When I train church planters or discuss what I have seen in church planting, the first question I hear is, “What kind of churches are you planting anyway?” The tone of the question is usually full of doubt, and at times, derision. Many who ask the question are well trained by their churches or church planting organizations. They are often theologically trained, and have had success in church planting according to their understanding of church planting. They know they are well-trained, committed to the task, devoted to the Lord, and unable to produce the same results. Therefore, there must be something wrong somewhere in what I am doing since they cannot do the same. I have been dealing with this question in its myriad forms since 1996.
What most seem to miss on the first exposure to our training and materials is that we are not church planters, we are Gospel Planters. This is key! There are thousands of kinds of churches, but there is only one Gospel. Certainly, our hope is that churches are based on the Gospel, but when we start a new church, what is the foundation? Is the foundation of the new church the church I came from with all its cultural heritages, or is the foundation of the new church the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Church has two major parts – The teachings of the Bible, and the cultural expressions of obedience to these teachings that have developed over time and may have been borrowed from different cultures and times. Insiders in the church understand their culture without asking where it came from, but when we begin the process of church planting, we must not make our church culture the foundation for the new church, or it will fail. By failure, I mean it will not naturally reproduce in the new context.
In our ministry, we define success by reproduction. I really don’t care how many churches anyone has planted. You tell me you have planted 100 churches, and my next question will be, “How many churches did the 100 churches you planted start in the next year?” Success for leadership is defined by how many new leaders a leader reproduces every year.
In a recent training event I asked the trainees who where the people I was engaged in training. They looked around and then said, “Us.” I responded, “No, I am here to train your trainers.” Success is easy to spot. There will be three generations present. I will be present. The ones I am training will be present. And the ones my trainees are training will be present.
I am currently in an evaluation process in West Africa. I want to see three or more generations of leaders present, or I have failed. So, I ask the leader I am working with, “Tell me about the people you are mentoring, and tell me about the people your mentorees are mentoring.” There is always an expectation of three generations, minimum. All good leaders are intimately aware of the two generations below him or her and the one generation above him or her.
Back to church planting – Culture is extremely difficult to pass on to others because it requires people to leave behind or lose their own culture in order to adopt the new one. This is a barrier most people are not willing to jump. Very few people, and in some cultures no one, wants to be seen as different. This makes it difficult or impossible to start new churches if the foundation of the new church is a church culture from another time and another place.
So, what kind of churches do we plant, anyway? We don’t. We strive to plant the Gospel of Jesus Christ and let it transform individuals, families and communities so that a culturally relevant and redeemed church will emerge. As we introduce the Gospel we ask the question, “If this is from God, what are you going to do about it?” We insist that the role of any Believer is to be obedient to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allow it to redeem self, family, community and culture.
We don’t plant churches! We plant the Gospel and allow it to redeem peoples. As they become obedient to the Gospel, then worship emerges out of their culture and is acceptable to the culture within the limits set by the Word of God. As they struggle with the Word, new leadership forms develop. As they strive with the new and push out that which is not from God, unique systems develop that look like the local culture, but are redeemed by the Gospel. The church emerges out of obedience to the Word of God and expresses itself in uniquely cultural ways, thus removing or limiting the barriers of foreign culture and times.
Churches grow from the soil of culture where the seed of the Gospel is planted. This leads to churches that can naturally and quickly reproduce. This causes leaders who can reproduce. It makes disciples, who by the very definition of “disciple” reproduce more disciples.
Everyone is trained to ask the question, “In this situation how will I/we be obedient to the Word of God?” Faith is defined as being obedient to the Word of God regardless of what it may cost, even our lives.
These are the kind of churches we see grow out of the Gospel we plant. They are obedient. They grow and they reproduce as a natural part of being and doing church. It starts slow, but exponentially reproduces very quickly. They become a Church Planting Movement.
From Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa