Which Should Come First—Discipleship or Church Planting?

by Derek Seipp

The classic debate is an impassioned one with the goal of igniting the hearts of devout church planters, evangelists, and teachers.

The classic debate is an impassioned one with the goal of igniting the hearts of devout church planters, evangelists, and teachers. The question goes something like this: What should we focus on: discipleship or church planting? Given that there has been no definitive answer on this topic, I propose another alternative altogether: the question itself is intrinsically flawed and, in fact, sets up a duality: A vs. B. Meanwhile, A and B were both commanded by God: “Go and make disciples” and “Build my Church.”

Looking at the state of church-planting movements (CPMs) around the world, we see examples of how thousands have come to Christ. Indeed, there are many more believers than there have ever been, as a result of CPMs, and these believers know they are saved by grace and that Jesus is the only answer for their sin. These believers are very active in sharing their testimony, evangelizing, and in the ministries of the church (although these ministries may be much less developed overall). However, the overall theological depth of the believers is far less than optimal, and there are issues of true repentance and holy living. Compare this to some of the more traditional churches in these countries, where there is a greater depth of knowledge and a more stable platform for which teaching, baptism, and communion are performed. The teaching is generally much greater in its depth and more applicable to life in these traditional churches. Believers in these churches, however, are much less likely to share their faith (as proved by evangelism rates) than those in the church-planting movements. And although the ministries of the church are much more developed, there is generally a significantly lower percentage of individuals involved in the implementation of those ministries.

Having been teaching new church leaders for seven years, I believe that both models are significantly flawed. There are two issues that must be addressed. The first is a definition of terms: What is discipleship? What is church planting? The second is the primacy of either one.

True discipleship. True discipleship, I propose, is much more “active” than people traditionally think it is. Discipleship, in fact, encompasses three aspects—knowledge, skill, and relationship. If emphasis is placed on knowledge alone, we are only covering one-third of the requirement of complete discipleship. Sadly, most discipleship programs are based upon knowledge-based curricula because it is the easiest to bring people through and measure results.    

Discipleship should have a goal of producing leaders in ministry. Certainly not everyone is going to get there; however, if you leave it out as a goal, hoping for new leaders will not give you consistent results. Most churches stop discipleship at a certain knowledge-based level. I propose that discipleship ends when a leader is produced. Eighty percent of individuals may find their comfort place along the way and cut their own discipleship short. However, unless we develop systematic methods that produce new leaders, they will never emerge—and neither will a new church. At the same time, if we never plan for a new church, it will never happen.

True church planting. While critics of CPMs say that this view of church planting is too simple, critics of the traditional church say it is too complex. It is entirely possible that both are correct. Just as people have DNA which guides their development, discipleship must have systematic DNA that leads a convert to be maturely participating in ministry. Additionally, perhaps churches must be planted more simply, but with DNA (systems, etc.) that will eventually guide this immature group into being a mature church. Although our goal should be mature churches, if we strive to plant a fully-mature church, we may never get there. The question then becomes: How do we create those systems?

Both discipleship and church planting are of vital importance; to have one without the other skews the results. Both must exist as a part of a goal-oriented process that includes new disciples and new churches. If either one of these is lacking, one must look at one’s process to see where the deficiency lies. This, then, becomes the measurement of effectiveness. God’s purpose calls us to lay down our assumptions and press on to find better methods. Ultimately, God is in the business of filling the earth with his glory, as the waters cover the sea. Discipleship and church planting together are the only way to get there. 

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Derek Seipp is a coach for church and business leaders. He teaches church planting and has taught business strategy at the Carnegie Mellon School of Executive Education in America and Korea. He has lived in Asia for seven years.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.  

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