Church Planting Dynamics: Gathering the Churched, De-Churched and Un-Churched
When I began the work of church planting I had absolutely no idea what to expect. We had no core group, and I only knew one person in the town to which we were called. It's all too common to read church planting blogs, manuals and articles, in which the authors speak of the pressing need to reach the "un-churched" in your community with the Gospel. This is something we see the Apostles doing in the book of Acts; but it is something that the American church has failed to do to a large extent. However, when it is mentioned today, it is frequently set in opposition to the idea of shuffling Christians around from one church to another. On the surface this sounds uber spiritual, but what I've learned over the past 16 months is that it is impractical and unbalanced. The conversation is not that simple. In the first place a church planter needs a core group. He needs people who have some kind of spiritual foundation. When the Apostle Paul began the evangelistic ministry to the Gentiles, he did not immediately go to the Athenians. He went to God-fearing Jewish converts and preached Christ to them. He strategically formed core groups with individuals who had some knowledge of Scripture. It would not suffice to go out and gather a group of biblically ignorant unbelievers to start a church. The church is the gathered assembly of believers. This does not mean that they have to be mature Christians--those who have years of walking closely with Christ. But, if you don't have any mature Christians you will bear the burden all alone, and will have to spend all your time and energy trying to disciple a group of people who may never grow into spiritually mature believers. There is a better way.
Now, before someone gets up in arms, grant me a measure of charity as I seek charter the waters through two extremes. It is certainly not sufficient to start a church with a group of people from a mother or sister church and then never reach the lost or wondering sheep in your community. We ought to fear being exclusively in a state of shuffle rather than outreach. We are called to be salt and light. The only reason that the Lord Jesus left us in the world, after saving us, is that we would be the evangelistic instruments of the world. Worship and Evangelism are the two great callings of the church. We will worship for all eternity in heaven; but we only have so much time left to spread the Gospel for the conversion of the nations. That being said, it seems that a church planter ought to seek several different types of people for a healthy foundation. At New Covenant we have people with Reformed church backgrounds, Evangelical church backgrounds, and Liberal church background. We have those who have been in churches for decades, as well as those who are de-churched and un-churched. It is one of the most amazing displays of God's grace and working. But, am I more excited about having the un-churched coming week in and week out than I am to have those with various church backgrounds? Not at all. I sometimes marvel more at the grace of God in bringing the un-churched, but His grace is no less evident in the lives of those who have been in sound biblical churches to which they commuted for many years, or those who have sat in liberal Protestant church most of their lives. I am thrilled that people who once had to drive 30-plus minutes to a solid church can now host Bible studies and have times of fellowship in their homes five minutes away from the place where we meet to worship. They can bring neighbors and friends from the town in which we live--people would otherwise probably not ever commuted with them. I can give them a greater measure of pastoral care, since I live closer to them. They can offer me constructive feedback, and often have helpful input at bible studies. These are only some of the benefits that flow from having sound Christians come from one church to be a part of a church plant.
The Lord wants the "everlasting Gospel" (Rev. 14:6-7) to be preached to everyone. The apostle Paul charged the church in Colosse to "continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and...not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven." This ought to be the aim of our ministries. Whether it was the Christians in Rome (Rom. 1:13-15) or the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17)--churched and un-churched alike--Paul longed to preach the Gospel to them. This opens up the issue of the visible-invisible church distinction. The apostle never assumed that everyone in the visible, gathered assembly were believers. In Ephesians (a letter that Paul opened with the words, "to the saints in who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus") Paul exhorts those who are unconverted in the church to "awake...arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light" (Eph. 5:14). In the seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor, Jesus addresses believers and unbelievers within the visible church. He offers the Gospel to those who are already in the church. This does not mean that Rev. 3:20 is not for those outside the walls of the gathered church, but it does mean that it was given, in its original context, to the visible church. There is evangelism in the visible church and there is evangelism outside. When we use the word "missional" (a word I am actually fond of using if it is defined properly. See this post for a fairly helpful definition) we risk using it simply with regard to reaching those outside the visible church with the Gospel. When we use the word "evangelize" we use it irrespective of the borders of the gathered assembly.
This also leads into a consideration of those who come to a church plant from liberal churches. When I say "liberal" I do not mean "unethical." Liberal churches are often full of externally moral, and politically conservative, people. It may be a liberal community church, Baptist church, Presbyterian church, Methodist church, etc. If the Gospel is not central, and the preaching of the word of God is not sound, then the church is liberal. It doesn't matter how much Scripture is quoted, Satan loves to twist scripture. I, for one, am thrilled when the Lord brings someone to the church plant with this kind of background. It may come as a surprise to some, but many times Christ's sheep are in liberal churches. They have new hearts, and the seed of saving faith, but they are not being fed. They may sense a void and know that something is not right; but if they have never had solid preaching and teaching they may not be able to discern precisely what is wrong with the current situation. They may even be discontent with their present circumstance, and rightly so. When men say that we need to reach the un-churched, I would include Christ's sheep coming from liberal churches. I, for one, am thrilled when we shuffle sheep out of liberal churches and into a biblical, Gospel-centered church plant.
This raises yet another important issue--namely, baptisms. I have heard, time and time again, church planters emphasizing how we need to read the health of a church by the numbers of baptisms a church has had. I even heard one mega-church pastor say, "We have baptisms every week, just like they did in the New Testament." Really? Where's that in the New Testament. I have read through the NT many times and have never read that! Here's where our theology of baptism comes to bear on this discussion. The mega-church I mentioned a minute ago believes in baptismal conversion. They have their roots in the Campbellite movement, and press anyone who comes to their services to be baptized before they leave the church. Of course they are going to place the emphasis on water baptism rather than what it signifies. Or consider the fact that many "believers baptist only" church planters are fine with re-baptizing. If I believed that re-baptism was biblical (though it is never taught or exemplified in Scripture) I would also emphasis the number of baptisms we have. But, let's not forget. America is one of the most baptized nations in the history of the world. If someone comes to our church and wants to join, and they were baptized in a Protestant church that preached the Gospel, we would not re-baptize them. If they were baptized as a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, I would certainly re-baptize them. If there were baptize in a liberal church that did not administer the word and sacraments in a biblical manner, I would re-baptize them (Note: I promise not to respond to any comments that challenge this view unless you have first read this, this and this). That being said, an enormous number of people in America were baptized in evangelical Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches and would not, therefore, need to be re-baptized--even in they were recently converted. I realize that this is a point many would take issue with, but there is a reason why the covenant sign in the OT era could only be applied once! God told those who had circumcision to get a circumcised heart. He did not then tell them to get re-circumcised, as difficult as that would have been! The point I am trying to make is that we cannot make the number of baptisms the test of our fruitfulness for the Kingdom of God in 21st Century America.
Finally, we need to have a healthy unrest about our failure to spread the word of God in our communities. I am certainly not writing this to give us an excuse to do nothing. We should be praying on a daily basis that the Lord would give us opportunities to minister to His lost sheep. We should be confessing our sin of the fear of man, lack of love and spiritual laziness. We should be zealous to teach our congregations the importance of inviting neighbors, co-workers and friends to church. We should bring them to a place where they understand the dynamics of the work to which we are called. Many of those in Gospel-centered churches do not understand why their friends ought to leave liberal churches. In fact, many of the people in your church will not even be able to tell the difference between a "scriptural moralism" and the "Biblical Christianity.". We need to loving help them understand the Gospel and counterfeit gospels. For a more thorough treatment of this subject, I recommend Michael Horton's Christless Christianity and J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism. But, we should also be praying that the Lord would grant the pastors of liberal churches in our community repentance and the knowledge of the truth so that they too may minister the Gospel to the people attending. The Kingdom of God is advanced in the lives of people with a multitude of backgrounds. We must be careful not to slight the man, woman, boy or girl He would have us care for, irrespective of their religious background.