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Is Church Planting Biblical?


Some may suggest that I’m splitting hairs in this article but I think I’ve got a point to consider. 


A few years back a pastor invited some of us to help him “plant a church” 75 miles down the road.  We already knew of a couple of Christian families there so we had a starting point.  After a few Sunday gatherings this pastor felt a business meeting was in order to discuss things like a bank account, a treasurer, a rented facility, and some good advertising among other things.  


By faith this pastor claimed a great influx of people within weeks. Well, after 2 years he shut things down. The numbers just weren’t there.  “They are  just a home group”, he explained.  “How degrading” I thought.  These people didn’t deserve to be a real church so they were relegated to being “just a home group” as if meeting in homes is second rate.   


When the apostle Paul entered a town did he head to the nearest coffee shop and make plans to plant a church with the  new converts?  Did he  survey the city to find a suitable place to rent or buy?  Did he present the new believers with an ecclesiastical flow chart showing him to be the top apostle in the chain of command?  Did he open a bank account to collect their tithes? 


Paul did none of these things, and it’s not because he couldn’t find a coffee shop or a bank.  Paul didn’t do the normal church planting activities because I don’t think he was called to that, despite the common belief that apostles are church builders.  Paul was called to proclaim Jesus to Jews, to Gentiles, to their kings, and to suffer lots along the way. (Acts 9:15)  That’s what Jesus wanted him to do.  Churches were a by-product of his preaching.         



From the book of Acts we learn that when Paul entered any town he went straight to the local synagogue and preached Jesus (Acts 17:2).  If there was no synagogue, or if he got kicked out of the synagogue he’d end up preaching by a river, (Acts 16:13) in a market place, (Acts 17:17) or in a school. (Acts 19:9)  It’s a good thing Paul wasn’t called to sell real-estate because  “location, location, location” didn’t seem important to him.


When people received the gospel in a particular locality a community of believers was born.  Paul would then leave for the next town, but not before baptizing the new believers in water and making sure they received the Holy Spirit. Paul did not implement structured church plans at that time.


It wasn’t until some years later that Paul, Timothy or Titus publicly recognized elders that God had already raised up in these places. Communities of functioning believers had sprung up all over with mature men caring for God’s people. Did Paul get it all backwards by not structuring these churches before he left town the first time.  I don’t think so. He left the disciples in the hands of Jesus.    


Here’s another point to consider. In Matt. 28:19 Jesus commissioned the eleven apostles “to disciple all nations”.  This might be splitting hairs to some but discipling people isn’t church planting in my thinking.  It’s bringing individual people from all nations into a personal learning relationship with Jesus. That’s what the word “discipling” means.          


Once this learning relationship is established, maturity depends heavily on the Holy Spirit’s work in the disciples.  You might not know this, but Paul only visited the Philippian Christians 3 times in all his years of ministry.  This tells me that the success of the Philippians didn’t depend on Paul or ecclesiastical authority alone, but on God. (Phil. 2:13)  Acts 14:23 concurs with this. After Paul, Barnabas and the body of believers in Antioch publicly recognized elders Paul and Barnabas left them in the hands of the Lord and moved on.


I believe the New Testament emphasizes “discipling people” and not “planting churches”.  Structuring churches was secondary and simple, consisting of a group of caring elders and their helpers called deacons.   


When we set out to plant a church down the road, we weren’t thinking of  discipling people.  We had “church duplicating” in mind, attempting to “copy and paste” our particular brand of church structure somewhere else, which seems to be what church planting is all about these days.    


A missionary from Africa spoke to us when I was at Bible College in the mid 1970’s.  He told us in no uncertain terms that he welcomed American missionaries to Africa but he pleaded with us to leave the American culture at home.  This expresses the sentiment of my point quite well.    


I believe the Holy Spirit desires to work creatively in every community of believers.  Simply duplicating cookie cutter churches isn’t creative.  Of course if we allowed the Holy Spirit to be creative we’d have to understand that the church down the road might not look like ours, and we might have to give it more autonomy and freedom than we’d like.           


So does the New Testament teach “duplication of churches” or “discipling of people”?  I think the answer is obvious.   


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