Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Church Planting Revisiting The Subject

Planting New Churches
Revisiting The Subject

For the past number of years I have had the privilege of teaching in India at Nava Jeva Ashram. Good  friends of ours Ken and Vinni Henson teach there. . I was asked to write an article for them to encourage Church Planting. The article that follows here is what I sent to them for publication. May it encourage you to think afresh about the important task of multiplying new congregations and also about what is the most effective means of so doing.

The number of Christians still attending traditional, legacy-type churches as their only expression of faith is rapidly declining. Currently only 34%-36% of persons in America attend a church of any kind weekly and an even smaller percentage of the total is part of these legacy type churches. The apparent but sad truth is that even people who claim to be Christians have rejected the traditional churches and are either not worshipping with any congregation or are attending a new kind of church.  
The followers of Jesus Christ in the United States who do not attend a local traditional church will grow from 30% to 70% in the next twenty years.
Ken and Vinni Henson
This coupled with the fact that the last 50 years have seen the church to population ratio go from approximately one church for every 600 people in America to approximately one church for every 2000 persons today. Our current influence as the church upon culture is waning and if we are to be faithful to the Lord's command and commission to us we must look pragmatically at what He has and is blessing. The current model is broken.
The most common form of the church around the world, which in spite of national and international trends  is a home based or cell based church. These churches around the world are springing up and thriving. The 25 largest churches (See earlier blog article on Growth Mix) in the world have all grown and are built using this strategy.
It was the most common form of the church in New Testament times and it still flourishing today.
The percentage and number of Christians on a worldwide basis who meet in these home-based or cell-based churches has consistently been higher than in the United States and in most other areas of the world are actually the predominant model of church life.
Alternative, organic fellowship forms (house churches/simple churches/cell churches) currently home to 5% of American Christians will grow to make up 30% - 35%; another 30% - 35% will live out their faith in the fields of media, arts and culture; the remaining Christians attending non-traditional forms of church will have a family-based spiritual life. The participants in this revolution are not anti-Church! In fact, it is their desire to return to New Testament Christianity. In the opinion of most of these folks, it makes you one of the more pro-Church people around.
Student Body Nava Jeva Ashram 
These gatherings of smaller, organic groups outside the Sunday "talk-in-the-box" modality is not just another "bolt-on" program for the traditional church, but exists as one of the most effective ways of actually "doing" church differently in this 21st Century.
These observations about the emerging church model are the introduction to this article for a reason. I seems clear that what God has been and is doing is reaching this world through community based home churches where Christians in their locales live out the Christian faith in practical ways and their faith in Christ is visible for all to see.
It is also an observation of this missiologist that the largest most effective churches in the world are so because they are cell-based with hundreds and thousands of home based churches all around their cities and villages. It is clear that if persecution was to shut down the public worship of the church as happened in China in the 1950’s these churches rather than die would continue to thrive.
It is sad but true that if the public worship was destroyed in the modern institutional church there would not be much left and the church rather than progressing would have, whatever its witness was, silenced.
A new church in Kissi. Kenya The cells are gathered.
This 2 year old church has seen 140 plus new converts
in the last 6 months
When we then think about Church Planting and the modern missionary movement and we think about theological education and its role in the training of the next generation of leaders in the Christian movement the question is clear.
 “Does modern theological education by its curricula, and models of practical Christian service undermine the most effective strategy for reaching new persons with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
The obvious answer would seem to be “Of course not!” Not one theological institution of a basic evangelical persuasion would ever want to see what they taught be a detriment to persons coming to faith in Christ and serving Him as responsible members of His church
Teaching  At Nava Jeva Ashram
Bangalore India
However as I examine my own theological education through Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral work there was no hint of a class or course devoted to this critical issue. If the starting of a new church was mentioned at all it was most certainly assumed that it would be a church with a building, enough worship attendance to support the programs and a pastor. It’s not that the professors were against church planting however, but for the vast majority of them their total life experience was in the paradigm of an existing institutional church. The problem was an over all ethos in the educational environment that seemed to have certain assumptions upon which the education process was built. Let me give you a few.
1.    To help the student learn and understand the Bible and Theology is our primary task. We are not the determiners of what is done with this learning after the students leave. We are called to be faithful teachers.
2.    Most students if they enter full time ministry will go and serve existing churches (that look like the traditional institutional church) so if practical ministry skills are to be taught, they are the skills necessary to build effective existing local churches.
3.    If students are to be church planters they either have an extremely rare set of entrepreneurial skills or the training on how to plant churches will be found in other agencies within and without denominations. It’s not the task of theological institutions to encourage and train for church planting.
4.    There is bias that new churches even if they are started need to look and act like existing churches and if they don’t the church plant has failed. (A personal experience in a “Church Planting” Course)
A Cell Church Baptism
5.    The assumption that because we as professors have advanced degrees earned from institutions filled with others who have advanced degrees we are effective because of what we know, rather than what we can do. Can you imagine what would change in our teaching if rather than graduation rates and GPA,  success was to be measured by how many churches were planted by those we taught? After all is that not the true meaning and intent of matheteuomaking a disciple.
Let me illustrate: Pastor A (An actual pastor) felt God’s direction calling him to plant a church in a new area of the community which had few churches and a large unreached population. The community was made up of persons who homogeneously were like the pastor. It had people in it who were highly educated, had well above average incomes and above average debt. The housing costs were in the top 1/3 of all the houses in the larger area. After going through a battery of tests to examine his and his families fitness for church planting and attending denomination sponsored and paid for church planting courses it was determined that he was a superior candidate and was approved to plant a church. At that point funding was secured to start the new church. A three-year commitment to supplement the pastor’s salary was made and the church was launched. He began to gather a nucleus which meeting in a number of homes grew to about 60 persons. The decision was made it was now time to launch “the church” and so a rental site in a local school was secured, flyers were printed and mailed and for that first Sunday a little over 100 persons “showed up”. It became clear early on that the services were primarily a gathering of these cell groups and those who had just drifted into worship through the advertising for the most part didn’t hang around very long. A stream of people came, stayed for a few weeks and drifted away unassimilated into this lager group. 
The congregation in Kissi Kenya gathered 
to learn how to be more effective in 
reaching the lost. In spite of their growth over 
the past year their passion for 
reaching the lost has not diminished. 
As the church entered the second year the struggle continued. Since the funding was on a 3 year declining scale the pastor had to take a part time job in the community and was actually putting less time and energy into the church than he had at the beginning (Remember survival is an extremely high and critical value). By the third year the pastor was working full time and struggling just to plan, fund, and execute the weekly worship services. So much of his energy was put into this weekly meeting that virtually all the effort that was at one time given to the home cells was all but abandoned. In year four public worship ceased and the church was now back to approximately 45 persons who were meeting weekly in homes. They were planning mission trips together, supporting missionaries, using their resources to help real people with needs in their community and they have now started to invite these persons to come to their homes. Baptisms occur but now instead of a church service they go to the beach and do it out in the open for the whole world to see. The people in the church love and care for one another and are growing in there faith not only in what they know but what they do. They still gather occasionally as a larger group when all the cells come together to do something together that would have been impossible to do as a simple home cell.
John and Mary Thannickal
Founders Of 

Nava Jeva Ashram
What has been the reaction to all this? First of all, from an institutional perspective, this is not considered one of our “successful church plants” by the denominational church planting committee. After all you hear people say there’s not a church, and by that they mean a building with a Sunday worship service. We invested all this money and they should have had 200 or so people now and should either have or be in the process of getting their first building.  (PS Most persons are blind to the fact that even a modest house in that area is over $1,000,000 and for all but wealthy or large congregations a building is out of reach). Even the pastor has bought into this model. While he is faithful in these multiple home groups he looks forward to the day he can have a full time pastorate with a building and a salary.
Pastor A has the best theological education possible with an M Div from a prestigious evangelical seminary.  He serves in a denominational body that has prioritized church planting. Why would Pastor A feel this experience as one of failure rather than success?
If we go back to the earlier observations about theological education and church planting and the measurement stick provided by them it is clear the church plant of Pastor A didn’t measure up and he was a “failure”. There will be a dissection of the experience asking what training he lacked, what mistakes were made, and that community will probably be branded as resistant to the gospel. Already a large regional church is being blamed as they could provide the program the church plant couldn't staff or afford.
It’s a surprise to me that as many of these churches actually survive and at some point thrive considering the uphill battle they must face. We can all point to the stars and assume every church start should measure up to “that”, whatever “that” is.
I believe the assumptions that were made set the church up for failure.  The image created the frame of reference for the judgment.
A successful church (if we look at it biblically) is not considered a church, an effective pastor is not considered an effective pastor and a receptive community is considered resistant to the gospel. All because we had a legacy based institutional model with its assumptions and baggage.
With Dr. Cho in his office. He not only saw 
God use him to buildthe largest church in the world
 but see it develop over100 ,000 cells. 
Each year thousands of Pastors, church planters
and lay leaders converge on the Yoido Church 
for the annualCell Church Conference
We have so valued the church as an organization and institution that we have missed the tremendous potential as we live out the church as part of a living organism. The church as the body of Christ is alive and vital. The church as an institution can become tradition-bound and ineffective.
What if the model was changed.  Perhaps we need to measure success by the changed lives of individuals both those of us who are Christians and the conversions of those who at one time were not. Maybe its time to put to rest the existing gold standard that ‘bigger is better”.
For example the institutional church in China had at its most optimistic estimates under a million persons who claimed to be Christians before the persecution drove the church underground. When the church moved from this institutional large gathering to being forced to live out it's Christianity in home cells/churches the church in China grew to be somewhere between 50 and 75 million believers. Some would even argue that God had the institutional church closed to reach China with the gospel.
The concept of the church in the New Testament has 3 pictures or models of how it is expressed.
  1. The universal church that has in it all believers of all time who are in this church by virtue of their relationship with Jesus Christ
  2. A church gathered in a local town or region where believers, usually a larger number than could meet in a home, came normally on a set time to a set place for worship teaching etc.
  3. A group of Christians who met in a home and were the witness to Christ in that community and the group practiced the essentials of what a local church is to be and do.
While we could give scores of scriptures to validate that these three forms of the Church are taught in the Scriptures, I would submit to you that the church which met in the home was the most common expression of the church in all the New Testament. When the scriptures teach that the number of churches multiplied daily there is no evidence archeologically or biblically that this was a church like our modern churches with multi- million dollar campuses, huge staffs and all the rest. All the evidence points to the fact that these were churches that met in homes. In fact you have to move a few hundred years into church history to see churches having buildings at all.
This should be so obvious to us that we would be praising Pastor A or any layperson who saw this scriptural truth clearly enough to actually reach the people that were their neighbors and friends, and dare to be in a relationship and accountability with other persons where the 30 or so “one another” commands of scripture could actually be practiced and that the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s supper would really be all that God wanted them to be.
Putting down the church that meets in a regional or local public setting would not be the purpose of this article. This article is to elevate the expectation that every Christian should be part of an effective church that meets in a home (whether they are also part of a Regional Church is not critical here). This article is also advocating that theological education ought to be giving the training in and modeling of this most effective means of church planting and effective evangelism. Would it not be an interesting requirement that every faculty member be a church planter in the true sense of the word? (Is this not what is taught when it says an elder is to have a good reputation of those without. Is it also a place where the leadership of the home church pastor is seen in relationship with spouse and children). Students could be in one of these churches as apprentice leaders and by the end of their first year I believe the majority could have planted a new church. The macro and micro skills of effective church leadership would have been taught not only cognitively but also by the modeling and example of the existing leader.
I close with this story from South America. I had the privilege of working with some missionaries in the villages and towns of the Amazon Basin. Power in a larger town was sporadic and resources were scarce and the poverty of the area was evident at every turn. The church did meet weekly but it was primarily the meeting of all the house church leaders and their assistants who came for training and accountability. If you were part of a cell you met together with the other cell leaders at the annual conference and perhaps once a quarter for a evangelistic crusade where you would be expected to bring your unsaved neighbors. Each cell also, approximately once every 5or 6 weeks, comes to the worship center where perhaps 10% of the cells are assigned for that Sunday. If you wanted to see the real church you waited until after dark and you would see on street after street a little fire being built in the middle of the road and as the fire started people came and gathered around. You could hear songs of praise, petitions of prayer and the study of God’s word. Attending where people from every generation. From the youngest babies to the oldest adults they were there. There were people who had been Christians many years, new Christians and persons that lived in the neighborhood who as yet didn’t know the Lord. As we walked through intersection after intersection and looked either way we saw literally hundreds of these effective churches sometimes 5 or 6 in one block publicly worshipping the Lord for all to see. That kind of witness is rarely seen in our existing institutional churches but here it was literally transforming a community.
Congregation of Village Church Plant 

As a missiologist I see this as what God is doing around the world. The majority of the new churches that are planted and new people being reached is being done through these effective house churches planted by Christians passionate about seeing the Great commission fulfilled in their location.
My appeal is to theological educators that they would understand the Biblical Theological, and Mission mandates and we would bring the practices in our personal lives and in our educational institutions into conformity to all of what God calls His church to be.
Can you dream with me of the potential if we really took all this seriously? Professors would have a wealth of illustrations as practitioners of the faith in a very real sense, students would become motivated to make a impact for God wherever He planted them, thousands of new churches would be started, and the desire of the Lord that this gospel be preached “panta ta ethne” would become a reality. Let it be Lord, let it be!

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