Planting at the Intersection of Receptivity, Need, and Passion

Where should we plant churches? With over four billion people on the planet who are not disciples of Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility to answer this question carefully. No one has helped me think through this question more than J.D. Payne, author of Discovering Church Planting.

Payne suggests that we plant at the intersection of receptivity and need:

  • Receptivity — Where are people ready to hear the gospel? While there is a role for planting in areas with low receptivity, it is best to prioritize areas where people are receptive to the gospel.
  • Need — Where do people need to hear the gospel? Where are there a high number of people who have never heard the gospel, in contrast to areas where there are a high percentage of believers? (See Payne’s recent post on Utica as an example. I would argue that Toronto is just as needy.)

Payne argues that we should prioritize areas of high need and receptivity as a matter of stewardship. While some may be called to areas of high need and low receptivity, this is not the norm.

As I think about this, I would add one more consideration:

  • Passion — Where am I particularly suited and impassioned to serve?

This is probably worth its own post, but I have found that when God calls someone to do something, he usually also gives them a great passion or burden for that work. 

We should therefore aim to plant churches at the intersection of receptivity, need, and passion.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

What Church Plants Have that Established Churches (Often) Don't

Church plants have very little. They have little money, few people, no building, and an uncertain future. Yet church plants have a few things that older churches often don't have, and that makes all the difference.

What do church plants have? Three qualities:

  • A unified vision — Mission drift plagues many established churches. New churches typically don't succumb to this, at least in the early years. If you are in a church plant, it's likely because you've heard the vision and bought into it. Otherwise, there's little to keep you there. This is a huge advantage.
  • An outward focus — Churches tend to turn inward as they grow older. A church plant can't afford to do this, or they will not get off the ground. New churches have a focus on evangelism and blessing the community that is essential.
  • A flexible ministry model — Having little can work to your advantage. You can make changes without having to reinvent everything. Newer churches can change almost anything at a moment's notice. They are not constrained by buildings and years of tradition. New churches are nimble.

Please note: it's possible to have all of the above in an established church, but not without a lot of work. By work, I mean suffering. Established churches have more stability and resources, but these often come at the expense of the qualities I describe above.

Here's the beautiful thing: newer churches can help older churches move towards these qualities, as older churches help newer churches with prayer and resources. Both newer churches and older churches have what the other needs. Both are essential in the Kingdom.

How Every Church Can Get Involved with Church Planting

For pastors and other leaders truly committed to the church growth imperative of the Great Commission, church planting is not an option. (Thom S. Rainer)

I'm a firm believer that every church should be involved in church planting. To be sure, there are different levels of involvement. No involvement, however, should not be an option.

The Gospel Coalition has a great post on how to become a church planting church. I love the plan that Brian Howard outlines in that article; it is doable, and churches can begin right where they are and adapt the plan within their context.

In his excellent book Discovering Church Planting, J.D. Payne outlines some different levels of involvement. "The first thing that churches should understand is that there is a multitude of ways to be involved in church planting," he writes. They include:

  • calling out missionaries who will consider church planting as a ministry option;
  • providing ongoing prayer support for church plants and church planters;
  • encouragement and association with the church planting team;
  • pastoral mentoring and accountabliity;
  • training, such as paying for planters to attend conferences and training events;
  • resources and financial help;
  • constant recognition of the church planters.

Chapter 14 of Discovering Church Planting is a valuable resource on how to get involved with church planting, even at a very introductory level.

I'm convinced that this would make a huge difference. If every church did its part — even a small part — then we would continually be raising up new church planters, understanding the importance of planting, praying for church plants, and providing resources for the work.

What a great opportunity! Begin where you are, and see where God begins to take you as you take small steps to increasing involvement in the planting of churches that are reaching people with the gospel. Just as every church should be involved in missions, every church should be involved in church planting.

It's Supposed to Be Messy and Hard

I confuse myself, and I don’t think I’m alone.

When we began planting a church in Liberty Village, I was pretty sure that our goal was to plant ourselves and the gospel in a community where the gospel isn’t known. It would be messy; progress would be slow; but we would pray for people to come to know Christ and persevere even when it was hard. Out of that would come a church, if God so blessed. Failure would be a very real possibility as we live on the frontier. This is not a safe option.

Just a few months in, I’ve noticed a few things. One: I’m busy, and the busyness is keeping me from living on mission. Two: Our community isn’t as far along as we would like; some of us are living in the same community, but are lives aren’t as intertwined as I’d hoped. Three: I get discouraged when not enough (notice how slippery that term is? what’s enough?) people show up to one of our services.

If I’m not careful, I completely miss the point of what we are trying to do.

Here are a few things that come to mind as I think about this.

First, consider the possibility that this confusion may be pretty widespread. Will Mancini frequently asks pastors, “How do you want your church to be different in two years?” The most common response he receives is, “More people." (See Innovating Discipleship for more.) More people is good, but it’s only part of the picture. He lists some other possible responses he rarely hears: more desparate for Jesus, or more friendships with people far from God. It may be that “more people” is part of what we should be aiming for in two years; it may be that there are more important things that have escaped our attention. For myself: I’d love more people living in community and on mission in Liberty Village over simply more people sitting in rows anytime. I just need to remember this.

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Second, please help me celebrate the right things. When people ask how church planting is going, it’s easy to give a sanitized answer. The reality is that it is often hard. The results are not always evident. Success is not always guaranteed. The process is messy. And this isn’t when things are going poorly; this is church planting at its best. When you are planting a church that aims to be built out of new kingdom citizens, this is exactly how it should look.

That’s why I love what J.D. Payne says: expect new churches to be immature. That’s how they’re supposed to look. Or, as Tim Challies puts it, expect bad singing. Expect it to be hard. Expect setbacks and disappointments. In the middle of the risk and the messiness and sometimes apparent defeat, God does some pretty amazing things.

I spent most of yesterday reminding myself that these things are true. Pray that I’ll remember tomorrow. I have a tendency to confuse myself with the wrong metrics more quickly than I’d like.

My Second Biggest Temptation in Church Planting

The temptations in church planting are endless, just as in the rest of life. Overall, I find that there are two that are the most common for me. One is the temptation to rely on my own strength rather than planting in complete reliance upon God; the other is focusing more on the worship service than on making disciples.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in the priority of corporate worship, the preaching of God’s Word, and more. I would react equally against an approach that downplays corporate worship. When we planted, we began with an emphasizing the importance of corporate worship. We are not as down on this as some church plants who purposely downplay the corporate gathering.

The danger is that church becomes a weekly service rather than a group of disciples who are living on mission, and that church attendance becomes a greater metric than the making of disciples in everyday life. I wrote of this danger years ago, and I'm living it now. I'm struck by what Dallas Willard once said:

We must flatly say that one of the greatest contemporary barriers to meaningful spiritual formation in Christlikeness is overconfidence in the spiritual efficacy of 'regular church services,' of whatever kind they may be. Though they are vital, they are not enough. It is that simple.

I long for more of the ministry described in books like The Trellis and the Vine, which includes corporate gathering but a whole lot more discipleship taking place throughout the week.

What do you think? If you are church planting, what other temptations have you noticed?