Ed Stetzer: A New Church-Planting Era

Have you used Zoom, checked email, posted on social media, bought something online, or watched a video on YouTube this week?

These activities are as common today as reading the morning newspaper, watching TV or listening to music on vinyl were 50 years ago. We have Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, to thank for this as he invented the World Wide Web around 1989. While working at CERN, a physics laboratory in Switzerland, Berners-Lee was given time to figure out how to link computers, paving the way for the connectivity we enjoy today.

I remember when church planting was viewed as a side project in ministry. During my first plant in Buffalo, New York, no one considered church planting to be at the top of the list of ministerial roles. I’m grateful to see that recently church planting has moved from being a last-ditch option for those who couldn’t find an established church to a priority, especially among churches focused on reaching the unreached. This is a good change, yet we still have much work to do. 

A Quick History

The World Wide Web evolved from a means of connecting scientists and their research to becoming the primary news source for over 80% of Americans. Similarly, the perception and practice of church planting has changed over time. Over the last several centuries in the West, we moved on from the missionary model of planting churches as bastions of Christendom during the colonial era to a practice of established churches primarily planting new churches. Over the past generation, the paradigm shifted from churches planting churches to denominations planting churches, introducing a new level of professionalism and systematic thinking. More recently, a new shift brought about a parachurch church-planting industry, providing resources, funding, conferences and other forms of support. Church-planting networks represent many of the most influential voices speaking to the church today—a development that was unforeseen as recently as when Berners-Lee connected the world.

However, one of the drawbacks of these more recent trends in church planting is that it severed the connection between church plants and the churches who used to plant them. The church plant is often now a standalone venture with limited connection to the established church. This has not contributed to the maturity of the movement.

Today’s Challenges 

We have gained so much, but also lost much. In ChurchMorph Eddie Gibbs, professor emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, explains that in times of rapid and unpredictable change, church organizational structures should be, “flexible and flat—that is, capable of adjusting to changing needs and circumstances to allow for timely and appropriate responses.” Our current cultural moment has elevated the importance of planting, yet has also robbed us of this adaptability.

Another challenge we face today is the loss of cultural advantage. We no longer have the home-field advantage and continue to lose the love and respect of an increasingly secular North America. Today, church planters need to be equipped in both gospel fluency and cultural literacy. With the loss of our cultural advantage comes a struggle to dependably attract everyday people. Attraction was central to church planting when I started, but its strength has diminished in today’s world. While some people still respond to attraction efforts, we can’t rely solely on those efforts. We need to be more effective in our evangelism outside of church facilities.

Healthy Propagation

It’s time for another shift in church planting. This shift must move the focus to church multiplication rather than just church growth or planting, as important as both are. Multiplication, or what I would even call healthy church propagation, has the potential for exponential gospel impact. This is why Warren Bird and I initially wrote Viral Churches. “Our ‘viral church’ idea is about falling in love with multiplication and abandoning what seems to be an addiction to addition.”

In the early church, both the message of the gospel and its acceptance led to multiplication. In Transforming Mission, Missiologist David Bosch argued that the purpose of the mission of the church is not simply planting churches, but rather the advancing of the missio Dei, “representing God in and over against the world, pointing to God, holding up [Christ] before the eyes of the world.” In a time when churches are obsessed with church-planting industry standards, we need to choose missional purpose over pragmatism, people over programs, multiplication over addition, healthy propagation over meaningless multiplication, and gospel-centered evangelism over brand-centric evangelism.

Planting should be viewed as propagation through multiplication, with a focus on the underlying mission rather than numerical growth. The reason must come before the method as growth cannot be manufactured and not all growth is healthy. The church-planting industry has placed too much importance on pragmatism and best practices, but we should concentrate on the mission of multiplication and trust God for the results.

A Culture of Multiplication 

In The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, English missionary Roland Allen famously (and controversially) argued for a culture of multiplication decades before the recent ascent of church planting in the West. He believed reaching his region would “only be attained if the first Christians who were converted by our labors understood clearly that they could, by themselves, without any further assistance from us, not only convert their neighbors, but establish churches.”

Missiologists have long debated the nuances of Allen’s perspective, but there’s no question we can observe these kinds of multiplying movements in the global church. One report found “at least 1,000 multiplying movements of small reproducing churches worldwide.” Such movements are typically called a Church Planting Movement (CPM) or a Disciple-Making Movement (DMM).

As church planters look to propagate this culture, here are five values that will point toward multiplication, as reflected in this issue of Outreach: replicability, teachability, entrepreneurship, exposure and celebration.

* Replicability. Pastors and church leaders who develop strategies and systems that limit replication only to those with advanced education, missiological training or some other elite qualification create unnecessary limitations and a disconnection with the church’s mission. Bruce Riley Ashford, in Theology and Practice of Mission, argues such limitation shows “church planters have not allowed the mission of God to deeply influence their apostolic labors.” A culture of multiplication is always thinking about involving more leaders than excluding.

* Teachability. Paul told Timothy, “These things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). When pastors demonstrate a teachable heart, they hit on the central virtue of their calling: a model of humility and learning that prioritizes getting it right above being the winner. This can create a learning environment aimed at multiplication as its central purpose.  

* Entrepreneurship. Living out the mission of the church is renewed by the innovations of the faithful as they reach people and grow disciples. Planters who desire to develop a culture of multiplication not only experiment, but also empower others in their community to innovate. Multiplication leaders focusing on missional creativity and a commitment to experimenting will learn from both successes and failures. 

* Exposure. The more believers are exposed to the work of mission—pushing them to get outside their comfort zones—the more they will embrace the calling to reach the world. People need to see and hear about multiplication to invest in it. Cultures of multiplication are constantly thinking of ways to draw people into mission, demonstrating faith that God’s Spirit will work in their hearts as they get a taste for evangelism and outreach.

* Celebration. We replicate what we celebrate. If pastors want to inspire their people to mission, celebrate the advancement of the mission. Every church plant is a move of God’s Spirit deserving of celebration and thanksgiving. If we want a culture of multiplication, celebration will move us forward. 

Each of us is called to the fulfill the Great Commission. The need of the hour is to expand our vision from addition to multiplication, for the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. In this issue of Outreach, we are hoping to expand your vision for what God is doing in church multiplication—and encourage you to join him in that mission. 

I’m doing a series on church multiplication to coincide with the publication of this issue. Go to ChurchLeaders.com/EdStetzer to learn more.

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Ed Stetzer