Church Planting Essentials – Urban Church Planting

Church Planting Essentials – Urban Church Planting

The following guest post is a provocative discussion of the definition of church in relationship to Urban Church Planting.  David Broodryk is a South African church planting strategist and a partner in ministry.  Hope you enjoy.


David Watson
from Paris
Re-thinking urban church

Greg Eland (a fellow strategic leader) and I recently discussed something that may become a critical element for us in our urban work.  The discussion revolved around the definition of church.  Our modern concept of a “Local Church” is more cultural than Biblical.  I am referring to a “Local Church” in the sense that it does not qualify as a church until it has the following:

  • A religious institution made up of clergy and laity
  • A paid professional (clergy) who will lead the work
  • Passive laity who pay the clergy to do the work
  • Constitutions and by-laws
  • A “church” building
  • Registered non-profit status with the government
  • A set of doctrines that defines it as different from other local churches

In our church planting work, we had de-constructed most of these elements.  We thought we were doing well.  Until we recently hit another challenge.  The question that arose was, “Is church a meeting?”  Does the gathering define it as a church?

When you think about it, many people place a lot of their definition of a church on the fact that there is a “church service.”  If no “church service” exists, then how can there be a “church?”  Now don’t misunderstand me.  There is no scriptural doubt that the church should meet and should do so regularly.  I have no time for “ghost churches.”  But consider this: Is the meeting a church or is it the church that meets?  It may seem like semantics until we begin to see the outworking of these questions on church planting (particularly the urban setting).

In our urban work, discovery groups are not forming around families as much as they are forming around interest or affinity groups.  We see small groups of business men, gatherings in trains during commute, groups in schools, etc.  In the urban setting, it is not as common to see new discovery groups forming around families as in rural work.  Another factor we see in urban work is that the size of the discovery groups is usually small – under 10 people.  Very often the discovery groups consist of 3-4 people.  People do not have large communities as much as they seem to have multiple networks of relationships.  In mega cities, people function in linear networked relationships more than in communities.  Pick up the cell phone of an urban dweller, go through the contacts and ask how many of those contacts know one another.  Then ask how many of those who do know one another, actually meet regularly as a community.  You will quickly discover that they have a network of individual contacts, but not a community.

Where some resemblance of community exists, it is often very small (under 5 people).  And herein lies the problem.  When you consider the homogenous nature of these urban discovery groups, their small size and the fluid nature of the groups, it is very difficult to see them as becoming fully-fledged churches.  I have no problem with calling 60 people in extended families in a rural setting with growing eldership “a church.”  I also have no problem with calling four families or 20 people in a home a church.  But I find it a difficult stretch to call three businessmen meeting as a discovery group over coffee “a church” in the sense of an autonomous “local church.”  It does not include families.  It seldom can develop viable leadership.  It is highly unstable (these groups often open and close rather rapidly).

So what should we do?  Should we stop launching discovery groups in settings where viable churches cannot develop?  Or is there a need to re-examine our concept of “church?”  One option (probably first prize) is to see these groups as contact groups into homes where we attempt to launch churches.  Still, the problem remains that we then have to build new communities in homes where communities did not previously exist.  This slows down CPM and turns our focus towards gathering rather than church planting. 

Maybe we need a re-think on the concept of what defines “a church” in the urban context of disconnected, linear relationships.  Maybe “a church” is wider than a single group.  Maybe it could also be defined as a multiplicity of groups meeting in a variety of settings and contexts, networked through interpersonal mentoring and led by a team of elders who influence the network.  In other words, each group is not “a church” but the network of groups is defined as “a church.”

The growing conclusion of our teams (we are still open for input and still learning) is that it may be a mistake (especially in urban work) to call every group of believers “a church.”  It may also be a mistake to have as the goal that every discovery group transitions into “a church.”  Maybe we should rather see the church as the collection of believers in a locality (or in a network), who meet in different settings.  In this sense, “a church” would consist of a variety of regular meetings in a given locality (city or town) who relate to one another (network) in some way.  It may create havoc with our statistics (we will have less “churches”) but it may be healthier for our disciple-making movement for a variety of reasons:

  • It is easier to transition some discovery groups into “believer’s gatherings” than into “churches”
  • It is often easier to have “believer’s gatherings” where people meet naturally (businesses, schools, parks, trains, etc), than to attempt to create a new community gathering where one did not exist
  • You will find more people willing to lead small gatherings that are part of a larger “church” than you will find leaders willing to run self-sustaining churches
  • Each small group does not have to develop a pastor/elder, but can be led by “deacon-type” leaders who relate to “city elders”
  • The networking of smaller “believer’s gatherings” using a discovery process is more conducive to launching new discovery groups, as the DNA of both believer’s groups and discovery groups will be the same

There is a lot of Biblical precedent for this.  In Scripture, we see the singular word “church” used in three settings:

The church universal (All baptised followers of Christ worldwide)

  1. The church in the City (All those who make up the church in a city or town – eg: the church in Corinth or the church in Ephesus)
  2. The church that meets (The gathering of the church at a given location and time – eg: the church in the home of Priscilla and Aquilla)

Of course, this model of networked church is not something we want to impose from the outside as church planters.  It is something that will happen from the inside if the setting is right.  However, our mental picture and definition of church may prevent us as outside leaders from recognizing that a valid urban church is emerging.  We may in some cases already have a networked church, but because of our expectations and definitions we may not recognize it as a church.

So, “what is church?”  Maybe, church is not necessarily a singular gathering of believers.  Maybe a definition of “church” would be closer to the following definition:

“Church is the collection of baptized believers in the Lord Jesus Christ in a given locality (city or network), who gather regularly (in one group or several) for the purposes of worship, discipleship and nurture, and who depart those gatherings with the intention of obeying all the commands of Christ, in order to transform their families, communities and cities.”

A small change in wording, but a big impact in practice.

See this as provoking towards a discussion, not as a conclusion.  We are still learning, still exploring.  Your comments are welcome.


David Broodryk
South Africa

19 Replies to “Church Planting Essentials – Urban Church Planting”

  1. Davids,

    You two brothers have prompted me to do much deep thinking this week. Actually your comments on the Singapore dialogue prompted the blog article I wrote last night:

    This post certainly raises some intriguing issues. Clearly cities bring new challenges. Paul's letter to the Romans should be read in the light of your suggestions. Paul's long list of names in chapter 16–even though he had not yet been there–refers to numbers of churches that met in various homes, but they are all addressed as the church in Rome. Chapters 12-15 contain many of the "one anothers" that some today speak of as "body life" while they did not all meet together in the same locale. I will chew on this for a while. Thanks for stretching me.

    1. When Paul wanted to leave Corinth,

      “Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city. And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” (Acts 18:9-11 KJV).

      After a period of ministry for 1 ½ years, of course Paul have made conduct with most of these “much people” of God in Corinth.

      Being a Greek myself who have visited Corinth many times, I know that it was impossible for all these people to gather in one building of that time.

      Yet when Paul writes

      “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”, (1 Cor. 1:2),

      he addressed his letters to all these people calling (ALL OF THEM),

      “the church of God which IS at Corinth”

      and not “the churches of God which ARE at Corinth”.

  2. Is there a case for seeing the recipients of Paul's letter to the believers in Rome as having some similarities with the type of network you are describing?

    Although some have seen a classic "home church" network described in the final chapter of the letter, it is interesting to note that Paul does not use the word "church" at all in the letter, until the last chapter when he sends greetings to various groups/households. Only one of these is called a "church" by Paul – interestingly it is the group hosted/lead by his co-workers Priscilla and Acquila

    The other groups are still recipients of his letter and appear to be included among those Paul describes as "loved by God and called to be saints."

    Perhaps the implied numbers of slaves mentioned in chapter 16 hints at a reason why some of the believers may have found it difficult to meet with Priscilla and Aquila's home-church. Despite this, they are appaently able to find fellowship within their "household".

    Just a thought.

    Great article, by the way.

  3. The urban setting sounds considerably different than what I am hearing about in places like Mongolia. Sadly, I feel that God is warning me that as we fight to reach the unreached in those remote places we are losing the battle at home because we are asleep thinking that the battle is so far away. But I am optimistic in God's strength!

    We need CPM to in the urban setting to transform the body's DNA that can only be transformed by God's word. CPM as many know it today must be different in this urban setting because the environment is different. Many of the people that need to be reached may even consider themselves Christian. But, sadly they don't really understand the implications of what it means to be a Christian. I think what we are seeing in this urban setting is exactly what should be expected.

    What we are seeing is everything from small groups of 3-4 people up through what might be considered a home church of 15-20. In my local church we have small groups which are generally 3-8 families. I am hoping that somehow, one by one if that is what it takes that God will transform people then groups to think in terms of leading co-workers and acquaintances in bible study (making disciples the CPM way). But this is a slow process as you well know since most of us "church goers" have not really been discipled and then we have had all of our spiritual leadership stripped away by the cultural church leadership where all teaching, leading, discipling, baptizing, are only allowed by church leadership.

    Moving forward, my prayer is that these small bible study groups and hopefully small community groups will begin a transformation. The 3-4 person group may not become a "church" but if they join the typical brick & mortar church, they may begin injecting the CPM DNA there and for groups the size of my community group, similarly they will take the CPM DNA and inject it into other groups there by enabling God's transformation of the urban church body or possibly they will splinter off and form planted churches as seen in remote places. Either way, I think I am seeing the beginnings of a revival movement in the urban church and look forward to the day when I will be humbled as having too little faith for not believing that concepts used in CPM can be used in ways we didn't expect would succeed in the urban environment…. (my 2 cents) May God continue to use your service for His glory!

  4. Romans 16 is a fascinating passage. At first glance, like the geneology passages, it seems like meaningless data. But there is much hidden in the passage.

    I find Paul's use of the singular "church" and the plural "churches" very interesting. Firstly, he does not use the plural to refer to church in a city. He does not talk about the churches (plural), but the church (singular) in Cenchreae. See vs 1.

    He uses the plural twice. Once referring to all the Gentile churches (multiple cities and provinces) and then to all the churches of Christ (presumably worldwide). See vv 4; 16.

    When he refers to units of the church that are smaller than the city, he does not seem to talk of them as independent, autonomous churches as much as he refers them by the places where they meet. Thus we do not find "a church," but rather "the church that meets at . . ."

    In the passage he actually speaks against divisions of the church. Here again, he talks about "the church" emphasizing the one body of believers, rather than separate units across the city. He does not talk about dividing "a church" but about dividing "the church." vv17-19.

    What does confuse the issue slightly, is when Paul talks about the "whole (Strong's: complete) church" hosted by Gaius. Here he seems to infer that a group meeting in Gaius' home is a complete unit on its own.

    Yet, there is strong support for the fact that Paul talked more about city church than about many churches in a city. He seems to have viewed church (singular) as a city-wide body that met in various locations (homes). This is what I see in this passage, but let's keep talking . . .

  5. Very thought provoking! I've been camping in this area for a few months now and have even decided to do my doctoral dissertation in this area.
    While CPM methodology and strategy has brought us many good elements to strategy, it has also brought along the temptation to compromise. Unfortunately, many of my own company colleagues and other fellow 'M's' around the world have compromised themselves in what to call and count as a church.
    We must remain biblically true to 'what is a church?' and at the same time continuing to remain outside of our cultural boxes that have hemmed us in for centuries.

    1. Church is hard to define, but when we see or experience genuine church, we know it.


      David Watson
      From South Africa

  6. This article describes exactly where I have been arriving — both practically and intellectually — in New York City. I have been doing some thinking, writing, talking that matches up with this article almost verbatim. (I guess now I better cite it if I continue writing in this direction!). Don Graves in Philly brought my attention to this article and he expressed that he was experiencing the same thing in his city. This is one of the most encouraging missiological pieces I have read. I'm NOT crazy or a heretic! Yippee!

    If we desire to see the Reign of God fill every cultural crack & crevice of our urban society, we are going to have to adopt a different worldview and adjust some of our ecclesiological (cultural) views and preferences.

    I've been contemplating this networking concept of church for many months, and this article is very affirming. We really need a cohort of urban workers sharing these sorts of realities. I'd be thrilled to be part of one and would even consider pulling one together.

  7. This article describes exactly where I have been arriving — both practically and intellectually — in New York City. I have been doing some thinking, writing, talking that matches up with this article almost verbatim. (I guess now I better cite it if I continue writing in this direction!). Don Graves in Philly brought my attention to this article and he expressed that he was experiencing the same thing in his city. This is one of the most encouraging missiological pieces I have read. I'm NOT crazy or a heretic! Yippee!

  8. This article resonates with me, reflects thinking I've had too, and sheds light on our experiences in Los Angeles. I look forward to more discussions on this.

  9. David–good discussion Brother! Barnett here. (Thanks for passing this to me, Phil Kingsley.) Your last paragraph hits the nail. As we transfer the CPM best practices (that you and others on our old team discovered) into the cities of the world, we will necessarily spawn many para-church small groups. Doing it here in Columbia SC today. They know they are part of the universal church but not a "local" church. But once these small urban affinity groups begin to act or "minister" to others, they tend to develop a "local" church dynamic, or . . . sometimes they even return to "the" church and become salt and light. We're seeing it here. So, engaging God's mission seems to be a key indicator of true church–regardless of meetings, buildings, etc. So, I'll let my CPM class chew on this next year. Thanks David!

  10. David,

    Go to and download the books from the Biblical Research Library, entitled Authentic Church and Freedom for Bundled Branches. I think you are on the pages of those two books.

  11. David B. – I was sitting on the edge of my seat reading your posting. You are describing what many of us feel as we work in urban setting in Europe. The networks that people are involved in are much smaller than what we hear about in the larger community settings in other parts of the world. The importance of "3rd places" and narrower relational networks are common. Looking forward to further dialogue about this.

    David W. – Looking forward to interacting with you when you come through Germany later this year.

  12. I keep hearing "worship" used as a synomym for singing/music in a group setting.
    Where did we get this focus (like it is a command/necessity) to have corporate "worship"?
    I struggle with whether all that is getting in the way of the true/core purpose of the assembly (isn't "assembly" the real meaning of "church" linguistically, like "deacon" really means "servant" and we've made a new word?). Were the original assemblies just to encourage each other and hold each other accountable and meet needs and group prayer and the apostles teaching and the breaking of bread (Eucharist and/or agape meal)?
    Where did we get all of this "worship service" emphasis (that seems to be of little interest to Postmodern seekers anyway)? Was it a temple or synagogue thing we've put on steroids or does it date from camp meeting days much more recently?

    1. I'm not sure it matters where the modern focus or emphasis on the worship service came from. The reality is that it is the focus of most modern Christian expressions. The "assembly", as you use it, is expressed in a variety of ways – cell church, Sunday school, small groups, adult Bible studies, organic church, simple church, and more. When we assess church, we need to look at biblical functions beyond assembly or worship. The church gathered as well as the church scattered in the family, market place, school, and more should make up the reality of all churches. It should be vastly more complex than any single meeting or gathering. When we focus on any one function of church we will miss the full impact the church can have in all areas of society. My personal deepest concern for the modern church is that is has become like a cinema or theater – we gather, pay our fees, watch the show, and depart without truly interacting with one another or our communities. When the church becomes recreational it loses its impact on the world.


      David Watson

      Irving, Texas

  13. Sorry, but still not clear on what is the difference between "starting" a church and "planting" a church. Why the need for the new "buzz" term?……(Church planting)? Sounds like "starting" a church, whether in a home or building. Would love more clarification on the difference.

  14. Linda. I am not sure the terminology is all that important. What matters is the heart of the matter – Jesus sends us into all the world to make disciples. Where people are called to follow Christ in community, there we find a church starting. I think church planting refers more to the practice of launching churches that we ourselves do not intend leading. If I declare that I am starting a church (which I have done several times in my own home), then people typically understand that I will be leading or facilitating the new church. However, the Lord has also used my to plant hundreds of new churches that I have never led (some I have not even met!). The church started because of my intentional efforts, but was started by other people whom I mentored and trained. Generally, when I refer to church planting, I am talking about this outsider catalytic role.
    David B.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *