The following lecture was given at a special gathering of church planters earlier this year. I pray it will be of some use to those whom God has called to conduct the apostolic-like ministry of church plantng.
“Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37 ESV).
“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:7-8 Geneva Bible 1599).
Let me address the matter of stages of church planting. To follow in the biblical metaphor of planting and harvesting, I shall frame the phases of church extension or new church development with this biblically faithful metaphor (certainly, one could also use construction metaphors for the church or even military-political kingdom-building and be unquestionably faithful to the divinely-revealed metaphors; e.g., “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23 NRSV). But let us stay with the agrarian metaphor. Let us, also, divide the process of new church development into five stages.
I. SURVEYING THE FIELD
The first phase I would call “surveying the field.” The field that I see is the “field of men,” unformed, isolated, broken into isolated fragments by the Fall so revealed in Genesis 3:1-24, and strewn in charred remains across the land like the aftermath of a terrible storm. Yet, to the eyes of many, they see a picturesque suburban haven set apart from the threats of the more sins of the city. The evangelist (and this is the essential office of this minister, though a home missionary, a new church developer, church planter or any number of other phrases may be used to describe the vicar, the parish pastor and his focused work of reproducing Acts 2:42 localized Christian communities) sees things differently. Like the prophets of old he not only sees, but is deeply bothered by what he sees ( I am thinking now of Abraham Joshua Heschel and his magnificent work, The Prophets). Yet, he sees through the landscape of pain into a new and shining city. He envisions the rise of a new Christian community out of the landscape. From that Christian community, the dynamic of the Biblical rule of faith (as in Acts 2:42) forms a powerful Gospel energy that moves out in a centrifugal dynamic, through one people, then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, enfolding other people into the life of the risen Jesus, healing, transforming, and empowering by the Alain power from another World. Such phenomena is nothing short of the glorious prophetic and Messianic vision of a flower blooming in the desert:
“The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (Isaiah 35:1 KJV).
Like Isaiah, the apostolic missionary sees the Christian community, the parish church, moving not only outward to bring hope, healing, and transformation to the heretofore littered landscape, he envisions this power moving through successive generations. He cannot meet a man at the coffee shop and speak to him about his soul without seeing the man’s great grandchildren in his eyes. In a word, this kind of Christian shepherd has an Apostolic-like vision for a Golden Lampstand, an edifice of the Kingdom of God, being erected in the Kingdom of Man.
Yet, at the beginning, these things are but a dream—a consecrated dream born of the Word and the Spirit—gripping the heart of this solitary shepherd standing in a field.
This phase involves evaluation of the location. It also involves an evaluation of the church planter and the church planting team. This primary phase must of necessity ensure the demonstrated providential link between the call of the minister(s), the point in time, and the proposed location for the new Christian community. Phase one must, also, evidence a burden on the minister’s heart, as well as a God-given vision to lift the burden. Indeed, this burden and vision should be articulated—I should say that it ought to be written down by the evangelist undertaking the work as yet another evidence of his call to this apostolic-like ministry and to the place of ministry.
Generally speaking, there will be a significant people-movement in the area where the work is to be undertaken. There will be a veritable wagon-train of pioneers—in a North American scenario this could mean a new suburban area that is spreading due to, e.g., tax-refugees fleeing from one part of the nation to another, or an urban area that has been marked out for revitalization with young people drawn to a high-tech market, or a host of other scenarios—an emerging community of people who are more open to the presence of a newly forming Christian community, and to receiving the message of the Christian community—the gospel—than a community long-settled. These are but the salient first features in a necessary check-list of other things must be present in the evaluation of the site.
This is the first stage: this is the evaluation. Like everything in ministry this must not be done unilaterally, but it must be done in concert with others. Like any other vocation in the Church, the call to plant a church must be tested by others. There must be a consensus that this is the land that must be reached and this is the minister for the mission. Urgency, a burning and holy dissatisfaction with the way things are in the lives of a particular people, in a specific locale, and the Spirit-anointed gift of preaching combine in a consecrated single-mindedness
This is the first phase: surveying the field. The phase may last from a few months to, perhaps, two years. Courses of action include, for example, surveying the field to discover:
It is a good location, but the wrong minister for the area. Or, the location is not ready. But, one thing is known: the phase is completed when the minister and the mission become one unified story. God’s burden for the people in a given area becomes the minister’s burden. The proposed work of planting a church becomes the visceral calling on the soul of the minister to lift the burden. The means for moving to Phase Two invole the energy of the vision of the church planter, so evident to all, in phase one. The church planter, the evangelist, is like the solitary silhouette of an intrepid husbandman standing against the sun-set landscape of a bleak and abandoned field—a desolate, hardened, thirsty, earth-cracking surface— but who announces: “This field is a magnificent garden that the mouths of the world! It merely needs the life of the Son of Man to soak the ground with the rain of revival from heaven. ‘Let God come down!’ and we will see the golden grain of men and women and boys and girls with life abundant and life eternal. I see souls saved and lives transformed. I see multitudes of transformed people safe in the arms of Jesus when He comes again.”
The church planter sees. This is the “gift of faith.” When anointed by the Spirit of the Almighty God the vision that the church planter sees becomes a vision that others begin to see. As Pastor and People unite in this faithful vision of the rule and reign of the Lord Jesus, a church is born.
II. PREPARING THE GROUND
The second phase is preparing the ground. It is necessary to begin preparing the ground before planting the seeds. This will mean evangelistic preaching. This necessary and prioritized activity requires the family of the evangelist and, if going as a team (i.e., Paul, Silas, and Timothy) the families of the mission team to move to the field. It requires the team to be together praying over “the land” and over the people. When I say, “praying over the land,” I mean to say, “asking God to overcome any resisting power structures” and “establish the church through supernatural means by His sovereign hand.” The Scripture of Psalm 90:16-17 is important for this phase.
“Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”
This stage of ministry requires an inquiry into and an understanding of (as God may give you the light) the spiritual dynamics at work in the community. There may be demonic strongholds that need to be recognized and addressed ( or, alternatively, to count the cost, to conduct a self evaluation and see if it is the right time). . There needs to also be a recognition of the positive spiritual contributions of others. God’s work in others should be recognized. There should be relationships established with fellow laborers in the field of Gospel cultivation.
It is at this time that one should also begin to think through issues such as core group gathering, ministry-staff formation, volunteer ministry teams, administrative processes, a systems-designed outreach and assimulation ministry, liturgical composition, facilities, Christian education in small groups, promotional activities in the community, and, of course, regular prayer retreats for the senior pastor and his family as well as for the pastoral staff.
There is a tendency with each of us, myself included, to focus on the lists of things to do in this stage. Church planters ordinarily have a necessary balance of task-oriented and people-oriented skills or tendencies. Yet, we are not just ecclesiastical project managers. Our first work in this phase is as a spiritual cartographer: to prayerfully plot the preparation of the land, to map its contours, to research its history, its changes, and to observe its main roads (spiritually, sociologically, and really). We must also be good agricultural scientists: carefully turning over of the earth to examine soil composition. There are serpents under parts of this ground. There always are in that land east of Eden. There are rocks of resistance. There may be contaminated soil from a spiritual Chernobyl that happened sometime in the past. It is your job to learn about, say, the infamous religious scandal that shook the Christian community and left many with hardened, cynical spirits; to research the past times of spiritual refreshment from heaven; to listen to the stories of God’s grace, as well as the stories of sorrow, and tales of victories, and to pray over these things. All things, good and bad, divine blessings as well as diabolical opposition, are tilled back into the earth; a compost of history using the memories and the stories to enrich the very soil that beasts and bacteria once infested. Such a divine metamorphosis of history, memories, events, joy and pain, is begun through prayer. And I don’t mean just your prayers. I mean to say that you must recognize and respect the covenants made with God for your community in the prayers of spiritual forefathers and mothers. I mean the prayers of anonymous spiritual leaders as well as pastors in denominations other than your own. You cannot cast an authentic vision of Christian redemption unless you have put your hands deep down into the compostp of days gone by, and of faithful believers who prayed and believed long before you were ever born, or born again.
III. SOWING THE SEEDS
The third stage is sowing the seeds. The seed is, of course, the Word of God, the purposes of God in the world as revealed in His Word by His Spirit. Now, it is true that you have been seed-sowing from the moment God placed this area—this city, this village, this rural area—on your heart. You have prayed for the people, and for God to move across the land to bring about good, and to providentially prepare the land for a Golden Lampstand planting. Yet, we are now, speaking, in terms of stages, of the critical stage of actually beginning public worship. How can we underestimate the genesis of the sacred assembly? For in this the Gospel of the Savior will be proclaimed in the liturgy, the preaching, and the sacraments. It is in this assembly that the saints will come together, as in Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in the prayer.”
“Dedication Sunday,” one of several names that could be applied to this first service, is the fruition of much work for the ministry team and the core group. The ministry team, those who will lead in worship, the pastors, the director of music, choir, musicians, ushers, greeters, facility volunteers, childcare personnel, and, perhaps, Christian education volunteers, if a Sunday School were to be simultaneously started, awake, this day, to realize the unveiling of their hard work. In a word, the mission is introduced to the community.
This phase should not begin until there is a systems-design approach to outreach and assimilation. What do I mean? I meant to say that everyone should know the steps, and be ready to take their respective places, once the first worshipper arrives for sacred assembly. Indeed, the systems-design, which I have in the past referred to as “first touch ministries,” in my own congregations, has already started. The advertising or promotion in the community is not a secular venture here: it is magnifying the beauty of the Body of Christ. In doing so, such advertising is information as to who you are, when you will meet, why you are here. It should convey to prospective readers or viewers how the beauty of the Body of Christ can enrich the lives of people in the community. From there, the steps include greeting the individual or family at the door, making sure that they are welcomed, and given a bulletin, with any questions answered (especially, concerning childcare or children’s worship); that they are helped to a seat by an usher; that someone in the core group is available to them during the service and greets them in “passing the peace of Christ.” If they like, they may provide information about themselves to the church for ministry needs. I caution against having a sign-up sheet merely to collect their contact information. Rather, the intent should be to minister to the people. Thus, be forthright in that intent with the materials. Provide an opportunity for the family or individual to respond to the church. The ministry—and it is first and foremost a ministry—then, moves to the pastor and wife at the front door of the church greeting them. Should there be a ministry need identified during this time of pastoral touch, this will be processed in the coming week. The minister or associate minister, or another, should, also, ensure that the family knows about small group opportunities through the week and on Sunday evening.
So, the movement is now a mission. The group is now living out of the center of the power of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer. This divine energy now moves outward through the testimonies and lives of the People into the community. The risen Christ is present in the Christian community now being founded. Others in need are drawn as Christ is lifted up.
To continue in the metaphorical way of developing this stage, seeds must be sown inwardly and outwardly.
Inwardly, there must be the development of the philosophy of ministry with the emerging congregation. There must be seeds sown for the growth of lay leadership in the congregation. There should be seeds sown for the expression of the gifts of the people in the congregation.
Outwardly, the church planter is concerned with the sowing of seeds that will produce highways into the community, the parish, that he and the church will serve. This is a veritable pastoral construction project that requires a strategy of intentional engagement. The evangelist must engage with the city fathers, whoever they may be (they may, of course, be matriarchs, and may not be elected officials, but, rather, be the widow of the oldest market in the village). The evangelist is, of course, engaged in personal evangelism, yet nothing is more important for the evangelist than building on-ramps for the People in the parish to reach out in their own lives. As in Acts 8:4, “they went everywhere preaching,” the authentic, sustainable power for outreach lies in the pew, not the pulpit. Those of us on whose shoulders is placed the authority of Word and Sacrament are to equip the People to do the work of ministry (Ephesians 4). Thus, in our relationship with the community, we can either hinder or help the effort of the People in the Parish by our prayer-bathed efforts in road-building. These efforts are often cast under the rubric of Lion’s Club or Rotary. I do not dismiss the value of pastoral involvement in these good humanitarian groups. But, the broader highways over which our People will march across with the Gospel are laid in the pastoral offices that are offered beneath the cover of those associations. Ministering to the president of Rotary as his teenage son is going through surgery, standing with a manufacturing owner during a difficult labor dispute, offering wisdom, bringing about peace, is the work of the parish minister, also. This work is road-building of the finest quality. And it allows the People to go about everywhere preaching the Good News of Jesus.
IV. CULTIVATING THE LAND
The fourth stage of development of the new church is cultivation. It is required of a farmer to weed his field. In a similar way the pastor must be prepared to review with his pastoral staff and his lay leadership the work before him. Is not to read it of people, used to read it, particularly, of mistakes he has made. He is to shepherd the people. The whole idea of getting rid of difficult people seem to me to be quiet unbiblical idea. Even the harshest discipline in Scripture, for example the handing over of Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan, is a remedial action of church discipline, which was intended to bring about transformation and renewal (as well as to guard the Church and the honor of Christ in the world). No, the weeding that is necessary is it a weeding that must be done within the organization that came as a result of problems the pastor has made. We careful I’m pulling up weeds even when the weeds have sown have been a result of your own inadequacies. Also, be careful of pseudo-faithful upstarts that appear in the soil of your mission as a result of a dry wind blowing spiritually unfruitful seeds of a godless culture. Often the seeds produce a species with an extraordinary rate of growth. They are, however, plants without any spiritual vitality. The sap running through the veins of the seedling is poison. Yet, once growing, however they might have appeared in the garden of the Lord, we must pay attention to Jesus is caution in Matthew chapter 13 about pulling up weeds next to good weight.
“Another parable He put forth to them, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn'” (Matthew 13:24-30 NKJV).
Any disruption of the body, even when it is a necessary surgical disruption, must be approached with great discretion, wisdom, and deft movement, pastoral sensitivity, and often exercising restraint with extraordinary patience. When you recognize that the tares growing next to the wheat are there because of you, well, it makes it all the more difficult. Yet, this is the enigma of church planting. For there’s the undeniable reality of supernatural power present with a very human efforts of recovering sinners. This makes for a very combustible situation. All the more reason that prayer remains the priority for the evangelist and the emerging core group.
V. REAPING THE HARVEST
The fifth stage is reaping the harvest. This is in anticipation that souls are being saved and lives are being transformed as a happy consequence of the ministry of this church. It is anticipated that at this time the mission has become a full-fledged self-sufficient local church. From a burden on the heart of God for His own plan of salvation for His people to the mind and heart of a minister or a gathering of Christians, a parish church is born. This stage also beckons for intensive prayer (and fasting) concerning the Lord’s will in multiplication. This is the time to reflect on the biblical dynamic of the Acts chapter 13 at Antioch: that is, that the church began sending out pastors, missionaries, and teachers. This is the expectation of every local parish church; that it reproduce itself in the world to fulfill the mission of God. We want to be explicit here to say that the church that was planted is to be engaged in reproducing itself. This commitment must be more than a denominational program. This must be, first and always, a response to the living Christ.
The Lord Jesus, building on Old Testament language about the lampstand in the Tabernacle that Moses hammered out of a single “bar” of gold, called the Church His “Golden Lampstand:”
“As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20 ESV).
Our prayer is that God will raise up gallant evangelists for the West, in “old Christendom,” in Western Europe, the British Isles, the Commonwealth nations of Australia and New Zealand, and (please, dear Lord) in North America. We pray for church planters—young, retired, experienced, inexperienced, but each gifted for evangelism—who will be burdened by the reality of the desperate need for new churches and revitalized churches; who will recognize that the sociological trends, whether secular or post-secular, are but vapors, unable to withstand the infinitely more powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ. The souls of men and women and boys and girls remain unchanged regardless of the philosophical dressing or sociological trends. We are fallen, broken, and in need of a Savior to lead us back to the Garden. Christ Jesus, the only begotten Son of God is the way, the truth, and the life. Offer Him. Preach Him. Lift up Christ. Let the Church be the Church. Let her solemn portals remain the entrance to a holy and completely different community that is centered on the life of her Lord. From the calendar that marks time to the liturgy and hymnody that tells the Gospel story week in and week out, this is a new community, a new language, and a new way of life that is anticipating a new Heaven and a new earth.
May many Golden Lampstands be erected in our land. May their light of Christ burn brightly and the foundation be steady. And may these Golden Lampstands be found faithfully burning when Christ comes again.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of Holy Spirit. Amen.