Theological Considerations for Church Planting
By Robert Reese
Books about church planting are generally written by missionary practitioners. These are activists who assume an element of urgency in fulfilling the Great Commission. Thus they often begin with an emphasis on the need for bringing salvation to the lost as the biblical basis for church planting, and then move on to the practical aspects. While the Great Commission and the state of the lost are key motivations for church planting, they are not the most basic foundation. This is to be found in the nature of the Trinity. From the mind of the Godhead comes the idea of the church, and from the notion of the church comes the need for reproducing local churches around the world.
CHURCH PLANTING BEGINS WITH THE TRINITY
The Bible demonstrates that the concepts of both church and mission originated in the mind of God, and took concrete shape in God’s interaction with His creation. Each person of the Trinity is intimately involved in this process.
God and the People of God: the Planting of Mission
The act of creation itself implied a desire for fellowship with humanity (Gen. 3:8-9), and after the fall into sin, God implemented a plan of redemption. This took concrete shape with the call of Abram and God’s promises to him (Gen. 12:1-3). These promises involved the formation of a people through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed. Initially, the people of Israel were the fulfillment of this promise. God declared to the infant nation, “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5b-6a) (NIV). In these words, God summed up His abiding interest in creation and His missionary plan for His people.
David Bosch rightly stated, “Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; there is mission because God loves people.” (1991, 392). He said that this emphasis on “missio Dei” was a fairly recent idea initiated by Karl Barth at the Brandenburg Missionary Conference of 1932 (ibid., 389). Although missio Dei has been interpreted by some to exclude the church’s involvement in mission, it is simply a recognition that “mission is, primarily and ultimately, the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry in which the church is privileged to participate” (ibid., 392). Other recent writers have echoed this important emphasis: Darrell L. Guder wrote that an “ecclesiocentric understanding of mission has been replaced during this century by a profoundly theocentric reconceptualization of Christian mission” (1998, 4). Stuart Murray added that missio Dei is one of the “key components of a theological foundation for church planting” (2001, 52), and that this emphasis has led to “a continuing convergence between evangelical and ecumenical positions on mission,” for example the document “Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation” produced by the World Council of Churches in 1983 showed that “church planting is identified as being central to mission” (ibid., 57).
Israel began to understand that being God’s chosen covenant people gave her special privileges and obligations. Moses wrote, “He has declared that he will set you in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made and that you will be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised” (Deut. 26:19). This exaltation of Israel was only because of her covenant with Him, and it would lead to the nations also paying homage to God. “God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted” (Ps. 47:8-9). Charles van Engen said that “to be the people of YHWH meant a commitment to be an instrument on behalf of all the nations within the universal scope of YHWH’s lordship over all the world” (1991, 103). Daniel T. Niles summed up Israel’s relationship to the world as follows:
1. God’s concern for the salvation of the nations underlies his call of Abraham.
2. Israel is formed out of the nations and so is not a nation like any other. Israel is a nation within and out of the nations and is addressed to them.
3. The God who chose Israel out of the nations remained always the God of all the nations.
4. Because of this threefold emphasis, Israel’s life and mission affect not only its nation’s history, but also the history of the world (1962, 250).
Israel, as the missionary people of God was a foreshadowing of the church, as seen in the words of the apostle Paul, where he refers to the church of the new creation, whether circumcised or not, as “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16b). He told the Galatians that the promises made to Abraham now applied to them as children of Abraham by faith (Gal. 3:29). Thus the privileges and obligations of God’s people passed to the body of believers in Jesus Christ as Lord.
Jesus and the Incarnation and Kingdom: the Blossoming of Mission
Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, was the God-man on a mission (John 1:1-18). That mission began in earnest with His baptism, after which He began to preach the gospel: “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:15). George Eldon Ladd has said that the primary meaning of the biblical word translated “kingdom” is “the rank, authority and sovereignty exercised by a king” (1959, 19). This is in keeping with Jesus’ own words, “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). Here the demonstration of God’s authority over demons is an indication of the presence of God’s kingdom. Similarly, in reply to a question from the Pharisees about when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within [or among] you” (Luke 17:20b-21). The meaning of this statement, according to John Bright, is probably that, “In the person and work of Jesus the Kingdom of God has intruded into the world” (1953, 216).
In his incarnate form, Jesus did not appear to be a king, as the Jews pointed out to Pontius Pilate (John 19:21), but He was already beginning to reign in the hearts of his disciples as “Teacher” and “Lord” (John 13:13). Ladd summarized this initial phase of God’s kingdom:
This is the mystery of the Kingdom: Before the day of harvest, before the end of the age, God has entered into history in the person of Christ to work among men, to bring them to the life and blessings of His Kingdom. It comes humbly, unobtrusively. It comes to men as a Galilean carpenter went throughout the cities of Palestine preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, delivering men from their bondage to the Devil. It comes to men as his disciples went through Galilean villages with the same message. It comes to men today as disciples of Jesus still take the Gospel of the Kingdom into all the world (1959, 64).
The kingdom of God will yet come with visible power and glory at Jesus’ return (Matt. 24:30; 25:31), but in the meantime it is expressed in the gospel preached in an incarnational way by Jesus’ followers (John 20:21). Now that gospel includes the content of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Luke 24:46), to provide atonement for the sins of the world and eternal life to all who believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. In the Great Commission as recorded in Luke, Jesus instructed the would-be evangelists to “stay in the city [of Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49b).
The Holy Spirit and Pentecost: the Harvest of Mission
Missions as church planting began on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled the disciples who were awaiting His anointing in Jerusalem. Harry R. Boer has called Pentecost the third great intervention of God in human history: “After Creation and Incarnation the outpouring of the Spirit is the third great work of God” (1961, 66). Not only is the Book of Acts an account of the acts of the Holy Spirit, but also it shows how the disciples were transformed into missionaries. Roland Allen noted, “Before Pentecost the apostles are represented as acting under the influence of an intellectual theory; after Pentecost they are represented as acting under the impulse of the Spirit” (1983, 76).
Pentecost is the event that gave the Great Commission its true meaning. Boer stated, “At Pentecost the witnessing Spirit identified Himself with the Church and made the Great Commission the law of her life” (1961, 122). The gift of tongues that day revealed the global scope of missions, since “the linguistic confusion of Babel occasioned by the sin of man was at Pentecost undone through the unity of understanding in the diversity of languages” (ibid., 55). Now the disciples, armed with a new boldness in the Spirit marched out to win the nations, but as each major cultural boundary was reached, it was again the Holy Spirit that pushed them to cross it. “He led them to reach out farther and farther into the Gentile world, breaking down every barrier of prejudice which might have hindered their witness, or prevented from receiving into communion men the most remote from them in habits of thought and life “ (Allen 1983, 91).
The Holy Spirit continues to impact church planting in many ways. First, it is only through the power of the Spirit that what Roland Allen called the “spontaneous expansion of the church” can occur. Spontaneous expansion is the unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church for men who see its ordered life, and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share; I mean also the expansion of the Church by the addition of new churches (1962b, 7).
That is, the Spirit unleashes the possibility for people movements and church planting movements, where rapid church growth occurs as demonstrated in the Book of Acts, as well as in various modern movements.
Secondly, the Spirit at Pentecost strongly identified with the church, making it a missionary church. “At the very moment in which the Church was born her missionary task also began. A clearer and more striking demonstration of the fact that Church and missions constitute a natural, an essential unity is hardly conceivable” (Boer 1961, 62). In light of such a clear reality, J. H. Bavinck offered this definition of missions:
Missions is that activity of the church . . . through which the church, in this interim period, in which the end is postponed, calls the peoples of the earth to repentance and to faith in Christ, so that they may be made his disciples and through baptism be incorporated into the fellowship of those who await the coming of the kingdom (1960, 62).
That is, the church is the agent of missions, the goal of mission is church planting, and the evidence for making such a statement is contained in the Great Commission as interpreted in the light of Pentecost.
Finally, the Spirit is spoken of in the New Testament as a sign and seal of the final consummation of all things. When Peter interpreted the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost he quoted these words from the prophet Joel, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17a). The giving of the Spirit to Christians is often spoken of as “a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5b; Eph. 1:13-14). Johannes Blauw noted:
From its beginning the Church of Christ as a whole has been of an eschatological nature. Since the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Church and the world are both in the same eschatological circumstances in all their actions and responsibilities – the end of the ages has come (1 Cor. 10:11) (1962, 107-108).
Therefore the church exists for the sake of the world in need of salvation in Christ before time ends and judgment comes.
CHURCH PLANTING IS SEEN IN THE IMAGES OF THE CHURCH
Paul S. Minear has catalogued and discussed 96 different images of the church contained in the New Testament (1960, 268-269). This plethora of images is an indication of the richness of the concept called “church,” and several of these images are important for a theology of church planting, as they relate directly to the Trinity.
The New Israel of God
In this image, the church is seen to be in an unbroken relationship with God’s chosen people of the Old Testament. Minear, however, emphasized that “the accent must be allowed to fall on God who creates this society as his people by his choice of them” (1960, 69). Election by God is in order to serve God’s purposes in redeeming the world:
The analogy between the church and Israel therefore became a method of coordinating two stories, not two entities. One story was the long epic of God’s dealings with Abraham, a tradition in which the events of promise and faith were considered the essential key; the other was the gospel of God’s dealings in Christ with his people, the children of Abraham, the church (ibid., 77).
A key passage describing the role of the church in fulfilling this image is 1 Peter 2:9-10. Orlando E. Costas indicated that three different but similar Greek nouns are used in this passage for “people”: genos, ethnos, and laos. He defined genos as “race, but more specifically a particular people.” Ethnos is a “nation, but understood not so much politically and geographically as culturally and sociologically; hence a group of people.” Laos means a “people, but in the biblical context it is used with reference to a specific people in contrast to other peoples of the earth” (1974, 23). All three words therefore indicate a “peculiar” people, recognized by their distinctiveness. Laos, repeated twice in verse 10, “is carried over from the Hebrew concept of ‘am, the noun used in the Old Testament to distinguish Israel from the goyim (the gentile nations)” (ibid.).
Blauw chose to end his book The Missionary Nature of the Church with a lengthy exposition of this passage (1962, 126-136). He noted that ethnos is usually reserved for the Gentile nations, but here the church is described as a holy ethnos. “A ‘holy Gentile people’ is really a contradiction, but this human impossibility has been made a divine reality in Christ” (ibid., 131). Blauw concluded:
This must be understood first of all as an indication that the community of the Gentiles has taken over the place of Israel, . . . that the Gentiles, unholy in themselves, have been sanctified by coming to Christ. By this means they have separated themselves from the others, the disobedient, and now stand in a positive relation to God (ibid.).
This separation is for service as it was meant to be for Israel. For Blauw this passage verifies “that a ‘theology of mission’ cannot be other than a ‘theology of the Church’ as the people of God called out of the world, placed in the world, and sent to the world” (ibid., 126).
The church is therefore to be a distinct community set apart as priests for the king, in order to “declare the praise of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet. 2:9b). It is to be “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14), exhibiting the preservative power of salt and the saving power of a lighthouse in a world of corruption and darkness.
The Family of God
Many times in the history of Israel and the church, the ideal of being the distinctive people of God has been taken in an unloving way towards the lost world, even though this was the opposite of God’s intention. “The people of God” can be taken in a proud exclusive way. Thus it is helpful to have a further image that is intended to denote a place for sinners to belong, the family of God. Here racial, ethnic, social, and gender differences become insignificant for membership (Gal. 3:28). Ancient animosities are annulled by the sacrifice of Christ, which makes former enemies into brothers and sisters (Eph. 2:11-12). Now alienated sinners, through faith in Christ, can become “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19b). This entitles them to claim all the benefits of the rich heritage of the New Testament apostles, Old Testament prophets, and Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:20).
The early church expressed the concept of being a family in its contagious fellowship (Acts 2:42-47). Alan R. Tippett analyzed Christian fellowship or koinonia under seven headings. He said it involved a spiritual experience, it was focused in worship, it involved rigorous commitment, a high moral life, fellowship in suffering, fellowship in service, and an obligation for world mission (1987, 40-44). These qualities made the early church cohesive, distinctive, and attractive on the one hand, but persecuted on the other hand.
Either way, the church grew, sinners found the church a place to belong, and all of this was God’s design. “The only group which will really meet the human needs is the Christian fellowship because it is the only social context where humans meet with both their fellow humans and with God” (ibid., 25). From an anthropological point of view, Tippett asserted that “the human in isolation is a social irritant” (ibid.), and therefore “not until all the believers share this two-way flow of experience can we call a congregation a fellowship of believers” (ibid., 31).
Once isolated and alienated sinners become part of God’s redeemed family, their transformation into His children becomes a continuing part of the Christian message. For it is only as unbelievers see such a community that they can really understand the gospel. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “it is the community which has begun to taste (even only in foretaste) the reality of the Kingdom which can alone provide the hermeneutic of the message” (1980, 19). Hans-Ruedi Weber insisted:
This “serving with Christ” (diakonia) and this “togetherness in Christ” (koinonia) are the basic elements of the Church’s message. This does not mean that the word is neglected. Rather it gains the proper sounding board, it finds its true setting, so that it can be spoken with authority and decisiveness (1959, 103).
The family of God provides an alternative to the families of humanity. It becomes in itself an effective witness to the possibility of unity under Christ because it attacks “at its deepest cosmic and psychic roots the perennial human habit of accepting as ultimate the world’s way of dividing mankind into competing societies” (Minear 1960, 211). It is Christ alone who “creates the two into one new person and thus makes peace, and through the cross reconciles them both in one body to God, bringing the hostility to an end by the cross” (Eph. 2:15b-16). And it is through the church that this new humanity becomes visible.
The Body of Christ
Here the imagery of the church shifts from the Father to the Son, who entered the world in bodily form and ministered and preached in an incarnational way. When Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles, chose this image for the church, he was firmly linking the mission of the church to that of Christ, as a direct continuation of Christ’s earthly ministry. Through the church, Christ directs missions as the head of the body (Eph. 1:22). Since missions for Christ meant preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, conquering the powers of Satan, ministering to the needs of the desolate, calling sinners to repentance, and gathering disciples into community for training and commissioning, this is the work of His body now.
Noting that “this in fact is the dominant theological image in Pauline ecclesiology,” James D. G. Dunn went on to say that Paul turned to it in his key epistles of Romans and 1 Corinthians to explain how the church is to function (1998, 548). These passages in Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 emphasize several key concepts. First, as Dunn believed, the image of the body itself may derive from the central idea of “the body as a vital expression of the unity of a community despite the diversity of its members” (ibid., 550). The unity clearly comes from the head who is Christ. Only in Christ could such a variety of people learn to work together for the glory of God.
Second, this image emphasizes an active role for every member of the body through the use of gifts given by the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts are not intended solely for internal use in the body, as Ephesians 4:7-16 indicates. Those who have gifts of leadership are tasked with equipping all the members for works of service, and it is this that builds up the body and establishes concrete unity, when Christ’s will is being done in the world. Dean S. Gilliland remarked, “The body does not fulfill its function if the care of the body becomes an end in itself” (1983, 191). George R. Hunsberger saw the current trend in North American churches as moving away from this model: “Both members and those outside the church expect the church to be a vendor of religious services and goods, . . . [but] members are ultimately distanced in this model from their own communal calling to be a body of people sent on mission” (1998, 84-85). Indeed, as Dunn said, “When ministry is limited to the few the result is a grotesque parody of the body, a body eighty or ninety percent paralyzed, with only the few organs functioning” (1998, 560).
Spontaneous expansion of the church depends heavily on a mobilized and active general membership who know how to use their spiritual gifts. Indeed, “spontaneous expansion begins with the individual effort of the individual Christian to assist his fellow” (Allen 1962b, 10). Alllen went so far as to accuse Christians of creating paid professionals as missionaries and clergy “not to support spontaneous missionary zeal, . . . but to take the place of it” (ibid., 107). One must admit that this has often been the effect of emphasizing the clergy-laity distinction, and of ignoring the image of the body. Howard A. Snyder concurred with Allen: “The clergy-laity dichotomy is unbiblical and therefore invalid. . . . The New Testament doctrine of ministry rests . . . on the twin and complementary pillars of the priesthood of all believers and the gifts of the Spirit” (1977, 95). Even Roman Catholic Karl Rahner has seen that missions need an active membership: “Every Christian is an apostle by the very nature of his Christianity, at all times and in all places” (1966, 3).
Finally, this image lends itself readily to the idea of reproduction through church planting, since a living body will normally reproduce. Murray suggested that “reproductive” should be added to the usual list of attributes of the biblical church: “one,” “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic.” This is because “self-propagation, or reproduction, is not just an admirable quality of some churches, but integral to the definition of church” (2001, 63-64). Snyder furthermore suggested adding a fourth “P” to C. Peter Wagner’s 3-P evangelism (Presence, Proclamation, and Persuasion), namely, “Propagation,” because “the goal of evangelism is the formation of the Christian community” (1977, 104). Certainly, bodies that do not reproduce become extinct, and it is not God’s will that the body of Christ should cease in any generation.
The Agent of the Kingdom of God
Throughout church history, there has been debate on the church’s relationship to the kingdom of God. Most modern commentators would agree that the two are not equal, with the church more limited than the kingdom. Some, like Patrick Johnstone, still seem to overreach in their zeal for the church on mission: “One can say that Church + Mission = The Kingdom” (1998, 51). Recalling Ladd’s definition of the kingdom of God, however, as the rank, authority, and sovereignty of God, one can see that Johnstone’s formula does not encompass the reality of the kingdom which includes all the visible and invisible creation. The church, at least in its divine side, must be included in the kingdom, but it must be admitted that in its human side it has frequently removed itself from God’s will on earth.
Some theologians have attempted on the other extreme to remove the church from the kingdom. J. C. Hoekendijk stated, “Church-centric missionary thinking is bound to go astray, because it revolves around an illegitimate center” (1966, 40). He concluded, “The church has no fixed place at all in this contest, it happens insofar as it actually proclaims the Kingdom to the world” (ibid., 42). For Hoekendijk, God often circumvents the church to get to the world with His kingdom. While He certainly could do this, and logically might desire to do so, the Bible indicates that He has chosen to make the church the bride of Christ in heaven (Rev. 19:7). Pointing to this “Great Consummation,” Tippett declared, “This is another reason why church-planting must go on, that converts may be introduced to the warmth of communion, the foretaste of that which is to come” (1970, 78).
Between these two extremes the church can be seen in its present state as the agent of the kingdom of God, even with its imperfections. Richard R. De Ridder remarked, “The Church is the only institution (or better, fellowship) in this world which did not arise from the created order of things. The Church arose exclusively out of the redemptive order” (1971, 211). Therefore, “every true church is an outpost of the Kingdom of God, placed in a particular spot in the world, to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ” (ibid., 210).
Noting that church and kingdom should never be equated, Lesslie Newbigin added, “But they must also not be separated” (1980, 19). He continued, “The church can become a sign [of the kingdom] insofar as, and only insofar as, her life is assimilated to the life of Jesus who was himself the only sign given of the Kingdom, Jesus himself the crucified King who bears in his risen body the marks of his passion” (ibid., 50-51). With this in mind, Snyder added, “Properly biblical understanding of the kingdom of God is possible only if the Church is understood . . . as a charismatic community and God’s pilgrim people, his kingdom of priests” (1977, 40-41). Being an agent of the kingdom makes the church aware of her failings and keeps her from the triumphalism that caused other generations to equate her with the kingdom. Hans Kung alluded to this when he said, “Ekklesia is a pilgrimage through the interim period of the last days, something provisional; basileia is the final glory at the end of all time, something definitive” (1967, 131). He added that the church “is not the bringer or the bearer of the reign of God, . . . but its voice, its announcer, its herald” (ibid., 135).
Being the agent of the kingdom of God gives the church an eschatological message and lifestyle. Presently, the church lives in the tension of being in the world but not of the world. It has “to live in tension between its confidence that the victory of the Kingdom of God had already been made actual in Christ, and its eager expectation of the victory which as yet no human eye could see” (Bright 1953, 239). Therefore, the church must enter into the suffering of Christ before it will experience the coming of Christ in blazing glory. Bright noted that the New Testament ended with the poignant words, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” “Thus the Bible closes with an echo of the theme which has been dominant in it from end to end: the coming Kingdom of God” (ibid., 242).
As the agent of the kingdom of God, the church enters the battle against the forces of Satan’s kingdom. Minear stated, “Throughout the New Testament the Kingdom of God was understood in antithesis to its enemy, the kingdom of Satan . . . the community therefore thought of itself as a company of soldiers” (1960, 120). These military and pilgrim images mean that “the church is a community ‘on the go.’ She has been called to live ‘outside the camp’ (that is in the wilderness), to travel lightly. Rather than settling in the earthly city, she is to look for the city which is to come (Heb. 13:13)” (Costas 1974, 24). Presently then, the church appears in weakness scattered over the face of the globe. Richard R. De Ridder said that the “diaspora of the Church can only be understood in terms of its apostolic mission – a going forth from its central authority under commission, and to return again when at the end of the age the mission of the Great Apostle is completed” (1971, 217).
The Temple of the Holy Spirit
This final important image emphasizes the role of the Spirit in creating a holy nation of royal priests scattered in diaspora as points of light for the peoples in darkness. Just as Jewish synagogues spread throughout the Roman Empire and Mesopotamia to become places where Gentile God-fearers could hear Moses “preached in every city from the earliest times and . . . read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21), so Christian churches were planted far and wide as points of interface with pagan communities, reflecting the glory of God in the “temple of the Holy Spirit.”
In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 6:19, Paul alternates this image between the church and the individual with both housing the Spirit of God, and needing therefore to be a fit environment for such holiness. Paul’s concern was that the Corinthian Christians, whether collectively or individually, would nullify the missionary impact they should have on Corinthians society by unholy living. This also raises the issue that the church is not only the church when assembled, but also when it is scattered. Charles Brock made this point when he said, “the group is a church when gathered and a church when scattered in ministry” (1981, 19). Weber stated it this way:
In the times between Christ’s ascension and his second coming the Church of Christ has two forms of existence: that of the ecclesia, the assembly, and that of the diaspora, the dispersion . . . The true role of the laity in the Church is apparent not in its ecclesia form, however, but in the diaspora (1959, 109-110).
Thus for Weber, the most sacred moment of the worship service should be “the blessing at the end of the meeting,” because “it is an echo of the great missionary command of Matthew 28 and hence the establishing of the church in its ‘layman’s’ role in the world” (ibid., 110).
Both the body of believers and individual Christians therefore carry the Holy Spirit with them at all times, and this makes them into a living temple, “a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:22b). The fact that the temple is living invites people “to visualize a story of the process of construction rather than a completed edifice” (Minear 1960, 97). The Holy Spirit makes Christians into “a city on a hill [that] cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14b), and also enables them to minister to the lost in power wherever they may encounter them. The more temples of God’s light there are out in the world, the more opportunity those lost in darkness have of finding their way home to their true Father.
IMPLICATIONS FOR CHURCH PLANTING
From this Trinitarian approach, and having considered five rich images of the church that relate to the Trinity, several practical implications for church planting can be made. These are in the nature of six broad principles.
1. The Church Has Both Human and Divine Natures
The church has a very checkered history precisely because it is a divinely constituted organism made up of sinful humans. The church is not the kingdom of God, nor can it bring it. It operates in humility with many “thorns in the flesh,” knowing that God has said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9a). The church no longer sees “the ‘Christianization of the world’ . . . as something substantially continuous with the general progress of human development” (Newbigin 1963, 35), and Christians understand that missions are “not the motor but the blade, not the driving force but the cutting edge. Christians do not go through the battles of history as the master race. They go through them as the servant people” (ibid., 37).
Despite many obvious flaws in the church including pride and disunity, Scripture is certain that God’s “intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10-11). Church planting proceeds on this basis, that the church is Christ’s body and it must reproduce for His glory. Because Scripture places a high value on the church, the body and bride of Christ, who intends “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27), Christians must likewise respect the need for planting churches in every corner of the world. Far from being a human hunger for power, this is a directive from the divine head of the church, to go and make disciples of the nations, letting the Spirit of God work through human weakness to establish churches.
2. For Reproduction the Church Needs Flexible Structures
Churches that become rigid institutions reproduce slowly or not at all. Best reproduction is achieved when structures are light and inexpensive. Roland Allen affirmed, “The spontaneous expansion of the Church reduced to its elements is a very simple thing. It asks for no elaborate organization, no large finances, no great numbers of paid missionaries” (1962b, 156). Patrick Johnstone, using Isaiah 54:2 as a reference, likened these necessary flexible structures to a tent:
There is something dynamic about a tent. It is flexible, fitting different kinds of terrain and need because it can be made bigger or smaller by adjusting the number of panels or sections laced together. It is mobile and built for transportation to the places where it is needed. It is temporary; the very nature of a tent is impermanent. We have lost that concept of flexible, mobile and temporary structures as necessary for the Church (1998, 155).
He continued that only the three structures that Jesus used are essential: a training structure, a sending structure, and a gathering structure (ibid., 157). He lamented the fact that in modern times the first two types of structure have often been removed from the Church and made autonomous, so creating disunity (ibid., 173).
The whole question of parachurch organizations and denominational agencies is beyond the scope of this paper, but one can agree with Lesslie Newbigin that often the local church is “encouraged to exist as a society for its own members because the wider responsibilities are carried out by another agency,” and that the work of these agencies often “is not seen as an overspill of a charismatic experience. It appears simply as a programme” (1980, 60).
Thus for reproduction local churches need to be outward looking, not dependent on agencies to do their work for them, but relying on the Holy Spirit and simple utilitarian structures, perhaps in partnerships with parachurch groups (Johnstone 1998, 210). Reformation concepts of the church as the place where certain ordinances are performed have become outmoded because they assumed a static church in a Christianized society (De Ridder 1971, 212; Snyder l977, 33-41), and that situation no longer exists. Today’s structures must be dynamic since “the Church is living in a diaspora, a dispersion,” and “it finds that the modern state is often its enemy” (De Ridder 1971, 215). Such structures will prove that “rapid church growth does not depend upon either money or buildings. It is more likely to depend on the availability of people . . . who are ready to exercise their gifts in witness and ministry” (Snyder 1977, 121).
3. The Reproducing Church is a Charismatic Community
By this is meant that every member is active in using spiritual gifts for the upbuilding and expansion of the local body of Christ. The controversial word “charismatic” simply “reminds us both of that grace by which we are saved and of the special gifts of grace or charisms (charismata) which God promises to the Church” (Snyder 1977, 66). Dunn phrased it this way: “The charism is the contribution which the individual member makes to the whole” (1998, 554), and “the character of the charismatic community [is] one of mutual interdependence” (ibid., 557).
This implies that roles in a reproducing church will be more functional than institutional. In discussing this aspect, Jurgen Moltmann defined charismata as “the energies of the new life (1 Cor. 12:6,11), which is to say the powers of the Spirit” (1977, 295). He asserted that when Paul “talks about the use of these new living energies . . . he evidently avoids all the words expressing conditions of rule. He does not talk about ‘holy rule’ (hierarchy) but chooses the expression diakonia” (ibid.). Thus the outcome of the use of spiritual gifts is service in practical ministry, and this is how reproduction takes place. New life in Christ can only come from the spirit because “He is the ‘life-giving’ Spirit, giving life to everything that is mortal (I Cor. 15:45). The community’s spiritual powers must be correspondingly understood as creative powers endowed with life” (ibid.).
Such spiritual power is what makes the church unique among human organizations. Jurgen Becker phrased it this way: “When asked what distinguishes Christians from other people, Paul and the early Christian churches, while pointing to faith, would certainly at the same times have made reference to the experience of the Spirit” (1993, 414). Without the Spirit there would be no authentic church planting, and no gifts with which to build the church.
4. The Reproducing Church Needs Functional Leaders
These leaders are those gifted with the ability to equip the members for active duty in the world. They are thus servant leaders more than bureaucrats or officials with positions in a hierarchy. They are dynamic leaders who may be unpaid, and who are preferably “home-grown.” Melvin L. Hodges asserted, “It is self-evident that a church must produce its own leaders” (1973, 75), and “It is a mistake to think that ministerial training begins in a Bible school. The normal and logical place to begin to train workers is in the local church” (ibid., 77).
Snyder proposed that “four factors constitute the life cycle of the Church as it grows and reproduces itself. They are (1) telling the good news, (2) multiplying congregations, (3) building Christian community and (4) exercising spiritual gifts” (1977, 121-122). Clearly these activities all need training and teaching of a practical nature. Snyder also emphasized that “normal growth comes by the division of cells, not by the unlimited expansion of existing cells” (ibid., 123). Thus, leadership is needed on many levels, and a major impediment to growth is lack of such leaders.
Leaders will have to be aware of the “tension between the normal process of institutionalization and the dynamic drive of the Holy Spirit” (Weber 1959, 115) and be prepared “to let die all that does not serve participation in ministry of Christ in the world” (ibid., 116). Only with such a determined focus can church multiplication continue indefinitely.
5. Each Local Church Is a Complete Ekklesia
There has been a tendency associated with colonialism to consider a newly planted church as inadequate for a long period of time, but this is not the biblical model. The word most commonly translated as church is ekklesia, and it “is the single most frequent term used by Paul to refer to the groups of those who met in the name of Christ” (Dunn 1998, 537). Dunn asserted that it is likely that Paul derived this term primarily from the Septuagint which contains about one hundred references where ekklesia translates qahal, qahal Yahweh, or qahal Israel, that is, it refers to “Israel’s self-identity” (ibid.). Dunn concluded that “wherever believers met for fellowship and worship they were in direct continuity with the assembly of Israel, they were the assembly of God” (ibid., 540). This included house churches and larger congregations.
P. T. O’Brien made a similar analysis, but based his argument on the fact that Colossians and Ephesians use ekklesia to refer to the “universal church which can only gather in heaven” (1993, 126). Therefore “local gatherings, whether in a congregation or a house church, were earthly manifestations of that heavenly gathering around the risen Christ” (ibid.). By using the same term for both the universal and local church, Paul was apparently making a point about the adequacy of the local church to be the body of Christ in its locale.
Roland Allen argued this point effectively in his analysis of Pauline mission practice: “St Paul preached in a place for five or six months and then left behind him a church, not indeed free from the need of guidance, but capable of growth and expansion” (1962a, 84). Paul did not leave new churches without help, as his many epistles indicate, but “by leaving them quickly St Paul gave the local leaders opportunity to take their proper place, and forced the church to realize that it could not depend upon him, but must depend upon its own resources” (ibid., 93). Such a policy showed that Paul trusted the Holy Spirit’s operation in new churches, and that these were soon expected to be complete churches, on a par with older congregations. Paul and the other apostles set up no hierarchical administration and “new churches . . . [were] regarded equally with the first as parts of a still incomplete whole” (ibid., 131). Only with such high expectations for new churches can reproduction continue indefinitely.
6. Church Planting Must Be Contextual and Culturally Relevant
If churches are to be reproductive they must be indigenous to their location from the beginning. Charles Brock affirmed, “Rarely will a church born apart from indigenous principles reproduce itself, and almost never will it produce an indigenous church” (1981, 35). Allen also said, “if the church is to be indigenous it must spring up in the soil from the very first seeds planted” (1962b, 2). This important question of indigeneity is beyond the scope of this paper, so just a few comments can be made.
C. Peter Wagner stated that the original “Three Self formula” (self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating) was now “senile” (1971, 163), and he proposed three alternative signs for a mature church: (1) “A church that can take care of itself,” psychologically, liturgically, spiritually, administratively, and financially; (2) “A church that is for others”; and (3) “A church that is relevant to the cultural situation” (ibid., 164-167). Being culturally relevant or contextual means more than being indigenous, because some churches become so indigenous that they are no longer distinctive as citizens of a heavenly kingdom, and they cease reproducing because of being engulfed by the surrounding culture. Therefore, being a contextual church means both that the church does not look, sound, or feel foreign (indigeneity), and that it really mediates the gospel to its culture in prophetic ways that impact the culture, using the culture’s language and questions. Such a stance may well bring persecution to the church, but this is an expected part of the spiritual warfare involved in a clash of kingdoms. Being contextual does not mean, then, an eagerness to accept the culture on its own terms, but an eagerness to engage it with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The reader will have noticed that Paul’s practice of church planting has formed a model for this paper. A question may arise whether this is appropriate, since the world has changed drastically in these twenty centuries. An analysis of the history of the church shows it has gone through four main stages. In the New Testament period up to about AD 300 the church was a distinct counterculture in a pagan environment. Lesslie Newbigin said, “It saw itself as a movement launched into the public life of the world, challenging the cultus publicus of the Empire, claiming the allegiance of all without exception” (1980, 46). That is, it deliberately refused to be a private society offering private salvation to interested individuals in competition with other private societies. The second phase was the Constantinian period, from AD 300 to about AD 1700, where the church was seen as institutional, territorial, and static, united with a Christian state in Christendom. Church planting in this period was either by intrepid missionaries traveling to barbarian or exotic cultures, or by decrees from the church-state bureaucracy to expand a diocese.
The third phase was the Enlightenment, from AD 1700 to about AD 1950, when increasing secularism and scientific advance relegated the church to being a spectator in the culture without practical relevance. Now the church did become a purveyor of private salvation to individuals, and it was in competition with all sorts of other private associations. “The Christian vision was allowed to illuminate personal and domestic life, but not to challenge the vision that controlled the public sector” (ibid., 49).
The final phase is since AD 1950, when in the wake of the demise of colonialism and the breakdown of church-state arrangements, the “Church is definitely a minority everywhere” (De Ridder 1971, 214), often in hostile situations. But De Ridder reminded Christians that “the Christian Church was born in diaspora” (ibid., 216), so this is really a return to the situation that prevailed for the early church. Johnstone applauded the fact that “we are being compelled to return to a much more biblical and radical position—that of being a minority in the world but not of it. Few Christians are aware that 1,700 years of a politicized Christianity as the ideology of the ruling elite are rapidly drawing to a close” (1998, 262).
With this completion of the cycle of the church’s self-understanding, it is indeed possible and beneficial to return to the Pauline model of church planting. As Johnstone said, “Christendom is doomed, but the future of biblical Christianity is bright” (ibid., 263).
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