Church Planting: Is It Only About Reaching New Believers?

Dare I wade into this discussion? Who am I to disagree with virtually every church planting guru that is writing or speaking today? Well, I guess I am just someone who simply has not bought into the latest wave of rhetoric. Call me old school. Call me a rebel. Call me a dissident. Call me… a church planter.

I have planted two churches successfully and have sent out, supported and facilitated several other church plants. I am a dissertation short of a doctorate with a church planting emphasis, and I have studied the topic long enough now to see the waves of thought on the topic with some perspective. I was part of the “seeker church” wave (though I started rejecting it before that was cool), the “reformed church plant” wave (never my thing), and now I am watching another (perhaps equally troublesome) wave build steam.

Everything I read today and every instructional video I watch seems to be an overreaction to previous waves. I now constantly hear that true church planting means we are “evangelizing new churches into existence.” Ed Stetzer (who I greatly respect) uses those exact words often, and it seems everyone else is basically saying the same thing. They are saying that the only church planting that matters is the kind where virtually every single addition to the church is by salvation. It is almost as if a church planter is to show up on the field knowing that only those he personally leads to the Lord will be allowed to become a part of his church plant. I am not left to wonder why so many of our new church plants never get off the ground. Typically, they last as long as their funding, but that’s another issue.

Prevailing voices are saying biblical church planting is making disciples, and of course, that’s absolutely true! We plant churches to make disciples who make disciples. HOWEVER, I would say that to make disciples we must first start with, at the very least, one disciple maker, yes? And what if one is not nearly enough? I would say that in our Western context, in particular, we need more than just the pastor/planter (and perhaps his wife) to be ready to make disciples. How many disciple makers do we need in order to hope to make enough new disciples to form an effective and enduring church? What if a tiny team of disciple makers is not enough? What if a larger team would be better than a smaller team? What if, as the church grows, we would do well to find some already mature believers to help with the harvest? Didn’t Jesus say to pray for such laborers? Must we limit ourselves to new believers to do the work of our new church plant? I think not.

The fear and the concern of prevailing voices is that if we plant a church with a good-sized core of believers or if we do things in such a way that even more believers want to come and help along the way, we will wind up with just another non-difference-making church that only attracts and keeps other believers. I understand the concern, but has this really been the issue? Have we not put a burden on our current planters that no one has ever been able to bear, particularly in this Western context?

I feel as if some secret church-planting consortium has created a false problem about which to write. They assert that tons of churches are being planted that aren’t reaching people for Jesus, but personally, I have not seen those church plants. Maybe it happens somewhere in the Bible Belt. I don’t know. What I have seen is tons of church plants failing to ever become self-sustaining, eventually closing up shop. Beyond this, the fact is that people were planting churches long before the current generation, and guess what, they always started with groups of believers. That did not stop them from evangelizing or making new disciples along the way.

In my experience, most church plants see new disciples being made at higher rate than established churches. For the most part, when a mature believer joins a church plant, it is because he or she is already somewhat missional and maybe a little bit adventurous. Church plants tend to be on mission automatically, because they are new and need to grow to survive. New churches are almost always looking to reach new people. A certain percentage of those will become new followers of Jesus. And guess what else… sometimes people who thought they were believers join in the effort of planting a church, and find out they never knew Him. Sometimes they get saved through the realness and the rawness of church planting. Some church plants will be better at the evangelism part than others, but does that make those who don’t see as many baptisms, yet endure long term, illegitimate? I don’t think so. In short, you don’t have to go to the extreme of trying to plant a church that is ONLY about reaching new believers. This is simply an overreaction.

What is the best model? Where do we get our example? Do we just follow the next wave of thought? Every wave claims to be biblical. Personally, I look no further than what Jesus did. He started by developing believers. He formed a core group. And you really cannot say that those first disciples He called out were unbelievers. No. That is disingenuous. You can’t call the disciples who decided to follow Jesus new believers… not in the sense that we think of new believers today. Jesus had only just begun to reveal Himself as the Messiah. Spiritually speaking, these were the best people He could find.

Actually, the only comparison that can be made is a point in favor of starting with a few believers, rather than trying to evangelize a church into existence. Think about it. Jesus could have gone to pagan Greeks rather than God-fearing Israelites, but He did not do so. He started with the closest thing to “believers” that He could find, and He got them ready to plant the first church… and the first churches.

Take note, this group of people Jesus gathered had become quite strong in their relationship with each other and with Him before they ever launched the church to reach more people with the Gospel. He poured into them for three years. And many had fallen away, but those who were still gathering in that upper room had grown strong in their commitment to Christ. The Lord’s Church Plant Team was made up of eyewitnesses to the Resurrection! As they launched the first church on the Day of Pentecost, how many strong believers were on the team? Before they went out to do the work of evangelism and plant churches, how many did they have? The book of Acts gives us the answer: About 120. And these folks were anything but “new believers,” as we would use the term.

What about later on? What about the church plants of the Apostle Paul and his team? Where did they start? Most often they started with the synagogues. They started with people who already knew the Bible and were devout followers of God (like Aquila/Priscilla, Lydia, etc.). Do you think that if they found some followers of Jesus in those towns… maybe some of those who were saved at Pentecost, who had returned home, that they shooshed them away and said, “Sorry, we are only all about reaching unbelievers?” No, they put them to work. What about Paul’s protégé planter, Pastor Timothy? He was trained up in the Scripture by his mother and grandmother. Timothy was no atheist nor was he a biblically illiterate person through whom Paul evangelized a church into existence.

See, I believe in laying a strong foundation before building on it. That’s what Jesus did. I certainly understand that if all we ever do is play musical chairs with other churches, we are engaging in a futile exercise; however, in my two church plants, though I did NOT limit myself to unbelievers… a lot of people got saved. We have seen a mix. A healthy mix. We have been given laborers (believers) who feel called to help with the harvest and we have also seen people saved to new life in Christ. In my experience, the laborers came first. Let me say that again in a slightly different way. In my experience, the foundation came first — both times. Salvations have come as a trickle in the beginning, while the foundation was still being built. Later, we experienced times of great harvest (and we are starting to see that happen now in this plant).

So I’ll be a voice in the wilderness today and I will say to my fellow planters starting out… maybe think about what this old man has said. Think about building foundations. Think about praying for and finding experienced laborers first AND throughout the journey. I’ve seen it work. Twice. To God be the glory.