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

What Is Biblical Church Planting?

The Scriptures do not tell  us to plant churches. Rather, we are called to make disciples. 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 planters 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 Begins With Poor Theology

Remember what I wrote in post #1: 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 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. 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.

…and 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.

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.
  • René Frey

    Hey JD,
    Great article! I planted a daughter Church with 50 or so members of the mother Church in the next bourough of east end Montréal 3 years go. No growth in new disciples. Just recently, we resurrected Evangelism Explosion (EV2) teaching 12 people the theory at SundaySchool and going out in teams during the week. My associate, the young pastoral trainee prefers doing spot questionnaires in the Subway. No new disciples yet. But we are pumped at the revival God is giving us by “just doing it”. I struggle with the many months of non-growth in new disciples. I’m 68 and outathere in 3 months. My gut tells me to drop every extraneous thing and push every one in the Church to pursue new disciples. Your thoughts? René [email protected]

  • Wilfred Chung

    Jesus said, “I will build my church…”. He is the apostle to preach the good news in order to build his church. Making disciples includes the process to initiate people into His church. It is quite clear in His great commission. I suggest your should read Charles Chaney’s Church Planting at the End of the Twentieth Century, Aubrey Malphurs’ Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century, and William Tinsley’s Breaking the Mold-Church Planting in the 21st Century.

  • René Frey

    Hey Wilfrid,
    Thanks for the 3 titles. I ordered the Tinsley book. Am I reading you correctly in that you’re down emphasizing new evangelism-only-No-transfer-growth plants in favor of just adding new disciples to existing Churches by the existing members?

    [email protected]

  • Wilfred Chung

    Dear Pastor Rene Frey.
    Thanks for the question. My point is that the Scriptures clearly teaches the most important concept of church planting. Not only from the implication of Jesus’ life-goal and command, we can see the examples of Paul and the early believers planting churches where they went. If and when church planting fails, It may be due to the lack of training in personal evangelism at the beginning or the hidden issue of the personal integrity of the leaders(s).
    May God continue the revival of your church.
    Wilfred Chung

  • Mike

    Doesn’t Paul write that someone planted a seed and watered and another helped it grow, or something like that? Isn’t that kind of clearly a “plant” analogy going on there sort of?

    • John Finn Jr

      1 Corinthians 3:6 says “I planted a seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow”. Paul planted the the seed of the gospel message in people’s hearts. He was a missionary pioneer; he brought the message of salvation. Apollos role was to water-to help the believers grow stronger in their faith. Paul founded the church in Corinth, and Apollos built on that foundation. After their jobs are completed God keeps on making Christians grow. Paul did not wander around aimlessly all by himself, but he traveled around to specific destinations with those who joined him on his mission to “Make disciples of all nations…”

  • John Finn Jr

    “Go and make disciples of all nations…” which is part of the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20, is our mission AKA “Seeking and saving the lost” (Luke 19:10). That was Jesus’ Great Commission to us. If we will not obey Jesus, who will we obey ? Jesus did say “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” and if Jesus does it, so should we. Why ? Because he calls us to do it. He commands us to do it. Of course, in the Bible, “All Nations” does not always mean that you have to cross an official border of a nation to obey this. “All Nations”…could even mean a neighboring city. Cities were often considered different kingdoms or different nations. Jesus traveled around to neighboring cities. I think Jesus is worthy of imitation and He does call us to imitate Him. Paul the Apostle said “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1st Corinthians 11:1) and at times he planted churches in neighboring cities in the same country. Of course, Paul also traveled as far as going into other continents such as Asia and Europe.

  • John Finn Jr

    I will just say that if anybody reading this article is not from Israel or Jordan, you are a Christian, because a church was planted someplace. Paul went into Europe and over the next 2-3 centuries Christianity made it’s way all the way to the United Kingdom. Now, look at all of the countries on this planet that were founded by or explored immigrated to by Europeans. All of North America, South America and Africa qualify for this. Just travel to these places and see how many of these nations main language or largest secondary language hail from Europe. Spanish, French, Portuguese and English, which is a branch of German, can be found throughout all of these continents. You will even find that the Spanish Armada even went into Asia, and that the Philippines overflow with people with Spanish names. Catholicism is the official religion there. If you are from North America, South America and Africa, you should be thanking God that He sent Paul the Apostle into Europe to plant churches. We would all be worshiping false Gods without church plantings. Of course, Paul went into Asia too, as well as others who went farther into Asia than he did.

    Let’s take a look at where historical documents say the Apostles went after Jesus ascension. Peter pretty much stayed in the area, but did visit Antioch and was crucified in Rome; Thomas was martyred in India; Andrew went into what later became known as the Soviet Union as well as Turkey too; Philip went to North Africa and Asia Minor; Matthew went into Persia and Ethiopia; Batholomew went into Armenia, Ethiopia and Southern Arabia; James son of Alpheus went into Syria; Simon the Zealot went into Persia; Matthias went into Persia with Andrew. They devoted their lives to carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission. Be glad that they did, because you might be a Pagan if they had not.

  • Anil icmas

    Very original thought, God never told us to plant churches but make disciples of all nations, while he builds his church, we just finished a seminar called Discipling Nations, on this radical thought in Hyderabad India, great start, we are expecting great wave of disciple making movements take off in India. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1ae9999f5a1a043841958bc0c1172384c5933873e49d4ae32505767818296654.jpg