Bruce Wesley wrote a piece that Christianity Today published on their blog with the provocative title, The Arrogance and Impatience of Church Planters. Go read it: he makes a number of really good points.
He also assumes a particular model of church planting in his analysis. That assumption may be one reason why we don’t see churches planting churches at much higher rates that we do in the US.
Now, to be fair, his model is the THE model for most US based church planting efforts. But I would argue that it’s not the arrogance of church planters that is the problem: the model itself increases the potential for arrogance.
US church planting usually begins and ends with “the man.” That particular man who starts, waters, grows, prunes and, eventually, harvests. It sees the process of church planting as a visionary, linear process which must be strategically thought out and planned. The man must be qualified, have the right lifestyle and exhibit a particular set of gifts. The man gets a vision. The man prays. The man is selected. The man starts the work. The man teaches, preaches, disciples, etc. If the man is able to overcome he will one day sit atop a successful church (the word “successful” here can usually be replaced with the word “large”). This model of church planting is based on the theologically thin (but widely practiced) idea that churches are led by pastors.
Let me state clearly that I don’t believe that this model of church planting is “wrong” or “unbiblical.” It’s one way of doing it, though, and not the only way. In fact, I think it is contextualized to our Western church tradition and thus enjoys some success in the US. Most church planting networks and denominations use it. But, let’s also recognize that it has problems. An easy one to identify is the rise of celebrity pastors. The teaching-centricity of this model means that discipleship is often reduced to knowing instead of being. Could it be that this model, focused as it is on “the man,” creates the sort of arrogance that Wesley describes? Yep, I think so.
As I travel globally I see a very different model being utilized. The organic model of church planting which focuses on discipleship and small house churches is very different. It doesn’t employ the singular leader style of church that we see in the USA. Leaders are secondary to followers: in fact, it’s often the role of the church planter to NOT teach, to NOT lead, to NOT take the stage in any way, and to NOT be the center of the church planting process. Instead, the small house church structure encourages all believers to exercise their gifts and not simply to give “the man” the opportunity to express his.
Just like the previous model, this model has issues. Churches are not institutionalized and recidivism is high (the churches don’t last a long time, they tend to come and go). They don’t wield institutional power like the traditional church model can (which can, of course, be a good thing as well as a bad thing). They aren’t easy to lead in whole. But from my personal observations, where movements of church planting churches are actually happening it is through this organic model, not the leader-centric model we see in the US.
The leader-centric model requires selection and screening, copious amounts of training, lots of coaching and oversight and has a high failure rate. This is because we aren’t only planting churches: we are, in fact, planting institutions and the requirements for institution planting are necessarily high.
Wesley, referencing the Acts 29 network, writes, “As a movement, church planting must look to the growth of its established churches, not the number of churches it has started, as a gauge of success.” Now, I love the Acts 29 network. Just a few years ago I would talk about church planting and eyes would glaze over. Nobody really “got” what I was talking about. Acts 29, Catalyst and a host of others have changed that dynamic and I am thankful for it – very thankful. However, I don’t think Wesley’s gauge of success is the best one to use. In fact, I think it’s the opposite.
In the US we do not need more large, established churches. We need ordinary disciples that see themselves as church planters. By deconstructing this idea that we are to plant institutions we can empower just about anybody to be a part of church multiplication. To do this, we would need to move from our focus on “the man” and look to empowering ordinary pew-sitters and turn them into extraordinary disciple-makers. If each Christian saw that they were “the man” we might see a revolution of churches planting churches across the USA.
That’s something I could be very excited about.
Can that happen? Yes, I believe I have personally walked among a movement or two that has achieved this dynamic. In one of these movements I was amazed at the way they had implanted a church planting vision in each person. I asked dozens of people, “What do you do here?” It didn’t matter if they were secretaries, Bible teachers, or business people. They all responded, “I am a church planter.” It was almost cult-like!
True movements like this are rare. It is a lofty dream to think that we could see this in the US church, I know. I love the church in ALL of its forms, from mega to micro. We will always have large churches and we should. However, I don’t believe they will be the standard bearers of a movement of church planting. Perhaps their greatest contribution will be in freeing up their human capital to plant thousands and thousands of organic, disciple-making churches. I challenge these churches to see this as the real gauge of their success, not, as Wesley suggests, the ongoing building up of large, institutionalized churches.
And that is asking a lot.