This article describes some theological criteria for church planting (CP) and its relationship to evangelism. CP is normally associated with evangelism, but carries a variety of meanings and concepts. According to Van Rheenen it is “initiating reproductive fellowships that reflect the kingdom of God in the world” but it is also linked with church nurturing, maturation and growth. Malphurs defines CP as a planned process of beginning and growing new local churches, which implies that it is a) a process that involves planning; b) an intentional activity; c) it has to do with church multiplication and growth. Donald MacGavran developed the study of church growth, and later David Garrison presented the concept of CP movements as a rapid, and even exponential, increase of indigenous churches, planted within a given people group or population segment. Patrick Johnstone, Luis Bush and others wanted to mobilize the world Church to focus on CP amongst people groups in less evangelized areas.
1. Missiology and Theology
Foundations for CP begin from the conviction that missiology and theology are not isolated fields of study but rather two sides of the same coin. Hesselgrave, confirming the absence of theological foundation in CP studies, asks, “Of what lasting significance is the evangelical commitment to the authority of the Bible if biblical teachings do not explicitly shape our missiology?” Van Engen stresses that the theology of mission needs to be a multidisciplinary field that reads the Bible with missiological eyes and “based on that reading, continually reexamines, reevaluates and redirects the church’s involvement in God’s mission in God’s world”.
In CP we face three dangers if theology and missiology are not perceived as partners:
a) to use God as an instrument to fulfill our purposes in CP, instead of serving Him by pursuing His plan on earth;
b) To offer simplistic solutions for complex and ambiguous problems related to gospel communication, contextualization and CP;
c) To defend the view that there is only one biblical way to accomplish Jesus’ commandment to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
According to David Bosch, theology in the early days of the NT was practised in the context of mission in response to missiological questions, as church planters were spreading the Gospel and nurturing the existing church. The Apostle Paul is a classic example of that as he was, at the same time, “the most impressive theologian of Christianity and its greatest missionary,” – to quote Augustus Nicodemus Lopes. St Paul’s theology arose out of his mission and ministry, and his mission activity inspires us to reflect on God and His action in the world (Rom 15). We begin therefore with the affirmation that CP must have sound theological and ecclesiological foundations.
2. A Theological Framework for CP
Three theological values are particularly important:
2.1. CP is done in faithfulness to Scripture
The foundation of gospel communication should never be defined by what works, but rather by what is biblical (1 Thess 1:5). In CP following what is biblical does not necessarily mean there will be greater results in terms of time-saving and numbers. Undergirding mission and CP with sound biblical theology may require investment of time, patience and theological reflection, alongside national Christians. Murray explains that “All church planters operate within theological frameworks, but often these are assumed rather than articulated and adopted uncritically rather than as the result of reflection”.
Amongst progressive church planting movements today, non-biblical movements appear among the top 10 in terms of numbers and influence. The Church of the Holy Spirit in Ghana, for example, is a CP movement which is growing rapidly in the Southern part of the country. A few years ago the founder declared himself to be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit on earth. But today this is a fast growing movement, planting churches and spreading its influence throughout different parts of the country and beyond. In contrast evangelicals are committed to God’s mind and vision as revealed in Scripture, and not to human strategies of growth.
2.2. CP is done in dependence on God’s power and desire to save
Although there is a great need for training we should not expect to fulfill our mission merely through carefully elaborated strategies and well trained human resources. Nothing but God’s power and activity can enable the Church spiritually to accomplish His plan in a relevant way in today’s world. CP is not merely a matter of marketing, methodology and strategy. It is first a spiritual matter, characterised by the power of God released through the unique and historical sacrifice of Christ and undertaken through the enabling of the Holy Spirit, who guides the church to pray, believe and work (John 14:15-18).
CP requires a clear understanding of the nature of the Church and God’s purposes for it (ecclesiology), so that the long term objectives guide the short-term strategy and vision. In particular we hope to plant churches as communities:
 …of redeemed people, birthed by God, and belonging to God (1 Co. 1:1-2);
 …of human, vulnerable people: men and women, parents, children, farmers and fishermen who live and breathe the Gospel wherever they may be (Matt.10);
 …in the world, holy but not apart from it, not isolated or alienated (1 Co. 6:12-20);
 …without borders, and it is therefore missionary by its very nature (Rom 15:18-19);
 …with a witness and a gospel that makes sense both in and out of the church building (Jo 14:26; 16: 13-15);
 …with the primary mission to glorify God (1 Co. 6:20; Rom 16:25-27);
2.3. CP is done through proclaiming the Gospel
The “praxis” of CP begins by proclaiming the Gospel, because the church is born where the word of God is powerfully at work. So proclamation is the non-negotiable foundation of CP. For many in mission today CP itself has become the overriding focus of mission. But for Van Engen and Van Gelder the primary aim is making the Gospel known and experienced for people in their own context, thereby creating disciples of Christ; rather than building a physical, ecclesiastical structure, which, although important, is for them a secondary matter. In any case in some contexts a visible church may not be possible or permissible, but that does not limit the growth of the Kingdom.
Missionaries may have good leadership, satellite communication, three monthly reports and good pastoral care structures, but they may not be simply proclaiming the fullness of the Gospel as the living Word of God. Although proclamation involves both word and deed, social involvement, holistic ministry and cultural understanding can never substitute for clear verbal teaching, nor in themselves justify the presence of the Church. Church planting envisages the creation of a viable, living and growing community which can itself be a powerful witness as a sign and instrument of the Kingdom. A living Church with a fresh experience of the Lord will be able in its turn to share the dynamic and powerful Word of God through its life, words and witness (Jo 16:13-15).
3. CP and Contextualization
Among the Gonja of Ghana we have a saying: The dogs of yesterday cannot catch the rabbits of today. Culturally this means that new problems in the tribal society cannot be resolved with old solutions. From the missiological perspective it may help us to remember that in our fast, changing, globalized and post-modern world we need to pray for discernment in trying to catch new rabbits. This will require proclaiming a contextualized gospel and planting a contextualized church.
David Bosch states that “The gospel always comes to people in cultural robes. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ gospel, isolated from culture”. George Hunsburger observes: “no culture-free expression of the gospel exists, nor could it”. Anthropology thus becomes a powerful tool for gospel communication, and cultural anthropology and phenomenology help the Church to understand people and their culture with a view to proclaiming the Gospel more effectively. The aim of cultural understanding and theological contextualization is to plant indigenous churches whose members engage with the human and cultural questions of their own context and how these might be answered by a biblical theology. It is tempting to plant churches before doing this groundwork of cultural understanding, but this can result in churches that are poor at relating to their own contexts.
The churches that we plant need to be equipped to teach theology in a relevant, understandable and clear way to the people of their own culture. If we look at the African context, for example, we see that the de-Westernization that leads to true indigeneity of Christianity among some tribes can never be accomplished without a de-westernised, but deeply biblical, theology that communicates God’s mind and makes sense to Africans in their own land.
Although the Gospel speaks supra-culturally to everyone in every culture in every age, the way to formulate the questions to which the gospel is the answer varies from culture to culture. For example, in the West, sickness is treated according to the presenting symptoms, which fit into a formalised understanding of illness and medicine. In the animistic worldview, no action will be taken before they get an answer to “why” the person is facing the problem; because knowing the source of the problem is the most important factor for dealing with it.
Alan Tippett stressed that “when the indigenous people of a community think of the Lord as their own, not a foreign Christ; when they do things as unto the Lord meeting the cultural needs around them, worshipping in patterns they understand; when their congregations function in participation in a body, which is structurally indigenous; then you have an indigenous Church”.
4. A Brief Historical Perspective
When we consider the most common approaches to CP in history we may notice that after the Reformation in the 16C Gisbertus Voetius in his Politica Ecclesiastica described a seven-fold purpose of the church’s mission with a remarkable emphasis on personal evangelism and the training of leaders.
Later, Pietism emphasized individual salvation rather than CP, although churches were planted with clear planning and intention by early Protestant missionaries such William Carey, William Ward and others. In the mid 19C the three-self formula of Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson guided the Church towards self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating churches. By the second half of the 19C denominational mission was well under way in terms of CP and social action, combining evangelism with the building of hospitals and schools, and generating growth in all main denominational organizations. In 1960s Evangelicals began to recover this integrated approach to mission.
Hibbert notes that by the early 1980s there were three main streams with different emphases within CP: McGravan and Winter emphasized evangelism and church multiplication; John Stott and others emphasised a holistic approach to mission; and Samuel Escobar, Rene Padilla and others adopted a more radical focus on social justice.
Today there is a proliferation of CP models: the Garrison CP Movement model, Spiritual warfare model, Meta model, Vineyard Model, Willow Creek Seeker Model, Ralph Neighbor cell model, the Purpose Driven Church model, the Charles Brock itinerant church planter, the Five-model approach to church planting and evaluation of Brian Woodford, and others. Although they have very different emphases most of them are defined by 3 main values: a) intentional and planned church multiplication; b) quick incorporation of new believers into the church and CP process; c) emphasis on leadership training and self-governing communities.
5. Strategies and challenges for CP in today’s world
Anderson, explaining the three-self formula, shows that the aim of evangelism with a view to CP involves four stages: a) conversion of individuals b) organizing converts into communities of local churches or cells; c) providing an able church leader for each community; and d) guiding the community to independence.
This makes CP an ongoing dynamic process that brings with it a number of challenges. These challenges highlight the need for strategies which create mature and healthy churches with long-term viability.
a) The problem of the Motherchurch model. A mother church tends to reproduce itself in its own image, without contextualization. Historical denominations have very often planted churches as exact replicas of their home church, reproducing a model that very often does not make sense for the people in a different place or culture. The danger is to spread an uncontextualised church model around the world.
So the main framework for structuring a local church is the gospel and how it is understood by the recipient culture, not the identity of a mother church or the church planter’s strengths and visions.
b) The problem of Dependency. After a century discussing this issue, dependency remains one of the great issues in CP. Resulting from the mother church model many churches become dysfunctional. If the building maintenance, pastor’s salary, instruments for worship, leadership courses, etc are built on mother church templates, great conflict can result when local churches face the challenge to become self-supporting and self-governing. The question we should ask is not how many churches were planted in the past 15 years, but how many of them remain and became independent communities.
There is also a tendency to create dependency on the charity of the mother church or church planters in meeting local social needs. A church planter should ask how the values of the gospel empower people to work for socially positive changes in the daily life of their own community. This draws education, health, dignity, clean water, rescue of relationships and sustainability into the mission responsibility of the newly planted church. But we should not wait to get a church building before helping local people to start a school if education is the main social need in their community. The gospel should focus people on their real life, dreams and struggles, so that they in turn will create churches that take responsibility for their mission in their own contexts.
c) The problem of Leadership training. Church growth is very often disassociated from leadership growth. The effects of dysfunctional leadership are immature churches and an open door for syncretism. Often church planters do not plan how to leave, but stay for too long; they do not invest a proportional time between evangelism and leadership training; and they do not address the main cultural problems in the context, leaving new believers to work this out as they go along, poorly prepared to face the issues.
Leadership training therefore begins as soon as the first believers appear. We should avoid making a difference between basic discipleship and training leaders, as discipleship should be the first step to identifying those who are natural leaders. To have a self-supporting and self-governing church we need to reproduce a structure compatible to its reality in terms of human and financial resources. The only input from outside should be the Gospel. Leaders, finance, buildings and ongoing strategies should be generated from the inside by the efforts and initiative of the indigenous people themselves.
Drawing together what we have said we may conclude that:
1. CP is often associated with pragmatic methodology and field processes, leading to understanding and evaluating CP on the basis of results rather than its theological foundation. Missiological decisions must be rooted in biblical theology, but unfortunately biblical theology can become less important than what works well and is pragmatically effective.
2. Some attempt to make CP nothing more than a network of solutions to people’s needs.   This is a growing concern in our post-modern hedonistic world. It happens when church planters make decisions based purely on an anthropological understanding of needs rather than on theological criteria. In this case the culture and culturally related issues become determining factors. Vicedon affirms that only a deep biblical understanding of the nature of the church (Eph. 1:23) will enable church planters to make decisions and take action that is rooted in the “Missio Dei” rather than the demands of culture.
3. A third and final observation has to do with understanding the very nature and mission of the Church. Although we agree with Bosch that it is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a Church in the world, we need to clarify the intrinsic importance of the Church in terms of its identity. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others” he was partially right. Its intrinsic value must also be recognized, because it is the result of the sacrifice of Jesus, and Jesus and the cross are at the heart of God’s purposes. The identity of the Church cannot be limited to mission. Worship, holiness, unity and fellowship are also important dimensions of the community of the Body of Christ as it is built up and glorifies God (Eph. 3:10). CP therefore means planting a local church that reaches self-understanding as the fullness of the Church of Christ in its local expression in the context in which God has placed it.
Works cited
Bosch, David J. 1983. The structure of mission: An exposition of Matthew 28:1-20. In Exploring church gorwth, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk, 218-248. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
———. 1991. Transforming mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis.
Garrison, David. 1999. Church Planting Movements. Richmond: International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention
Hesselgrave, David. 1980. Planting churches cross-culturally: A guide to home and foreign missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Johnstone, Patrick. 1998. The church is bigger than you think. Fearn, UK: Christian Focus.
Hibbert, Richard. 2005. Paper: A survey and evaluation of contemporary evangelical theological perspectives on church planting.
Hiebert, Paul G. and Hiebert Meneses, Eloise. International Ministry: Planting Churches in Band, Tribal, Peasant, and Urban Societies. Grand Rapids, MI: josiser Book House 1996.
Lopes, Augustus. 2004. A Biblia e seus interpretes. São Paulo. Editora Cultura Cristã.
Malphurs, Aubrey. 1998. Planting growing churches for the 21st century. Grand Rapids, MI: josiser.
McGavran, Donald. “Reaching People Through New Congregations,” Church Growth Strategies That Work. by Donald McGavran and George F. Hunter, III. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1980.
Murray, Stuart. 1998. Church planting: Laying foundations. Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster.
Tippett, Alan. 1987. Introduction to missology. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Van Engen, Charles. 1999. Footprints of God: A Narrative Theology of Mission. Monrovia, CA
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 2000. Monthly Missiological Reflections. Available from; internet.
Verkuyl, J. 1978. Contemporary missiology: An introduction, trans. Dale Cooper. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Vicedom, George F. 1965. The Mission of God. Trans. Gilbert A. Thiele and Dennie Hilgrendorf. St. Louis: Concordia.
Woodford, Brian. 1997. One church, many churches: A five-model approach to church planting and evaluation

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