There are, of course, hundreds of good questions to ask before planting a church. But there is one that is too often and too easily forgotten.
It’s a question that should be asked by every church plant team, every church planter, every sending agency, and every mother church before plans are finalized and the plant is launched.
And it’s a question we can’t answer ourselves. The question must be asked, not of the Bible or in our hearts, but in and among the area into which we are hoping to plant a church.
Here’s the question: “What other gospel work is already going on?”
To be sure, we can answer this question, in part, by doing our own research—googling churches, investigating websites, checking denominational databases. We may be able to discern on our own that there is not another good, gospel church within 10 or 20 or 100 miles of our desired location. Or we may be able to identify a target population that speaks a different language than the other churches in its immediate vicinity. But still, there is no substitute for asking the Christians on the ground what the needs are (or aren’t!).
Recently, I received an email about a new church plant in Matthews, North Carolina, right around the corner from Christ Covenant. The first I heard about the plant was in an email sent to one of our pastors (not sure why) explaining what an exciting day this was for the gospel. I never want to be territorial with the saving news of Christ. Matthews is a growing area. There are plenty of non-Christians. Maybe a new church will reach those non-Christians. I can’t say we don’t need another church around the corner. But there are also a lot of churches already in Matthews, and many of them faithfully preach the gospel.
Now maybe the new church wants to establish a type of church they think is lacking in the area (e.g., international, charismatic, Anglican, whatever). I can understand that. I’ve been supportive before of Presbyterians planting confessional Reformed churches where none exists in an area, even if there may be an evangelical Arminian congregation already established. But again, ask first. Not for permission, but simply to hear what churches are already doing. Maybe the plant team would be confirmed in their sense of the need for their particular church. In some cases, though, I wonder if the planter, the plant team, or the sending group might humbly decide, “Our time, money, and effort could be better used somewhere else.”
While in East Lansing, we would see new churches start up every couple years. Again, not a problem. East Lansing, Michigan, needs more gospel people. But there would often be much fanfare in their advertising about how this new church, often sent from another more Christian part of the country, was going to reach the campus for Christ. Great. Michigan State has more than 50,000 students, but they also have Cru, InterVarsity, Navigators, groups for Baptists, groups for minority Christians, local church fellowships, and a host of other on-campus ministries. If a new group came in and ministered to 100 people, they’d hardly make a dent, so the more gospel workers the merrier, so long as the new guys don’t act like (and advertise like) there was no hope for the heathens on campus until they arrived. Be humble and ask.
Not too long ago a church leader from another part of the Western world was (kindly) lamenting to me that an American mission agency was sending in missionaries to plant churches in his city. The man was not opposed to more churches. In fact, he welcomed more Christians and more churches. But he lamented to me that no one asked him, and the well-established denomination he was a part of, what gospel work was already taking place in the city. “They act like we are an unreached people group,” he said, “but we’re not. Talk to us first.”
Similarly, years ago I was in a Middle Eastern country—which likely is classified as unreached—and saw many fine American Christians courageously involved in evangelism and discipleship. There was (and is), however, a small indigenous church already in the country. Again, the leaders lamented that there was little effort to learn what the already-on-the-ground Christians were doing or, in this instance, even to think much about the necessity of the local church.
Not No, But Slow
It’s a problem that repeats itself at home and abroad: Christians boldly launching a new ministry or a new church in a new area without taking time to hear from the Christians already doing ministry in that area. In most cases, I imagine another church or ministry can be justified, because the city is growing and so are the spiritual needs. There are certainly enough lost people to fill all our churches.
But too often there is a sense of independence and triumphalism that does not serve the body of Christ or the cause of the gospel. And in some cases, I fear Christians are dumping their time, talent, and treasure into popular cities that are already well served, when there are rural areas without good churches and billions around the world with no access to Christ.
I hope I’ve made my caveats repetitively clear. I’m all for church planting. Christ Covenant has planted several churches in its history, and we are currently partnering with other churches in our Presbytery to launch a Hispanic church plant in Charlotte. We need strong, healthy churches everywhere in the world. But if and when we enter a new area with the gospel, let’s make sure we slow down enough to talk to the Christians who are already there. We may learn something we didn’t know. And maybe even make a new friend.