Church planting is a culture all of its own. Church planters often look different, think different, and act different than the typical pastor we experienced growing up. Further, church plants look different and function differently than the typical church we knew growing up.
Around the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries a movement arose called, The Missional Church Movement. It rightly arose in response to The Church Growth Movement. The Church Growth Movement had helped churches put their full emphasis on growing their own church by providing better programs, specifically the weekend worship gathering and kids ministries. The Missional Church Movement responded by helping churches to think more about what they were doing to engage their communities and their world on mission. Emphases were placed on missional groups (small groups doing mission together), missional partnerships (churches forming long-term partnerships oversees for missional engagement), and social justice efforts.
I would like to begin by saying that I believe all of these emphases were good and needed. The church did need to think about these things more intentionally, and to engage them more faithfully.
Out of this came a growing emphasis on church planting as well. Networks and denominations began to spring up with resources and plans to plant new churches. In this midst of this, I planted my first church. The year was 2009 and the church was a missional church. From day one we were talking about missions and putting our energy behind missions. Our church formed multiple partnerships in our city to help the poor. We provided backpacks of food for the schools on long weekends, we raised money to help with the area food pantry, we provided thanksgiving meals for the 50 neediest families through the school district, etc. We also put massive amounts of energy and resources behind international missions. We had three international partnerships. We worked in an orphanage in Central America and sought to plant churches in South Asia and West Africa. We were largely successful at doing most of what we set out to do in these endeavors. We even managed to use 30% of the money brought into our church for the sake of this mission.
Sunday mornings would include music and preaching, but also large amounts of time for prayer for these partnerships and other missional activities around the world. Our sermons were often focused on moving people to mission and seldom would a few weeks go by without casting vision of what was happening and how the church could continue to be a part of the gospel going forth.
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking, “So what is the catch? This all sounds great!” I would agree with you. None of this is actually a problem. In fact, I think everything I’ve said so far is very biblical and healthy.
Our church, though, had very weak ecclesiology. You could even say that we sacrificed our ecclesiology on the altar of missiology. My understanding of the church was purely that of a mission force. Perhaps this was my push back to seeing churches that were inactive and unengaged in any form of mission beyond their Cooperative Program giving (SBC churches). I’m not exactly sure what all contributed at the core within my heart, but I know this, I had not spent time studying the church. Despite a seminary degree, I wasn’t educated on church history, I didn’t have an understanding of church membership, and I couldn’t explain to you the reasoning behind our polity. My point of view was, run the church in whichever way removes the most roadblocks to moving fast and hard towards mission, and our church eventually suffered for all of this.
At one time our church averaged over 600 to the best of my estimation (I couldn’t fully tell you because my pushback to church growth movement led me to never officially count numbers). Despite this large attendance, our membership was below 200. The reason? I didn’t know what church membership was. We had a class to explain membership but it was one hour long and did little more than explain “that members have no voting power and how you get involved in mission here.” Our membership meant little and therefore demanded nothing, including covenant community and faithfulness to each other.
Our church had small groups, and in some seasons, they were healthier than others, but over time I’ve realized that few of them practiced biblical community where confession, repentance, and care really took place. The reason? I didn’t understand what biblical community was, much less live in it myself. Therefore, I wasn’t able to lead our church to practice biblical community.
By God’s beautiful grace, I believe he brought us God-loving, Gospel-preaching, faithful elders. This had little to do with my leadership of our church in that direction. I didn’t know how to raise up an elder. I wasn’t even well versed in what an elder was and did besides preach and make decisions. We accidently fell into a relatively healthy eldership by God’s grace. Still, I look back now and think how that eldership could have been much more faithful and healthy had I really understood eldership and the church.
A right understanding of the church is vitally important in church planting. Church plants have no history in and of themselves. There are no traditions, no systems, no prior discussions about why we should do something in a particular way. Church plants attract certain leaders and certain members because of these very characteristics. This can be a healthy thing. However, if the church planter is not well studied and well convicted about what the church is, how it is to be led, and how it is to act, the church will suffer.
I saw our church suffer, among other ways, when I left. I left to plant again, and when I left the church lost its primary preacher and vision caster. To some churches this may not matter, but when the church is built 100% on the vision to be missional and the one man who carried 90% of the responsibility to cast that vision leaves, the church loses its identity and its motivation. You see, the church wasn’t motivated to do mission out of theological conviction, but missional vision. The church wasn’t motivated to remain together in transition of leadership because of solid ecclesiology that led to true, covenant community. Instead, the lack of covenantal commitment led to easy departure.
I pray that this does not sound judgmental of my previous church in anyway. The judgement is placed 100% at my feet. I was the planter. I was the pastor. I was responsible before God to teach our church about the church and call us to more.
I do not pretend to think that my current church has this figured out. We definitely are lacking in some ways. But by God’s grace I believe that we have a healthy understanding of the church, of community, of leadership, and of mission that has built for us a foundation upon which we may stand for many years, even should the Lord remove me.
Church planter, study the church. Your ecclesiology matters greatly for your church.
How can you plant a church if you don’t actually know what a church is?
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.