Part VI. Important Themes in Early Church Planting LIterature

A Trickle to a Flood

Church planting is a relatively recent field of study in its own right. Timmis claims that even the term is virtually unknown before the 1960s, and a Church of England Report claims it was virtually non-existent in England in the 1970s.  A search of the catalogue of the National Library of Scotland offers only two titles on church planting published in Britain between 1889-1986, both of them dealing with third world situations. The British Library catalogue for the same period yields nineteen titles, and all but two are concerned exclusively with the third world context or historical accounts of planting in the American colonies.

The three exceptions are Charles Brock’s important book from 1981 entitled Indigenous Church Planting which, although dealing primarily with third world missions, did have some clear application to first world contexts, and Monica Hill’s 1984 book where she states: “Church planting has been thought irrelevant in most part of Britain during the past sixty years or so. Church planting was done overseas, not at home.”  It wasn’t until 1991 and the publication, a year after Wagner’s work, of Charlie Cleverly’s appropriately – even prophetically – named Church Planting, Our Future Hope, that the new literature on church planting in European situations started emerging.

“Ministers of Finance” or ‘Ministers of the Word”?

The influence of Wagner and the Church Growth Movement looms large over the early works that emerged at the start of the 1990s. Lyle Schaller, for example, advises planters to start with a couple of hundred people to avoid the church getting trapped into “a small-church syndrome.” Samuel Faircloth, is clearly influenced by Wagner and is strong on management theory, although he has some helpful things to say regarding sustainability, building and finance. For example, he believes it is dangerous to model to fledgling churches that they need to support large expensive churches and structures in order to have a viable church planting operation: “the fact is that we do not need such a facade any more than Paul did. It is a blind alley.” However, in spite of his focus on easily reproducible models and his appreciation of the work of Roland Allen in the 1920s, he doesn’t develop this to the extent of considering bivocational planting.  David Hesselgrave was also influenced by Allen in terms of overseas planting. But his words have relevance at home too:

“the planting of churches early becomes a basically ‘secular business’ [Allen’s phrase] involving negotiations for real estate, agreements with contractor, and supervision of construction as well as the raising of funds for the entire operation. In this we are as far removed from apostolic practice in action as we are in time… When church planters become first ‘ministers of finance’ and only secondarily ‘ministers of the Word’, we have strayed from New Testament principles and have jeopardized the future of our mission in the world.”

The other significant author in the States from this period onwards was Aubrey Malphurs.  His Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century has been revised and updated several times since it came out in 1992. It is a comprehensive book written because not many have the type of planting vision Malphurs believes is necessary to reach the unchurched and “a significant number of those who have caught this vision are implementing it the wrong way and experiencing failure and disillusionment.” He cites cloning as the most common cause of this and instead advocates a biblical strategy that takes seriously the planter’s unique identity, unique location and unique community. His foundational principles, however, are deeply rooted in the assumptions of the church growth movement and he has an important section defending the importance of numerical growth.  The first edition of the book takes the prospective planter through seven vital characteristics of the plant (covering areas of vision, leadership, equipping, worship and cultural relevance), and goes on to outline the six stages of a plant analogous to human reproduction. Bivocationalism is acknowledged, but only as a last resort.

“Ecclesiastical condoms”

In Britain, as mentioned, the trail was blazed by Cleverley. Since he was essentially speaking about virgin territory for the British churches, much of the book sought to justify the need for planting and to answer objections. Although written by an Anglican, he displays a principled inter-denominationalism: “Church planting is not a strategy that is the property of any particular denomination or movement. Things are too urgent for that and the dynamic is too big for any group to claim ownership of it.”  He particularly points the finger at elements of mainline church polity that actively hinders planting. For example, instead of wondering about whether or not a plant preserves the tradition of the denomination, he believes that the Church of England “must not only drop its concern for style and ethos but also for parish boundaries.”  In this he is a little gentler than two other noteworthy Anglican commentators: Bob Hopkins who caricatures parish boundaries as “a line drawn round thousands of people to protect them from hearing the Gospel,” and David Pytches who refers to parish boundaries as “the condom of the Anglican Church, impeding natural reproduction.”  In a 1993 article for the Presbyterian Herald in Ireland, Alistair Kennedy makes the same point about parish boundaries, regarding them as “inflexible and a barrier to mission.”

Cleverley concludes: “(The Church of England) must recognize and rejoice that many of its clergy and thousands of its members are Christians first and Anglicans second. They are more concerned with the lost and how best to win them than with maintaining traditions.” Sjogren and Lewin warn that worrying whether or not something is the denomination’s style will “handcuff you and keep you from church planting effectiveness”, while Robinson and Christine remark that although planting can revive an ailing denomination, our motivation should be the cure of souls: “the salvation of our denominations cannot be an adequate motive for the establishing of new churches.”

Of the books which took up the baton passed on by Cleverley, Radical Church Planting edited by Roger Ellis and Roger Mitchell did mention bivocational planting, but Roger Forster’s chapter is significant in that it appears to be one of the first to classify the different options of church plant available to the planter: (mass-evangelism, mega church, ‘maybe’ church, mushroom church, mobile church, mini-mission, mother church and multi-cell church).  Martin Robinson and Stuart Christine’s Church Planting also came from this period. Robinson was to become a leading planting advocate and thinker on the British scene. Interestingly, in his much later follow-up book Planting Mission-shaped Churches Today he critiques this earlier work as too mechanistic, preferring now a more organic approach.


“Where are the pioneer-apostles?”

Nevertheless, his earlier book did raise some important issues. In line with Irish Presbyterian statistics, they showed historically how new churches established in Britain over previous centuries were not so much missionary endeavors, but rather “the provision of worship centers for those who already believed”. This heart-cry for missionary congregations is a seam that runs through the book. They believe that because the pastor-teacher model has dominated ecclesiological thinking there has not been ample opportunity for the development of those with the gifts of a pioneer/apostle or an evangelist:

“Such people have either become overseas missionaries, or they have had significant involvement in parachurch structures, or they have begun new denominations!… If the West is ever to have significant numbers of local missionary churches, then church planting needs to take place on a scale that most mainline denominations have not yet considered possible.”

They also maintain that newer, smaller churches are more evangelistically effective. This is an argument that will recur in future literature as the planting movement gathers momentum on both sides of the Atlantic.

Robinson and Christine’s book introduced to a British audience many of the material and methodologies which would be de rigeur for planters over the next two decades: demographic research, prophetic strategic planning, personnel choice, cultural contextualization, consideration of different models. They also answered the objections that regularly surfaced in those early days (and which are still not unknown especially in mainline contexts such as PCI where a planting movement has not yet taken root.)  Of particular note is how they deal with the “planting versus revitalization” option, seeing revitalization as laudable but difficult to achieve. They write: “It is a sad fact that many such congregations are unwilling to let go of ways that though they might have served the kingdom well in the past, no longer do so. It must be asked if it is good stewardship of kingdom resources to perpetuate ineffective activity. Sometimes a cure is not possible and there must be death before resurrection can take place!”


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