Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

Pastors, seminary students, and prospective church planters ask me many of the same questions about ministry in Niddrie, Scotland. How can we reach a poor neighborhood near our existing congregation? Should we plant a new church or try to revitalize an existing work? How do I know if I’m cut out for this kind of ministry?

Harsh Reality

Just before I arrived in Niddrie in 2007, somebody sent me a copy of The Scotsman, a national newspaper that ran the following headline about the church I was going to pastor: “New Church Forced into Fortress Mentality after Vandals Attack.” The article began:

A church built entirely on donations from a New Town congregation has been forced to spend £10,000 [approx. $14,000] on “fortifications” after being besieged by vandals who have caused damage running into thousands of pounds. Within weeks of the new church and community hall being completed, it had been repeatedly vandalized, leaving its windows and central heating pipes smashed.

I’d just arrived from working with street gangs in Brazil, so I wasn’t completely unaware of the harsh realities of inner-city ministry. But Scotland is different from Brazil. Despite the violence and poverty, South Americans still had a fear of God and a respect for the church.

When I arrived in Niddrie, however, it became clear that while people might pay lip service to God, they had no respect for this church and even less interest in my ministerial credentials.

I inherited a church building under constant siege by local children and youth. Our windows were often smashed, cars were set alight, and members were assaulted in the street.

The small group of believers I inherited were well-meaning and conscientious, and they had a real love for Niddrie. But since most of them lived outside the community, they were trying to arrest decades of decline as cultural outsiders.

Their only contact with the community was Sunday services and the odd leafleting campaign or door-knocking initiative. The way church services were conducted seemed calibrated to the culture of a professional-class church in the city, not a church in a poor community.

When the church was looking for a pastor, they wanted a man to come and continue doing what they’d always done. Needless to say, the early months were difficult for me.

The church members were preoccupied with programs. One day I received an email from a disgruntled member who berated me for removing 47 different kinds of evangelistic tracts from the cafe area. Apparently I was killing evangelism. Another email arrived in which the sender wanted to know why I wouldn’t be encouraging the church’s choir to walk the streets at Christmas singing carols.

The Niddrie community around us, on the other hand, had a completely different set of concerns. The day before these emails came, I spent a few hours with a young man who had been raped as a boy by his uncles and was now selling himself for sex to pay for his crack habit. Another woman had her electricity cut off for nonpayment. In the night some local children had stolen all the drainpipes from the church and smashed the front steps with golf clubs.

There was a complete disconnect, in other words, between the people who met in the building and the lives outside.

As I sat there on that cold winter morning, I wondered how the church could possibly turn around. In Brazil I’d planted a church from the ground up, so it was easy to infuse gospel DNA into it.

But this was a whole different ballgame. How was I going to bring these two worlds together? Honestly, I felt like quitting. But by God’s grace I stayed and embraced the reality that it was going to be hard.

Churches in poor areas are dying for a number of reasons. Planting and revitalizing are hard work. There is nothing remotely romantic about it.

Churches in poor areas are dying for a number of reasons. Planting and revitalizing are hard work. There is nothing remotely romantic about it.

And yet, God has purposed to reach people in the poorest parts of the world, and he will do so through the local church.

God’s vehicle

Healthy, gospel-centered churches are the God-ordained way to do ministry in hard places. Some think it doesn’t really matter who does the job, so long as Jesus is made known. But the church must remain central. It is primarily through her, after all, that God means to make himself known (Eph. 3:10, 20–21). The local church is God’s primary evangelism strategy.

Consider how Paul reflected on his ministry strategy:

From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation. (Rom. 15:19–20)

The apostle thought of the region from Jerusalem to Illyricum as being reached with the gospel. The ministry of the gospel was “fulfilled” there. Was that because Paul had preached the gospel in every community and home in that vast area? Of course not. Paul could check this part of the world off his list because he knew there were churches in these places. And he believed that is how the gospel would spread into all the individual neighborhoods—local churches doing local evangelism.

The local church is God’s primary evangelism strategy . . . a showcase for God’s infinite wisdom and glory.

Despite her failings, the local church is a showcase for God’s infinite wisdom and glory (Eph. 3:10).

Filling the vacuum

But there’s a problem. In Scotland and all over the United States, many poor communities lack a solid, living, localized gospel church. The vast majority of churches that do exist on the ground are either dead liberal churches preaching a Christless message or aging orthodox churches with a “gospel” nobody is listening to.

It seems many churches are doing little when it comes to taking the gospel to the poor and downtrodden parts of their cities and neighborhoods. And many have neither a plan nor the resources to reach out to the poor on their doorstep—even if they do have a heart for them.

The amount of time, effort, manpower, and money required to make a dent in poor areas is enormous. It can seem like a mountain to climb for the average local church that is fighting to keep its head above water. The result is that few churches who attempt to engage these areas rise above hit-and-miss evangelism or crisis ministries such as food banks. Many shrug their shoulders and let the specialized parachurch folks get on with the bulk of the work.

A young man I once met summed it up like this: “Why would I work for a church? It would mean being limited by structure and authority, and being antiradical. When I read the New Testament, I see life and dynamism, not tired, boring traditions.”

But despite the glitz and glamor surrounding many excellent parachurch ministries, they have not been ordained by God in the same way as the local church. They can be helpful, but the church remains the one institution on earth established and sanctioned by God for the explicit work of gospel ministry (Matt. 16:18; 28:18–20).

Blood-Bought Bride

Jesus loves the church despite its many shortcomings and seeming irrelevance to the watching world. The church is his bride. He has no plans to take another.

Jesus loves the church despite its many shortcomings and seeming irrelevance to the watching world. The church is his bride. He has no plans to take another.

In Acts 20:28 we read that Jesus has built the church with his own blood. The church is built for Jesus, by Jesus, and on Jesus. It is simply unthinkable to separate the Lord Jesus from the local church.

If the gospel is the diamond in the great salvation plan of God, then the church is the prong that guards it, holds it up, and shows it in its greatest light for the world to see.

Planting churches in hard places is difficult, slow, and costly. It is work that will require a lifetime, and then some. But it is worth it.

After all, the price tag on the church was the blood of the Lamb. Let’s press on, then, for the glory of the Lamb, by planting churches in hard places.

Church in Hard Places is an Acts 29 initiative aimed at planting churches and training leaders among the socially marginalized. Doug Logan and Mez McConnell are seasoned leaders in these areas, and therefore have been appointed as co-directors of this initiative.

Editors’ note: This article is adapted content from chapters 4, 5, and 9 of Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy (Crossway, 2016).