Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience

Written by Stefan Paas Reviewed By Ian B. Buntain

Stefan Paas is a church planting practitioner within a post-Christian context that no longer supports faith through organic, cultural adoption. He also holds the J. H. Bavinck Chair for Missiology and Intercultural Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam and serves as Professor of Missiology at Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands. This makes him uniquely positioned to apply the disciplines of theology and missiology in and through the ministry of church planting.

Paas provides readers with an excellent primer concerning the history of church growth in Europe. He reviews various forms of “church growth” and the motivations for planting new churches that have been evident over the course of some 2,000 years. He exposes the secular impact of Church Growth Theory and helps the reader discern the difference between church growth and church migration. And of particular interest, he demonstrates how this secularization has led to an inordinate focus on technique and the production of numbers.

Paas also exposes readers to both the pragmatic application of Religious Market Theory in church planting and its inevitable consequences. In the economy of the Religious Market, informed buyers and competing providers encounter one another in a religious marketplace. In this marketplace, older providers (churches), can often lose market share to newer, nimble, more market-savvy providers (church plants), thereby creating church growth at one end of the market, while cannibalizing the other end.

He notes a more recent challenge in many places in the West. This market has become saturated. As new consumers migrate in, they establish their own Religious Marketplace (e.g., Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc.), leaving the original marketplace to compete for the same declining market share. This, Paas believes, has led to an urgent need for church renewal in the secular West. Accordingly, he suggests that church plants not only embrace growth by re-franchising in a community with more favorable demographics; they can also serve as missional laboratories that incubate fresh growth where planters ask the fundamental question, “What kind of church must be planted in this soil?” Without this latter approach, church planting, he argues, is little more than denominational expansion.

One of the greatest challenges for church planters who serve beyond the epicenter of evangelical strength is perspective. Since most church planting is occurring within contexts that already have the greatest number of churches, most church planting dogma is necessarily developed in that context, and from there it is pushed out into the world of missions. Consequently, church planting perspectives and prescriptions unavoidably assume conditions that favor evangelical expressions of church, making many “proven” church planting formulas unproductive in those fields that are unseeded (most gospel-destitute).

The great irony of this missiological tension is uncovered in Paas’s primary theological premise: church planting is not actually the “biblical mandate for all times and places.” He gently dismantles the Wagnerian premise that church planting is the greatest method of evangelism known to man. He seems to echo John Piper in his insistence that it is the penultimate (not ultimate) goal of missions. In fact, Paas proposes, that even in the book of Acts, it is “the Word,” “the Kingdom,” or the gospel that was being planted, not the church! This, in my view, exposes one of the greatest errors in the modern Church Growth movement and stands as one of the greatest contributions of this book. Paas’s premise is quite clear. If we want our church growth methods to stand firmly on the foundation of Scripture, we will focus on sowing the seed of the gospel.

In Church Planting in the Secular West, Stefan Paas offers a refreshing counterbalance to the hyperbolic champions of church planting movements. But because he is also a practitioner, Paas manages to write without the incumbent condescension that can unintentionally leak out of academia.

This book comes at a defining moment for, in the field of church planting, each of us has developed strong allegiance to methods that have worked historically. In this regard, whether one is a church planter or a pastor, Paas’s hedgehog illustration (p. 199) is worth the price of the book. In the rapid, seismic shifts of contextual change, he issues a stark warning: our best practices can become our worst overnight.

As a student of missions, this is a book I recommend for inclusion in every missions curriculum. As a missiologist, it is the book I wish I had used to train and orient all new missionaries who hoped to grow the gospel among unreached people groups. Church Planting in the Secular West shifts the conversation beyond current evangelical cultural assumptions, and for this reason, whether one is serving in Europe, Asia or Africa, missions practitioners will be informed, convicted, strengthened and encouraged by reading it.

Ian B. Buntain

Ian B. Buntain
Grace Baptist Church
Republic of Singapore

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