How (Not) to Plant a Church

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Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

I can’t imagine what our church would be like without a robust confession of faith and its historically forged system of doctrine.

Except for the fact that this is precisely what we didn’t have for the first two years of our church plant.

Here’s what I mean.

Rescued

Twenty years ago, I was working as a bartender in central London and had picked up a nasty cocaine habit. I returned home to South Africa, hoping to lay low and clean up my act.

After getting high one night, I heard a preacher’s testimony playing on TV in the living room. With nothing else to do, I decided to watch. I was poised to mock the foolish preacher, but the Word of God cut straight through me. Deeply convicted of my sin, I knew that Jesus is alive. From that point on, everything changed.

After getting high one night, I heard a preacher’s testimony playing on TV in the living room. I was poised to mock the foolish preacher, but the Word of God cut straight through me.

Working at a nightclub at the time, I started to share the gospel immediately. I couldn’t help but tell others of the merciful rescue of God in Christ. My first convert was the beautiful bartender I worked with, and I would later marry her. (I stopped marrying converts afterward.)

Since I had a story to tell, I started getting invited to share my testimony in various places. I seemed to do well with public speaking, and I loved encouraging people in their walks with the Lord. But there was a downside: I appeared significantly more mature and theologically precise than I actually was. Truth be told, I had no business on a stage, much less in a pulpit. I was only beginning to grasp the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Truth be told, I had no business on a stage, much less in a pulpit.

Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know. And from my perspective at the time, all these speaking engagements were exhilarating. Added to this, the large charismatic church that we were part of was highly energized in its missionary endeavors. It often felt like we were part of a rapid-fire, machine-gun missionary mothership.

The problem—although unknown to me at the time—was that they saw no need for the theological training of those they sent. The premium was instead placed on stage personality and apparent “giftedness.”

Sent

My new wife and I were soon asked to be part of a church-planting team headed to New Zealand. We were thrilled. After all, what could be more exciting than heading off to the literal “ends of the earth”? As a team of nine, we packed up house and home to move across the world and pioneer a church plant for our network (at the time, Church of the Nations).

Once in New Zealand, I officially began my ministry as an associate church-planting pastor. It wasn’t long until we held our first public service, and the church got traction quickly.

About a year in, however, things started to get difficult. We were committed to preaching the Bible, but that conviction was getting us into trouble. As it turned out, we had grossly underappreciated what was required of this weighty task. To say nothing of the doctrinal accuracy required, there was—at the very least—the need to stay consistent with ourselves from week to week.

Tested

Our lack of experience began to show. In a nutshell, we didn’t know the Bible well enough. We knew we were contradicting ourselves at nearly every turn, and we quickly realized that a single week wasn’t enough time to get our heads around the greater theology of a given passage.

Our lack of experience started to show. In a nutshell, we didn’t know the Bible well enough.

The doctrines of the Bible, we came to see, are all connected. They weave together like a giant tapestry. If you start tugging at one piece of thread, you’ll soon see its connection to the greater picture. But you’ll also start to see a glimmer of how vast and complex that greater picture is.

From a practical standpoint, this is one of the major reasons that prospective planters would, ideally, do the groundwork of theological study ahead of time, whether via seminary or other means. It takes a few years of intensive study, at least, before one can arrive at any settled level of conviction.

Regular preaching to the same people week in and week out is one of the main ways that church planting tests theological grit. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t have a bunch of people sitting down with homiletic worksheets ready to grade you on theory. But you will be preaching to real sinners with real struggles.

Therefore, the theology you preach is constantly being tested in the furnace of real life. If you’re clearly inconsistent from one week to the next, people notice. And if you’re unable to account for that, people may get hurt. I know this. That’s what happened to our church plant.

Our theology was being tested in all of these ways, and we were failing. It became painfully clear we hadn’t given enough time, prior to planting, to the task of study. We came apart at the seams. People left. Our leadership unity fractured. Our lead pastor numbly handed the reins over to me and returned home to South Africa. He was understandably burned out, desperately in need of some space to recoup from the difficult experience.

Rebuilt

As more people left, we dwindled to a small core who decided to stick it out. We left the church-planting network who sent us to New Zealand, joined the Reformed Baptists, and would later join Acts 29.

Moving forward with what little we had left was probably the hardest time of my life. Without the support of the one remaining elder, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. With singular focus, we gave all of our attention to study, laboring to figure out what we actually believed.

One of the things that helped us most in this process was coming to a greater awareness of history and the confessions of faith forged over the last 2,000 years. As G. I. Williamson once said:

The Bible contains a great wealth of information. It isn’t easy to master it all—in fact, no one has ever mastered it completely. It would therefore be foolish for us to try to do it on our own, starting from scratch. We would be ignoring all the study of the Word of God that other people have done down through the centuries. That is exactly why we have creeds. They are the product of many centuries of Bible study by a great company of believers. They are a kind of spiritual “road map” of the teaching of the Bible, already worked out and proved by others before us.

When studying theology, don’t forget the confessions, especially the more developed Reformed confessions. Study them. Connect yourself to them. Use them.

Leading up to that point, we read voraciously. We wept our way through volume after theological volume. The process was challenging, but we slowly reconsolidated and built back up. Brick by brick, we have experienced the conscious smile of God.

When Jesus commissioned the planting of churches (Matt. 28:18), he mandated we teach “all” he had commanded. This includes the Old Testament, as it points to and is fulfilled by Christ himself. Of course, it also includes the New Testament, as it interprets, expands, and explains Jesus’s ministry.

We praise God for anchoring us in sound, biblical doctrine. Without it, I doubt we’d be here to tell the tale.

This then, is the church planter’s commission. Church planting involves going and making disciples. But the only way to do this is by first taking the necessary time to be well trained yourself. Before teaching others, you need to be taught.

By the sheer grace of God, we made the transition. Fourteen years later, we’re still around. Gracenet Community Church is planted and, though small, we’re a healthy and vibrant witness for the gospel in Wellington, New Zealand.

We praise God for anchoring us in sound, biblical doctrine. Without it, I doubt we’d be here to tell the tale.

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