Toward a better model
Now, rather than looking for good reasons to plant a church, let’s instead ask whether there might be a better model for church planting.
Suppose a young minister feels called to reach out to the local college-educated, singles community. Rather than planting a church to be filled with college-educated singles, why not offer to assist an existing church to reach out into that community? Why start a new congregation?
Of course, the existing church probably won’t worship in a style that’s attractive to the singles community, but the gospel tells us to find common ground — even to surrender ourselves entirely for the sake of the gospel. If the existing church were persuaded to give up their tastes and preferences for the sake of bringing the gospel into this new community, not only would the Kingdom receive the souls of these college-educated singles, but the existing church would be transformed into a more gospel-centered congregation. And because of their transformation, they may find it within themselves, by the power of the Spirit, to reach out to other cultures within their community.
Rather than dividing God’s Kingdom by culture into tiny, insulated, self-indulgent congregations, we would have a large congregation that has learned to surrender its preferences for others, and has brought these others into a community of surrendered, sacrificial people. Thus, the singles would be called to give up their preferences, too, so that they may also be conduits for God’s call to other cultures foreign to themselves.
Now, all this is hard to do, in part because we’ve had no practice and in part because we really don’t care to surrender ourselves for the sake of Jesus. We’d rather let some idealistic young minister do the hard work somewhere else, while we write checks and worship the way we want to worship isolated from brothers and sisters who are just a little different from us.
Rather than raising money to staff and equip a new congregation in a city that already has thousands of Christians and hundreds of churches, we would raise money to place a minister on staff at an existing congregation in that city, tasked to help that church reach out to a new part of town or a new demographic group.
As a result, that minister would have to submit to an eldership — which is the New Testament model. That minister would have to work as part of a team of ministers — again, following the New Testament model and being an example of submission to his converts.
Why doesn’t this work?
Self-indulgence as a barrier to gospel
Let’s be honest. Preachers, elders, and Bible class teachers have for years taught a self-indulgent, selfish gospel. I know this because many of our members with the most years of sermons and classes are the most self-indulgent, selfish people in our churches. Somehow or other, we’ve taught this — proven by the fact that our members have learned this.
There are two tactics we might adopt.
First, we might plant new churches in which a better, truer gospel is taught, pulling away from the old churches those members who most open to the true gospel and leaving behind the most self-indulgent and selfish of our members.
Second, we might work with existing churches to teach a radically better and truer gospel, and use the existing resources and talents God has given us to turn those churches into armies of servants for the Kingdom.
Now, I readily admit that the second option is the harder one. You can’t easily change hearts hardened by decades of poor teaching. There are certainly congregations that just will not change. And there are elderships who don’t have the courage or conviction to allow such teaching.
On the other hand, it’s surely a bit too cynical, too judgmental to imagine that every church in town is unable to change. In fact, I think the idealistic young planter will often be astonished at the congregations that would be thrilled to have him on staff, leading the effort to reach out to a new segment of the local church. The Holy Spirit has been known to do things beyond our imaginings! Why not give him a chance?
I’ve heard many stories of a church planting team moving into city Y to plant a new church with cool music and great preaching. As a matter of protocol, they meet with the leaders of the existing churches in town (only those of the same denomination, of course, because we just can’t make ourselves think in other terms).
The leaders beg the planting team to join their existing churches. They desperately need the infusion of talent and motivation. The new, eager young Christians would help energize and motivate the existing church members. But the planters feel called by God to abandon his children in the old church and start a new one.
Now, sometimes the old church teaches a false gospel and would never, ever surrender it. They may not be willing to make the changes necessary to accomplish God’s mission. In such a case, the planters may well be right to stay away. But sometimes the old church is ready — prepared by the Spirit — to hear the gospel anew and to sacrifice their traditions and tastes for the gospel.
I just think we should ask. And if the old church is willing to do what it takes to reach the targeted community for Christ, the planting team should join with that church.
After all, the mission isn’t merely to save the lost. The mission also includes incorporating the saved into the body — the entire body, the church universal. The goal includes creating an alternative way of living, in community, with accountability to one another, bridging ethnic and cultural barriers.
The reason that the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and so many other central passages focus on the principles we need to get along with people unlike us is that God intended for us to be part of a community filled with people unlike us — a community in which getting along would be impossible but for the work of the Spirit within us all.
And when we get away from that model of how to do church, we yield to a consumeristic, self-indulgent culture, implicitly teaching that it’s okay to separate ourselves for the sake of making things easier.
So, yes, we may well convert more people, but to what? No, I think the path to greater success in God’s mission is not the creation of more competing congregations that cater to every gradation of taste and doctrine.
The true path is for those of who claim the title of “Christian” to learn to follow Jesus through service, submission, sacrifice, and even suffering. And until that becomes the defining ethos of our congregations, old and new, we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Does this mean there is no circumstance where a church plant is proper? Well, no. But founding a new congregation should be considered only when it’s the best remaining choice after the choices closer to God’s ideal have proven futile.
And even then, if the newly planted church doesn’t truly call the new members to follow Jesus, if it’s only about numbers and an exciting worship service, it’s a colossal waste of resources.