Part IV: Church Planting: a fad in search of a theology?

In his seminal work, Transforming Mission, South African missiologist David Bosch beautifully encapsulates the divine origin of Christian mission:

“Mission [is] understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It [is] thus put in the context of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine of the missio dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit [is] expanded to include yet another “movement:” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.”

Keeping this divine perspective in mind should prevent us from defining mission too narrowly, as has often been the case in the evangelical world. If we are to have a truly biblical mandate for mission it must embrace more than cross-cultural evangelism. This is largely the theme of another key missiological tome – Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God. In it he writes: “it would be a distorted and exaggerated hermeneutic, in my view, that tried to argue that the whole Bible was “about” mission in the narrowly defined sense of human missionary activities.” He continues:

“Just as ‘salvation belongs to our God’ (Rev.7:10), so does mission. The Bible renders and reveals to us the God whose creative and redemptive work is permeated from beginning to end with God’s own great mission, his powerful, sovereign intentionality. All mission or missions which we initiate or into which we invest our own vocation, gifts and energies, flow from the prior and larger reality of the mission of God.”

Where, then, does the church fit in? What does its mission look like? Wright turns the questions on their head:  “We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God expects for his mission.” This is a much more demanding question. Instead of looking at what we are to do, it forces us to an even more radical exploration: namely, who are we called to be?

Hibbert combines these two strands of ecclesiology and missiology in a way that applies Wright’s understanding of the Missio Dei to the work of local fellowships:

“Although the importance of church planting was only gradually unfolded through the book of Acts, a reading of the whole Bible makes it clear that God’s plan— his mission—is to draw people from all nations into the new people he is creating and to use each local church to display his wisdom and character to their communities.”

How has the church sought to do this through its strategy of reproduction, particularly in the last one hundred years?  For that answer, we must look to how the frantic reproductivity of the early church fell into decline and then was revived through the (relatively) modern discipline of “church planting.”

A name that has been associated with church growth and church planting movements over the last three decades is missiologist C. Peter Wagner (whose writings, along with those of his predecessor at Fuller Theological seminary, Donald McGavran, stimulated the development of the Church Growth Movement [CGM]). At the beginning of Wagner’s influential work Church Planting for a Greater Harvest, he famously commented that “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.”  Stuart Murray wryly comments that no book on church planting seemed complete without this quote and also seems to hold Wagner partly responsible for some of the disillusionment and cynicism that befell unsuccessful planters especially in Britain.

Hibbert agrees in terms of the importance of church planting but not on the basis of evangelistic strategy. Rather, he focuses on the nature of the church: “The activity of starting new churches is part of God’s in-built design for churches. The image of the body of Christ expresses that the church is a living organism and, as such, it has been designed to reproduce.”

Hibbert’s main concern is that church planters and their sending organizations employ more theological thinking in their plans and practices:

“The biblical and theological foundation for the planting of churches has generally been assumed rather than explicitly articulated…[but] while insights from the history of mission and the social sciences are extremely helpful in shaping church planting practice, a biblical and theological foundation is essential if church planting is to fulfill God’s purposes for it.”

This is an important warning. The Achilles heel of many church planters and planting movements is an almost semi-Pelagian tendency whereby the creation of congregations is seen as an end in itself – one that may be relatively easily achieved – but with little understanding or interest in how this may fit into the bigger picture of God’s work in his world.  While much church planting literature examined on this subject could be classed as methodological, even formulaic, a number of writers, such as Steve Timmis, have sought to encourage practitioners towards greater theological and biblical reflection on their practice.



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