Church planting may actually be one of the primary tools that we can use to kill the sinful selfish desire for achievement, recognition, or status.
The quote above was how I ended the last entry in this series of whether to expand and continue to build existing churches or to plant new ones. We need both. However, the series has been intended to help encourage established churches and ministries to think broader than their own locales and “town takeovers for the Gospel.” It’s not wrong to grow and continually expand, but I’ve hoped to create and contribute to the responsibility we have to plant churches and new works with the same intentionality that we give to growing existing ministries.
With that said, so many are now on board with planting new churches – here and overseas – that at times we must resemble a pinball machine that has multiple metal balls in play at the same time. We’re bouncing into one another, with no predetermined strategy of communication or cooperation.
The consistent message of the past 15 years has been heard. Churches and ministries – and even disconnected individuals – are planting churches. The message has created momentum. But I fear that our momentum is often misguided and may actually in many cases become an errant missile – a WMD – that could harm unity and harmony in the overall body of Christ.
Within the past year, just in our vicinity, we’ve had multiple well-publicized new ministries come to the area. Some have been church plants; one is a missions ministry. I welcome all. I’m grateful to be a co-laborer for the Gospel of Christ with each.
As a pastor in the area, I’m constantly praying and preaching against our tendency as churches to be zealous and jealous for only our locales or individual ministries. It’s easy to preach and difficult to internalize. Established churches, as I’ve mentioned in other articles in this series, tend to resist “new kids on the block” for fear of them stealing sheep or detracting from their own growth. This is turfism at its finest.
I believe one of the issues that creates a turf-minded mentality in existing ministries is the often accurate perception of new ministries and churches of their lack of love for the lawn. Paul in 1 Corinthians describes the church universal as the “body of Christ.” We all have a part to play. Jesus in his last recorded prayer before the cross in John 17 prayed for his followers to be unified. Yet we seem intent to stake out small areas of the larger lawn and only fertilize and work them. The result is a brown and green patchwork quilt of kingdom influence.
It’s odd then, when a new church or ministry comes to an area without a word of extended hand of fellowship with existing ministries. The resulting impression is that they don’t care that there are other Christ-exalting, Gospel-saturated works in the area they’re moving to. In larger cities, many churches and organizations seem almost to do a paratrooper church plant as if they’re dropping in behind enemy lines in the dead of night. At times, existing ministries are treated as treasonous rather than allies.
On the flip side, existing ministry and church leaders don’t reach out to new leaders and fellowships very well either. They are skeptical, uncertain and honestly, busy. We don’t do networking or cooperation very well. That problem is compounded when the new works move in without a word of fellowship (or warning). Walls are built; doubts go deep; the lawn begins to have isolated green spots of growth with obvious brown separations between.
Considering that our church has a goal of planting new churches, we’ve watched and have taken to heart how we feel when new ministries come to town as we prepare for the future. Here are a few short thoughts if you are a new ministry, in a new area:
- Before arriving, communicate well ahead of time. Send emails or letters to churches and ministries in the area describing your vision, your testimony, background and calling for the new area. It’s important for context.
- During your first month in the area, as tempting as it may be to focus only on “the task at hand,” put yourself out there. Drop by existing churches and ministries. Arrange coffee connections. In traditional churches, we call it the “right hand of Christian fellowship.” But perhaps the biblical precedent is to “greet one another with a holy kiss.”
- Don’t allow your frenetic focus to detract from wider fellowship. You’ll be intensely busy surviving and working hard in the first several months. Remember, God has given you the wider body for encouragement, renewal, accountability and resources.
- You may be surprised to discover that existing churches/ministries will actually help you if you build a relationship with their leaders. Don’t be afraid to ask for insight, wisdom, perspective and even resources. You’re new, after all. Pick the brains of pastors and leaders for context in your new community.
- Keep reaching out. You may feel rebuffed at first by some or many. As a newish pastor in a new area myself (a year and a half), I too have felt the frustration of a lack of fellowship among other churches. (I was in my previous area for 14 years.) Don’t let that discourage you. Be an example of someone thirsty for unity, fellowship and cooperation. Your desire will eventually be rewarded by some rich friendships and opportunities for fellowship with others. But don’t fool yourself; some churches don’t cooperate with anyone.
- Don’t grow your own by putting others down. I wrote a few weeks ago about the danger of insulting the bride of Christ. It’s hard to build up when you’re busy tearing down. It’s tempting to try to distinguish your new work or ministry through comparison or generalizations, but be sensitive. Statements like, “The vast majority of the American church are not true Christians,” is bound to be received poorly by that American church on the next block, especially if they’re laboring, praying and interceding for the glory of God in their midst and for the world.
- Humility, humility, humility. There are other laborers. There are other churches. Yours is not and will not be the best expression of the New Testament church since the first century. Their churches weren’t perfect either.
- Love the larger lawn. We serve the Master Gardener. He has commissioned us all in different ways. As the apostle Paul (a church planter) stated so eloquently:
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3.6-9)