Is Church planting the enemy of healthy church life and discipleship?

I saw this tweet the other day, it’s from Marcus Honeysett who heads up Living Leadership.

As someone who is actively involved in encouraging church planting I thought it might be helpful to respond a little.

First, it is important to recognise that it is possible for people and churches to become so focused on one specific issue to the exclusion of all aspects of spiritual health and discipleship. This could be evangelism, mission and church planting, though it is also possible to have a one dimensional focus on worship or social action.  If all that a leader talks about is church planting or evangelism, then yes, there’s a risk that people in the church will begin to feel that they are just a vehicle for the project and there’s a risk that the pastor will only be concerned with a level of discipleship that gets people ready to start the next church.

Secondly, Tony Uddin, a pastor in inner city London added this.

This tells us a little bit more of the kind of problem that churches may face.  When parachurch organisations are setting the agenda and vision, then we risk running into problems. The local church becomes subservient to the parachurch organisation’s metrics.  The organisation is only focused on numbers so that it can report back to sponsors.

Thirdly, I think that the danger comes when a church is working to fixed goals within a rigid way of thinking and approaching things. If you insist on a hard deadline, that you must plant within five years and if you assume that planting means reaching a certain size -whatever that size might be (50, 150, 200), then you may be tempted to put all your focus on doing what it takes to reach the necessary numbers. It becomes about growth strategy. 

It’s important to be alert to those dangers.  However, we also need to recognise that encouraging regular church planting does not necessarily in and of itself preclude healthy discipleship. In fact, it can be the opposite.  Whilst Honeysett has picked up on one type of danger, his language may also be embraced by people who are at risk of falling into another danger.

The problem is this. We are all, whatever our position prone to worldly and consumerist temptations and we are all very good at dressing them up in spiritual language. It is possible to dress up our ambitions for success in the language of church planting, it looks good and humble because we are seen to be giving away, seen to be preferring multiplication over having a large church but we can still be building empires instead of the kingdom. However, it is possible to dress up a need for comfort, size and structure in the language of “discipleship” too. We talk about spiritual growth not just numerical growth and people nod along.

But let’s think this through.  Why and how would church planting sacrifice depth and relational connectedness?  Will those involved in the church plant seize to be concerned about their walk with the Lord?  Do they have to stop engaging with Scripture and seeking to be fed? Must the church plant abandon body ministry and an expression of the gifts of the Spirit?  Will the people who are part of the plant lose relational connectedness? How?

It’s true that if I’m in a church of 150 and 50 of us head off to plant a new church, then there will be 100 people who we will no longer be seeing each Sunday.  Having said that, how much relational connectedness did I actually have to most of them?  It is highly likely that the 50 who form the new plant will already have, to the locality a greater sense of connectedness with one another, not just on Sundays but through the week.

In fact, I want to suggest that a church that without putting legalistic milestones in place encourages regular planting can just as easily be doing better at discipleship.  Why?  Well, because discipleship is meant to enable us to live out our Christian life, not in a holy bubble but out in the world, on mission for Christ. So, first of all, by encouraging a sense of mission to those involved, church planting enables Christians to put discipleship into practice. 

Secondly, church planting can strengthen relationship between those who plant the new church and those who send them. I may actually have little reason to connect with people who come from a different neighbourhood and sit in a different part of the building to me, especially if they are at a different stage in life and engaging with different ministries.  However, if they have commissioned me and sent me and I have an awareness of being sent, then there is now a connection and  reason for fellowship and partnership. Those who send will be wanting to help and support, especially through prayer and that will mean that those sent will be wanting to connect with them to update with prayer requests and encouragements.

Thirdly, discipleship should be encouraging fruitfulness as we see every member of the body using their gifts. This means that church planting leads to two smaller churches and so more people have opportunity to use their gifts. Not only that but if I find that I’m now having to teach in Sunday Club or lead a Bible study then I need to be going deeper into God’s Word, I need to be praying more and to be more dependent on the Holy Spirit.

So, to be sure, there are dangers with an emphasis on numbers and fixed goals but regularly church planting: smaller, swifter, simpler is the ally of fellowship and discipleship, not it its enemy.

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