by Clifford Bedell
As an instructor in missions at a Bible college I have as one of my responsibilities the task of encouraging my students to consider the possibility that God may desire them to become church planters. In speaking with students of this possibility I find that the term “church planting” or “church planter” is one that is not readily understood.
As an instructor in missions at a Bible college I have as one of my responsibilities the task of encouraging my students to consider the possibility that God may desire them to become church planters. In speaking with students of this possibility I find that the term "church planting" or "church planter" is one that is not readily understood. Perhaps this is because the term itself is allegorical in nature, involving as it does the thought of a gardener or farmer doing his work. What relation does his figure of speech have to the actual day-by-day tasks of a missionary attempting to begin a church? One of the side effects of this obfuscation is the tendency to elevate the words "church planting" to some sort of a missiological "third-story" experience, full of romantic and idealized emotional force but devoid of any real rational content. My task then as a teacher-recruiter is either to seize upon an alternative term or to fill with content the old "church planting/planter" concept.
One of the reasons why I have not pursued the former solution to this problem is that many mission boards still use this terminology in their codified standards and statements of objectives in order to describe their stated purpose. In addition I find that most mission executives and mission representatives to colleges still use this term in presenting to students the personnel needs of their respective mission groups. This usage might be construed as some sort of cultural lag, since the term is seldom seen in current missiological literature, having been eclipsed by the dynamic term "church growth." (This fact can be easily seen by consulting any of the contemporary bibliographies of Christian and missionary literature, comparing the neat-total absence of the term "church planting" with the many articles listed under the rubric "church growth. ") I have no personal quarrel with the contention of the church growth community that numerical increase is a legitimate index (among others) of growth, but we who are involved in missions might need to remind ourselves that an entity, in order to "grow," needs to exist, to be begun, or "planted." I doubt that the term "church planting/ planter" will fall by the wayside in light of Ralph Winter’s insistence that there are still approximately 16,750 cultural groups and subgroups of peoples yet to be discipled by Christ’s ambassadors. It is encouraging to note that some enthusiastic advocates of church growth have not entirely omitted the older concept of church planting/ planter.1
Certain occupations have names that in themselves are descriptive of the tasks performed by the person involved. We have at least a vague picture of what a computer programmer does; what a typist does; what an automobile mechanic does; what a supermarket clerk does. Other occupational terms are not nearly as self-descriptive: electrical engineer, film producer, comptroller, systems manager. Since the term "church planter" seems to resemble more the latter category of non-descriptive occupation titles, there is evidently need of some way to help people conceptualize what a church planter actually does.
I would like to suggest a key concept to help in this regard, as well as two methods of introducing the concept. The basic idea that I have found helpful is that church planting is a cluster of skills; that is, it is a concept that can only be adequately described by describing the simple skills which, taken together, make one a "church planter."
I find the two following approaches helpful in introducing the basic idea in the classroom:
1. The skill-quiz approach
Without using the term "church planter," which tends to traumatize students for reasons mentioned above, I prefer to give what I call a skill-quiz. This is a simple device that asks the student to evaluate his ability in a number of basic Christian skills. At present a twenty-question sheet is used; the queries appear below.
Do you know how to:
- Be friendly and relaxed with a person or a small group of people whom you have not met before?
- Start a conversation with someone to whom you have not been introduced?
- Explain to someone why he should study the Bible?
- Tell a person or a small group of people that you would like to teach a Bible class in a home in their neighborhood?
- Ask an interested person if a Bible study group might meet in his living room or on his patio?
- Invite an individual or a small group of people to a neighborhood Bible study class in someone’s living room?
- Teach a simple series of Bible studies on salvation themes from John’s Gospel?
- Share your own experience in becoming a Christian?
- Answer simple questions about being and becoming, a Christian?
- Get people to tell you what they’re learning from a Bible class when you visit them?
- Aid an individual in learning how to pray when he first begins to believe?
- Invite a person or a small group of persons to a Bible class already started in someone’s house?
- Delegate simple tasks, such as reviewing the previous lesson or finding a new meeting place, to one or two faithful attendees of a Bible class?
- Labor in prayer for the members of a Bible class for their spiritual enlightenment and growth?
- Teach two or three people the basic matters of Christian living from the Bible?
- Discuss a problem with members of a small group and help them come to a decision without imposing your will upon the members?
- Teach someone else to teach a Bible lesson? (r) Absent yourself from a Bible study class, letting a prepared class member teach the class?
- Shift the decision-making dynamic from yourself to a small group?
- Encourage another person, or a small group of people, to be faithful in serving the Lord?
Without a detailed introduction I simply request students in upper division courses in missions to evaluate their ability in each of these areas. Afterwards I ask them to grade their own papers, giving themselves 5 percent for every "yes" answer and 3 percent for every answer of which they are not sure. Then I ask them to total their percentages and give themselves a skill-quiz grade. Many of them score about 70 percent; a goodly number score about 80 percent and a few will score in the 90s.
At this point I ask them if they realize that they have just taken an examination to evaluate their present ability as a church planter. The shocked exclamations of wonder and amazement are truly delightful to observe. This simple device, with the verbal explanation that is given to follow it up, releases many from the "upper-story" reaction to the term. We can then rationally discuss the concept.
2. The dialogue approach
Since the term "church planting" itself seems to partake of allegorical flavor (the farmer/field), the use of other allegories to point out the basic concept that church planting is a cluster of simple skills seems helpful. The analogy is introduced by means of a dialogue acted out by two class members who have been coached beforehand.
A: Are you an apple tree planter?
B: No! As a matter of fact I have never planted an apple tree in my life!
A: But don’t you think you might be an apple tree planter anyway?
B: No, I already told you that I have never done that sort of thing.
A: But you drive a pick-up truck?
B: Yes, of course! What a question!
A: And can you locate a nursery in the yellow pages of the telephone directory?
B: Sure! I let my fingers do the walking!
A: And do you think you can drive out there and pick up an apple tree with its roots tied up in sacking?
A: And can you deliver that tree to another address, dig a hole big enough to contain the balled roots, and drop the apple tree in it?
B: This is getting ridiculous; sure, I can do that.
A: And can you put the dirt back in the hole and soak the surrounding ground thoroughly with water?
B: No problem.
A: I thought you told me you weren’t an apple tree planter?
Ron Fisher is certainly correct in stating that most Bible colleges and other institutions that endeavor to train missionaries do not train them in actual church-planting situations.2 Certainly programs need to be developed to meet the need; my point, however, is that many enthusiastic, growing Christians have already learned, in a piecemeal fashion-at home, in church, or in college-many of the necessary skills for church planting. True, they have not learned them in sequence, and it is also true that no one informed them that they were learning church-planting techniques at the time. The fact remains that many Christians already possess a majority of the skills concretely described above as church-planting skills.
A seasoned missionary who is at present training a team of church planters for a location in Latin America commented on the skill-quiz: "The first five skills are the most vital and foundational. Without these the prospective church planter founders." He went on to point out that these are the skills least likely to be taught in any determined way by an educational institution. They are rather things that are learned quite informally and in cidentally, and that seemed to have a great deal to do with the temperament of the person involved and with his home ex perience.
As long as mission executives, student recruiters, missionarieson-furlough and instructors in missions continue to speak of "church planting/planter," a need will exist for clarifying con cretely the meanings of these terms. I suggest we communicate the idea that church planting is a cluster of teachable skills already possessed by many Spirit-led and Spirit-gifted believers.
1. E.g., Robert Skivington, "How to occupy a New Field," Church Growth Bulletin 13 (May 1977): 131.
2. Ron Fisher, "Why don’t we have more church-planting missionaries?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly 14 (October 1978): 207.
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