Church Plants and Missions: What Doesn’t Work

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Why would we invest lives, energy, and money in church plant efforts that don’t have at least some of the characteristics described in the previous post? But that’s what Churches of Christ are doing all over the country.

We are investing untold lives and millions of dollars in church plant efforts that will either fail or else not succeed as well as they should because we invest our people and money in programs that are poorly designed by naively not bothering to check out the research. It makes no sense.

Here are some examples of bad plans —

Foreign missions

We used to be able to find a willing preacher school graduate, put him on a plane, and expect him to plant a church all by himself just about anywhere he went. You see, shortly after World War II, the United States was the most prosperous nation on earth — by far — and the most admired. Being an American was enough to gain an audience, and people wanted to have what we had.

Nowadays, there are very few countries where that model works. Particularly in Western countries — and in the many Westernizing countries — the church planting model works much better. Church planting is presently the most effective approach in Europe. And it’s the most effective approach in the U.S. and Latin America.

However, our elderships and deacons don’t receive training in missiology. That’s because they don’t receive training at all. Some lectureships will cover this material, but most of our churches don’t send their leaders to the lectureships, and if they do go, they don’t necessarily sit in on the church planting sessions. They are much more likely to be interested in how to grow their own churches — not realizing that it’s the same answers.

The result is that we continue to pour money into failed efforts, comforting ourselves with bromides such as: “We may have only saved one person in the last 5 years, but even a single soul is a good investment at any price!” But every dollar spent in an unsuccessful effort is a dollar taken away from a potentially successful effort.

On the other hand, we have to realize that every country and every culture is different. What works in India may not work in the Ukraine. Fortunately, there is no excuse for not learning what works. There are dozens of denominations working hard to do mission work in whatever country you may be considering as a site for mission work. ASK THEM WHAT WORKS! Or just call up someone at the Missions Resource Network or the head of a missions department at one of our universities.

Just don’t fail to do your homework. We are stewards of God’s money, and we are not allowed to spend it on what feels good or used to work 50 years ago. There are too many successful efforts begging for money for us to throw money away on programs built on models known to fail.

Domestic missions

Just as is true of foreign missions, our churches — and even some of our colleges and schools of preaching — are caught up in doing what used to work and even in experimenting with new ideas but not bothering to read the research. “Surely God will bless our work as we are so very well intended!” And we are well intended. But we’re also lazy — unwilling to even pick up the phone to learn what’s already been tried and found successful or failed.

We are so arrogant that we assume that if we don’t know the answer, no one does. And pride goes before …

As a result, we send our children and money on efforts doomed either to failure or to a long period of unnecessary struggles.

Here are some models that don’t work:

The egalitarian church plant

A kindly professor recruits some idealistic kids to go to a city full of unchurched people and plant a church. They are coached on how to be team. They take personality tests. They become fast friends. They aren’t trained in how to be effective as a church plant. Indeed, they become so close to each other that they have no recognized leadership. But the Bible says —

(Rom 12:6-8)  We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is … leadership, let him govern diligently … .

Seems plain enough, but the nation is dotted with churches planted on an egalitarian model, without leadership and without much in the way of training on church planting or ongoing mentoring. They nearly all either fail or languish. And nearly all had the talent and the passion to be very successful. It’s a tragedy.

The refuge church plant

A refuge church is a church from one culture planted in a different culture. A typical refuge church is a Church of Christ located in New England that looks, feels, and acts just like a Church of Christ in Alabama. And it’s filled with Southern Christians who moved to New England and enjoy a Sunday return to their roots. It’s a pleasant church filled with good people, but ineffective at reaching its community. It’s not even part of its community. Rather, it’s a vacation away from the community.

The legalist church plant

I hope it’s obvious that church plants steeped in legalism will fail. It’s true. They may have worked 50 years ago. They certainly won’t work today. And here’s the thing — a church that has even a little legalism is in for a hard time.

You see, the true, non-legalistic gospel is attractive and will convert the lost. But the culture we live in today will not tolerate the imposition of rules that aren’t really in the Bible. They won’t take your word for it. And they won’t accept the authority of an elder or a book — other than The Book. And our arguments about generic and specific authority will only earn a sneer from most of the unchurched.

Therefore, a plant cannot adopt practices just to suit the scruples of a few members of the sponsoring church. The sponsoring church may reject applause or instruments out of consideration for the scruples of a minority, but if these restraints are placed on the church plant, the plant will struggle. It just will.


22 Responses

  1. It seems as though we’re making an assumption that these church planting groups or teams are going to themselves be the church plant where they are going, which I have no problem with — as long as we don’t see that as the only option. Our team’s strategy for church planting never places us in a position of leadership within any single congregation — removing the difficult step of handing over church leadership to the local people after five or more years of reinforcing otherwise. I will, however, be seen as a mentor and disciple-maker, especially to the leaders of various congregations.

    I think it is almost assumed that in church plants we’re to send either a team of people who will be the core of a future congregation, or a pastor / preacher type who will lead his new congregation indefinitely. There do exist other methods which are currently working in our world — and many would argue they are producing healthier functioning churches in shorter amounts of time.

    I believe we ought to differentiate between those people gifted in church planting and those gifted with the ability to pastor, lead, or teach. There certainly may be overlap, but I don’t think there always is. It seems church planters in the New Testament were just that — church planters. They didn’t begin a new congregation and then stay there indefinitely in order to change roles from church planter to pastor.

    But I should be clear: I have nothing against church plants, in which a group of people travel somewhere to begin a new community of faith in a place where it is needed. I just don’t want this method to be the only option we consider. It seems to me to be more church transplanting than church planting.

  2. Jamesbrett, You wrote:

    It seems church planters in the New Testament were just that — church planters. They didn’t begin a new congregation and then stay there indefinitely in order to change roles from church planter to pastor.

    Philip the evangelist seems to have settled in Caesarea after leaving the Ethiopian in Acts 8. At least after he made his way to Caesarea (Acts 8:40), that is where Paul visited with him and his daughters (Acts 21:8-9), which was about 20 years later.

    Even in the New Testament, there were models of church-planting different from that of Paul.

  3. I am enjoying this series.
    Great thoughts for us all brother.
    Kinney Mabry

  4. Jay,

    After two experiences in “egalitarian teams” in New Zealand from 1963-1968, I made up my mind I would never be part of such a team again.

    It is also my observation that most American missionaries have gone with the objective of planting a clone of an American church instead of a community that walks with Jesus.

    You wrote,

    We are so arrogant that we assume that if we don’t know the answer, no one does. And pride goes before …

    How true that is! We at Eastern European Mission have had some of these well-meaning people tell us to our face that we lie when we speak of what is happening with some of the “locals” we work with, especially in Ukraine. They seem to think that because they are not doing it there, it cannot be done.

    You can read my report of a work that is growing without focusing on church buildings and local, full-time preachers in every church here. This is what I saw for myself on a visit to Ukraine last year.

    Jerry Starling,
    Regional Representative (Florida)
    Eastern European Mission

  5. Jerry,
    Good point. I didn’t know that about Philip; it’s good to know. And it’s not that I’m against any model for church planting other than Paul’s. I just don’t want us to overlook his model as a valid option.

    And Jay,
    I want you to know that I’m really enjoying your blog. I’m currently about half-way through your study on pacifism — I had just committed yesterday to spend some time studying the topic, and didn’t know where to start. Anyway, i found your blog, and it has been a great study thus far. Thanks for writing.

  6. As with most endeavors, the list of ways to fail is much longer than the list of ways to succeed.

  7. James,

    I’ve been reading your blog. You are doing a great work for the kingdom.

    Let me suggest some links in a church planting continuum.

    1. There is the missionary who goes into the field, builds a church, and stays there as the pastor until he dies, retires, or loses his support. His church is lot like a US church that gets to 70 or 100 and then stops growing. He struggles like a US preacher just to keep it all together year to year.

    2. There is the missionary who goes into the field with a team of 12 or so. They plant a house church that multiplies into another house church — and they just keep multiplying. Some of the original team and some new converts form the leadership of the network of house churches.

    3. There is the missionary who goes into the field with a team of 12 or so. They plant a church that rapidly grows to 125. The church sends out another team of 12 that plants another church. Some team members are part of the original team and some are not. The original planter may join that team or may stay and grow the church to 10,000 members. Or he may join the 10th planting team. But the church continues to send out church planting teams and continues to grow.

    4. There is the missionary who goes into the field with a team of 12. They convert people and build a church, raise up leadership, train them, and then move on to the next location and do it all over again — all the while supporting the churches previously planted.

    Obviously, I’m a bigger fan of 2 – 4 than 1. I’ve not had experience with 4 working — other than having seen Paul do it in the pages of scripture. I’ve seen 3 work in a big way more than once. 2 seems to me very hard to do in many cultures, but it’s been shown to work well in some places.

    My view is that the scriptures don’t prescribe a single approach — and I’m sure there are many more. We just need to watch and learn from each other and continually experiment while we’re at it. What worked last year or next door may not work now and here.

  8. “2 seems to me very hard to do in many cultures…” – Jay

    This is exactly the methodology that I’m accustomed to. I can say this without reservation: it works around the world. What’s great about it is that you do the same thing that you do with the home congregation, that way, there’s no “special training” to send someone anywhere, other than to study the culture that they’re entering. The small groups that are multiplying at home are the same as the small groups that multiply anywhere. It just has to meet the needs of the culture you’re called to.

    Really, e need to view our neighborhoods as foreign cultures and study them just as much before reaching out to them, so as to meet their needs as well. If we’re not meeting needs, then we’re not actually preaching the gospel are we (be warmed and filled)?

  9. Jerry,

    I wasn’t aware of Eastern European Mission Looks to be a very good work — and big on planting house churches.

  10. Brad,

    Do you know anyone expert in pulling this off in the US — someone who can coach church planters in the field?

  11. Jay,

    Thanks for the list. Of the options given, #2 is the closest to the Geita team’s strategy for church planting. I have actually just started to get our team’s church planting strategy down on paper in more concise form, and have been thinking out loud on the subject a little on my blog:

    But it seems to me the keys to a successful church plant using the #2 strategy are…

    – making sure we leave plenty of room for God to work, and asking him to
    – being intentional about not taking leadership roles WITHIN congregations
    – serving people (often in contrast to today’s leadership methods)
    – authority of God’s Word, and obedience to it as worship
    – and depositing from the very beginning (as non-Christians are studying together before a church is formed) the core values of church, which are the mission of Christ (and will include being evangelistic in nature, which accounts at least partly for the continued multiplication)

    But there are other guys who would and do explain it so much better than me…

  12. Jay,

    I would suggest Jimmy Seibert (SIGH bert) at Antioch Community Church in Waco, TX If you recall the two ladies who were prisoners in Afganistan – Heather Mercer and Dana Curry – they were both from this church.

    Also, their sister congregation in Fort Worth, TX is Christ Fellowship, where I attended for 6 years and was discipled in small groups. Jamey Miller was a CofC preacher years ago in the Southlake/Grapevine area. He would be a valuable resource for teaching churches how to send out church plants, as he has been doing it for over 15 years

    Between those two, you will be able to get all the people and book references you need.

  13. “- being intentional about not taking leadership roles WITHIN congregations” – James

    That’s not too much of an issue. You have to have outside leadership when you get there. And it might stay that way for a long time, because at the same time you are continually raising up leaders around you and sending them out. There isn’t an opportunity for the church to grow stagnant around a leader, because the home congregation is constantly being reborn as half of the church is continually leaving!

    Also, this team or person might serve as an anchor for the other churches for awhile. In the midst of their growth and changes, they have someone that they can tap into for help and encouragement.

    You’re certainly 100% correct about the rest of the points!

  14. What can I say? The word “works” has so many meanings now in church planting circles. We should now define this word pertinent or colloquial to church growth and plantings.

    Works in the Bible seem to follow this formula Quantity of Believers + Quality of belief = Transformation. There is no one without the other. We seem to have forgotten this.
    Our measurements are not biblical we clap or say amen when we should mourn or lament.
    Have we forgotten that church planting is growing the kingdom and “that the Kingdom is among us or within us” (quote from Matthew).

    We must become cultural famers so to speak. Someone needs to learn the soil of post modern world and someone needs to learn the weeds and other seeds that are competing for the same soil and how to uproot them. Then someone needs to learn how to water the post modern soil in a way that allows the Son to give light and germinate growth. Then we need harvesters. This is the dirtiest work of all the hottest and most tiring but probably the most rewarding. Harvesting in today post-modernity requires the most gentle of persons filled with the Spirit of long suffering. Most people now take 3-6 mos to make a faith decisions where 30 years ago is was made in less than one week.
    Think about it!

  15. “You have to have outside leadership when you get there.”

    This is the assumption that I’m questioning. I understood completely that you must have leadership within your church planting team. And if I’m discipling locals, then that also is a leadership role I am playing. There must exist leaders in order to train leaders.

    But I don’t think it’s necessary for those leaders to be leaders WITHIN the congregations that are being formed. The assumption is that the mission team will plant one church AND then lead / pastor / “run” it, while training others to do the same with the next church plant. Though often they’ll send a few of their own with the next group anyway.

    What if, instead of that mission team planting and leading a church that trains people to plant churches, they introduced a group of non-believers to God’s word and helped them study it together, without a member of the mission team leading the studies? And as the group began to be drawn by God, they would give their lives to Christ and seek to, as part of his body, be about his mission (wish is where church comes in — to empower believers to be about the mission of Christ). So this group of disciples would form a church — with its leadership already built in, and having been leading for some time already.

    Our mission teams typically spend 6-8 years (?) starting a church and leading it, during which time they attempt to train others to lead after they’re gone AND yet others to plant another church and lead it. What if we never entered the church leadership business, and instead invested our time in discipling the leaders of non-Christian studies and new church plants? That role we can even continue to play long after we’ve moved to another location to plant churches there….

  16. “The assumption is that the mission team will plant one church AND then lead / pastor / “run” it, while training others to do the same with the next church plant” – jamesbrett

    That’s not the assumption, actually. Let me rephrase: it can be considered normal to leave a team in place, leave a pastor in place, or raise up local leadership. It doesn’t matter – it’s whatever God does in that church.

    If you are following the other bullet points in your original post, this is not an issue. If God raises up local leadership on day 2, rejoice! If you have a team that stays in place for 50 years, but its continually planting churches, rejoice! Either way churches get planted. In both scenarios, you will have outside leadership until God does something different.

    The focus is not on the best method, or the most native-influenced way. It is on what God’s doing. If God raises up leaders AND He calls you to step out of a leadership roll, no sweat. That’s what God is doing.

    “What if…they introduced a group of non-believers to God’s word and helped them study it together, without a member of the mission team leading the studies?” – jamesbrett

    Is this what the apostles did? Some stayed their whole lives in one place. Some stayed two years here, and a few there. God has already ordained that iron should sharpen iron, and that man influence man. God wants us to enjoy the plant/grow/harvest process with Him. It’s part of our inheritance in the now!

    The good news is, we don’t have to worry about it. If we rely on God, then He will do it.

    In model #2, raising up “local” leaders and “planting” leaders is the same exact thing. In this process, these leaders will hear from God about where they should be and when. Same goes for the leadership that decided to start the first church to begin with. God-empowered kingdom activity will only do what God says to do.

    Even at Christ Fellowship, I saw leadership changes that didn’t make since at the time, but became clear later.

    God will move His people as He needs to. We just need to teach them to hear and obey, whether we’re called to do help them with that for 6 months or 6 years.

  17. Brad,

    I’m with you. If there’s only one thing I can take into a strategy for church planting, it’s allowing God to accomplish as we attune our plans to his will. My post was in reaction to what I thought I was hearing — that outside leadership is necessary within new church plants initially. And so I did not intend in anyway to sound as if I was outlining the only good and biblical option for planting churches. I was merely trying to point out an alternative to missionaries leading new churches — which seems to be the prevalent opinion these days.

  18. James,

    I’m intrigued by what you say, but how do you teach someone to be a leader in a church without modeling that behavior? How can you raise up shepherds without showing them good shepherding?

    In my experience, true mentoring is done side by side, not from above or afar. Am I even making sense?

  19. Jay, you make perfect sense; and I share a lot of these questions with you. In all seriousness I don’t know what it’s going to look like — except that there will probably be a lot of “mistakes” made by young churches. But I don’t think that’s all bad — especially if the results of (or alongside) those mistakes are:
    – many being saved by God
    – those saved being discipled by God into obedient lives
    – the local community being served by changed people
    – multiplication of churches
    – churches that interpret (and always have) scripture as a community within their own cultural context
    – God receives the glory for all of it

    “…how do you teach someone to be a leader in a church without modeling that behavior?”

    I will be modeling leadership principles, and meeting with the “leaders” of these groups weekly — I will even be involved in some of the groups. But I will not take a leadership role IN the small group Bible study setting. But for that matter, the guys I’m calling leaders are going to be more facilitators than leaders, depending on whom you ask for a definition. I believe they will have qualities of leaders, but the group will interpret scripture together.

    These facilitating leaders will, then, learn leadership by reading the Bible, allowing the Spirit to guide them in understanding it, being obedient to it (also empowered by the Spirit), being discipled in it (by me — or another leader after churches have multiplied), and practicing from the very beginning. There is a lot of faith being put in God to work here, and not in our system.

    “In my experience, true mentoring is done side by side, not from above or afar.”

    I agree with you on this in part, depending on our definition of afar. My mentor lives in the states, and is one of the shepherds at my sponsoring congregation. There is a deep relationship there, and it once was a face-to-face relationship, but John is still mentoring me now that I’m in Africa. At a recent conference I attended I was reminded of just how important it is that we always be in at least two mentoring relationships — one in which we are being mentored, and one in which we are ourselves mentoring. But I doubt it’s necessary for a shepherd in a congregation to be mentored by another shepherd in that same congregation. Especially if we’re looking at the ability to shepherd as a spiritual gift, and not a position of business manager or decision-maker.

    Truth be told though, Jay, I’ve never done it this way before. When I served in China, we planted churches AS the leadership within those churches — and I believe God was glorified when many Chinese came to know him as their lord and savior. This (Geita) is my first attempt at this “church planting movements” model, and if God were to make it clear to us that we should use another model, we would — though we do find this model to be biblical and proven. It also removes several of the difficulties we’ve experienced with other strategies, replacing them with other difficulties of course. Though I prefer to err on the side of trusting God and his Spirit at work and the difficulties that come with that, than to hold to the constructing of elaborate schemes by my own power and intelligence.

    My first two small group bible studies begin as soon as my wife and I return to Geita after the coming of our firstborn (very soon). We’re currently in Dar Es Salaam for the birth. I will facilitate those studies for one or two weeks, help the new facilitator in weeks three and four, and then he will be the lone facilitator of a group of non-Christians learning who God is, and what he desires in our world. We will meet weekly outside of that group, and I will be present every week in that group — but I will not lead or facilitate. Which, can I say, will probably be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done — to know the answers and not give them, but rather point to God’s word, while locals come to an understanding in God’s time.

  20. James,

    If I may suggest an analogy. It’s like child-rearing. You sometimes show them how to do it. You sometimes insist they make their own decisions. There’s no way to learn how to make decisions other than to make decisions — but only after being taught (and shown) how. But if you always do it for them, or if you never let them make a mistake, you stunt their growth. On the other hand, if you let them make truly bad decisions too early — before they’ve learned how — you can get even worse results.

    No parent lets a child decide to play in the street. But parents have to let the child pick his or her own career.

    Now, I have no idea how that works in the foreign church planting context, but it seems like the right model. Jesus taught his disciples by example and instruction. He then sent them out on their own for a brief missionary activity. And then he worked with them some more. And then he sent them out for the rest of their lives. But he never really left them.

    Anyway, I’ll be fascinated to follow along as your mission work progresses — and thanks for enriching my blog with your comments.

  21. I appreciate the analogy, and I think it’s a very appropriate one for church planting. It’s especially fitting as this first-time father (within a week or so) needs all the parenting advice he can get. And prayers. By nature I’m a very selfish person…

  22. Jay,

    2. There is the missionary who goes into the field with a team of 12 or so. They plant a house church that multiplies into another house church — and they just keep multiplying. Some of the original team and some new converts form the leadership of the network of house churches.

    I know I just mentioned Neil Cole in my last post, but you asked for a group who was doing Link #2 and, from all appearances, doing it well. I haven’t dug deeply into their resources or their statistics, but the anecdotal claims in Organic Church are pretty impressive.

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