Key Principle 1: Think Gospel
Let’s start with two important & stark questions: (1) How lost are the lost? (2) How are the lost going to be found?
If belief is demonstrated more by practice than profession, then we have to concede that the answer of many to the first question is “Not that lost at all”. Which is perhaps why we do not often anguish over the second question.
But the gospel tells us that the lost are truly lost, and that is a truly terrible thing. Which is why question #2 is so urgent. The lost are lost and the lost need to be found for the glory of God & the honour of his name. Both experience and the biblical material demonstrate that one of the most effective means of doing this is church planting.
Consider briefly Mark 1:15, where the gospel is described as the ‘gospel of the kingdom’. That is, it is the good news that in Christ God’s promised King has come to begin his rule. The only fitting response to this divine declaration is ‘repentance & faith’, i.e. turning to Christ from rebellion and entrusting yourself to his kind and kingly care (Mark 1:15b). Implicit in this is an invitation to life as it was meant to be; an opportunity to experience what it is to be truly human as we are restored relationally to both God & others. Without Christ we are truly & utterly lost. On account of our own self-love & worship, we are alienated from God, others, ourselves and our world. In Christ & through the gospel we are reconciled in each of these domains.
Thinking gospel in these expansive terms brings the whole issue of church to the forefront of the mission venture to which we are all called. Church planting is nothing more nor less than forming new communities of men & women who have responded to this command/invitation. At the heart of these churches is reconciliation because through the gospel, the four areas of alienation are impacted and a profound reversal is initiated.
Church planting is essentially a gospel initiative because it is taking our responsibility for the ‘gospel of the kingdom’ seriously.
Which leads us into principle #2.
Key Principle 2: Think Church
There is an intimate relationship between gospel & church.
1. The gospel is the life of the church, in that it both gives & sustains its life. A local church can never grow beyond the gospel. As soon as the gospel is removed from front & centre, life slowly but surely ebbs away. The Father is not well pleased when the Son is not well honoured, and the Spirit will not stay long where the King is despised.
2. The church formed in this way is that to which we point as we preach Christ. This is a key way of helping people understand the dynamic of the gospel. The church is the gospel on display in the sense that it shows what it means to respond to the command/invitation to live under the kind and kingly care of Jesus.
As you build up to planting, take time to find out what is your answer to the question, ‘What is church?’ This is not a theological distraction. Our view of church (and we all have ecclesial views or convictions) will affect our approach to church planting. A view of church as that which is formed & sustained by the gospel for the gospel will provide us with the framework to be immersed appropriately into any given culture & context.
Church planting is not church cloning. It is forming a group of believers living radically godly lives as they engage, both corporately and individually, with a watching and sceptical world. That is always going to look different in one context from another context. If a church in a wealthy, leafy suburb looks identical to a church in a social housing complex, then at least one of them is not taking the gospel seriously.
Key Principle 3: Think Leaders
Although the term ‘church planting’ was not coined until the mid 1960s, the practice has a long and noble history. The Baptists planted in the seventeenth century, so too the Methodists in the eighteenth century and CH Spurgeon, among others, in the nineteenth century. In all of these examples, whatever the historical distinctives, the theological differences and the cultural variations, one issue keeps cropping up, namely leadership. Sometimes they were called ‘messengers’, other times they were called ‘evangelists’ but whatever the title, they were vital catalysts in helping new churches form.
Both the Bible and experience teach that leaders are important, and both also teach that the character of the leader is the critical issue. Our primary concern in wanting to be a church planter, or if we are looking for church planters, has to be character before charisma and grace before gifting. It’s not that charisma and gifting is irrelevant. Far from it! We need more engaging, visionary and gifted leaders. But without those characteristics being shaped by godly character, they are inherantly dangerous. Saul & Barnabas are two good examples of leaders who had both. They were the choice of the Holy Spirit when he was looking to move the gospel out into unchartered territory. They were leaders of character and calibre who were responsible for the health and vitality of the still young church in Antioch. Yet, in our world, it seems as though church planting is the almost exclusive preserve of young men. Men with energy, drive and passion for sure, but men who are often untested and unproved ‘in the field’. If catalytic leadership is an important principle in the planting process, then we should also encourage older men to take up the challenge. Men who have been tried and tested in both life and ministry, passed through the fires of hardship, disappointment and success and so shaped on the anvil of providence. What usually happens though is that such leaders often move to prominent churches and bigger platforms. The cause of church planting around Europe (which is ‘merely’ a means to the end of gospel growth) will be served well when such leaders step out of the relative safety of established ministry and into breaking new ground. This could prove to be a tremendous training opportunity. Imagine the scope and benefit if the older man were to be sent to plant a new church in a new context, and have with him younger, aspiring planters. This would give us the best of both worlds: experience and vigour. It also bears a striking similarity to the Pauline method of training and equipping for pioneer gospel ministry. For too long, formal training has been geared towards placing men in already settled churches. But church planting offers a great opportunity to train leaders in situ, who will then be equipped to lead new initiatives, because they are hard-wired to think beyond maintenance to mission.
Key Principle #4: Think Team
Many of us have lamented the lack of a detailed description in the New Testament of a church planter. Most of what we assume, we do so by deduction. This perceived ‘vacuum’ has created the church planter myth – a visionary maverick who sweeps everything before him as he goes on a planting rampage! For the record, I would love to see a few more of those Rambo-style planters, but if we look closely at Luke’s description of Paul we discover someone who was committed to working closely with others. Let’s consider briefly some of the material.
When Paul began his expansive ministry, he started it as part of a team and was sent out as a team (Acts 13:1-2). At some point between Antioch and Salamis, John Mark joined the team as their ‘helper’ (13:3-5). When the second journey began (15:36), and the altercation between Barnabas and Paul over John Mark occurs, Paul takes Silas, an emissary from the church in Jerusalem, with him. When they arrive in Lystra, they make the acquaintance of Timothy, and he accompanies them (16:1-3). So the pattern is established. At one point in the narrative, Luke provides us with enough information to calculate that Paul’s team was made up of multiple members (cf. 20:4). Of course, these were largely mobile teams, moving location around the region, but they were far from brief forays into major cities. Sometimes, they stayed for years (19:8-10).
This provides us with a potentially fruitful model. Paul and his team, in their work and relationships, functioned as a ‘church’. As they engaged Jews and Gentiles in evangelism, and some became Christians, a new ‘local church’ grew up around them. The understanding of these new believers would have been shaped, not only by the apostolic message, but also by the apostolic method. They understood what it was to be church by experiencing church at first hand. They had the gospel explained to them and they saw the gospel fleshed out in the lives of the team. The idea of the church as a body was tangible, and the reality of the church as a missionary body was self-evident. Just as a baby is, ideally, born into a family, so too new believers are, ideally, born into a family of faith. In that context, they hear truth spoken, see life lived and absorb cultural values and norms. The benefit of this being a church planting team or new plant is that there will be a freshness and vitality that is often lacking when a church has grown beyond the planting phase and ‘normalised’.
We are often people of extremes. For us it is all too often and all too easily, one or the other. But we should not emphasise leadership more than team, and teams do not require a radical democracy. Leaders need teams to lead into ministry and gospel opportunity, and teams need to be led by equipped leaders of character and truth so they have focus and gospel clarity. The two together are a potent combination in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
Key Principle #5: Think Strategy
In Acts, Luke gives us an insight into what we might call, Paul’s pragmatic strategy. Take a look at his first missionary journey. He and Barnabas travel from Antioch to the port of Seleucia from which they sail to the island of Cyprus. There they preach the gospel in the principal city of Salamis, before travelling through the island to Paphos, the centre of the provincial government. They then land on the coast of Asia Minor and visit Perga, the chief city of the region of Pamphylia. From there they went on to Pisidian Antioch, a military centre for the surrounding territory.
Paul had spoken of Christ to those who would listen, both Jew and Gentile, and established churches in strategic locations around the eastern Mediterranean, his assumption being that the gospel would radiate from these centres to the outlying regions. This sort of strategy was so effective that Paul could say that « from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ » (Rom 15.19).
Paul was also driven by a principled strategy, which was his resolve « to preach the gospel where Christ was not known » (Rom 15.20). He was only interested in virgin territory. He wasn’t inclined to ride on the back of someone else. Reaching the lost at whatever cost was his passion, and the strategic gospel choices he made related to that end.
Now if church planting is seen primarily as a gospel initiative, then we would do well to target areas of great influence and great need. Paul’s pragmatic strategy should prove helpful in this regard. Planting churches in cities, while not an exclusive activity, is certainly a sensible one because city dweller are more likely to mobilize and take the gospel with them, and along with it a vision for church planting and gospel outreach!
And for those on the margins, who have largely rejected traditional church as irrelevant and anachronistic, the principled strategy would apply. Church planting offers an opportunity to do church in a new and pertinent way. Of course, it needs to be biblically faithful, but it also needs to be culturally relevant. The attitude of many is that the gospel is irrelevant to who they are and the church has absolutely nothing to offer them. Strategic church planting offers us the opportunity to take a look at our area and think about how we can « become all things to all men so that by all possible means we might save some » (cf. 1 Cor 9.22).
Key Principle #6: Think Creative
If we plan to plant churches amongst those who have already dismissed church and Christianity, then we have to think creatively about how we do church. Our world is changing the way we think, absorb new information, and process new ideas. Social media has revolutionized the way we view the world in such a way that many of our tried and trusted methods of communicating the truth of the gospel hold no attraction or relevance to modern audiences.
The sermon is a case in point. There are few contemporary situations where people sit and listen to an extended monologue. Interaction, dialogue, and self-discovery are the preferred models of learning today. Yet we expect our neighbors to leave that all behind and sit quietly, listening intently for forty or so minutes to a sermon whose content is likely just as alien. We must think creatively about how we present the truth of the gospel to those around us.
What does this mean? Does it mean that we reject the idea of the sermon? Are discussion groups to be the primary means of « discovering » truth? Certainly not! But neither should we ignore the fact that over 60% of the Bible is narrative, and a surprisingly low percentage is propositional. This is not an argument for the abolition of proclamation, but a request for us to be prepared to work a lot harder at how we do it. We must learn afresh what it means and what it looks like to tell a great story–the greatest story.
Another area where we need to think creatively is in our leadership. Relationships are possibly the most important aspect of our culture, and the current generation is looking for authentic relationships and individuals with integrity. The challenge of this generation is how to be open and accessible, and yet to maintain a position from which the gospel can be brought to bear on someone’s life with authority and credibility. Getting close is not an option, it is an absolute necessity. But we must do so with humility and gospel-intentionality.
So many unchallenged assumptions need to be challenged. Content of meetings, place of communal singing, weekly prayer meetings, church membership, confessional stance, issues of baptism, can all be legitimately scrutinised and reassessed. Think creatively.
Key Principle #7: Think Long-Term
There are no quick answers in church planting. It is not a panacea for the ills of the modern church, and it carries with it no guarantees of success. Church planting requires determination, vision and a willingness to pay the price of ministry. Church planting is a long-term initiative, and that ought to be written into the contract.
On a human level, this is particularly so when trying to plant amongst those who have no interest whatsoever in organised religion. It can take years of building a relationship with such people before there is even a willingness to listen to an explanation of the gospel. From then it can take up to two years before there is a readiness to respond, primarily because they are so ignorant of what the Bible teaches, and therefore of what the gospel actually is.
This ignorance is not a mere echo of the situation the early church found itself in as it expanded into Gentile territory, it is in fact rather different. Today the ignorance is compounded by prejudice. Then Christianity was new. Today is is « old hat ». People think they know what it is and have usually dismissed you before they truly understand. In a sense, they’ve inoculated themselves against the gospel word. This is not an insurmountable problem, but it will only be countered effectively by patient godliness and a commitment to an authentic Christian lifestyle.