It's Not About Church Planting
J. D. Payne is a National Missionary with the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and an Associate Professor of Church Planting and Evangelism in the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he directs the Center for North American Missions and Church Planting. J. D. has served as a pastor of five churches in Kentucky and Indiana and has worked with four church planting teams. Over the years he has also served as a coach and mentor to numerous church planters. This article is reprinted from www.jdpayne.org.
This week I begin a semester-long training course for church planters. I always look forward to it. One of the first things that the participants experience is that I quickly tell them that our work is not about church planting.
Now, I recognize this is a strange statement for a church planting professor to make, especially one who has written books and articles on this topic. So, let me explain.
There is no command in the Bible to go into all the world and plant churches. The Church is never told to plant churches until the end of the age or search out all people groups and plant churches among them. It seems everywhere we turn today, both churches and mission agencies in North America and outside this continent, are training and sending missionaries to plant multiplying churches across the globe.
Over the past twenty years in North America and Europe, numerous books and articles have been published addressing this topic. Conferences and practical resources are being provided every year to potential church planters. More and more seminaries are offering courses and emphases in church planting. Then why is there so much talk about church planting if there is no scriptural mandate?
Our Lord is very clear about the Great Commission. The Church is to make disciples of all nations (literally, “peoples,” not nation-states). The best way to fulfill this mandate of evangelizing, baptizing and teaching obedience is through the planting of contextualized churches among the various people groups and population segments of the world. For it is in the process of evangelizing, baptizing, and teaching that local churches are planted.
Church planting is a missionary endeavor. Our Lord gave the Great Commission before his ascension; and it was the apostolic Church that later followed in obedience, setting the example of church planting for others to follow.
Start in the Fields, not the Barns
Biblical church planting is evangelism that results in new churches. But, churches can be planted with little to no evangelism being done. For example, if our annual goal is to plant 12 churches, then all we need to do is gather some long-term Kingdom citizens together into twelve groups, lead them to covenant together as 12 local churches, and we have accomplished our goal. And if we do this, people will sing our praises and invite us to speak about church planting, telling them how they can plant 12 churches in a year. And no one will ask us about making disciples.
But it’s not about church planting. We are called to make disciples—and the first step in making disciples is doing evangelism. For it is out of a disciple making movement that churches are birthed (e.g., Acts 13-14). Unfortunately, most church planters in North America are more involved in gathering together long-term Kingdom citizens than doing evangelism that results in new churches.
Let me give you a little exercise. The next time you hear about churches being planted, I want to encourage you to be radically biblical and simply ask, “How many people recently came into the Kingdom of God before these newly planted church came into existence?” If you are talking with church planters in North America, do not be surprised to find out that the answer is generally few to none. Rather, than finding a church planter who saw a church birthed out of the harvest field, you are more likely to find a church planted by the shuffling of the saints around in the Body of Christ.
Today, we plant the church first, and then (hopefully) lead the church to do evangelism. If our goal is to plant a church, then our goal has been accomplished. Let’s have a party and celebrate. But it’s not about planting churches.
The Coolness Factor
But planting churches is cool! It is cool to quickly start a worship gathering with high quality music and preaching. It is cool to quickly develop church programs for kids, families, outreach, missions, etc. It is cool to be able to write to our partners in the ministry and show them “tangible” things that prove we have been at work—making good use of the resources they have sacrificed for our labours, and hoping such partnerships will continue. But it’s not about planting churches.
Our mandate is about evangelism, baptisms, and teaching those new believers how to be the local church in their context. It is about teaching those new believers how to gather for worship. It is about teaching those new believers how to preach, how to pastor, how to lead children, families. It is about teaching those new believers how to do missions.
There is not much that others can see, feel and hear in the early days of a church recently birthed from the harvest. . . . . . not much other than a group of new Kingdom Citizens, agreeing to learn and live by this new Kingdom Ethic in covenant community. And this is messy, oftentimes slow, gives us little to report to those back home and is definitely not cool.
Planting churches is cool. . . making disciples from out of the harvest that will become local churches is not. But it’s not about planting churches, is it?
Reprinted with permission from the author. Visit www.jdpayne.org.