Once a year, a small college in Michigan publishes a list of words that should be banished from the English language. These include words that have become incredibly over used, and still others that have been twisted to mean something entirely different from their original meaning.
As a writer, I am acutely aware of the power of words to shape and limit thinking, create attitudes and, thereby, change behavior. In the case of modern Western Christianity, we have a number of words that are so commonly used that the ideas they convey have become part of our culture, are rarely questioned, and, as a result, have changed our behavior in ways that are detrimental to our spiritual growth and the growth of the Kingdom. On top of that, they are non-biblical!
Here’s the fifth in my series of nominations for words which should be banned from the Christian’s vocabulary: ‘Church planter.’
I know, that really affronts the sensibilities of most readers. Most Christians hold ‘church planting’ up at the top of their list of noble endeavors. How could anyone question that?
Before you dismiss this idea as pure heresy, stop, take a deep breath, and think with me. Let’s look at church planting from the biblical perspective, and then consider it in a practical sense.
Keep in mind that it is in the nature of mankind to think that we know better than God, and that we have better ideas. While it is easy to point fingers at people who we think should know better, we are all given to misreading some direction in scripture because it doesn’t fit with our notions. God did say, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55: 8 &9)
Is it at least possible that our idea of ‘church planters’ is one of those notions that feels good, sounds reasonable, but yet is ‘not God’s way’?
Let’s begin with what the New Testament has to say about church planters. Actually, nothing. The idea of ‘planting a church’ is nowhere in the New Testament. It is one of those man-made ideas that sound so reasonable and attractive, but are far away from the mind of God.
Paul and the apostles, in the book of ACTS, never set out to ‘plant churches.’ Instead, they followed Christ’s command to “Go into all the world, make disciples….”(Matt. 2819). Over and over they focused on making disciples, and then allowed the Holy Spirit to nurture and develop those individuals, and to gather them into small groups.
“Making disciples” is the charge given to mankind. Gathering them into churches and then raising up folks within their midst to help nurture and care for the disciples is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s just look at a few passages to see this pattern.
Acts 8:26 – 34. This is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. You’ll recall that once the eunuch was baptized, he was left on his own. There was no attempt to create a church, just to create a disciple.
Acts 10. This is the story of the expansion of the good news to the gentiles through the story of Cornelius. You’ll recall that Cornelius and his entire household were baptized, and they asked Peter to stay a few days. The Bible is silent on whether or not he did, but the common assumption is that he stayed a few days and then left. Clearly, he had no idea of ‘planting a church,’ but rather was obedient to the Lord’s direction to make disciples. Cornelius and his household were left to the care and keeping of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 13:2. The Lord tells the Christians at Antioch to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” We all assume that the “work” was “church planting.’ Alas, it wasn’t. We see the work a bit later in verse 5: They….”proclaimed the word of God…” They traveled the eastern Mediterranean, making disciples where ever they landed.
Their routine was to visit a city, proclaim Christ, find people who were interested, bring them to repentance and baptism, and then to move on. Sometimes they stayed awhile to teach those new disciples, and sometimes they left quickly. We see this happening in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Philippi, Ephesus, Athens, and Corinth. On occasion, they would circle back and visit the disciples, and carry out the last part of the command “teach them to observe all that I commanded you.” Invariably, when they returned, the number of disciples, under the care and keeping of the Holy Spirt, had increased in number and grown in maturity.
The pattern is clear. Man is to proclaim the Good News, baptize them, and teach them the fundamental about Jesus. The Holy Spirit then develops those new disciples, and gathers them into informal small groups so that they can build one another up.
Biblically, then, there is no support for the concept of ‘planting churches.’
From a practical sense, our departure from this pattern has brought with it massive problems.
The focus of church planters is on the church, not creating disciples.
It leads to a significant difference in strategy. When you are focused on ‘making disciples’ you look for those who are interested, and work with them. If no one is interested, you ‘kick the dust off your sandals’ and move on.
When your focus is on ‘planting churches’ you are committed to a location, and work hard to bring people to your location. You have to entice them to come so you naturally tend toward ‘entertaining’ worship services. Instead of finding those who interested, you try to interest those who are around. Instead of finding those who are already interested, you, instead, entice, entertain and try to interest those who are there.
While it is easy to make the case that we should pursue the latter, the pattern in the New Testament points to the former.
What most church planters want, I suspect, is to proliferate the institutional church with another branch of it. Is there a church planter out there who wouldn’t love to eventually have a huge auditorium, a multi-building campus, a TV show, and thousands of people attending a worship service? I recently heard Rick Warren tell the story of coming to Southern California to ‘plant a church’, and decades later having one of, if not the, largest churches in the country.
The problem is that the focus is on the ‘church’, defined as the institution with a ‘pastor’, church building, worship services, etc. Planters are driven to bring people to ‘church,’ to build a building so that the church can grow, to increase its size so that more people can come to church. And, if the effort is successful, then the church planter can become a full time pastor, and maybe even hire more associate pastors, worship leaders, youth ministers – maybe even have a large staff of professional Christians. I suspect that in the back of every church planter’s mind is the vision of planting a church and having it grow to thousands of Sunday morning attendees.
Alas, we probably don’t need another one of those. In the last few decades, the institutional church system has spent $530 Billion on itself, and not increased the percentage of Christians in this country by even one percent. In Western civilization, the business of ‘church’ has become one of the largest industries in the country, and probably the most ineffectual of all institutions. The solution to a failing institution is not creating an additional branch office.
Since most church planters understand that they are competing with other churches in the area, they have to find something to differentiate themselves. And so, they emphasize some aspect of their doctrine or practice which appeals to some of the folks around them. You recall Jesus’s prayer for unity: “That they may be one in us, just as you father are one with me and I am one with you, that they all may be one in us, that the world might believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20)
The system’s response to that is to generate at least 40,000 denominations, and hundreds, if not thousands, of church splits every year. How many of those began as ‘church plants?’ If unity is a sign that Christ is with us, is our mind-boggling division a sign that he is not? In light of the incredible dissipating of Kingdom resources and the mind-boggling division, do we really need more of that? Is another institutional church really the answer?
Jesus did not say, “Go into all the world and plant churches.” Instead he said, “Go into all the world and make disciples…” Our focus is not to be on planting churches, but rather on making disciples.
And that is the crux of the issue. Because we have been surrounded by the institutional church system culture, our perspective is warped. We read “Make disciples” and interpret that to mean “plant churches.” Since that’s what we think we see, we focus on all the accouterments of a church: pastors, worship services, buildings, programs, etc. Planting and building the church becomes the focus of our efforts instead of making disciples. We envision a huge church, thousands of attendees, a large professional staff, a glorious building.
And, in the end, we will have not increased the percentage of Christians by even one percent, we will have spent millions of dollars of kingdom resources, and we will have just added another tiny fracture to the shattered lens through which the world views Christianity.
Jesus told us to make disciples, not plant churches. Paul did not set out to plant churches – he made disciples. The apostles — with no New Testament scriptures to refer to, no seminaries, no pastors, no church buildings, no worship services, no tithing — followed Jesus’ simple command to make disciples, and then trusted that the Holy Spirit would shepherd them from there. These early disciples naturally gathered together in people’s homes, helped build one another up, and made more disciples. And, in a few generations, Christianity had penetrated the known world.
But, alas, we know better. Instead of focusing on making disciples, we plant churches.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, declares the Lord. As far as the heavens are from the earth, so are my ways from your ways.” (Isaiah 55: 8&9)
Let’s ban the term “church planters’ from our Christian lexicon.