This is the second of three posts in which I identify 7 key principles for church planting. The first two (Gospel and Church) can be found here.
Key Principle 3: Think Leaders
Although the term ‘church planting’ was not coined until the mid 1960s, the practice has a long and noble history. The Baptists planted in the seventeenth century, so too the Methodists in the eighteenth century and CH Spurgeon, among others, in the nineteenth century. In all of these examples, whatever the historical distinctives, the theological differences and the cultural variations, one issue keeps cropping up, namely leadership. Sometimes they were called ‘messengers’, other times they were called ‘evangelists’ but whatever the title, they were vital catalysts in helping new churches form.
Both the Bible and experience teach that leaders are important, and both also teach that the character of the leader is the critical issue. Our primary concern in wanting to be a church planter, or if we are looking for church planters, has to be character before charisma and grace before gifting. It’s not that charisma and gifting is irrelevant. Far from it! We need more engaging, visionary and gifted leaders. But without those characteristics being shaped by godly character, they are inherantly dangerous. Saul & Barnabas are two good examples of leaders who had both. They were the choice of the Holy Spirit when he was looking to move the gospel out into unchartered territory. They were leaders of character and calibre who were responsible for the health and vitality of the still young church in Antioch. Yet, in our world, it seems as though church planting is the almost exclusive preserve of young men. Men with energy, drive and passion for sure, but men who are often untested and unproved ‘in the field’. If catalytic leadership is an important principle in the planting process, then we should also encourage older men to take up the challenge. Men who have been tried and tested in both life and ministry, passed through the fires of hardship, disappointment and success and so shaped on the anvil of providence. What usually happens though is that such leaders often move to prominent churches and bigger platforms. The cause of church planting around Europe (which is ‘merely’ a means to the end of gospel growth) will be served well when such leaders step out of the relative safety of established ministry and into breaking new ground. This could prove to be a tremendous training opportunity. Imagine the scope and benefit if the older man were to be sent to plant a new church in a new context, and have with him younger, aspiring planters. This would give us the best of both worlds: experience and vigour. It also bears a striking similarity to the Pauline method of training and equipping for pioneer gospel ministry. For too long, formal training has been geared towards placing men in already settled churches. But church planting offers a great opportunity to train leaders in situ, who will then be equipped to lead new initiatives, because they are hard-wired to think beyond maintenance to mission.
Key Principle #4: Think Team
Many of us have lamented the lack of a detailed description in the New Testament of a church planter. Most of what we assume, we do so by deduction. This perceived ‘vacuum’ has created the church planter myth – a visionary maverick who sweeps everything before him as he goes on a planting rampage! For the record, I would love to see a few more of those Rambo-style planters, but if we look closely at Luke’s description of Paul we discover someone who was committed to working closely with others. Let’s consider briefly some of the material.
When Paul began his expansive ministry, he started it as part of a team and was sent out as a team (Acts 13:1-2). At some point between Antioch and Salamis, John Mark joined the team as their ‘helper’ (13:3-5). When the second journey began (15:36), and the altercation between Barnabas and Paul over John Mark occurs, Paul takes Silas, an emissary from the church in Jerusalem, with him. When they arrive in Lystra, they make the acquaintance of Timothy, and he accompanies them (16:1-3). So the pattern is established. At one point in the narrative, Luke provides us with enough information to calculate that Paul’s team was made up of multiple members (cf. 20:4). Of course, these were largely mobile teams, moving location around the region, but they were far from brief forays into major cities. Sometimes, they stayed for years (19:8-10).
This provides us with a potentially fruitful model. Paul and his team, in their work and relationships, functioned as a ‘church’. As they engaged Jews and Gentiles in evangelism, and some became Christians, a new ‘local church’ grew up around them. The understanding of these new believers would have been shaped, not only by the apostolic message, but also by the apostolic method. They understood what it was to be church by experiencing church at first hand. They had the gospel explained to them and they saw the gospel fleshed out in the lives of the team. The idea of the church as a body was tangible, and the reality of the church as a missionary body was self-evident. Just as a baby is, ideally, born into a family, so too new believers are, ideally, born into a family of faith. In that context, they hear truth spoken, see life lived and absorb cultural values and norms. The benefit of this being a church planting team or new plant is that there will be a freshness and vitality that is often lacking when a church has grown beyond the planting phase and ‘normalised’.
We are often people of extremes. For us it is all too often and all too easily, one or the other. But we should not emphasise leadership more than team, and teams do not require a radical democracy. Leaders need teams to lead into ministry and gospel opportunity, and teams need to be led by equipped leaders of character and truth so they have focus and gospel clarity. The two together are a potent combination in the hands of the Holy Spirit.