The Danger of Church Planting

In my recent post, Extending Outwards, Not Upwards, I basically emphasised God’s design for His people to be a mission-focused, apostolic, outward reaching people. This is contrary to some people’s philosophy and praxis, desiring rather to build upwards, highlighted in movements such as the church growth movement and mega-churches in places like the U.S.

Now, let me say this: I do not believe big is bad, or that mega-churches are inherently wrong. There are plenty of ‘mega-churches’ around the world, especially in places like the underground church of China, where some churches are 80,000 strong. But the modus operandi and outlook does not consist of building upwards, but remain very mission-oriented and outward extending. Imagine how the Chinese underground church operates with not all 80,000 able to meet together, but hundreds packing into basements and cellars for teaching, fellowship and other such beautiful things.

So big is not bad. But big becomes bad when our outlook and focus become somewhat undergirded with things such as movement fascination, networking programmes and unbridled capitalism. That is where I believe it can become quite the unhealthy practise. Bigger is better and the bigger always engulfs the smaller.

But, while I am absolutely convinced that the church is to maintain its apostolic and mission focus of extending outwards, I also want to point out a possible danger as we consider our call to mission. It centres around the modern concept of church planting.

I know. I sound self-contradictory. And sometimes I do that very well with myself. But I want to share some things where I believe we can lose focus with our concept of church planting.

We must admit, church planting is a huge phenomenon of the past decade. I mean HUGE! Church planting is to today as church growth was to the 80’s and 90’s. Do a Google search on church planting and you get some 532,000 results. It is the fashion of today. And, you know what, I believe church planting is healthy, for, as I’ve communicated, I am convinced extending outwards with the gospel of the kingdom is important. And those who respond to the rule of God will prove quite helpful in starting new ‘church plants’. But there are mainly 3 points I challenge with the current craze of church planting.

1) It becomes quite easy to forget that it begins with the gospel of the kingdom.

The church is not the kingdom of God. Rather than share a whole lot here, I will point you to two articles (post 1, post 2) in which I discuss this more in depth. But what God is doing in the earth is first and foremost about the kingdom rule of God extending into the earth. This is why we are told to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt 6:33), rather than seek the church. We are told to pray for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, not that the church come on earth (Matt 6:10).

Yes, I agree that the church is the greatest tool for seeing the kingdom of God proclaimed in all the earth (as I share more here and here). But we start with the rule of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. And from there, those who respond to the lordship of Christ will help form the people of God, the ekklesia, the church, in both its worldwide and local context.

2) We have made it mainly about a movement.

I am not opposed to movements. They happen, and many of them are good. Look down the line of church history. But I am not too excited when we try and push something beyond what we should.

This is what I believe has happened with church planting. And the same happened with church growth. Church growth is not bad. Of course not. Who wouldn’t want to see their church grow? Even God wants the church to grow, which is a sign that His rule is extending into people’s lives and that we are extending outwards. But the church growth movement took on board some unhealthy thinking. It became too concerned with demographics, programmes, and what is hip and sensitive enough to draw the people in the doors. But all of these contribute to a lack of understanding what it truly means for God’s rule to be a reality in our lives, meaning that Jesus is Master and He can actually tell us what to do. I share more here on where the church growth movement misses the mark.

And so, church planting is important. But we have to guard against turning it into a movement, making it the programme. I have a heart to plant out. I continue to keep before the Lord whether He might call us one day to plant out into the inner-city of Brussels, as well as both Flemish and French speaking churches in Belgium. It’s deeply embedded in me. But I don’t do this because I want to start a network that is based solely on church planting as a sign of how healthy we are and how great we are doing. I want to hear the voice of the Lord and go as He sends.

This leads me to my third and final point…

3) Church planting starts with hearing the voice of the Lord.

This is absolutely vital. Read the book of Acts, our kind of basis for understanding church growth and church planting. People listened to the Lord as they went out, or if they weren’t listening, He sent persecution so that they would extend outwards (see Acts 8:1-4). But I love these words that we find in Acts 13 within the gathering of some prophets and teachers from the church of Antioch:

1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3)

Did you catch vs2? ‘The Holy Spirit said.’ Absolutely vital!

And, then, we go on to read in vs4, ‘So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit…’

While church planting is a very good, healthy and biblical practise of being the church that Jesus meant us to be by extending outwards, some of the time I don’t get the sense that people are actually looking to discern the voice of the Lord here. Rather, because it is the sign of healthy Christianity in this decade, there seems an immense pressure to actually plant out. We have got to be in and to be in we must plant out.

I think God would rather us listen to Him and not plant out than plant out a church and not listen to Him. That’s important to remember.

And if we hear Him speak, we know we will have the measure of faith, the provision and the resources to accomplish what He asks of us in extending outwards, similar to that guy named Paul that we read about in so much of the New Testament.

So, let us continue to extend outwards, to see the good news of Jesus’ rule proclaimed in all the earth with people responding to his rule. Let us see churches established and growing. And let us keep multiplying. I think this is all of God. But it is of God as we keep the right perspective and hear from Him, rather than make it the move of the decade.

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Expanding Outwards, Not Upwards

One of the major movements within the church of the west is that of the church growth movement. Though such a movement was birthed a half-century ago, this has been a major part of church life in the west for the past 20 years or so. I’ll be honest and say up front that, for me, this movement has been more in line with the ideas of free-market capitalism rather than seeing the gospel of the kingdom extended and God’s glory filling the earth as the waters cover the sea.

What do I mean?

Well, in all, I sense that the church growth movement is more about building upwards rather than extending outwards. And, so, such a method seems quite counter-productive to how the kingdom actually expands.

How can I make such an assertion?

I simply read the book of Acts.

The book of Acts is all about Jesus continuing His work through the empowering presence of the Spirit in the life of the church (1:1). And this is all summed up in Acts 1:8, a kind of thesis statement for the book:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Acts is fundamentally about the Spirit being poured out on the church and, as a result, seeing God’s people thrust out and mobilised into mission. In all the pages of Acts, nowhere do we sense God calling His people to build upwards. Rather, it is about extending outwards.

As an interesting note, we don’t really see God’s people inviting others to come along to their Sunday (or Saturday) gatherings in hopes that the people will respond to the pastor’s altar call. Acts is all about God’s people going to the people. Now, granted, there really is nothing wrong with inviting our friends along to our Sunday gatherings or a home group. Such could draw people to Christ as they see the people of God functioning as a community of faith. As Larry Crabb termed it, we are really to be ‘the safest place on earth’. Unfortunately, that has not always been true.

But I point out the major function of mission in the book of Acts because it reminds us that we are called to emulate their action of moving outwards. We are an apostolic people, or a mission-minded people. This simply means that we are a ‘sent’ people, just as Christ was sent by the Father and the Spirit was sent by both the Father and Son. Hence, why I believe this is summed up well in those empowering words of Acts 1:8.

When the Spirit comes upon God’s people they are witnesses. Witnessing isn’t something we so much do. It is who we are. ‘You will be my witnesses.’

Ironically, it seems that, when the church was somewhat reluctant to go out into greater Judea and Samaria, God providentially sent persecution to mobilise His people (see Acts 8:1). And we know the vision that Peter had in Acts 10:9-16, the one where God had to show him the same vision three times. After heading to Cornelius’ house, even before Peter could finish his sermon, the Spirit fell on the group at hand (Acts 10:44). Even God seemed bored with Peter’s message and did not find it necessary to wait for the altar call!

So, when one reads Acts, we see that it’s all about being sent out, reaching out, going out to the people. Nowhere do we get the sense that God was asking the people to build upwards. Sure, there were times in which we read of thousands responding to the gospel – 3,000 following Peter’s post-Pentecost message in Acts 2:41 and 5,000 responded to the gospel in Acts 4:4. Nevertheless, such does not encourage us to build upwards. It challenges us to see such massive amounts of people actually trained and discipled so that we can continue to extend outwards. Not in our cleverly-crafted and competently-marketed programmes. But in authentic, relationally-based, maturity-oriented training.

Matter of fact, there is one major biblical story that always comes to mind when I think of people building upwards – the Tower of Babel. And we know what happened in that situation:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:4-9)

Ouch! That smarts!

I am thankful for our Sunday gatherings, small groups, and deeper study training. I think such opportunities will continue to be needed as we disciple and mentor and train. But we must keep in mind that our mission is not so much about getting hundreds, or thousands, into our buildings. Our mission is to extend the gospel of the kingdom into the nations, into the lives of people that live outside the walls of our church buildings. And that starts where we are now and continues into the furthest four corners of this planet.

This is what Luke was getting at when he summarised those important words of Jesus in Acts 1:8. We will receive power, we will be His witnesses and we will go out…

So, let’s stay focused and extend outwards rather than build upwards.

Rethinking Emerging

Ok, it’s confession time. I must admit that, in the past, I have not been too crazy about the emerging church movement. I think it was not so much because I thought it was inherently evil, as some feel. But I believe it was mainly due to my desire to guard against being drawn to just another movement or fad within the church. Oh goodness, they are everywhere! And it’s normally quite the in-thing to join in where you can

But I must say that my view of the emerging church has take a more positive shape over the past months.

How so? Well, as of late, I have been interacting with some books and blog articles of particular emerging leaders, as well as personally meeting and conversing with church leaders that would include themselves within the emerging movement. Engaging with and listening to what another has to say, I mean true engagement and listening, can soften one. You start understanding just a little more of how they are and what they are saying.

Now, I admit that I don’t agree with every single thing that might be identified with the emerging church or at least some of the emerging church sector. For example, I struggle with some of the newer perspective on same-sex relationships and a more universalist outlook. In no way do I believe those in same-sex relationships or those other faiths should be stigmatized and ostracized. Many times that has been our story and it is not good. I want to engage with and interact with such people, with the compassionate heart of Jesus.

But I don’t believe the goal is simply acceptance for acceptance’s sake alone. In the end, by the grace of Christ, we should desire to see new birth take place where needed and movement towards kingdom right-living.

Still, I have begun to recognise many of the helpful aspects of the emerging church, mainly rethinking how we walk out our faith in Christ in a post-modern world. With that, there has also been cause for rethinking certain aspects of evangelical theology as well.

It’s much easier to stay within the theological framework that we’ve always held to. And, normally, it becomes difficult to rethink our paradigms. For example, think of Martin Luther and our Reformation friends. Yikes!

I am not sure the emerging movement is on par with the Reformation, or even other movements like the Wesleyan-holiness or Pentecostal-charismatic movements. Nevertheless, the emerging church has had, is having and will have an effect upon the church as we know it.

So, I just wanted to write some brief thoughts on my particular rethinking of the emerging church. Again, not everything is perfect, just as within the charismatic or reformed circles. But I have begun to learn and appreciate some things within this particular grouping of people and churches. And I am grateful for that.

The Death of the Emerging Church?

Some are now predicting the death of the emerging church – here is a recent report. Well, I am sure some have been predicting this from its inception, those who are quite against the emerging church.

I’ve never really written much on the emerging church. I’ve just finished Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and am about to start his new book, A New Kind of Christianity. So I’ll be sharing some thoughts on those books soon.

What I have written about before is America’s (and the west’s) obsession with movements. Movements are not bad, for they come to challenge what needs to change and confirm what needs to stay. Yes, movements can be bad. I do not doubt such. But, as a whole, we can learn from movements.

But I have always been concerned with movements and fads within the church: from charismania (though I could be identified as a ‘charismatic’), to revivalism, to seeker-sensitive, to emerging-post modern, to capitalism invading the church, to you name it. And these are only from the past 50 years. We simply know how to get excited about the next best thing in the church, or what we think is the next best thing. We have our own versions of iPhones and iPads to pump us up.

In today’s world, movements last for a shorter time. I think it’s a product of the global world we live in. It used to take weeks, months and years for certain news to travel. Now it’s available within seconds via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a hole host of other methods. I’m ok with it. It’s just that movements will fade in and fade out a lot quicker these days.

So the emerging church movement might fade out. Maybe not. Some are only recently becoming enamoured with it. Sometimes we take a while to ‘get’ things, even though they have been around a while. I’m not say the emerging church was the best thing since sliced bread. But, with all its faults, it has served a purpose over the past two decades. Again, as any movement serves the purpose of challenging what needs to change and confirming what needs to stay.

So, it’s ok if such a movement is in its fade-out stage (as others have posted). And then something new will arise. It might look and seem better than the emerging church, or the opposite.

But in all, this is why we are not called to seek first a particular movement and all these things will be added unto us. We are called to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (right-living) and all these things will be added unto you (Matthew 6:33). For the kingdom is unshakable and we are, even now, a part of the rule of God’s kingdom (Hebrews 12:28).

Movement Obsession

gospel driven churchOver the past month or so, I have slowly been wading through a very interesting book. I’m thinking that is my motto with everything I read – slowly wading through it.

The book is entitled The Gospel-Driven Church by Ian Stackhouse, pastor of Guildford Baptist Church just southwest of London. In the book, Stackhouse has mainly taken up the task of challenging the more vibrant church of the UK, specifically relating to the newer churches and more established charismatic churches of the past few decades.

It’s not that Stackhouse is not a charismatic, for he is, or I can only assume he is by his words. But he has still taken aboard to pastorally challenge the church in a few areas. Having lived in the UK from August 2003 to July 2006, I am somewhat aware of the church scene in the UK, hence my interest in the work. I came across Stackhouse’s book soon after it was published in 2004-2005, but only read a few pages. Nevertheless, I liked those few words I did read. But I was never able to get back into the book, as I ended up giving it away to a friend.

But recently I re-bought the book and wanted to go through it. And, to my delight, the book has been an excellent read. Continue reading