Mission Musings 4: We need to stop ‘Church Planting’

Over the last 20 years “church planting’ has become a very prominent part of how evangelicals think about mission. “To reach more Australians with the gospel we need to plant more churches”, or so I’ve repeatedly heard. This is often asserted with little practical or theological justification. And so church-planting has quickly become one of the primary evangelistic strategies of modern evangelicals. There are church-planting networks, church-planting conferences, new denominational church-planting departments, energetic recruitment of church-planters, and a growing number of ‘how-to’ books written by successful church-planters. Over time I’ve watched pastors and churches who have never previously thought about church planting conclude, purely on the basis of the perceived wisdom of this trend, that they really need to “plant a church”.

I am not convinced that the present preoccupation with church planting is healthy. Of course, the desire to reach people with the gospel is deeply admirable. Praise God for those courageous enough to try new and difficult things to reach people with the gospel! However, that same seriousness about evangelism will also lead us to ask some difficult questions about our methods.

Stated simply, ‘church planting’ has not increased conversion rates.[1] Perhaps that seems strange. But then, why should we expect it to? Is starting a new church really the evangelistic strategy that it is hyped up to be? Or has it sometimes become a diversion from actual evangelism? Have we stopped talking about evangelising our communities because we’ve traded that conversation in for talking about ‘church planting’ instead?

‘Church planting’ is not evangelism

‘Church planting’ is an unfortunate term. It takes biblical language and twists it to refer to something else. The Apostle Paul never planted a church in his life. He never even spoke about the topic. Yet his ministry and writings are often used as the basis of this activity. Consider carefully to how he speaks of ‘planting’:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field…

1 Corinthians 3:6-9

Paul didn’t plant churches; he planted the gospel. Paul was a ‘word-planter’ or ‘gospel-planter’, not a ‘church-planter’. The goal of his ‘planting’ was not to produce a church, but to produce newly converted individuals, who thereby together became a new church. For the Apostle Paul churches were the fruit of gospel work, not a strategy to that end.

This difference is subtle but extraordinarily important. Our preoccupation with ‘church planting’ subtly shifts the focus of mission away from telling the gospel to unsaved people (word planting) to creating new church entities. Not only is this foreign to the Bible but starting a new church doesn’t necessarily involve any conversions at all. It just involves gathering Christians to be a church together. 

Am I being pedantic about language? In a sense, yes, but I make no apologies. The language we use shapes the way that we think. I am concerned that constant talk of church ‘planting’ has given the activity a spiritual weight that doesn’t properly belong to it. This tends to marginalise the far more important (and far more difficult) task of telling unbelievers about Jesus. Church planting is not evangelism, and there is no obvious reason why it should be considered a core evangelistic strategy. I fear that many modern evangelicals are deeply confused on this point and that this has contributed to a decline in focus on actual evangelism.

‘Church-planting’ often implicitly replaces a divine activity with a human one

Paul was very clear that the only human hearts in which the gospel grows a crop are those in which God causes growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). Conversion is never caused by human effort. Yes, God works through our work of speaking the gospel, but where God is not at work there will be absolutely no conversions.

This can be a deeply frustrating thing to hear for strategically-minded people. It means that better strategies do not ‘cause’ more conversions. God is the cause of conversion, not our methods. Thus all discussions of what is most ‘effective’ in mission are fraught with difficulty and are always only one step away from compromising trust in God’s sovereignty. You simply cannot strategise converting people to Christ in the way that you can strategise converting people to your company’s brand of gluten-free muesli bars. At the level of achieving desired outcomes, evangelism is fundamentally different to every other form of human persuasion.

Strategists often get around this by shifting the goals of mission into terms that are humanly achievable. In other words, they subtly change the focus from God’s activity to our own. Instead of talking about reaching the unconverted we try to reach the ‘unchurched’. Desire for measurability shifts the focus from faithfully holding out the word of life to the perishing to quantifiable factors, such as the number of people in church on Sunday or the number of church programs that we run. Thus church growth is often confused with ‘gospel growth’, certainly in practice if not in theory too. This is a significant problem with the “more churches are needed in order to produce more conversions” logic.

It must be said that there is some value in metrics used rightly. However, they offer us an ugly temptation. We like things that are tangible, measurable… achievable. It is very tempting to evaluate success in terms that are humanly manageable but spiritually insignificant. We so easily trade in faith in God’s power to save (through feeble human efforts) for evaluating success in the same way that any secular organisation would. This shift leads us to act as though ‘success’ comes through our own effort even whilst we claim to believe the opposite.

Starting new churches takes a lot of energy away from evangelism

It is much easier to start a new church and talk about reaching people than it is to meet non-Christian people and tell them about Jesus. Putting church-gathering in the foreground of evangelistic strategy overshadows the more fundamental task of sharing the gospel with unbelievers.

Evangelism and church-work are two distinct activities. By definition, time spent on one is time not spent on the other. Evangelism is directed toward the outside world and thus requires time not directed inwardly on running and managing a church. It’s easy to say that our new church will spend its energy reaching the community. But then the list of organisation work becomes apparent: new programs, processes, procedures, leadership teams, ministry teams, strategy, budget, rosters, legislative compliance… the list is endless. All of these things require real time and attention, particularly in a new church where they have never been done before. We need to recognise that all the time put into these things is time not put into evangelism.

And that is before we consider the relational side of starting a new church. New churches attract Christians looking for a church. Many will be looking for a church that addresses felt needs and dissatisfactions that weren’t met at their previous church. It takes an enormous amount of relational time and energy for a new church to get to know one another, and for pastors to take the lead in integrating new people into the church community. All of this time spent with Christians in the church is time spent not connecting with unbelievers outside it. Thus, the natural gravity of a new church is not directed outward to the world with the gospel, but inward in forming new bonds of friendship and community.

This is not a bad thing. Organisation and administration are important, and churches need to take the time to form relationships with one another and to develop a rich community life around the Scriptures. We simply need to be realistic about the fact that all of this takes a lot of time, and that this time is spent focused inwardly on the church rather than outwardly towards the world.

In sum, evangelism and starting a new church are two different activities that each take a great deal of time and energy. Pursuing both at once can feel like serving two masters who have competing demands. So it’s worth asking: if you want to evangelise, why not skip gathering a new church? Instead, meet a bunch of unbelievers and tell them about Jesus. Forego starting a new church and be part of an existing church. Invite your non-Christian contacts to your existing church (when they are open to it). For both theological and practical reasons starting a new church is not, and cannot be, a fundamentally evangelistic activity.

The “church planter” persona can be spiritually toxic

In my view the “church planter” role has too often become somewhat toxic. The term often has an unhealthy, heroic aura around it. The ‘church planter’ is the maverick, go-getter, entrepreneurial super-Christian who does the most exciting front-line ministry. Church leaders already have enough humility issues to contend with without having that persona attached to them.

Wherever this is the case we need to call it out for the sheer worldly nonsense that it is. I have often been concerned by some of the personality traits that are considered essential to this kind of role (i.e. ‘impressive’ people), not to mention the character of some figures who have been held up as examples of what a ‘successful church planter’ looks like. The church often falls for the seductive lure of worldly standards of success and suitability. The ‘church planter’ easily falls into the kind of personality-cult dangers that Paul explicitly warns about when teaching about word-planting (1 Corinthians 3:3-5).

The character of following Jesus will always be different to that of the world. Here humility and servanthood rank most highly (Mark 10:35-45). Impressive, lone-ranger, center-of-attention, entrepreneurial types need to die-to-self before they can lead others in the way of Jesus.

Please note that I am not saying that ‘church planters’ by definition have something wrong with them. Many are godly, admirable people doing important work. But part of what makes them good leaders is that they haven’t bought into this hype around what a ‘church planter’ is. They are just quietly, humbly getting on with the work of God’s kingdom without necessarily being the kind of people who get attention and praise.

Conclusion: start new churches sometimes, evangelise always, and don’t confuse the two

Church planting is not evangelism. It’s easier than evangelism. It’s more exciting than evangelism. It can be more ‘rock-star’ than evangelism. But it isn’t evangelism. It isn’t even necessary to evangelism. There is no inherent reason why we should expect new churches to be more missional than existing ones.

I am not saying that we should cease starting new churches. There is an important place for that activity, especially in places that don’t have a local church. What I am saying is that we need to aggressively reclaim the proper activity of ‘planting’: the proclamation of the gospel. We need to free ourselves of the spiritual and strategic baggage that has been illegitimately attached to ‘church planting’. I believe that this will free us to think more clearly about evangelism and new churches.

This might also force us to think more creatively about how to reach people with the gospel. Sometimes it feels as though the only way that Christians know how to do mission is to run another style of church service. Surely we can be more creative and adventurous than that!

[1] https://genevapush.com/blogs/editor/australias-sobering-church-planting-choice

‘Musings on Mission’ Series
1. The Disappearance of the Visible Church
2. We Need to Spend Less Time with Other Christians
3. We Need to Think More Carefully about Christians Schools
4. We Need to Stop ‘Church Planting’
5. God Uses Godliness for Mission
6. We Don’t Really Believe in Prayer