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Traditional Versus Biblical Church Planting

volume 19, number 47, November 5, 2020

“… appoint elders in every city, as I directed you.” -Titus 1:5

How are churches traditionally planted in the United States? Typically an Elder Board or Session (the elders of a local church), usually under the able leadership of their pastor who has a vision and passion for church planting, approves the decision to plant another church. Sometimes Presbyteries (the regional group of churches in a Presbyterian denomination) or a consortium of independent churches such as in the Southern Baptist Convention or Acts 29, or the Bishop of a district in the United Methodist Church which has an Episcopal form of church government make this decision. So how do they decide where to plant a church, how do they plan to fund the work, and how do they plan to grow the church plant to viability?

Typically, they survey a community. Usually they are looking for a new, fast growing part of town which may not yet have too many churches. They also tend to choose areas which are affluent, often believing that if they can reach this affluent community then there will be money available for further church plants as well as developing “missional” opportunities at home and abroad. Then they (what we call the “Mother church”) look for “seed” families from a congregation. These folks usually have been traveling some distance to church and would like to have one closer to their homes. Then the Session or Presbytery calls a church planter. Usually the Session or Presbytery puts up some money to pay the church planter’s salary and ministry expenses but the church planter is typically expected to raise a good portion of the budget. Depending on where the target area for the new church is and the cost of living, the church planting budget is usually $300,000 to $400,000 for three years. During that time the church plant is expected to grow to the point where the church is self-supporting. The church planter must also be a “gatherer”, usually a dynamic personality, an engaging speaker, a people person. And from where do the new people come? They are usually Christians who are moving into the new, fast growing community, or perhaps they are believers who have become dissatisfied with their old church for various reasons. Sometimes, especially in the Reformed world, they are former Arminians who have found R.C. Sproul and other Reformed preachers and writers and want to find a Reformed church. While there is much talk of evangelism these church plants rarely reach lost people in their communities. 

The traditional model of church planting is also big on demographics. The traditional church planter is expected to “exegete his community”, to know what the people like and dislike, how they view the world, whether they watch Fox News or MSNBC. He is to decide on his target audience. He must decide if he is going after Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, or Gen Zers. He is to become part of the community. He is to join various clubs so that he can meet people. He is to join a local workout facility or better yet, join aCross Fit group. It is assumed that by building relationships with these people he can eventually, perhaps six months to a year down the road, earn the right to be heard, and begin exploring the possibility of faith with these people who now trust him. He typically spends a great deal of time reading books on church growth strategy and the corporate leadership model as well as attending church planting conferences so that he can understand the sociology of his community and what techniques work best. 

Here’s my simple question—is this the model we find in the gospels and Acts? Is this the approach our Lord Jesus or the Apostle Paul used? Not at all. I challenge you to read though the gospels and Acts and see how they did church planting. 

Simply put, they were dependent upon the Holy Spirit. Jesus did not begin His ministry until the Spirit came upon Him at His baptism. The apostles were told to stay in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high. At Pentecost the Spirit came and with Him, the power for gospel ministry. You will note that neither Jesus nor Paul had any guaranteed salary. Jesus was poor. Paul was a tentmaker. The Philippians helped Paul financially but they were the only congregation to do so (Phil.4:15,16). Neither Jesus nor Paul wasted time exegeting the culture. They were on mission. They did not have time to hang out with people for a year or two, waiting to earn the right to be heard. They knew heaven and hell were at stake. They understood that they were to work as long as it is day, for the night was coming when no man could work. Jesus went to more than 150 towns and villages in Galilee which were no more than a one or two days walk from Capernaum. It probably took him a full year to do it. Paul produced church planting movements in four Roman provinces in about ten years. It appears that after his first release from prison, having not been able to plant churches for a few years, he traveled to Crete, Illyricum (modern day Croatia), and Nicopolis in Italy (near the ancient city of Actium, made famous by Mark Anthony and Cleopatra about 100 years earlier) and planted churches in all these places. He may have also made it to Spain (the end of the world in their view) before his second imprisonment and subsequent martyrdom in Rome. 

And what did Jesus and Paul do? They modeled multiplication. At best traditional church planting, by the very nature of how it is done, can only be by addition. One church now, and perhaps in five or six years, then another church can be planted. Paul was all about multiplying churches. He spent three years in Ephesus yet we know of at least eight more churches planted in that region. Paul went first to the Jews and reasoned with them from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. After they rejected him, which always happened, Paul turned to the Gentiles and proclaimed Jesus to them. Paul was the consummate evangelist and street preacher. He used open air preaching to get the gospel out to as many people as possible but he also went house to house (Acts 20:20), as did the other apostles (Acts 5:42). He also spent time in the agora in Athens, the market, the ruins of which are still present today, just down the pathway from Mars Hill, the site of his Areopagus address. Paul also picked up on Jesus’ teaching to His disciples (Matthew 10:12, Mark 5:19,20, and Luke 10:6,7) about oikos, the Greek word for household, which is used 106 times in the Bible. Paul reached Lydia’s household and the Jailer’s household in Philippi (Acts 16), and herein lies the secret of their success. Lydia and the Jailer told their crews, their entourages, about Jesus and they responded positively. And these new believers, who understood the amazing deliverance from sin, Satan, death, and hell, were zealous to proclaim Jesus to their neighbors and family. They could not stop speaking what they had seen and heard. They also did not waste time with those who were not open. They were looking for people of peace. They had no specific target group. They preached to whomever was open. They followed the Spirit’s leading. Paul wanted to go to Asia Minor, Mysia, and Bythinia but the Spirit did not permit him. He ended up in Macedonia. They were reaching lost people, mainly pagans from horribly licentious lifestyles. Paul and his crew willingly accepted the abuse and scorn of the religious leaders and the movers and shakers of their world. They rejoiced to be called spectacles to the world, fools, idiots, unlearned, the scum of the world, and the dregs of all things.

Here’s my question—shall we be traditional or Biblical in church planting? Some may say, “What Paul and Jesus did is not necessarily prescriptive?” I object and say, “Sure it is. The Scriptures are our only authority. We would do well to follow Jesus and Paul in how they got things done.” There is so much more which could be said.[1]

This is the way we are seeking to plant churches in Vanguard Presbytery. It will clearly fail if we do not have the Holy Spirit empowering us and leading us, but I have every reason to believe that He is doing both and will continue to do so. We should expect mighty things from God. These are exciting times in which to live. 

Early Christian Mission, in two volumes by Ecklhard J. Schabel is a gold mine of detail on how Jesus (this is volume one) and Paul (volume two) fulfilled their ministries. One gains a great deal of inspiration from the vivid picture Schnabel paints concerning their ministries. 

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