When we first started our church we had to define “church planting” for almost everyone we talked to. These days church planting is so well known that it comes with a set of connotations, associations, and stereotypes—some fair and some not.
Many picture rough-and-ready teams of passionate people who, for the literal love of God, pack up their lives and move across the state, the country, or even the world, all to take the gospel where it’s needed but not well known.
It’s wonderful that we associate evangelism with church planting. Much of the world still needs to hear about Jesus, and church planting remains the most effective means to reach them. (As one missiologist put it, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”) I pray we never lose sight of this connection.
Church planting is as much about discipleship as it is evangelism.
But evangelism isn’t the sum total of church planting. Since every church plant aims to become a self-sustaining church, church planting necessarily involves everything a church is called to believe and be and do. And that means church planting is as much about discipleship as it is evangelism.
Indispensability of Discipleship
It should be neither surprising nor controversial that discipleship is indispensable for church planting. In the first place, Jesus commands it. “Go therefore and make disciples,” he says, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Church planting without discipleship simply isn’t an option.
This is why discipleship was a central component of the apostle Paul’s church-planting efforts. In every town, he preached the gospel to unbelievers, discipled the new believers, then appointed elders from among the maturing believers (Acts 14:21–23). Thus evangelism necessitated discipleship that, in turn, prompted leadership development. All three are part of church planting.
The church is the context in which God’s people are enabled to grow to maturity in Christ.
Finally, the church is the context in which God’s people are enabled to grow to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11–16). This maturity is not only the church’s corporate calling; it’s also the goal for every individual believer (Col. 1:28). Church planting, then, is as much about “looking in” as “reaching out.”
Yet all this is just as true of established churches as it is of church plants. So what distinguishes church planting? The unique opportunities for discipleship intrinsic to the work.
As a process, church planting has a “before,” a “during,” and an “after”—and all three phases present unique occasions for discipleship. Before planting our church, for example, we discipled our team by addressing a range of heart-issues related to church planting.
So we brought the gospel to bear on the struggles of moving to a new city. We addressed fears related to leaving behind the comfort and safety of our suburban upbringing. We sought to expose and address hidden prejudices. We preached the finished work of Jesus as both our motivation for evangelism and also our consolation in the face of potential discouragement. Preparing to plant a church brought all these issues to light in the lives of people who otherwise may never have been forced to face them.
Opportunities for discipleship further increased during our first years of planting. We didn’t own a building at first, so we had to set up and tear down for service each week. In the summer this meant loading a box truck that topped 120 degrees; in the winter unloading metal chairs so cold your hands were in danger of frostbite. It was highly sanctifying.
Without the challenges of church planting, many of our members might never have become the faithful servants and mature leaders they are today.
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of the many other opportunities for growth through service, from childcare workers to community project volunteers to the ever-growing need for new small group leaders. Without the challenges of church planting, many of our members might never have become the faithful servants and mature leaders they are today.
Finally, church planting creates opportunities for discipleship even after a plant becomes an established church. For example, we joined Acts 29 because of a shared belief in the need to plant church-planting churches. We wanted to be more of a pipeline than a cul-de-sac. Yet that kind of continual support and deployment requires continual discipleship and development.
In this way, every church plant’s “after” may become the beginning of another plant’s “before.” It’s a cycle that taps into God’s heart for the growth of his people. It addresses the world’s need for new churches. And it shows how church planting really is about discipleship.