5 Biblical and Ecological Insights for Church Planting

Effective church planters take the lead in planting good gospel seed and become “co-workers” with God in growing faithful, witnessing communities of disciples.

Church planting assumes an ecological process. The very term is organic, not mechanical or architectural.

If we’re talking about the body of Christ, not an institution or edifice, we don’t build the church. We don’t erect the church. We don’t even start a church, for that is the Spirit’s work.

We plant and grow churches. More accurately: Effective church planters take the lead in planting good gospel seed and become “co-workers” with God (Col. 4:11, Phil. 4:3, 3 John 1:8) in growing faithful, witnessing communities of disciples.

The Bible does of course use building language—for example, in Ephesians 2 and 1 Peter 2. Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). These references are clearly metaphorical, though. Peter speaks of “living stones” (1 Pt. 2:5). Paul says the edifice “grows” into “a dwelling place for God” (Eph. 2:21-22).

In other words, the root biblical image for the church is a living one—organic, ecological. For the church is grounded in the very life of God the Trinity and the organic world where God has placed us—to which he sent Jesus in the flesh. So we have images of trees, vines and branches, marriage, and so forth—all images from life.

If church planting is organic, then we can learn from ecology. Jesus’ parables already point this way. Jesus himself drew on Old Testament imagery of living things and living people.

What then can we learn from ecology? Five things:

1. Church planting is organic, based on principles of life, growth and reproduction.

So we begin with a paradigm shift away from organizations, physical buildings, machines and technology. We consciously and consistently shift to organic insights and images, knowing how powerful such root metaphors can be.

From organic images sprout a whole crop of insights. Here are two basic ones: reproduction and the smallness. The Bible is full of both accents.

Reproduction: All life grows from other life by a process of reproduction. People give birth to people. Churches give birth to churches. Healthy people and churches give birth to healthy people and churches; unhealthy people and churches birth unhealthy people and churches.

Smallness: Babies are small. Seeds are small. That’s the way life works, how it begins. Why expect something different with the church?

The institutional, financial and media advantages of “launching” a large church start are obvious. That’s why this approach is popular. But it’s not organic or ecological. It produces churches by a different metaphor, and thus from the start has built-in resistance to developing close-knit, face-to-face community as the church’s core and heartbeat.

Sociology backs this up. Early Methodism showed this. There are dozens of other examples. In North America, the Methodist movement grew fastest and deepest when it multiplied very small units, often beginning with class meetings. We find an inverse correlation between the size of Methodist churches and overall growth rate. That is, as churches got larger—building larger buildings and professionalizing the leadership—growth declined.

One social, spiritual and psychological reason is obvious: People feel more personally responsible and accountable in smaller groups.

Small units reproduce other living units with the same DNA. Large institutions slowly form other institutional units with the same institutional DNA—a DNA with inbred resistance to the organic multiplication of small units. This is so obvious from physical life that it’s almost a marvel that it’s so often overlooked in church life.

Organic DNA produces organic life. Institutional DNA produces institutional life. Why would we expect anything different?

2. Organic church planting thrives on diversity, and so is inherently more open to crosscultural witness and intercultural community that are more programmatic models.

Since organic church planting is ecological, it is highly sensitive to its environment. Its discernment process is multidirectional, not linear or vertical.

Much of the beauty of creation in Genesis 1 comes from diversity. Consider:

“The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. … And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ … God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind and the cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:12-25).

All this with the repeated refrain: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

This is a great church-planting text. Living things multiply, and over time, diversify in response to change. Why should we think this applies to everything else in the world except human life, culture and organization? Everything except the church?

Diversity, and also adversity. Living things constantly face challenges, threats or barriers that must be overcome. They grow stronger as they deal with adversity. Or else they die. We see this in the whole history of God’s people, both before and after Jesus’ incarnation.

Organic church planting is adaptive. That’s how life is. Organisms adapt almost instinctively to changes in climate or relationships. They sense when to make small adaptations early so that change doesn’t turn into crisis.

The implications are obvious. Church planting on an organic model will thrive both on internal diversity (personalities, charisma, resources, skills, backgrounds) and on external adaptivity.

Thus, a miracle occurs: “Our kind of people” turn out to be less, not more, homogeneous. Or better: Gospel reconciliation and gospel truth become the operative homogeneous principle. “Our kind of people” turn out to be God’s kind of people.

3. Ecology provides key insights for leadership and organization.

This kind of organic logic yields insights for leadership and structure. Neither the New Testament church nor the whole creation is based on theories of leadership, structure or “best practices.” Scripture comes first; creation from the hand of God comes next, before theories.

Here, New Testament teachings on spiritual gifts, priesthood of all believers (that is, the true meaning of laity), and Christ-like servanthood come creatively into play. In the New Testament, leadership and structure are organic and charismatic (profound conjunction), not institutional and hierarchical. Whatever institutional models we may inherit (and they have their value), these are distinctly secondary to the Spirit’s call to koinonia, giftedness and mutual servanthood.

This was the key insight of that liturgical Anglican, John Wesley.

Church planters have a choice from the first conception of the idea of planting a church of the model they’ll follow. Commitment to biblical community on an organic basis comes first, not somewhere down the line, eventually. You can’t change the DNA once the baby is born.

4. Organic church planting is earthy.

Biblical church planting allows no dualism between the spiritual and the physical. No categorical divide between church and earth, since God’s plan and “good pleasure” is “to bring everything together under one head, Jesus Christ—all things, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10).

Since it’s part of the larger ecological reality of God’s world, church planting unavoidably and by definition interacts with all the physical, social and economic dimensions of the earth’s ecology. Every church, whatever its form or tradition, has an ecological impact. It touches people, relationships, money, traditions, politics, birds and flowers, and spiritual powers. It engages “the elemental spirits [or principles] of the universe” (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20) as well as the dirt under our feet, the water we drink and the toilets we flush.

Ecology is all about energy sources, throughputs, feedbacks and waste. Organic church planting ponders this.

An example: A particular new church plant is based in a couple home meetings, and as it grows, it multiplies home groups. This involves not only leadership, prayer, discipling, coordination and so forth, it also involves a whole range of other resources: energy consumed to heat or illuminate houses, transportation from one place to another, perhaps purchasing and consuming food, and dealing with waste. (What happens to food containers? Are they spiritually significant? What do we teach by example? Where does the Bible draw the line on “all things”?)

These varied “things” are not just incidental costs or inconveniences. They are an inherent part of the ecology of the church’s life. Everything is related, and everything has impacts, and all belongs to God to be used for his glory and to fulfill kingdom mission.

Faithful, organic church planting contributes to the ecological well-being of the whole earth and all its cultures and systems.

5. Organic church planting is eschatological: It aims toward a larger future.

What is the goal of church planting? Is it conversions? Church growth? Popularity? “Fully committed followers of Jesus”? The kingdom of God?

All purposeful activity has a goal or end in view, stated or not. All church planting has a default eschatology. The key question is: Do we plant churches for some less worthy goal than the one God intends?

The operative eschatology in church planting will shape the methodology as well as the goal. The church is to be a disciple-growing community that exists for, is aimed squarely at, the kingdom of God. Immediate purposes always have a longer-range purpose—an eschatological horizon from which light shines to illuminate and guide the present.

As I have said before: the church gets in trouble whenever it thinks it’s in the church business rather than the kingdom business. In church business, people are concerned with church activities, religious behavior and spiritual things. In kingdom business, people are concerned with kingdom activities, all human behavior and everything God has made, visible and invisible. Kingdom people seek first the kingdom of God and its justice. Church people often put church work above concerns of justice, mercy and truth.

Church people think about how to get people into church; kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; kingdom people work to see the church change the world. When Christians catch a vision of the kingdom of God, their sights shift to the poor, the orphan, the widow, the refugee, “the wretched of the earth” and to God’s future. They see the life and work of the church in terms of the kingdom.

This is where ecology and eschatology meet. Biblical vision of creation healed is the goal which shapes our present. Biblical ecology reveals the nature of the organism, the church, which is God’s primary agent in transformingly carrying forward his purposes to their fulfillment.

I thank God for faithful and effective church-planting movements (CPMs). But CPMs are not self-justifying, for mere growth is not the test. Are they discipling? Are they kingdom-focused? Are they biblically ecological? Ecologically sustainable?

Finally …

There is much more to be said. I haven’t touched on the question of doctrine or said much about structure, family life, ecologically appropriate technology, and global connections, awareness and responsibility. The point here: View things through the lens of biblical ecology, and new light shines on every angle of church planting.

a. Church planting is organic, based on principles of life, growth and reproduction.

b. Organic church planting thrives on diversity.

c. Ecology provides key insights for leadership and organization.

d. Organic church planting is earthy.

e. Organic church planting is eschatological, aiming toward God’s future.

Each of these points can be elaborated extensively through Scripture, but that must wait for another day.

We are left then with the master verse for ecological church planting: “Fear not, little flock, for the Father delights to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Howard Snyder
Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); now engaged in research and writing in Wilmore, Kentucky. Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Formerly taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Howard Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. He has written on a range of topics including church history, cultural trends, globalization, worldviews, evangelism, and various cultural issues.