“Church planting is the most effective form of evangelism under heaven” said C.Peter Wagner. I know he said that. I was there. I was a young [and good looking] Fuller Seminary student sitting in his classroom when he said it.
It was a welcomed idea, proven scientifically more effective than trying to expand older church structures. Back then, there was little argument against it and the idea was embraced by mission societies and church denominations who played it out in their strategies all through the 90’s and also during the noughties when the thinking became mainstream rather than rebellious. I was part of that movement the whole time.
But now it’s 2012 and while some young, enthusiastic people are out there planting churches like its 1997, others are focusing on launching more sustainable, more holistic, more measurably transformational Kingdom solutions.
One of the biggest trends in church planting that I observed in my recent 35-country trek is the SHIFT AWAY FROM planting churches towards NOT planting a church at all but focusing on a wider range of transforming Kingdom activities. Some church planters are delaying the worship service piece of the pioneer missional ministry for as long as possible and sometimes indefinitely.
– At our gathering in Prague, some of the key leaders of the Europe church planting movement a decade ago told us they had already moved into launching monastic type communities and less ecclesiocentric models of ministry than church planting.
– In USA, some of the most innovative new Christian communities I came across did not launch or host Sunday worship services as part of their ministry portfolio.
– In China, I met a young “church planting” couple who have started ministries in over a dozen cities but refuse to start church worship services. They told me that starting a church starts a long and arduous battle with the Chinese government that they have avoided by starting missional enterprises, Kingdom businesses and concert-like events . . . but NOT churches.
– Same in Indonesia. One group had started hundreds of communities but avoided Sunday worship services and refused to construct church buildings, which have a habit of being burned to the ground in that country. Real church happens when the conditions are right, they told me. They would rather seed a potential garden than plant a church.
WHY THE SHIFT?
There has been some disillusionment with the church planting movement, even after it has purged itself of its 80’s church growth pragmatism. I have talked with many of these leaders and have added some observations myself. Here are some of the issues, and 9 reasons NOT to plant a church in 2012:
1. The typical church planting model, in which the solo-church planter starts a gathering that he/she invites potential members to join and commit to lacks satisfying precedent in the Scriptures where Jesus sent out people in teams (2, 12, 70) to find people of peace (them, not us) to allow Kingdom ministry in their venue (not the planter’s venue). Add to that the awkward extension of the Temple tithing system into the present day and the whole package seems a little suspect or at least in need of some recalibrating with the New Testament.2. The measurement criteria of the church planting project, focusing on numbers of attenders and momentum of new church launch, is too narrow, too shallow, unholistic and ignores more vital measurable signs of a transformed society in its various spheres (economic, environmental, social, impact outside the church environment, etc).
3. The people most likely to join a new church plant are usually those with some kind of church background – the de-churched, pre-churched, ex-churched – which means ignoring really lost people and duplicating the ministries of existing churches.
4. The focus on people pre-disposed or pre-favored towards church culture can lead to competition among churches to gather people from a diminishing pool of potentials and, worse, to “sheep stealing” which, although a shortcut to acheiving the goal of planting a church in the short term, fails to extend the reach of the gospel into a new culture as well as creating disunity and distrust within the existing church.
5. The challenge for new members to commit to a church meeting rather than be involved in Kingdom mission activities in the world can often lead to a consumer mindset among new members. By not hosting an event for members but rather inviting participants into mission, a different calibre of people is attracted to the ministry.
6. The new church plant creates a higher institutional visibility in sensitive countries which places it in danger of either stifling regulations or physical threat to its members.
7. The lack of traditional funding sources that used to fund church planter’s salary and the first year of operation (often US$100,000) has dried up in the midst of the global financial crisis and changing funding priorities, which has made more sustainable mission practices like micro-businesses and social enterprises become more important as initial building blocks of new ministry environments than trying to start a regular worship service, in which the only sustainable piece is the generosity of the initiates.
8. Church planting normally thrives in wealthier areas or suburban areas but ignores the urban poor. It also focuses on the functional people rather than the high-need people and so we end up with church that prioritizes the rich, something we are warned about in the Scriptures (see James).
9. In a country where the church already has a bruised reputation for greed, immorality and unethical practices, basing a strategy around starting another church and having people join it, and actually give money to support it, is a hard sell and a troubled solution.
So if these young people are not “planting churches” in 2012, what kind of Kingdom ministry environments ARE they establishing? And how are today’s church planters avoiding the past mistakes?
That’s the subject of another post. Check out one new network I found in Asia that is now nearly a thousand communities but still no worship service.