Instant Churches, Shifting Sheep and Multiplying Disciples

Are you attempting to plant a church expecting it to look like a well-established one?

Instant Churches, Shifting Sheep and Multiplying Disciples

The most critical issue in church planting work today is an ecclesiological issue. Theology affects field practices. A team’s understanding of biblical ecclesiology shapes everything accomplished in the present and for years to come.

Across the world, many church planting teams, partnering churches and mission agencies are attempting to plant churches that manifest characteristics of churches that have been through many years of the sanctification process. They are beginning with expectations that are unhealthy when applied to biblical church planting practices. These traditional ecclesiological expectations often unintentionally trump biblical ecclesiology. The result is a reluctance to labor among unreached people groups and a hindrance of the sanctification processes that bring about growth in Christ, multiplication and developing pastors from new churches.

On numerous occasions I have heard things like: “Plant your churches, but just make sure they have all of this stuff, and these structures, and these activities, and these 25 marks, and these 41 purposes, and this affiliation, and give this amount of money…” Many church planters want to clone or reproduce their home churches—or some other well-established church that is a manifestation of sanctification over a long period of time. They end up starting instant churches that are very difficult to reproduce or sustain.

This philosophy is fine when we start churches with long-term kingdom citizens. Those disciples already have years of sanctification behind them. They have a long history of church expectations. We should expect much from these churches since much has been given to their members over time. But this is not the same thing as church planting through disciple making.

Planting churches with longtime believers ought to be the exception to the rule. There is a place for it—indeed, much of my church planting experience has been with this approach. However, we should permit it as the exception, not the expectation. It is not the regulative paradigm in the New Testament. The weight of the biblical evidence is that churches should be birthed from the harvest fields. Biblical church planting is evangelism that results in new churches, not the shifting of sheep around the Kingdom. Beginning with a biblical ecclesiology is important because it keeps us from having unrealistic expectations for churches planted with new disciples from the recent harvest. These churches just started the sanctification process.

Don’t expect them to manifest the same maturity level as a church that is 10, 20 or 50 years old.

Don’t measure them against actions our Father expects them to grown into over time.

Don’t hinder newborn believers by telling them they should be running immediately; they just started crawling.

Church planters are to work with new believers from the beginning. They are not beginning with longtime Kingdom citizens who can answer all the Bible trivia questions and can discuss complex doctrines and church history. These people are new believers! In the beginning, the new church is composed of new believers (e.g., Acts 11:19-30; 13-14).

Once a regenerate group is baptized and self-identify as a church, it is the local church. It is the local expression of the Body of Christ, with a great deal to learn and practice. It does not become the local church later, when the people can explain with precision the kenosis passage in Philippians 2, or can execute a liturgy like that found in a cathedral, or when they have complex ministries in place, or a budget the size of a small corporation.

Are they a regenerate, baptized group who self-identify as a local expression of the body of Christ? Have they covenanted before the Lord and one another to live out the Kingdom Ethic (found in the Word) in relation to God, each other and the world—not fully understanding what all that means but willing to do it because Jesus expects it of them?

If so, then the church planting team has planted a church that is poised for the multiplication of disciples, leaders and more churches. They have planted the church that is.

It does not look cool.

Nothing hip here.

But it is definitely something to write home about!

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.