Concept of church planting

In this article I’d like us to think with you about the concept of church planting.

Bosch  understands that the Church at the end of the First Century had a clear comprehension of the need of the local church to communicate the Gospel in cities, provinces and the most remote regions among the gentiles.  Michael Green  emphasizes that there was a change of perception about the evangelistic mission of the Church immediately at the end of the first century when they perceived that Jerusalem was the cradle of the Gospel but not its center. Therefore, the first Christians began to have the feeling that the Church of Christ should spread the Gospel throughout the world by means of local churches. Green also stressed that church planting was not only a systematic way to spread the Word of God, but mainly an objective need for spiritual survival, especially for those who were spread by persecution from Acts 8 up to the end of the second century.

The Apostle Paul, more than any other, observed the need to not only evangelize distant areas, but also to plant, even in these remote areas, local churches that live Christ and speak in His name.  Paul uses the expressions to plant (1 Cor. 3:6-9; 9:7, 10 e 11), lay foundations (Rom. 15:20, 1 Cor. 3:10) and give birth (1 Cor. 4:15) in referring to the planting of churches.  Bowers explains that Paul, in stating that he proclaimed the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 15:19), refers that churches having been planted in that entire region.  O’Brien, agreeing with Bowers says that ‘to proclaim the Gospel for Paul was not only the initial preaching or the harvest of some fruit.  It included the whole series of activities linked to the maturing and strengthening of the converts with the intention of establishing them in new local churches.’

We certainly inherit from the Protestant Reformation a clear preoccupation with the Word of God and the conviction that, only through it the Church of Christ will take root among a people or a city.  John Calvin emphasized that ‘. . Wherever we see the Word of God preached and heard in all its purity . . . there without doubt exists, in that place, a Church of God.’   

So, we may perceive that since the first century there is a deep connection between the proclamation of the Gospel and CP, however the proclamation, in itself, does not assure the planting of churches. Hasselgrave stress that some more elements need to be put together to make sure people will not only hear the Gospel but they’ll come together to follow Jesus.

The actual term for church in the New Testament  -  ekklesia – is made up of the Greek preposition ek (out from) and the root kaleo (call) that literally can be translated by ‘called out of’, giving us the idea of a dynamic, growing, local community, not grounded in itself or in a purely internal mission.  Obviously the term is also linked to ‘grouping of individuals’ and to a certain extent to ‘institution’ , however in all the NT it acquires the sense of ‘community of saints’ and except for Mt 16:18 & 18:17 is absent from the Gospels, but appears 23 times in Acts and 100 times in the whole New Testament.

I believe there is no other lasting way to establish the Gospel in a neighbourhood, city, clan or tribe than planting a living, biblical, local, contextualized and missionary minded church.

According to Van Rheenen to plant churches is the act of reproducing worshiping communities that reflect the Kingdom of God in the world through the proclamation of the living Gospel.  Donald MacGraven developed the study of the Church growth and immediately after Garrison presented it in the form of movements described as ‘a rapid and exponential movement of growth of native churches, planting churches within a specific people, area or social segment.’

Due to the diversity of terms and definitions there are some limitations in the study of CP.

One of these limitations is the stigma normally attached to CP’s pragmatic approach. As CP is a subject frequently associated with methodology and field procedures we are driven to understand and consider church planting as based more on results rather than on theological foundations. So, in this limitation of perception, what is biblical and theologically clear becomes less important by what is functional and pragmatically effective.    I am convinced that all the missiological decisions must be rooted in a good biblical-theological foundation if we desire to be in obedience to the commandment of God (Acts 2:42-47).

A second limitation to study the subject is the acceptance of CP as being nothing more than a chain of solutions to human needs. I shall call this the sociological approach.   And this must be our growing preoccupation as we live in a post-Christian, post-modern and hedonistic age.  This approach occurs when church planters take decisions based purely on sociological evaluation and interpretation of human needs and not on the instructions of the Scriptures. In this case the cultural aspects and human needs, instead of the Scriptures, determine and stretch the theology to be presented to a certain people group or social segment. Vicedon states that only a profound biblical knowledge of the nature of the church (Eph. 1:23) will enable church planters to have attitudes rooted in the Missio Dei and not in the demands of society.   The defense of the holistic Gospel must not be confused with a forgetting of the foundations of biblical theology.

 A third limitation to the study of CP is its understanding of the nature of the church.  I call this the proclamational approach. In spite of agreeing with Bosch that ‘It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission that has a Church in the world’  we must clarify the value of the church in terms of its identity. Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote that ‘the Church is Church only when it exists for others’   and I believe that is correct in a missiological way of thinking.  However we should not forget the Church has value in its own identity and, therefore, cannot just be reduced it to a proclamation tool, just because the result of the sacrifice of Christ, Jesus – and the cross, are the center of God’s plans.  So, although mission should be a constant biblical priority in the life of the Church, we must not define the Church only in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel.  Worship, doctrine, faithfulness, holiness, unity and communion are also important aspects that build the identity of the Church.  So, the Church is not a mechanism primarily designed to evangelize persons, but an instrument to glorify God (Eph, 3:10), and the proclamation, evangelism and CP are results of its existence.  

The lack of this broader understanding has created churches that competently spread the Gospel without showing evidence of this Gospel in their daily lives. These are churches are clearly missionary, but without the character of Jesus; biblical in only one aspect of Christian life.

This ecclesiological understanding, however, does not diminish the responsibility of the Church in face of the missionary mandate of Christ. We shouldn’t underestimate our missionary vocation of preaching the Gospel. The proclamation of the Gospel, even though it is not the only characteristic of the Church, is possibly the most urgent and vital. The absence of this desire in the daily life of the Church is symptomatic of chronic spiritual and biblical sickness.

Having said this we must understand that God can be glorified as much in an evangelistic campaign with a million people in Accra as in a local service of a small church at Ayacucho (Rom. 16:25-27).

Let’s go ahead and think a bit about the difference between evangelism and CP.

I believe the clear difference between them is mainly the purpose. In the first we intend to present Christ to an individual who will keep it for himself and pass it on to others.  In the second we present Christ to individuals in an area defined by relationships that will build in a local community providing teaching of the Word, an environment for prayer and communion and further evangelism.

The Apostle Paul’s model was to reach a group of people, neighbourhood, town or region by planting local, alive, self-sustaining, self-governing and missionary active churches.

The church planted most rapidly in all the New Testament was planted by Paul in Thessalonica.  There the Apostle preached the Word on the Sabbath in the synagogues and during the week in the public square (or market). He did it for three weeks and a local church was born.  In 1 Thess. 1:5 Paul tells us that ‘our gospel came to you not simply with words (logia, human words) but also with power (dynamis, power of God), with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (pleroforia, conviction that makes us engage with the truth)’.

The gospel is expressed in words and Paul proclaimed those words in Thessalonica.  But Paul here notes three elements that accompanied those words and made it effective in the hearts of the Thessalonians:  the power of God, by the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.

The power of God revealed God and His will. Without the power of God the Word would not be understood.  Without the power of God all the effort to plant churches would be reduced to strategic formulas of grouping and persuasion. Missionaries and churches may have the ability of communicating the Gospel, but only by the power of God will the world be transformed.

The Holy Spirit is the second element related by Paul in planting the church in Thessalonica.  His role is clear in the conversion of the lost, in leading the man to conviction that he is a sinner and he is lost.  He awakens in this man a thirst for the Gospel and attracts him to Jesus.  Without the Spirit we are not able to understand we are lost and in need of God.  Without the action of the Holy Spirit the evangelism is no more than a human purpose, spiritual explanations, words thrown to the winds.  

The clear conviction (pleroforia – much assurance) is the third element noted by Paul in planting the church in Thessalonica.  It points to the conviction of Paul and the Thessalonians before the truth of God. CP is a process deeply associated with the truth of God. Churches are not planted based merely on human conviction. Let’s remember that marketing, strategies, methods of communication and grouping, sociology and anthropology are mainly auxiliary helps in the act of planting churches. Only the truth of God transforms darkness into light.

Paul certainly used the logia, (explanations, words...) in Thessalonica.  He reminds us, however, that was not only through words, but with words full of the power of God, used by the Holy Spirit, and much assurance of God’ truth, that a local church was born there.