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Biblical Theology of church planting

I wish to describe some theologica’l criteria for church planting and reflect on the biblical process of proclaiming the message.  First we shall consider the need of reconciling theology and missiology for this study.


Reconciling Missiology and Theology

Missiology and Theology should not be treated as separate areas of study, but as complementary disciplines. Theology does not only work with the Church to help the understanding and meaning of mission, but also provides biblical understanding to motivate evangelism and CP. Missiology, on the other hand, leads theologians to the redemptive plan of God and helps them to read the Scriptures with the presupposition that there is a purpose for the existence of the Church, understanding the Church ‘must be rooted both in the Person of God and the Mission of God.’

Hesselgrave, acknowledging the dangerous lack of a theological foundation in church planting studies states that ‘the evangelical commitment to the authority of the Scriptures is empty of meaning if we do not allow biblical teaching to mould our missiology.’

Van Engen emphasizes that theology of missions needs to be a multi-discipline area that reads the Scriptures with missiological eyes and ‘bases itself on this reading, continually re-examining, re-evaluating and redirecting the involvement of the Church in the Missio Dei, in God’s world.’

Paul Hiebert explains to us that very often we choose a few biblical themes, and from these construct a simplistic theology instead of us looking for the profound motives in all the Scriptures, and so presenting the missionary work without a solid theological foundation divorced from the mind of God.

On the other hand Missiology is often swept out from the academic centers of the theological preparation in various parts of the world, or is, at least, treated as of less value.   This terrible error frequently produces pastors without vision, unprepared missionaries and theologians whose knowledge could be greatly used for the needs of the Church that has its hands on the plough but does not know where to go. The divorce between Theology and Missiology is one of the principle causes of syncretism and liberalism in CP.

Reforming theologians like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli did theology in tune with the crying daily needs of a Church for biblical direction.  John Knox came to declare that the Geneva of Calvin was ‘the most perfect school of Christ that there has ever been on earth since the time of the Apostles.’  Luther, when translating the Bible to the language of the people pursued the task of taking worship to everyone. The theological knowledge was serving God and the Church.

I believe that we face three dangers when Theology and Missiology are not seen as partners:
?    To use God as an instrument only to achieve our purposes in planting churches instead of serving Him in the fulfilment of His plans on earth (1 Cor. 3:11).
?    To offer simplistic solutions to complex problems in the communication of the Gospel, in contextualization and CP.
?    To use the theology for a purely academic end and not applicable to the life and dynamic of the Church and Missions.

When Martin Kahler states that missiology is the mother of theology he tries to express that theology was developed while the message of Christ was declared. In other words, it was formed while the church planters reflected and worked in implementing God’s desire in different places and cultures (1 Cor. 3:6).  

According to David Bosch, theology in the beginnings of the New Testament was practiced in the context of mission and in response to missiological questions while church planters spread the Gospel and feed the existing Church. The Apostle Paul is a classic example of this model.  Dr Augustus Nicodemus Lopes describes him as ‘the most impressive theologian of Christianity as well as its greatest missionary’  emphasizing in a biblical and extremely relevant way the manner of the Apostle in his ministry.  When we analyze the teachings of Paul we understand that his ministry is based on his theological convictions, inspiring us to reflect on God and His action in the world (Rom. 15).  Indisputably missiology and theology must give hands for the glory of God, for faithfulness to the Scriptures and the evangelization of the lost.

Theological Orientation for Church Planting

Leslie Newbigin influenced world missiology tremendously by teaching that the Church could only have genuine renewal in its life and witness through a new encounter of Gospel with culture.  Therefore, to provide answers for the missiological questions of today we must develop: a) Socio-cultural analysis; b) Theological reflection; c) Vision for the Church and its mission.  The Church should present the Gospel in a relevant way, in the language of the people, and in a format that responds to the most disturbing questions of today’s society.

It becomes necessary, therefore, that we reaffirm the biblical criteria for CP.  Among many, I believe there are three of them that are extremely relevant.


CP is done in faithfulness to Scripture

The foundation of gospel communication should never be defined by what works, but rather by what is biblical (1 Thess 1:5).  In CP following what is biblical does not necessarily mean there will be greater results in terms of time-saving and numbers. Undergirding mission and CP with sound biblical theology may require investment of time, patience and theological reflection, alongside national Christians. Murray explains that “All church planters operate within theological frameworks, but often these are assumed rather than articulated and adopted uncritically rather than as the result of reflection”.

Amongst progressive church planting movements today, non-biblical movements appear among the top 10 in terms of numbers and influence.  The Church of the Holy Spirit in Ghana, for example, is a CP movement which is growing rapidly in the Southern part of the country.  A few years ago the founder declared himself to be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit on earth.  But today this is a fast growing movement, planting churches and spreading its influence throughout different parts of the country and beyond.  In contrast evangelicals are committed to God’s mind and vision as revealed in Scripture, and not to human strategies of growth.

CP is done in dependence on God’s power and desire to save

Although there is a great need for training we should not expect to fulfill our mission merely through carefully elaborated strategies and well trained human resources.  Nothing but God’s power and activity can enable the Church spiritually to accomplish His plan in a relevant way in today's world.  CP is not merely a matter of marketing, methodology and strategy.  It is first a spiritual matter, characterized by the power of God released through the unique and historical sacrifice of Christ and undertaken through the enabling of the Holy Spirit, who guides the church to pray, believe and work (John 14:15-18).

CP requires a clear understanding of the nature of the Church and God’s purposes for it (ecclesiology), so that the long-term objectives guide the short-term strategy and vision. In particular we hope to plant churches as communities:  
  …of redeemed people, birthed by God, and belonging to God (1 Co. 1:1-2);
  …of human, vulnerable people: men and women, parents, children, farmers and fishermen who live and breathe the Gospel wherever they may be (Matt.10);
  …in the world, holy but not apart from it, not isolated or alienated (1 Co. 6:12-20);
  …without borders, and it is therefore missionary by its very nature (Rom 15:18-19);
  …with a witness and a gospel that makes sense both in and out of the church building (Jo 14:26; 16: 13-15);
  …with the primary mission to glorify God (1 Co. 6:20; Rom 16:25-27);

CP is done through proclaiming the Gospel

The “praxis” of CP begins by proclaiming the Gospel, because the church is born where the word of God is powerfully at work. So proclamation is the non-negotiable foundation of CP. For many in mission today CP itself has become the overriding focus of mission. But for Van Engen and Van Gelder the primary aim is making the Gospel known and experienced for people in their own context, thereby creating disciples of Christ; rather than building a physical, ecclesiastical structure, which, although important, is for them a secondary matter. In any case in some contexts a visible church may not be possible or permissible, but that does not limit the growth of the Kingdom.

Missionaries may have good leadership, satellite communication, three monthly reports and good pastoral care structures, but they may not be simply proclaiming the fullness of the Gospel as the living Word of God. Although proclamation involves both word and deed, social involvement, holistic ministry and cultural understanding they can never substitute for clear verbal teaching, nor in themselves justify the presence of the Church. Church planting envisages the creation of a viable, living and growing community which can itself be a powerful witness as a sign and instrument of the Kingdom. A living Church with a fresh experience of the Lord will be able in its turn to share the dynamic and powerful Word of God through its life, words and witness (Jo 16:13-15

The most profound value of a ministry of church planting must be to proclaim the Gospel.  This means that only a church alive and passionate for Jesus will witness the dynamic powerful Word of God (John 16:13-15).
A brief historical and methodical retrospective

When we consider the most common historical approaches in the last centuries in the process of CP we shall note that after the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century, Gisbertus Voetius in his Politica Ecclesiastica described the purposes of the Church with unbelievable emphasis on personal evangelism and the training of leaders.  Immediately after, Pietism put the emphasis on individual salvation and not on movements of CP, in spite of seeing in this period many transforming initiatives by Protestant missionaries like William Carey and William Ward, as well as others.  

Ward, a Protestant who influenced a great circle of leaders in his time, wrote in his diary in 1805, that ‘to plant distinct churches native pastors must be chosen . . . and missionaries must preserve their original character of dedicating themselves to planting new churches and supervising those already planted.’   This is the clear structural, vocational and functional preoccupation in regard to CP at the beginning of the 19th century.

Richard Hibbert observes that in the middle of the 19th century Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson indicated the purpose of the Church in CP justifying that the churches must have, when planted, three basic characteristics:  Be self-propagating, self-governing and self-sustaining. It was the development of the concept of independent (or indigenous) churches at that period.
In the second half of the 19th century the denominational missionary effort combined church planting with social development, when a great number of hospitals, schools and orphanages were built all over the world, creating also the growth and establishment of denominations in the countries where the Gospel advanced.

In the beginning of the 1980s three principle tendencies prevails in CP. McGraven and Winter emphasized evangelism and church growth; John Stott and others emphasized a holistic approach, known today as Holistic Mission; Samuel Escobar, René Padilha and others adopted a focus directed to social justice.
We have today a great proliferation of models of church growth and planting, such as Garrison, Vineyard, Willow Creek, Ralph Neighbour, Charles Brok, Brian Woodford and many others. Thinking about the points I consider being very positive in these models, almost all have three emphases: a) CP as a planned or intentional initiative;  b) The rapid incorporation of new converts into the daily life of the churches planted; c) Emphasis on the training of local leadership towards self-governing churches.

A large number of missionary movements, in the history of the expansion of the Church, lost themselves in the middle of elaborated methodologies. The first reason, in a good number of cases, was not unfaithfulness to God or the intention to go out of the basic principles of the Scriptures, but the absence of biblical safeguards in the founding of their attitudes and methodologies during the process of proclamation.  In other words, the very passion for the preaching of the Word, if not reaffirmed from its biblical and theological foundations, works as a fomenting element of liberalism and foolishness.

Observing a number of CP projects, both in urban as well as tribal contexts, I came to the conclusion that some factors contribute a lot to make a CP process to fail. I believe they are:

a)    The difficulty to distinguish church from church building, so loosing the value of discipleship and creating more investment in the structure rather than people.
b)    The delay of introducing the converts into the daily life of the Church, so diluting the value of communion and integration as well as creating immature believers, without tasks, challenges and involvement.
c)    The lack of consideration of the theological essentials and the use of purely pragmatic mechanisms.
d)    The absence of social and cultural sensitivity, therefore preaching the Gospel without meaning to the receiving context.  A message alienated from the reality of life.
e)    Excessive speed in church planting, creating superficial communities in the Word and opening real opportunities for syncretism and nominalism.
f)    The excessive involvement with the mission structures, demands and resources, minimizing what should be the greatest and widest investment in a CP process: the objective proclamation of Jesus Christ.

Simonton, the pioneer Presbyterian missionary in Brazil, in his sermon ‘The proper and necessary means to plant the Kingdom of God in Brazil’,  in 1867, states five points necessary for the evangelization in a biblical perspective.  First, he tells us that it is necessary to have a holy life, because ‘lacking the preaching of this, the other means will not succeed’.  Second he defends the distribution of biblical literature such as books, tracts and the Bible, because ‘the press is the powerful weapon for good’.  Third, the witness of individuals, because ‘each believer must communicate to his neighbour or fellow what he has received.’  Fourth he mentions the call to the ministry of people designated and ordained for this task.  Finally fifth, he says that there is the need to establish schools for the children of church members, social initiatives and investment in the flock.

The union of theology with missiology, the study of God and the application of this knowledge for His glory in the expansion of the Kingdom, is a necessary step for the establishment of principles and practices in CP.