Scripture Does NOT Call Us to Plant Churches

A truly radical thought: The Scriptures do not tell us to plant churches.

Scripture Does NOT Call Us to Plant Churches

Biblical church planting — what does it say? The Scriptures do not tell  us to plant churches. Rather, we are called to make disciples.

What Is Biblical Church Planting?

So, biblically how are disciples made? By evangelism. Following conversion, we are to baptize and teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded. But it all begins with evangelism. Even when we move beyond the Matthean account of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) and into the book of Acts, we observe this model applied.

For example, on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13-14), he and Barnabas made disciples, that became churches. Luke records what they did in the cities they had just evangelized:

“When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled” (Acts 14:21-26, ESV).

Did you catch it? Which came first, evangelism or the church? 

Whenever we examine Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian believers, we see the heart of a church planter in love with the people of God. In the first chapter, the Apostle reminded them of how they became disciples, and what the Lord had been doing through their example:

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thes 1:4-10, ESV).

Did you catch it? Which came first, evangelism or the church?

We cannot talk about biblical church planting until we can talk about evangelism. The biblical paradigm for church planting is evangelism that results in new churches. 

Three Primary Purposes of Apostolic Missionaries

The three primary purposes of biblical church planting are:

•Evangelism—reaching people from the harvest fields (Rom 15:20; 1 Cor 9:16)

•Discipleship—teaching the whole council of God, primarily done following the conversions (Acts 20:27; Eph 3:14-19)

•Leadership Development—raising up elders for the new churches (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5)

I believe these three are self-explanatory, so I’ll not elaborate.

The Problem of Biblical Church Planting Begins With Poor Theology

As goes your theology, as goes your missiology, as go your methods.

It is not about planting churches. If our missiology is focused on planting churches, then as long as I am able to plant a church with a group of people who are already believers, I have accomplished the goal. I can start churches all day long—and have great worship music (which I love, especially if there is a heavily distorted guitar and/or a banjo involved), preach outstanding expository messages (which I always do, and you should too), start amazing small groups (which are extremely important)—and if no one comes to faith in Jesus, then I have accomplished my goal.

More churches? Yes. More disciples? No.

It is not about planting churches. It is about making Kingdom Citizens who will live according to a Kingdom Ethic in covenant relationship to God and one another as the local expression of the Body of Christ. It is out of a disciple making movement that church multiplication movements occur.

But this is not cool…

What happens if the receptivity level is low (and we’re working faithfully to contextualize the gospel)? What happens if my supporters are wondering why we have not started having a public worship service? What happens if my financial support is coming to an end and I have nothing to show for it—let alone a group of new believers who will support me financially as their pastor? What happens when my reports do not reveal the numbers that my partners desire to see? What happens when my fellow church planters begin to ask me how things are going? What happens when my vision does not come to pass and my strategy does not work out? What happens to my sense of self-worth when I don’t have “results.” What happens when my results are not like those of that other church planter?

…we DO plant churches.

When evangelism gets tough and the fields are hard, we become weary and fatigue sets in. We forget about an apostolic missiology, and begin to operate from more of a pastoral model.

Transfer growth-church planting begins to look very appealing to us and our supporters. But it’s not biblical church planting. In some cases, it is much faster in producing results and churches. For a long time, we have been wanting to preach that great sermon series on the family, but all the unbelievers we have been evangelizing are still without Jesus. And there are many Christians out there who would definitely like to hear it and apply such biblical truths to their lives. For a long time we have been wanting to use the great youth curriculum that we have written, but still those unregenerate parents are still unregenerate and not interested in coming to our events. And there are many Christians out there who would definitely like to hear it and apply such biblical truths to their lives. For a long time, we have been wanting to shepherd people according to the Scriptures, but those ungodly people will not repent and believe. And there are many Christians out there who would definitely love to be pastored by someone who would love them and teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded.

We begin to operate from a pastoral missiology. We begin to focus on planting a church with those who are already Kingdom Citizens.

(But we are not commanded to plant churches.)

This article on biblical church planting originally appeared here, and is used by permission.

JD Payne
J. D. serves as the pastor of church multiplication with The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He has pastored churches in Kentucky and Indiana, and served for a decade with the North American Mission Board and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books on the topics of evangelism and missions.