Church planting is a practice that has long existed in the Christian
church; indeed it is as old as the church itself.
The narrative of Acts records for us how early Christian communities are formed. Christian communities are formed as people respond to the Gospel. As Alan Hirsh notes in Forgotten Ways, we do not plant churches per say, but plant the Gospel. And it is in response to the Gospel that people become Christians and new communities are formed. Or to borrow from the Matthean Commission, we move out into world, preach the Gospel, form Jesus followers, and teach them as they are incorporated into the new community of God (the church) which is patterned after the God Community (the Trinity).
There are different perspectives on whether we call the forming of community ‘church planting’ or developing ‘new contextual churches’, ‘fresh expressions’ or starting new ‘missional communities’ etc. Terms do matter but fundamentally, all of these different terms (and many like them), express the intentionality of forming a new community of Jesus followers. However the motivation for starting new churches must not be rooted primarily in our desire to save the church from decline, or rescue our denominational reputations; nor to “get bottoms on seats” or set up our mini kingdoms; nor to wave our particular flags or promote our unique brands.
Fundamentally, we start new communities of faith, because God Himself has invited us into the God community to share His life and love with Him and others. As this ‘good news’ story is shared with others so they too are invited to participate. Therefore, as His followers, brought into the Divine drama of salvation through the Holy Spirit, we too in the overflow of Divine love, move outwards towards others. Following Christ, we ‘incarnate’ ourselves and engage with people who are loved by God through acts of service, mercy, justice, and compassion. As we live and participate in the Story of God ourselves so we are moved by the Spirit to share and live the Gospel. And as people are drawn to explore and discover Jesus, so as they respond, new Christian communities are formed by the creativity, midwifery and guidance of the Spirit.
The Spirit often leads us in unexpected ways and into unexpected places. One of my favourite Biblical examples of this is told in Acts 16. The narrative describes the journey of Paul and his companions as they travel to Troas through the leading of the Spirit. In that journey we are told they were kept by the Spirit from ‘preaching the word’ in the province of Asia and as they entered Bithynia the Spirit again would not let them preach the word there. And yet they are led by the Spirit to Troas with nothing but sea in front of them and wondering what on earth to do next. What was the Spirit doing? And yet it is in Troas, that they receive the vision and call from Macedonia to come there and share the Gospel and so European mission is birthed by the Spirit!
The forming of new communities of faith, finds it roots not in pragmatism, or activism, or imperialism, or denominationalism, but in the Story of God. Brought into the God community through responding to the good news of the gospel, the community of God is sent in the Missio Trinitatis, often in strange ways and to strange places. And as others are invited to participate in God’s life so the Story of God is lived and told again, and again and again.
Trevor Hutton is Director of Momentum UK, Church Planting Director for ForMission heading up the Church Planting Forum and Forge England and Wales. He is a missional lecturer and practitioner in Manchester with the Nazarene Church.