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

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