Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"The end of church planting?"

I recently received an email from a friend with the above title.  It was referencing a blog that suggested that we may be coming to "the end of church planting" by means of the "professional entrepreneurial pastor" (Rick Warren would be the prototype for this kind of church planting).  

Here's my response...

Thanks for the article ("The End of Church Planting?"

While I largely agree with the author, I want to suggest that he doesn't go nearly far enough.  Jason Hood, following an article by David Fitch, advocates shifting from "professional entrepreneurial pastors" to "missionary teams" for church planting.  A missionary team might consist of "three or four leaders" (or "lead couples").  This is a good start.

However, the critical issue that is not addressed is the nature of the church being planted.  The picture of the desired outcome of the church planting process determines how this missionary team seeks to function.  Do they begin to gather people in order to rent or build a facility?  Do they form a worship team?  Develop a children's ministry?  Secure a preacher?  Develop a marketing plan?  Do demographic studies?  Etc.  All of these activities point to what is a generally accepted, modern understanding of what a church should be.  What I'm suggesting is that this understanding is a major departure from the biblical practice of church.  And, that while we are reconsidering "how" a church is planted, it is even more important to reconsider "what" a church is.

In the beginning of the Jesus Movement, for at least the first 40 years, every local church that was planted was Jewish in nature (although not everyone who was involved was Jewish).  This is because, at least until the First Jewish Revolt (66 - 72 AD), there was no such thing as a separate Christian religion. Everyone that we would call a "Christian" or a "follower of the Nazarene" was considered part of Judaism.  And, implicit in Judaism, was this value:  the home, and not the synagogue, is the center of spirituality.  Our Father Abraham:  The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith by Marvin Wilson makes this abundantly clear.  Every Jewish home was considered a miqdash me'at, that is a "miniature temple".  The home was the primary location for worship, prayer, the study of Torah and ministry to the community.  (In short hand, we might express this as  "home = church".)

The early Christians did not invent house church.  They simply build on what was already present.  "The Jewish Sabbath celebration provided a pattern for the development of early Christian house churches."  (Heidler, The Messianic Church Arising!, p.61.)  The key to the rapid expansion of the early church was the fact that there were approximately six million Jews living in the Roman Empire outside of Palestine.  (Stark, The Rise of Christianity)  Most of these diaspora Jews understood what most American Christians have never considered:  the home, not the synagogue, is meant to be the center of spirituality.

Therefore, when Jesus planted churches, He planted a very specific kind of church.  It was a church that was centered in the home and that functioned like an extended spiritual family.  (And, Jesus did plant churches!  See House Church and Mission by Roger Gehring.)  And, when Jesus taught His disciples how to plant churches (Mt. 10, Lk 10, Acts), it was the same kind of church.  Dare we consider how far we have departed from this picture?

The prototypical example of this kind of thinking about church planting in the New Testament is Priscilla and Aquila.  Everywhere they went (Corinth, Ephesus, Rome) a house church sprang up.  It wasn't so much that they planted churches as that they understood that they already were a church (a church of two?).  And, in each situation, a larger community emerged around them in a very natural way.  (Apparently, three or four "lead couples" were not needed.  Only one couple was needed which follows the model that Jesus' explained in Lk 10.)  What if a million Christian households in America began to think this way?

Two summary statements.  First, this way of thinking about church, although often foreign to our experience, is far more consistent with the biblical record than our traditional, building-centered model.  We say that "Scripture is our authoritative guide for faith and practice".  Are we ready for Scripture to become our authoritative guide as to how we  "practice" church?  (Isn't it odd that we would fight for this principle of the authority of Scripture in other areas but often completely ignore it when it comes to how we "do" church?)  Our understanding of what a church is greatly influences our understanding of how a church is planted.

Second, this way of thinking about church is far simpler, far more natural and far less expensive than the traditional, building-centered model.  This way of thinking about church opens the door for both viral multiplication and life-changing transformation.

So, I'm glad that we are coming to "the end of church planting" by means of the "professional, entrepreneurial  pastor".  But, my hope is that we will soon also come to "the end of church planting" where church means a building-centered, clergy-centered, program-centered organization.

John White

John White
Team Leader
LK10:  A Community of Practice for Church Planters

*For stories of people who are "doing it":

In addition to the books listed above, I've also found two books by Joseph Hellerman to be valuable.  When the Church Was a Family:  Recapturing Jesus' vision for Authentic Christian Community and The Ancient Church as Family:  How the Earliest Churches Reconfigured Family and Religion.


  1. thanks John. Its an important subject and transition.

  2. Hi John,

    Thank you for your incisive response to this article. This is giving me more excitement for a church multiplication movement. I am in the last semester of my education program. I already spotted three young couples who can be part of my team here in the North Cal area.

    Wilfred Tejano

  3. Truth seems to always be counter intuitive.

    Thanks for your insights John.

    Ben Wardlaw
    Hilton Head Island, SC