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.