. One team shows the Jesus film in a different area each evening. If there is a market nearby, a team sells books and gives out gospel tracts. All participants give out thousands of tracts during the campaign. Rwandese love music and special choirs have helped to attract people. A parade or two during the thrust also draws huge crowds. Best results come when the parade ends with a public preaching service. Everything is done to gain high visibility, so that those people interested in the good news of Christ will find out about it. It’s not unusual to have over 1,000 new contacts and many new believers during the campaign.
New leaders are developed. While the new groups are called churches, they are far from being strong, self-functioning churches. About the third day of the mission thrust, another team of Bible school teachers begins to teach the basics of ministry for interested new believers. To find these new leaders, witness teams are sent to find those with the spiritual gifts of pastor-teacher and a willingness to be trained during the campaign. On the final Sunday of the thrust, some of these people— perhaps only a week old in their Christian faith— are presented to the new groups as leaders of the new church. Later, as the church matures, the members select their own leaders.
After the mission thrust is over, the leader stays on and begins to with those identified as potential leaders. He helps them in sermon preparation and in the leading of the service, as well as teaching basic doctrine and concepts of prayer. These classes develop into extension classes; some of the available new leaders are sent to the closest Bible school as soon as possible. Others stay to lead the new groups and go to Bible school later on. Each Sunday the leader travels to a different group and helps the new Christians with their problems and questions, while evaluating the new leader’s ministry.
Second mission thrust held. About a year later, we hold a second mission thrust to add new people to the churches. We also emphasize baptism at this time. As much as possible, team members go back to the same location. Even later, visiting pastors refer to "their churches" when talking about the ones they helped to start earlier. There is real local ownership of the program.
By using this strategy again and again, we have discovered certain principles that probably add to the success of the program.
1. Evangelism actively pursued by many Christians produces results. It is more important to be doing large-scale, broad evangelism than to follow this precise strategy.
2. Prayer by sending churches as well as by participants is essential.
3. New believers mobilized and involved in ministry and leadership provide vitality to the plan. New believers publicly testify in the afternoon meetings. Other new believers are invited to speak in the morning teaching sessions. New leaders of necessity lead right from the start. Often there is no one else. They mature quickly.
4. Stress leadership development right from the beginning. To be effective, any strategy must get new people into ministry.
5. Create national ownership of the strategy. Nationals own this plan, not because the original idea was theirs, but because they were so deeply involved in all aspects of the planning and execution of the program.
6. Use nationals for the major evangelism. If a leader is not available to start a cluster of churches, the association trains a man, rather than having a missionary do it.
7. Leaders come from the local area. While outside leaders trigger the church-planting process, the goal is to train local leaders. Pastors are more likely to make good in their home areas. They are closer culturally than even a pastor from the next prefecture. There is less expense (no moving), and in their home area they are better able to tap their normal support base. Family gardens are nearby. Living close to home, the new leader can’t cut and run when things get tough; he’s already home. He has no place to flee to, so he is more likely to tough it out.
8. Fewer missionaries may be better. In the early days there were only one or two missionary families. It was easy to include nationals in the original planning. Nationals had major responsibility and now they duplicate it.
9. Start small. While starting clusters of churches sounds like an ambitious program, it started without a lot of resources just as a basic evangelism tool. We just shared the gospel during our first thrust. Year-by-year we tried other ideas and we kept the ones that worked. Teaching, tracts, book sales, parades, and films were added later. Many of these ideas came from nationals.
10. Jump and fill in. The cluster church planting strategy is ideal for starting churches in distant locations. Now, areas in between are being filled in by local churches starting daughter churches. If we had moved area by area, one following another across the country, we would not be where we are today. It is easier to fill the gaps from a broader base.
11. Allow people to be creative. New leaders have lots of responsibilities. Being far from existing churches, they are free to innovate. Some of their ideas become standards in the original churches.
12. Provide multiple ministry opportunity. One church planter working with many groups at the same time is forced to give more leadership to the emerging leaders. When starting a number of new churches at once, the church planter cannot be at each location every Sunday. New leaders are forced to take charge. By working with more than one cluster of churches, the missionary gives creative room to the national church planter.
As a result of one of our most recent efforts, over 100 people were baptized at a single, large, outdoor service. Several of them came to faith in Christ as the result of one man’s work. He was a former witch doctor who had been converted when the gospel came to his valley. As a respected leader, he brought 35 of his friends and relatives to salvation. In human terms, their salvation was a direct result of the cluster church-planting strategy. Probably no other way would have allowed the association to expand as fast get to his valley with the gospel.
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