Monday, 25 March 2013

Should we plant churches in the UK? (Part 1)

This is essay number 3 (see post on essays).

Should we plant churches?

Missiologist, C. PeterWagner says “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.” Why might he say that?

The great commission gives us the founding of mission and the globalchurch as the command is to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28). Inherent in that is taking the good newsof Jesus to those who need to hear it, which is everyone who has breath intheir lungs. But, that could leave us to think that we should all just be outthere as lone-ranger evangelists, each reaching a new place or new group ofpeople with the gospel. Or going on evangelistic crusades and seeking decisionsfor Jesus. Fortunately, that isn’t the trajectory of the NT or even within thegospels, as Jesus sent out the 72, they at least go in pairs (Luke 10).
In Matthew 18 Jesus speaks of resolving conflict between brothersand in many ways pre-supposes church. I think this is different to the OTpeople of Israel as they were a theocracy. I don’t think we should be seekingto set up a “Christian State” but we should be seeking to see the Kingdom comeacross the world.
The trajectory of the NT is the formation of churches, often meetingin homes, in towns and cities across the then known world. Paul and Barnabas inparticular are commissioned and sent (Acts 13) togo and preach the good news, establishing churches in the places God led themto.

Not only that, but the number of “one another” commands in the NTmake it clear that believers are to be united, regularly meeting, spending timetogether and ‘doing life’ together. On top of this, very briefly, Jesus saidthe love believers had for one another would be a witness to the world. It isthe distinctive, diverse, community that shows the world the goodness of theTriune God of love. Churches are the way forward. Churches are the mode bywhich God’s plan, to save a lost world through Jesus, is presented.

As we read Acts and follow Paul and Barnabas, they go from town totown and city to city speaking of Jesus. At first we aren’t directly told thatchurches are established, although I think it is implicit as you read the text.But, after they split, we read of Paul and Silas in Acts16 and it sheds some light on the matter. There is a church establishedin Lystra and Derbe, because as Paul goes back, there is a group of believershe specifically goes to meet. Then in v5, thereare multiple churches that are strengthened and grow as a result of the visit. Noticethough he does not plant more new churches. This must imply that the area hadenough to meet the needs of the people, or at least that there were greaterareas of priority for Paul and Silas reach first. That has to be a helpful wayto approach church planting; assessing greatest needs and seeking to reach thatplace/group first. One church per town presumably with smaller groups meetingin homes across the town seems to have been enough in those days. The questionis, would it be possible to do that now? Have one church gathering centrally(maybe on a Sunday, but not necessarily) and then smaller localized groupsmeeting during the week, being witnessing gospel communities to theirneighbourhood? It is possible, but I wonder if 3 things make it difficult. Thefirst is that our cities are much bigger than the cities of Paul’s day making acentral gathering almost practically impossible. But even if there was nocentral gathering, we are back to a local church in each area (just beingdescribed as many would describe a home group now). The other problem is peoplehave different personal preferences and many secondary doctrine which they holddearly, even if they would not be divisive over them. Thirdly, we are sinfulhuman beings, we make mistakes, we fail to love God and people well and oftenthis impacts us elevating some of those secondary issues to primary ones.    

As the chapter (Acts 16) progresses,we see that Paul only goes where the Spirit leads (v6-10)and again he plants churches in each city, often going for the most strategicplace first (v12) (Philippi was the main cityin the area).

Through chapters 17, 18 and 19 ofActs we see Paul establishing churches in the major cities of Thessalonica,Corinth, Ephesus and Athens. All of them are places that needed to hear thegospel, all places that were strategic. They were strategic for geographical,cultural or governmental reasons.

But, as well as the restraint of being prevented by the Spirit topreach the gospel in certain places, Paul also seems to have refrained fromgoing to Rome because someone had already planted a church there (Romans 15:20-22). A couple of verses earlier Paulalso seems to imply that He has preached the gospel fully in all of the regionfrom Jerusalem to Illyricum. Presumably this means each city, or area, has achurch established in it.

Paul’s ministry as an apostle is unique. So I don’t think there arepeople now who would travel and begin churches the way Paul did, sometimes onlystaying for a few days or weeks.

Holding these things together, I would argue that this is enough tosay that there is a biblical imperative to plant churches in places where thereare none. Bearing in mind that cities in those days were a lot smaller thanthey are now, and that in some of these places there seems to be more than onechurch gathering together, we must say that we need to look at multiplechurches in a city, maybe one per ‘area’. It could be argued that these wereall house churches, but we also have no real mentions of all of these housegroups gathering together centrally. So, should we totally re-orientate the waywe do church? Should we just meet in homes until we have too many people to fitin and then split to a bigger group? How do would these groups have oversight? Maybe the model we need to think about ismissional gospel communities meeting in various locations gathering togetherfor mutual encouragement as well as deriving their oversight from somethingbigger.

In an ideal situation, everyone who attended a church would live inthe ‘area’ that church was reaching. Whether this was a gospel communitymeeting in a home or a centralized gathering. This is the most effective way ofwitnessing what Christian community looks like in front of the world.

I think this also means for self-contained villages, they need theirown church. We can’t expect people to travel in to a city for church and wecan’t expect a church based in a city to effectively reach a village. A centralmeeting could be outside of the village, but a missional gospel community mustbe living and breathing in the village.

Furthermore, I would say that a place with no church includes placeswhere there are church buildings and people who gather but the gospel is nottaught, believed or modeled. Within any church community there will be peoplestruggling, not being a good witness or modeling the gospel well. But, the questionis whether the leaders are teaching and promoting that and the trajectory ofthe church is in that direction.

I would want to be as broad as the gospel allows and as narrow as itrequires. Therefore, as long as a church is ‘sound’ on primary issues, onesthat affect the salvation, and is seeking to reach the local area then I wouldsay a new church or gospel community does not need to go to that place.

If we work on an ‘area’ being either a very distinct geographicaland/or social patch, and/or being around about 10000 people, then we can startto work out where new church plants are needed in the UK. The and/or clausesare purposely there as some ‘areas’ could be a lot less than 10000 people forexample. 
It could be that different ‘areas’ could be reached by a gospelcommunity that is part of a larger church gathering. But I wonder if this wouldneed to be discerned individually by area.

That would take plenty of research and pooling of knowledge andresources. Planting could also take place as partnerships between churcheswhere neither is able to commit enough people or resources to a plant of theirown, but together they could. Although, again, the practicalities would needsignificant thought, and there would need to be real gospel-heartedness insetting aside secondary preferences for the sake of the Kingdom.

Our motive for planting churches should surely always be thefurthering of the Kingdom to the glory of God. Out of love for God and love forpeople we should want to see more and more churches reaching more and morepeople. A natural outflow of knowing and modeling Trinitarian love will beseeing more churches planted and stagnant churches becoming missional churches.This could be planting new gospel communities, or entire new central churchgatherings with smaller gospel communites as well. But I don’t think thecurrent number of churches in the UK can reach the entirety of the country asthere will be places too far away from and current gospel community or centralgathering to be effectively reached.

If the principle for planting a church is making sure it issomewhere where there is no faithful gospel ministry currently then I thinkthere is still a need to plant churches in the UK. There are plenty of places thatdo not have a faithful gospel church.

There are things that need to be taken into account when planning achurch plant. Here a couple of big ones:

  1. Will this endeavor ultimately (as far as it is humanly possible to tell) multiplygospel ministry and further the Kingdom? I think this includes those who havedrifted coming back as well as new converts. Overall, more people in church andmore outreach happening than before the plant was started.
  2. Are there churches in the area which would be faithful and fruitful if only theyhad some more man-power and direction in leadership?
  3. Is there a specific set of needs in this area that the church would need to seekto meet (these could be social, economic etc)

The first sounds obvious. The answer could quite easily be ‘no’ ifthe conception of the church is going to severely weaken other churches nearbyby taking most of their ‘keen’ people away on this exciting new venture. If onthe other hand the answer is ‘yes’; there will be more gospel ministry takingplace and as a result of a sending church or group of churches beingnumerically weakened some of their members will have to ‘step up to the plate’and take on some responsibility, then I’d say, “go for it!”

The second one is a little less clear. If there is such a churchexistence then maybe the answer is to take people and effectively re-plant it.Using what is already in existence, and expanding, adapting and developing it.Some would argue though that older churches tend only to reach certain groupsof people and it needs something dynamic and new to reach a differentgeneration or a different social group who were not in that area at the timethe original church was founded (see appendix 1).I wonder if that is because it is harder work to change something from theinside and easier to start something new from scratch without any baggage.

The final one is more practical in that it’s more to do with whatyou might actually do once you’ve decided to plant. But briefly, that would affectthe time, style and possibly length of gathering, how much you prioritizedsmall groups, the number of community based activities and events you tried toorganize and run. It gives you a chance to start with a clean slate, gleaningthe best of ideas and practices experienced and trying out new ones, knowingthat there is a grace enough to fail. 

I guess the question we are left with is, where in the UK is thereneed for a church plant? Most cities have multiple churches and even morechurch buildings, sometimes only a street apart or even next door to oneanother. Most small towns will have multiple church denominations representedand even our villages may have 3 or 4 churches (e.g. Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and Catholic).

In many of these places though, there will be newer housing estateswhere no churches are represented because they have developed in the last fewdecades and a new church building was not part of the planning application.Whether it is a social housing scheme or a development of predominantly 3 and 4bedroom homes, someone needs to reach them. There will be other areas in citiesin particular where there are empty buildings, or liberal churches, which willmean no one is taking the gospel out there. These places need reaching too, andoften they need something that is culturally relevant to them, different formthe usual, traditional model of church they have become immune, or even hostile,to. It is true that these could be reached by current churches seeking to starta gospel community there, but that also relies on their being a missionalchurch within range of the estate.

Conversations between those planting, or sending a plant, and otherswho also work in churches nearby, need to be open and honest. I believe thoseplanting need to have investigated an ‘area’ thoroughly so that they first knowthey are not stepping on anyone’s gospel toes, in which case no plant isneeded, and so that they know the ‘area’ well socially, economically andculturally. Some of those things you can only fully know once you are there andin the mix, so to speak, but there can be plenty of leg work done prior toplanting, such as gathering socio-economic data, contacting local communitygroups, schools, council etc. which could save a lot of heartache and ready youfor some challenges and struggles.


  1. Loving your work Matt
    Do you have any thoughts on how (practically speaking) churches can collaborate on plants... And how to avoid the old issue of existing churches even outside the 'area' seeing a new plant as somehow threatening - certainly seen that at play in Ncl...

    Plus...areas: Is our thinking in geographical terms is always 100% correct. There are arguments for saying that, culturally at least, there might be different ways of defining a 'gospel needing area'... Gateshead certainly has such a juxtaposition of different small areas that one estate next to another can feel like different worlds, more akin to another estate 5 miles down the road

    1. Thanks Matt.

      I'm glad it was coherent and helpful.
      The collaboration thing would be great I reckon. Such a wonderful witness to the gospel. It takes a lot of humility, grace and gospel-heartedness. People need to be willing to keep the main thing the main thing and lay secondary issues aside. Every context would be different though.

      In answer to your other questions, I covered some of it in part two. Have a read and let me know what you think. Would love to chat more.