The history of the church is replete with the stories of heroic individuals who, against all odds and with little apparent human support, engaged in evangelistic efforts which resulted in the launching of a thriving, sometimes lasting church.
But, the real Biblical pattern for effective church planting has been largely lost in the history of the modern missionary movement which has been so heavily influenced by Western culture and its highly individualistic forms of lifestyle and Christian witness.
Biblical Witness is Community-Based
There are two primary forms of authentic witness; individual and community. Due to the dominance of Western culture in recent history, individual witness has been seen as the primary paradigm while community witness has been generally forgotten—as has community life and its implications for the church!
Despite endless creeds, the Gospel is primarily Good News about restored relationships (Luke 10:25-28). Jesus established relational qualities in the Church as the primary means the world could use to authenticate His ministry (John 17:20-23). And, the apostle Paul suggested that our primary task is that of restoring relationships (II Corinthians 5:18-19).
Effective Church Planting is Rooted in Relationships
As we consider effective church planting, we might do well to study more closely that parenthetical passage which, in the middle of the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus instructs His disciples on the importance of understanding the role of relationships and partnership in evangelism. In this passage, Jesus suggests at least two important aspects of evangelism/church planting. First, that frequently if not most often, individuals coming into the Kingdom do so as part of a process. Evangelism is not an event. And, that process typically involves more than one person. Second, the results that we see today are likely to be the product of our work and someone else’s faithfulness—someone we never knew, being faithful at a time before we were involved.
As Jesus suggests, we need to respect others’ roles and respect God’s work in history—even if we have no first hand, specific knowledge of how either figured into the results we are now seeing.
This observation is strongly supported by the apostle Paul’s words to the Church in I Corinthians 3:1-9. (In the Good News translation of this passage, Paul concludes, “There is no difference between the man who sows and the man who waters. God will reward each one according to the work he has done. For we are partners together [emphasis added] working together for God ….”)
This understanding of God’s plan for evangelism and Church planting is rooted, of course, in our understanding of the very nature of God Himself as revealed especially in the first eleven chapters of Genesis where repeatedly we meet God in the plural, the “us” of creation. God, dwelling in community, outside of time or the created order. It explains, why when He did create, God created “in His likeness”—that is, beings designed to live in relationship; with Himself, internally with themselves in a self-consciousness (which separates man from all the other created order), and with others (giving particular meaning to the Luke 10 passage).
Success or Faithfulness: Does Jesus Suggest a Priority?
Combine these passages with well-known New Testament sections such as Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 where the Spirit-given diversity of gifts is outlined and we begin to understand why Jesus never spoke of success but relentlessly about faithfulness. Each individual has a role to play! This understanding of God’s nature and plan also sheds further light on well-known passages like Matthew 25:14-30 where the master had different expectations of the servants’ abilities but uniform expectations of their faithfulness.
The Modern World: Reality Forces A New Look at Individualism
In world of the early 21st century, we are being forced to deal once again with the meaning and significance of these passages. First, an initiative in which one individual does everything is not only foreign to the true Biblical paradigm, it is a relic of a time in history when communications was poor, transportation slow, and resources extremely limited. Second, the failure of the Gospel to make significant headway in community-based, relationally-intensive Non-Western cultures (Islam, Hindu, Buddhist/Tibetan Buddhist), raises serious questions about the power and credibility of our message when delivered individualistically. Even more so when the messengers appear to be divided.
Helping ministries develop effective partnerships for evangelism and Church planting has demonstrated the practical power and reality of these truths again and again. As the work has been primarily in the relationally-intensive, community-based cultures I mentioned earlier, the truth of passages like Psalm 133 and John 17 have taken on completely new meaning. We are increasingly convinced that there will be no real blessing of the Holy Spirit, no real power for breakthroughs in the most difficult areas of the world, and no credibility for our message without a genuine partnership approach to the preaching of the Good News.
The Power of Partnership is Tangible
A partnership approach
- Brings real credibility (John 17) to our message. We can actually demonstrate restored relationships.
- It allows for the release of the Holy Spirit’s power and refreshment for those involved in ministry—frequently in the hardest places (Psalm 133).
- It welcomes each person as they employ their God-given gifts (I Corinthians 12). Well diggers, translation specialists, radio broadcasters, student evangelists, medical personnel, and many others can each have a conscious sense of being part of God’s redemptive grace.
- Partnership for evangelism/church planting acknowledges that none of us is sufficient in ourselves and demonstrates genuine humility in our call (John 4:34-38).
- This approach also acknowledges that God is the orchestrator of the harvest; that as we are faithful, He is faithful (Hebrew 11:35b-40). While we must “press toward the mark,” we do not control the timetable, it is in His hands.
Major Barriers to a Biblical Approach
Many barriers stand between us and such an approach to ministry. Personal and organizational pride. Demand to have short-term if not “instant” results. Majoring on perceived minor theological differences while unwilling to acknowledge agreement on the heart of the Gospel. Tradition, fear and unwillingness to consider new approaches—especially ministry approaches that call for us to depend on each other and to share success. And, of course, Satan. He uses division and discord based on individualism as his primary means of destroying the power and credibility of Jesus’ life and message. Finally, we have little history of knowing how to work together. To help us do so, we need intensive, practical training and on-going coaching and mentoring that is deeply rooted in prayer and the Scripture.
God’s Faithfulness is Demonstrated
In nearly every language or people where strategic partnerships have seen breakthroughs in evangelism and church planting, a study of not too distant history reveals that someone has previously paid a terrible personal price as they witnessed in this group for Christ. These partnerships’ credibility and effectiveness is enhanced because they are working together today. But, in reality, they are deeply engaged in the partnership of God’s grace expressed in the lives of those who have gone before.
One could hardly imagine greater privilege or a more remarkable motivation for wonder, humility, and worship!