Church Planting brings into clear focus a task that lies at the very core of Christian mission, the formation of new churches. While the term does not square with some New Testament metaphors for the church -- body of Christ, a building -- it corresponds well with common New Testament imagery for evangelization: planting, watering, and God making the plant grow. It contributes to the biblical understanding that the church is a living organism. It also serves well to express the process of introducing the gospel into a new community of people, resulting in a new congregation of believers springing forth among them.
The use of this term to give focus to the special task of new church formation is represented in old titles like that of John Nevins' landmark book, The planting and development of missionary churches (1886) and Peill and Rowland's World Dominion Press book, Church planting (n.d.). The term has in recent decades come back into common usage under the influence of the Church Growth movement. Two important principles of church growth are brought into focus in the use of "church planting." First, there are in the world thousands of unreached peoples, clearly definable communities of people among whom there exists no church and no faithful, culturally relevant expression of the gospel.
Secondly, evangelism is not evangelism in the biblical sense unless it results in the incorporation of new believers into the church. The obvious implication of these two principles is that many new churches will need to be formed if the gospel is to be proclaimed to every people.
Certain elements inherent within these church growth principles correspond with Anabaptist concerns. First, the gospel is not fully represented simply through verbal communication. It needs to be expressed in a life of obedience together. Secondly, believers are members of a body, not individuals standing alone in their faith. (On the other hand, Church Growth theory does not adequately recognize that the church is a community of reconciliation in and through which is broken down the wall of enmity that separates individual people and groups of people from each other.)
Anabaptist Vision and Church Planting
In their letter to Thomas Müntzer in September 1524, Conrad Grebel and his friends reveal that their ideas about. the church were changing. They had been faithful colleagues of Zwingli but over the issue of the authority of the government to determine when and how the church was to be reformed, these men had become increasingly doubtful about the authenticity of a church whose very existence was dependent on the decision of the civil government.
After critiquing Müntzer at several points, explaining at the same time their own views, Grebel challenged Müntzer to "go forth with the Word and establish a Christian church," congregations of believers committed together to Christ and his rule. In just a few short months, under threat of imprisonment or banishment from Zürich they themselves would act on this challenge, caught up in a powerful impulse to go from town to town, from canton to canton, from principality to principality, declaring and sharing their new vision of the kingdom of God and his church.
This impulse comes close to the core of the vision that most Anabaptists were caught up with. The premier task was to "go forth ... and establish a Christian church," to set out with the intention of forming new cells of people of God, new expressions of the body of Christ -- in cities, towns and villages, among groups of people where an authentic church had not yet been planted.
It was a vision and an impulse similar to the one that had captured the imagination of the people from Cyprus and Cyrene who had been to Jerusalem on Pentecost and later went to Antioch to form a fellowship of followers of Jesus the Messiah there. That vision captured the imagination of Paul, who seems to the modern Christian observer almost irresponsible in his urge to press on to yet another town to form a cell of believers in Jesus there.
it might well be said that some elements of this urge to form new fellowships of believers wherever possible were carried over from the clear impulse in Hellenistic Judaism to form new synagogue fellowships wherever they could, having clear criteria in mind as to how that was to be accomplished. But in sharp contrast to synagogue fellowships, these cells of believers in Jesus were to be profoundly assimilative. This impulse, imparted by Jesus to his disciples in both word and action, was to gather peripheral people -- the disinherited, the despised, the disregarded, and the disenfranchised of the larger community -- making them members of the body of the new community. This impulse springs to life in the work of Paul, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, who takes into his circle people who in Jewish practice had no hope of ever partaking of the feast of the kingdom.
Mennonites and Church Planting
Within the Anabaptist movement the impulse to go forth and establish the church was subverted within a generation or two. On the one hand, there quickly developed an alternative impulse -- to gather people out of the threatening, evil world, take them to the safe pastures of Moravia, and form colonies of heaven there. The clear implication of this Hutterian strategy of mission was that the world was not redeemable; one needed to be saved out of the world into a pure, safe, colony of heaven.
On the other hand, within the mainstream of Swiss, German, and Dutch Anabaptism, the impulse to "go forth ... and establish a church" by forming new congregations in every village and town was subverted when intense persecution and other factors transformed large segments of the Anabaptist community into "the quiet in the land." It was in the lengthening experience as relatively isolated quiet people in the country that a distinct ethnic, subcultural identity became an increasingly pervasive element in their self-consciousness as church.
The mindset of such a Christian subculture becomes in certain respects like the mindset of the Christendom from which the Anabaptist, had separated: The church has already been established. Everyone that counts is already a Christian. This thought certainly applies within the community, but it also easily comes to apply beyond the community. For Luther, sending someone into another principality to proclaim the gospel and form a new church was tantamount to political subversion. In a corresponding way, to many Christian communities with a strong ethnic identity, going to another community to start a new church appears at least presumptuous. To people of such a mindset, the impulse to form a new congregation is reduced to a function of the migration of a significant segment of the community to a new location. So it is that in the Mennonite experience, migration has been the primary model for the formation of new congregations.
Even entering the 20th century, when Mennonites were stirred to launch new efforts to evangelize and plant new churches in North America and overseas, a strong element of the strategy has been to depend on a number of people migrating or commuting to the new area to form the core of the new congregation. In the case of mission in non-Western societies, the method of the mission compound coupled with the mission boarding school was the core of the strategy to mold or enculturate a community of converts into the image of the sending church in a pattern corresponding substantially to the civilizing vision of much of the establishment-oriented Protestant mission movement.
Models for Church Planting
Transplanting -- taking a whole plant or a branch and planting it in a new place -- is a metaphor that can be helpfully used to describe the process of church formation by migration. It illustrates taking a body of people from one or more existing congregations and gathering them in a new setting to from the core, or even the bulk, of a new congregation. A new congregation formed in this way will have characteristics similar to the congregation(s) of origin. Its capacity for incorporating new people of diverse backgrounds into itself, will not be substantially different from that of the congregation of origin. It is not a foregone conclusion that churches formed in this way will be effectively involved in mission in their surrounding community; the migrating group itself already constitutes a church. If the community into which this group migrates is distinctly different culturally from the migrating group, the possibilities for the new church to become indigenous to the new community are clearly limited.
Hundreds of new Mennonite congregations in cities and rural areas of North America have been started in this way. Many of them have existed for decades, but there is still a clear consciousness of who are the "Mennonites" (that is the immigrants or commuters of Mennonite family background) and who are the "community people" (the members of non-Mennonite background).
Seed-planting -- taking a seed of a plant and planting it in a new place to become a new plant -- is a metaphor that can helpfully be used to describe the sending of representative missionaries or church planters from existing congregations to a different community or society to work towards the formation of a new church made up of people of that community or society. By sending only a few representatives into the new context, the formation of a new church will be dependent on success in calling people of that community to faith and forming them into a body of believers. Since the number of representatives is so small, leaders for the new congregation will have to be recruited from among the people gathered from the community. The cultural patterns of the community will have a formative effect on the new congregation, thus assuring that it will be more indigenous (contextualization).
Church Planting Strategy
In the 1980s a number of Mennonite conferences in North America recognized their need to sharpen their commitment to the mission God has given the church. One form of response was to set goals for stewardship and mission. Taken together, these conferences had goals to plant well over 1,000 new congregations in a decade. While there is much difference of opinion over the validity of setting goals in Christian ministry, these goals stimulated the churches to reflection and new activity in mission.
Mennonite churches in other countries may not be setting goals like the North Americans, but in some places there is evident a similar kind of intentionality about church planting. In the mid-1960s a remarkable number of people were coming to faith in Java. Beginning in about 1970 the leaders of the Evangelical Church of Java took deliberate steps to foster the formation of new congregations. They reflected carefully on the stages and criteria for church formation. The number of "mature" congregations in that conference increased from 18 in 1970 to 60 in 1988, with 105 branch congregations still in earlier stages of development.
One of the major challenges of church planting is the selection and training of people to lead. Church planting requires certain abilities not essential for leadership in established congregations. It requires an ability to envision something that does not yet exist and then bring it into being. It requires the ability to adapt quickly and to tolerate sudden change. It requires the ability to enter and thrive in unfamiliar communities. The challenge is to identify and learn how to develop these characteristics in leaders.
Nevius, John L. Planting and Development of Missionary Churches. N.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing House, 1886.
Shenk, David W. and Ervin R. Stutzman. Creating Communities of the Kingdom: New Testament Models of Church Planting. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988.
Shenk, Wilbert R., ed., Anabaptism and Mission. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984.
Stoll, Dale L. Church Planting From Seed Time to Harvest. Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Board of Missions, 1986.
Wittlinger, Carolton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978.: 505-9.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 157-159. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Yoder, Lawrence M. "Church Planting." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C493ME.html.
APA style: Yoder, Lawrence M. (1989). Church Planting. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C493ME.html.