I have had the opportunity to talk in recent weeks with some church planters. One of these conversations, my Office Hours interview with Adam Kaloostian, is scheduled to appear next month, October 4. Over the years, however, I have had the opportunity to read, think about, pray for, and participate in church planting and after these conversations I thought it might be useful to reflect on church planting briefly on the HB.
After all, our Lord not only instituted the visible church as the institution par excellence to represent the Kingdom of God and to administer the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:19) and church discipline (Matt 18:17) but he endowed the visible church with the authority to prosecute the Great Commission:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18–20; ESV)
Thus establishing new congregations where the gospel is preached, where converts and their children are baptized and catechized is of the essence of the great commission.
Three Popular Models
It seems to me that there are, in the Reformed world, broadly, three appraoches to church planting:
- To reach the lost
- To gather the Reformed
- To harvest the Reforming
Of course these three goals are not hermetically sealed from the others but typically, church planting works prioritize one of them.
For some the priority is reaching the lost and these tend to adopt, to greater or lesser degrees, a seeker sensitive model. Certain things are said and done and others are omitted because of the potential affect upon the unreached, unchurched, or lost. Such church plants tend to have what is called an “outward face,” and may tend to put less emphasis on discipleship (e.g., Christian education) and church discipline.
In some circles, churches plant congregations to gather those sheep who have moved from one area to another, e.g., from the country to the city. When enough people migrate to a city a denomination might plant a congregation to serve their people. We might call this the franchise model. Congregations planted under this paradigm tend to emphasize catechesis and fellowship. Communicating the gospel to the lost receives less emphasis.
In recent decades we have seen something of an explosion among evangelicals (e.g., Dispensationalists, Baptists, and Charismatics) in aspects of Reformed theology (e.g., the doctrine of election). The Reforming model seeks to attract and disciple evangelicals who have become dissatistified with the shallowness of contemporary evangelical theology, piety, and practice. The refugees from evangelicalism are looking for a connection to the past, a more coherent understanding of redemptive history (e.g., covenant theology), the Reformation doctrine doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide and a more thoughtful approach to Christ and culture. Such congregations tend to emphasize catechesis.
There are virtues in each of these approaches and, to reiterate, they are not mutually exclusive.
A Proposed Synthesis: Reaching And Teaching
Of three goals presented here, the most difficult is to reach the lost. Thus, in the NAPARC world I suppose that most church plants, even some of those who are presented principally as an attempt to reach the lost, are really following the franchise model or otherwise taking in folks who already have a Christian background and who perhaps have wandered from the visible church. Further, there are serious questions to face in any attempt to appropriate the seeker-senstive model. For one thing there is precious little reason from Scripture to think that the early church (whether in the apostolic or early post-apostolic periods) could be characterized as “seeker sensitive.” To the degree the seeker-sensitive model is really drive by pragmatism, to that degree we should eschew it.
Nevertheless, if our approach is really to be driven by Scripture it seems beyond doubt that the priority of any church plant has to be to reach the lost but not to the exclusion of inviting others into the kingdom.
This was the mission of the Apostles. As the disciples were scattered after the persecution, some of them preached the gospel to the Jews and others to Gentiles (Acts 11:19–30). Paul and Barnabas were ordained and sent to the Gentiles (Acts 13:2–3). They were all trying to reach the lost with the good news in the confidence that the Holy Spirit would use the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10:14–21) to bring the elect to new life and true faith in Christ. Everywhere Paul went he preached the gospel in the hope of winning the lost for Christ. Luke recorded a synopsis of his preaching (e.g., Acts 13:16–41). Through the preaching of the law and the gospel the Spirit was gathering his church (e.g., Acts 15:27).
In Philippi Paul, Silas, and Luke did not adhere to the pragmatic principles of the church-growth experts. They went to the wrong people, at the the wrong place, and at the wrong time. On the Jewish Sabbath they went to the river to meet with some ladies who were praying (Acts 16:13). Out of that encounter the Lord created a congregation.
In Thessalonica (Acts 17:1) they went to the synagogue to announce Christ. Some believed and others did not (Acts 17:4). They did so in Berea too (Acts 17:10). In Athens, however, Paul went to the pagan philosophical society (Acts 17:16–34). Again, some believed and some did not. The mission of all the apostles was to announce the law and the gospel to everyone who would listen and out of those who believed to form congregations and to baptize adult believers and their households (including infants; see Acts 16). The new covenant church is an administration of the covenant of grace in the light of the fulfillment of the promises in Christ. God the Son has become incarnate, he obeyed the law in the place of the elect, was crucified for them, dead, buried, raised on the third day, and ascended after that. We are no longer under the types and shadows. The Holy Spirit has been poured out and the last days have been inaugurated, to be consummated at the return of Christ (Heb 1:2).
The Apostles preached in synagogues, i.e., to those who had some familiarity with the faith and to the pagans, i.e., those who were completely unfamiliar with history of salvation. The early churches were composed of both Jews and Gentiles. This is why the first synod (Acts 15) had to meet to decide how to respond to the influx of Gentile converts.
Yet, for all the difficulties they faced, the Spirit used the proclamation of the gospel to bring his elect to faith:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47; ESV).
People were belong brought out of unbelief to new life and true faith. They were being saved from the wrath to come (Eph 2:3; 5:6; Col 3:6). The Lord was adding to the number those whom he was saving. Indeed, the New Testament repeatedly describes those who were coming to faith as being “saved” (e.g., Acts 2:21; 4:12; 11:14; 15:11; 16:31; Rom 5:9, 10; 8:24; 10:1, 13; 11:26 et passim).
One of the attractions of the franchise and reforming models is that they provide a core group around which to build a congregation. This approach has been used fruitfully and widely. Whenever someone asks me to ask about planting a Reformed congregation one of the first questions I ask is: do you have a core group?
There is another approach which we should consider: funding a missionary to go where there is no existing Reformed or reforming core group to announce the gospel to the lost. Of course, when Paul went to Philippi he did not go by himself. He had at least two others with him.
However we do it reaching the lost with the gospel should be our priority in church planting but if we are to be faithful to the great commission there is more to be done: discipleship. Here the church growth movement has been a failure. Bob Schuller promised that he would catechize people mid-week but he did not and neither did most of those who imitated him. Schuller changed the terms of the faith. He rejected sin and salvation in favor of a “new reformation” message of self-esteem.
Our mission is to reach the lost with the law and gospel and to catechize, baptize, and discipline those whom the Lord brings to new life. Every congregation should be a missional congregation. The gospel of the new congregation should not first of all to be self-sustaining and to care for the reached but to do that with the goal to become a planting church. Every church a planting church should be the goal.
Everyone who is not united to Jesus Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, who is not covered by his righteousness is under the wrath of God. God glorifies himself and edifies his church by the salvation of the lost through the preaching of the gospel.
I am writing in the North American context where the vast majority of people are unchurched and unbelieving. There are some 330 million people in the USA alone. Of them about 60 million have been identified as “evangelical” (whatever that might mean) but judging by weekly church attendance numbers relatively few Americans are believing and practicing Christians.
The need is great, the mission is great but our God is greater and his grace is greater than all our sin and weakness. Pray for the harvest. Organize for the mission (to plant churches) and ask yourself where your congregation falls in the seeker — franchise — reforming continuum: is there a passion for the whole mission?
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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