Ephesiology and the Critique of Church Planting Movements

Ephesiology and the Critique of Church Planting Movements October 6, 2020

Today’s guest post comes from Michael Cooper, author of Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement. He holds a PhD in Intercultural Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can contact him at michael@ephesiology.com.

Church planting movements (CPMs) have drawn the attention of missionary practitioners around the world. Many missiologists have asked challenging questions. Some are posed by Jackson Wu and professors predominately from Southern Baptist Convention seminaries. These thinkers contest the methods of CPMs. Such approaches include T4T and DMM. They also call attention to an apparent biblical “eisegesis,” as advocates were accused of reading CPM into the New Testament texts.

Credit: Facebook/Ephesiology

Today, Mission Frontiers claims there are more than a 1000 CPMs around the world. CPM agencies report phenomenal growth of multiplying house churches focused predominately in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Such growth naturally draws the attention of motivated missionaries who equate numerical progression with success. Equally true is that such phenomenal reporting of growth draws the attention of critics.

Their criticism of church planting movements generally falls in four categories:

  • theological shallowness
  • immature leaders
  • reckless evangelism
  • long-term sustainability

Criticisms of Church Planting Movements

Out of deep concern for theological orthodoxy, critics observe that the lack of focus on theological education could lead to church planting movements that eventually adopt unorthodox beliefs and behaviors. There is little doubt that this has happened.

From anecdotal evidence gathered from different parts of the world, I’ve personally collected reports of CPMs that have fallen into the hands of cults in both South Asia and Southeast Asia. I’ve heard stories of missionaries meeting with house churches long down the so-called generational map of a CPM who did not recognize that it was Christian. Others have assessed movements and found that they lack any recognizable ecclesiology.

Besides theological shallowness, critics of church planting movements allege that these movements appoint leaders who are unequipped. CPM advocates often retort that they trust the Holy Spirit to ensure the ongoing growth of leaders despite the fact that Paul clearly directs Timothy to safeguard the orthodoxy of church leaders (1 Tim 4:6, 13; 6:3).

While there are certainly instances of Christian leaders disqualifying themselves (indifferent to their involvement with a CPM or not), the CPM focus on obedience can result in leaders who are driven to achieve numbers more than to maturing themselves and the people under their care. Not guarding their own spiritual maturity can and has resulted in domestic violence, extramarital affairs, and addictions.

Reckless evangelism, as critics posit, reduces the gospel to a simple prayer for salvation in an easy-believism that stresses once-saved-always-saved. According to the critique, the primary concern for getting the soul into heaven seemingly disregards discipleship (which plays so prominently in the New Testament). The work of thousands of short-term missions teams, the mass evangelistic strategies of The Jesus Film, along with digital evangelism produce fantastic numbers of so-called “converts.” Yet, these “converts” are often left on their own to understand how to grow in their faith (although CPM advocates insist that the Holy Spirit will teach them).

Finally, the sustainability of CPMs is challenged by critics. There are instances where once reported CPMs in an area can no longer be identified. While one hopes that some have been absorbed by traditional churches, others could have fallen victim to syncretism or another non-Trinitarian form of Christianity.

A deeper assessment of CPMs is absolutely essential for us to understand their long-term viability. Perhaps God is working incredibly. If so, an accurate, dispassionate, and objective reporting on these CPMs would cause great rejoicing and strengthen the resolve to complete the Great Commission.

What is “Ephesiology”?

These four critiques were one of the primary motivations for writing Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement. I believe God worked in fantastic ways as the Holy Spirit empowered believers in the book of Acts to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth (or, what is rightfully called a “movement”).

The movement in the New Testament was altogether different than what we see in church planting movements today. Certainly, there was a rapid expansion of the numbers of new disciples that resulted in their gatherings in communities of believers. However, this NT movement was characterized by social, economic, religious, and political transformation. This is rarely seen in CPMs today as the focus is often on the generational replication house churches.Undoubtedly, the NT movement grew exponentially as more and more believers united on God’s mission to see more people worshipping Him. It was not the multiplication of churches; rather, it was the multiplication of faithful Christ-followers who were empowered to use their God-given gifts, inspired to join in hardship, entrusted to equip others to carry on the mission, and reminded to preach the gospel in season and out that resulted in God’s glorification.

Ephesiology is not a commentary on Ephesians. It’s not a biblical theology of missions. It is not even missiology if understood as one of the systems of systematic theology. Instead, Ephesiology is a study of the missiological theology of Paul, John, and Peter as they connected the stories of Jesus to the stories of the Ephesian culture.

Ephesiology is not another method of contextualization. Instead, Ephesiology focuses on a missiological exegesis that digs deeply into the culture. It reflects missiologically on what God is doing in that culture. Ephesiology seeks after a missiological theology that takes the true, unchanged stories of Jesus and connects them to culture so that the culture sees how Jesus relates to them.

God is at work, but…

God is at work in cultures today. He continues to communicate through His creation both in nature as well as in His image-bearers. That voice is often implicitly revealing His glory, just as it did through the logos philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus (Acts 19:10, 20; John 1:1-2; 2 Peter 3:5-7) and the Zeus found in Aratus’s Phenomenon (Acts 17:28). Now, God extends to us the privilege of making Him explicitly known to a people who have been in search. Our current situation with COVID-19 provides an opportunity to rethink how we are engaging our world. Perhaps Ephesiology can help. It focuses on how the early church connected Jesus’s story to that of others.

There is a movement of God in the New Testament. It is not a church planting movement as it is understood today.

It was much more significant, and it connected the story of God to the story of people in such a way that it became the single story of God’s relentless pursuit of a relationship with His creation. Ephesiology tells one part of this story through a comprehensive look at the most significant church in the New Testament. If you practice the principles of a New Testament movement – launching, grounding, leading, multiplying, sustaining, you might very well see a movement yourself.

But it will be a result of God’s work, not the result of a method or strategy.

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