Peyton Jones: Reimagining Church Planting—Part 1

church planting

“I had mistaken church starting for church planting. And that distinction made all the difference.”

In the more than 25 years that veteran church planter Peyton Jones has been in ministry, he has served in almost every incarnation and context of church. He is founder of the New Breed Church Planting Network and is an expert in the field of missional engagement strategy. A self-described “accidental church planter,” Jones has planted in a Starbucks and in inner-city Long Beach, California, and serves as the church planting catalyst of the Western U.S. and Canada for the North American Mission Board

Jones is also the host of the Jump School Core Team Training Series, managing editor of Church Planter Magazine and the co-host of the weekly Church Planter podcast. His latest book, Church Plantology: The Art and Science of Planting Churches (Zondervan), represents what he calls his magnum opus, distilling hard-earned principles of early-church-style ministry from his colorful and poignant experiences in modern contexts. 

Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Jones to discuss the differences between church planting and church starting, what a good church planter has in common with a Hobbit and how COVID-19 represents a chance for all of us to recapture some first-century freshness in ministry.

Opposite of many stories, you began as a pastor at a large church, then started a ministry of church planting. What was that journey like?

I started my ministry as a pastor at a megachurch in Huntington Beach, California. I began serving as the interim pastor after being an assistant for years. But I felt called to Wales in the United Kingdom and did not feel that staying in that pastorate was the path God had for me. I informed the church leadership that I would be leaving for the mission field. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, I ended up being the evangelist at Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ famous church Sandfields in the steel town of Port Talbot. It was a rough place. Within six weeks of arriving, I was beaten up by a drunken rugby player. It wasn’t easy. After only a year, my support from home had dried up and I quickly learned a new way of doing ministry. I had very little fruit to show for all my formal evangelistic efforts, but I had to make ends meet. It was within months of taking a job in a factory that people began to come to faith on the assembly line.

I saw, like so much in ministry, that what I had been doing for years would not work overseas. It was my time of ministry deconstruction. I felt like a Rubik’s Cube, when you’re trying to get the combination right but you just can’t get all the pieces to line up, and finally you just take a hammer to it. I felt God breaking me apart over the next few years, slowly taking apart my ministry philosophy and big thoughts, then putting me back together in a way that made more sense—in a way that began to look a lot like first-century ministry.

How did that all lead to church planting? 

I began to plant churches accidentally. I was serving as a pastor at a local church but planted another church on accident in a university town with a bunch of students who were rediscovering church in public space. It looked very different from any kind of ministry I had ever done—more conversational. We began to simply have discussions around things like “Who is God?” with great conversation starters, like “Does God have a sense of humor? ” 

It was natural. We laughed a lot. People asked probing questions. During that experience, I rediscovered an interesting equation: Conversations equal conversions. Our conversations started looking a lot like what we find in John’s Gospel, the most evangelistic book in the Bible. The highlights are conversations with Jesus, mainly. Conversations with the woman at the well, with Nicodemus, with the man born blind, even with Pilate himself.

“I felt like a Rubik’s Cube when you’re trying to get the combination right, but you just can’t get all the pieces to line up, and finally you just take a hammer to it.”

Eventually, I decided I was going to quit formal ministry. I got a job at a Starbucks while finishing up my master’s in theology. That led to accidentally planting a church in the coffee shop around a group reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. After the first night, 30 unchurched Europeans turned up ready to talk about Jesus, and I’ll tell you, over my seven years in Wales up to that point, if I had tried to get 30 unchurched Europeans in a room to talk about Jesus, I couldn’t have done it. But there was something about having that book—which we totally debunked within an hour—and by the end of the night, the people said, “Can we do this again?” 

I was reluctant to agree. But we did it again, and the next night, 40 people turned up. At the end of the third night, 50 people came, and by then they were enjoying it so much, one woman said, “Hey, I have an idea. ” Then she spoke this idea like it was the most punk-rock idea ever to grace the earth: “What if we went through the actual Gospels?” And 50 people in the room were like, “Yeah, awesome! ” One thing led to another, people began to follow Jesus, and that group in a coffee shop became a church that I did not set out to start.

After this initial “accident,” I started really embracing beginning churches. I saw that for a long time I had mistaken church starting for church planting. And that distinction made all the difference. 

Tell us more about what separates church starting from church planting.

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Church planting means starting with the seeds of the gospel itself and letting them grow organically. When we are living the gospel among people who don’t know God, it’s very frontline work. It’s very satisfying. It actually brings about what most church starters are trying to accomplish but don’t know how to do. 

Church starting, by contrast, is beginning with the church in mind, which neither Paul nor Jesus ever did. Both of them just started with the gospel and people. Churches begin naturally when we engage people in meaningful spiritual conversations that center on the gospel. It is how we see the apostles working in the New Testament.

I appreciate the accidental nature of a couple of the churches you’ve planted. But it also seems that those accidents themselves aren’t accidental. What have you learned about putting yourself in the way of holy accidents like that?

What I have found with church planters is they don’t start with mission. Every church planter I’ve ever spoken to seems to begin with a burden. That distinction is important.

“I had mistaken church starting for church planting. And that distinction made all the difference.” 

For years I was training planters with the North American Mission Board using Will Mancini’s “Kingdom Concept” from his book Church Unique. It looks at three “circles.” First, the local predicament of your community, asking questions like, What’s the problem? Where’s the hurt? Then it looks at the collective potential—the resources you have available to fix those problems. And lastly, the third circle Mancini proposes is the “apostolic esprit.”

The first circle, the local problem, is always going to be there. But it’s going to take planters a while to get to know. You might think you know a place, then you try to plant a church there. It takes a few years to really get to know your city. So I don’t feel that question can be accurately answered up front. It’s a slow burn.

The second circle relates to spiritual gifts. If you’re really called to a place, God has probably equipped your team with the right spiritual gifts to attack the true problems. 

Lastly, apostolic esprit relates to what I call divine opportunity. Very little church planter training really talks about the leading, guiding and opportunities created by the Holy Spirit. Compare that to the book of Acts. This quality can’t be controlled. All you can do is put yourself in the way of the Holy Spirit. It’s simply stepping out into the position.

We all know that God is on mission long before we are. So when we step up to plant churches or use our gifts in any way, the Holy Spirit meets us there and creates divine opportunities in response to our boldness and obedience. It’s what we see in the Bible. It’s also what we see when we really try it. It is not predictable, but it is powerful.

You often look to the first century for guidance, particularly in the ministry of Paul. People might argue it’s too easy to draw sweeping principles from remote periods of history, then apply those principles to our (arguably) different context. Help us understand the importance of first-generation Christianity for you.

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I love what C.S. Lewis said about the importance of reading work from generations past. Paraphrasing, he said that when we read works from the past, we read a perspective that contains blind spots we don’t have. But of course, the reverse is true too. Church Plantology is the rediscovery of what’s been here all along—offering a practical perspective that can help us see beyond those contemporary blind spots.

“Churches begin naturally when we engage people in meaningful spiritual conversations that center on the gospel.”

Pioneers explore. Inventors invent. But scientists discover what’s already there. I’m hoping this book is like a chemistry science book—sharing timeless principles that will work in any place, among any people, anywhere in the world.

Sure,plantology” is a made-up word. But these principles are found in Scripture. First-century practices lead to first-century results. When missionaries today use those same practices, they lead to the same thing: disciples being made, the gospel and kingdom advancing. If that’s the case, we would assume that in times past, we would find whenever there’s movements of the Spirit, kingdom advancing, you would find those same principles at work behind them. And we do.

Look at the early Methodists, the Moravians and the beginnings of the Salvation Army. Very different movements, at least on the surface. You would find these same principles at work, and that’s of course what you do find. I’ve identified 10 of these principles that we can still embrace, and I believe those first-century principles will still lead to first-century results.

In Part 2 of our interview with Peyton Jones, where he shares the secret of church planting, discusses finding satisfaction in radical discipleship, and what it looks like to surrender our church services to the Holy Spirit.