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by Art McPhee – Asbury Faculty
Asbury Theological Seminary has announced a major emphasis on church planting. It includes the introduction of a new MA degree in the fall, as well as church planting specializations in other degree programs. Moreover, fifty full scholarships are available to qualified students. To me, that is exciting news. After more than a decade in two growing churches, I spent 13 additional years planting churches in Florida and New England. I can attest there is no more gratifying ministry to those whom God has called to help birth new churches. If God is calling you or someone in your church, I encourage you to get in touch with us.
The Need for Church Planting
A pastor asked me, “Why plant new churches? Why not, instead, revitalize the ones we have?” A church planter I knew once answered that question, “Because it is easier to give birth than raise the dead.” However, I happen to agree that we must pray and work for church revitalization. But there are plenty of strong reasons to plant churches too.
- We need new churches to take the place of ones that have died, and there are many.
- We need new churches where there are no churches.
- We need new churches to reach groups not being reached by existing churches.
- We need new churches where doors of opportunity have opened that were formerly closed.
- And we need new churches where existing churches have lost their passion for evangelism and disciple-making.
Making Disciples or Planting Churches?
Another pastor asked skeptically where the New Testament speaks of church planting. “It talks about sowing, watering, and harvesting,” he said, “but those are about making disciples, not planting churches.” That’s true. The seed we sow is the seed of the gospel, the watering we do is the nurturing of what grows, and the crop we harvest comes from among those we call to commitment. Moreover, to employ a second metaphor, the path to discipleship leads then to the path of discipleship–that is, new believers do not stop at the trail-head, they get on the trail. But although, once more, the scriptures call us to cooperate with the Spirit in helping each other along that path, they do not allude in those contexts either to church planting.
The Logic of Church Planting
A more fruitful path is to look at how the first churches came into being. To begin with, wherever you have disciples in the New Testament, you also have churches. And where you have new disciples, you have new churches. That is a little like saying where you have raindrops, you have rain, but it is an important starting place. With Pentecost, came a Jerusalem church. With the scattering of Jerusalem’s believers, came new churches in places like Antioch. And when, from places like Antioch, the church sent missionaries, even more churches accrued. But did those missionaries–the Apostles–think of church planting as we think of church planting today?
When we speak of church planting today, what we are really talking about is a systemic approach to making disciples, in which our strategies for sowing, watering, harvesting, and equipping in certain settings make necessary our anticipation of, and planning for, new Christian communities. Or, to put it another way, church planting involves proleptic preparation for a new community of faith wherever no suitable church exists.
As for the biblical warrant, the language of church planting may not have existed, but the necessity would have had to be an intrinsic part of the Apostles’ missionary goals. The proof is they never called women and men to discipleship and moved on without organizing a church.
There is also strong precedent for church planting in the Great Commission. When Jesus said, “As you go into all the world, make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them…and teaching them everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20), he was emphasizing key elements of disciple-making to which we have already referred–that is, (1) we must sow the seed of the gospel in new places and among new people; (2) we must call those we evangelize to commitment, which is what happens in baptism; and (3) we must teach them what Jesus taught, which is epitomized in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In other words, Jesus’ was calling for a continuation of the pattern he established with the Twelve. However, he also called the Twelve together as a community. It is no stretch, therefore, to affirm he expects us to do that too.