“Our heritage as a church is running toward need, not away from it.”
Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where David Platt discusses the importance of making disciples and planting churches, the most essential quality for church planters to cultivate, and what the Western church can learn from the global church.
In terms of practical support, what are the big mistakes sending congregations make? What are the overlooked opportunities?
The biggest mistake churches are making is not actually sending people out. So many churches see intentional involvement in church planting as an optional program or ministry instead of the inevitable overflow of making disciples. So my primary encouragement would be for churches that aren’t involved in sending to start sending, and to learn along the way. In other words, stop overlooking this opportunity (and I would argue Spirit-driven, gospel-compelled obligation).
Then, once a church is sending people out to plant churches, I think the biggest mistakes congregations make include sending people out who aren’t qualified, sending people out alone and losing relationship with those they have sent. When I look at Paul and the church at Antioch, there was a clear process by which the church sent him and Barnabas out as a team (and later him and Silas), and they maintained close relationship with mutual encouragement. I believe that’s a pattern worth aiming for in our churches: strong assessment and sending process, strong teams and strong relationships with those we send.
Pivoting a little, how are you processing the COVID-19 pandemic, both personally and pastorally?
These have been hard days for us all, and I’ll admit that they’ve taken their toll on me personally. But the verse that keeps coming to my mind is 1 Corinthians 4:1–2. I really want to be faithful. God has put me (and you) in a historic pandemic with the gospel, and he’s called us to faithfully proclaim it as we shepherd his people. I just want to get to the other side of this (whatever that means and whenever that is) and be able to look back and hear him say, “You were a faithful and wise servant.” And I know that will only be possible by his grace and new mercy every single morning.
Practically, what steps has your team taken to respond?
Of course, we went online with our worship gatherings and groups, and created a host of new connection opportunities for our people. We also hosted drive-in worship and prayer gatherings, which were surprisingly awesome (though it felt like leading a church in a Cars movie). We also turned our main building into a warehouse for food distribution to at-risk communities across our city. The first couple of weeks we were distributing a few hundred boxes a week, and now we’re doing over 10,000 boxes a week. These boxes are full of food with many meals for families in them.
Our staff team and the members of our church have been absolutely amazing. Every day we have people scattered across metro Washington, D.C., providing food to people in need, and every box contains the gospel message. We’re sharing the gospel as we distribute food, and people are coming to Christ. We said from the very beginning that our heritage as a church is running toward need, not away from it. So in the middle of a pandemic, we want to run toward need, not away from it, hopefully in a way that shines the light of Christ and brings glory to God.
What opportunities do you see for the church in these historic times?
The foundations upon which we so often stand are crumbling around us. We cannot trust in our health or medicine. We cannot trust in our jobs or economy. The only sure foundation for this life—and for eternity—is Jesus. What an opportunity to proclaim him as better than everything this world has to offer! I want to step fully into that personally and as a church, even as I lean on and trust in Jesus more fully than I have before.
In addition, our eyes have obviously been opened to more ways we can reach more people through the technology available to us. To be sure, I’m eager to get off all these Zoom meetings and get back together for worship. But I’m also zealous to steward what we’ve learned during these days to reach more people with the gospel. I don’t want to go back to normal in every way, because God has expanded our “normal” into new horizons that I want to continue to run into.
What dangers do you see?
I would say that dangers abound in these historic times, starting with the people God has called me (and us) to serve and shepherd who are struggling. These days have been challenging physically, emotionally, relationally, financially and spiritually in so many ways with so many people who are scattered from the normal community we experience in the church. I hurt when I think about how these days are adversely affecting people in different ways, and I long to build them up in Christ in any way we can.
I also see an even more dangerous lure toward consumer Christianity as a result of these days. Now it’s permissible (and for some, preferred) just to wake up in the morning and not gather together with the body of Christ. Instead, church is a show you watch on a screen, and I’m concerned that many will settle for this as church— when it’s not. There is no question biblically and practically that the church was made to be together. Church on a screen can be a starting point, but it’s not where God has called us to live out our faith. We were made to be together, to see each other’s faces, to sing to one another, to baptize one another, to celebrate a holy meal together, to love one another next to one another. I’m concerned that our drift toward casual, consumeristic, costless Christianity may have just taken a massive leap in the wrong direction.
Another danger I see is simply the spread of the gospel to unreached places. It’s harder to travel to difficult and dangerous places. And if we’re not able to go, then they’re not able to hear, and if they’re not able to hear, they aren’t able to experience saving faith (Rom. 10:13–15). I’m eager for the highways to the nations to open back up again for the spread of Jesus’ fame in all the earth.
Do you have any thoughts on what it takes to disciple people in a setting where embodied ministry is different or impossible?
Just like with any limitations in ministry, we do all we can. We steward the grace God gives in the moment. So if that’s discipleship via Zoom, I’ll take that over no discipleship at all. I think the important thing in limited or less than ideal situations is to continually recognize that it’s indeed limited or less than ideal. I think it’s healthy to say to people over Zoom that we’re doing the best we can with God’s grace in the moment, but we long to be together. Likewise, I think it’s healthy to say to the church on a screen on Sunday morning that we’re doing the best we can with God’s grace in the moment, but we long to be together. That doesn’t mean we can’t rejoice in the grace we’ve been given. But if what we’re longing for is something God has called us to (like embodied ministry), then I think it honors him to long for it.
After all, everything in this world is limited and non-ideal. We’re all looking forward to the day when we will see his face, when sin and suffering will be no more and when we’ll worship and serve and be served by him in pure joy for all of eternity. I express that longing to God most every day that I’m with him. But it doesn’t keep me from enjoying the grace I have for today.
In a church more polarized than any time in memory, how do you help a congregation avoid the patterns of divisiveness that are so deeply wounding our nation?
This is an area where we believe God is really leading us to press in and become more like Jesus individually and as a church. In short, we live in a world where even in the church we divide racially and politically. As one example, our best numbers indicate that at least 95% of white Americans go to white churches, and about 90% of African Americans go to Black churches. And it’s been that way for 400 years. And we divide politically. An increasing number of studies, including reporting from The New York Times, show that people choose their politics first and then decide on their church (not vice versa), which means we naturally divide into churches along political lines (even among Bible-believing followers of Christ). Meanwhile, McClean Bible Church has people from over 100 different countries (and many more ethnicities than that) with diverse political views in metro Washington, D.C. Working for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is a challenge, to say the least.
But it’s so worth it, and God is so good. What we’ve been doing over recent days is clarifying the foundations that we agree and unite on—and those we might actually divide over. We’re walking through an entire process of seeing what the Bible says about the gospel, the church, justice and race, so that we’re confident regarding where we stand together. Then, with clear foundations from God’s Word about the gospel, the church, justice and race, we realize we’re going to have a lot of practical issues where we disagree (and some of those issues are going to involve strong disagreements). But we don’t divide over those things.
As the church of Jesus Christ, we’re a community that transcends ethnicity and political party. And we don’t hide our differences and disagreements from one another. Standing together on God’s Word, we listen to one another, learn from one another, lament with one another when appropriate, and we love and even lay aside our preferences for one another. Basically, we want to relate to one another in a very different way than the world (and sometimes even the church world) relates to one another. And in the process, we want to become more like Jesus as we do justice according to his Word.
What are some of the key opportunities for spiritual growth today that most church leaders dismiss or ignore?
Everything is an opportunity for discipleship. I remember early on in ministry a pastor told me, “David, don’t forget that everything that happens in your life, God intends for your sanctification.” This is Romans 8:28, right? He is working everything together for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose. I want to view my life that way, and I want to view church leadership that way. Trusting that God is sovereign over all things, I want to work hard to help people come to Jesus and grow in Jesus through whatever they’re facing, from pandemics to protests and anything else that comes around the corner.
What are you (personally) doing to relax/restore your soul?
I don’t mean to say the expected, but without question, my time alone with the Lord in the morning is the primary way I relax and restore my soul. Beyond this, my favorite thing to do is come down from spending a long day in Zoom meetings or other work and go outside and run around with my kids, have dinner around the table and play games together at night. I love my family so much, and while that time is not always relaxing, it is totally restoring.
What’s on the horizon for McLean? Where are you going as a church?
We just introduced a new leadership team of three lead pastors—me; a brother named Mike Kelsey, who is lead pastor for preaching and culture; and Wade Burnett, who is lead pastor for executive leadership. I’m a big believer in a plurality of leadership, and both of these brothers have gifts and experiences I don’t have, and I’m a better leader because of them. As I mentioned, we are in a process of shepherding all of our members, Lord willing, over the coming years into what we’re calling Church Groups that will possess most of the characteristics of a biblical church. In all of this, we’re praying, working and hoping to start new locations and plant new churches from metro Washington, D.C., to places where the gospel has never gone.
Finally—give us a word about your most recent book, Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need. It dovetails with many of the themes of this conversation.
The book is designed to be a journey to the front lines of urgent spiritual and physical need in the world where we’re faced with the question: How is my life going to count in light of this need?
I believe that every single follower of Jesus has unique opportunities to show, share and spread God’s love in this world, and we’re only here for a little while. I only have a little bit of time left to make this one life count for the glory of Jesus’ name among the nations, including among many people in my nation. And so do you. As a pastor. As a church leader. Fundamentally as a follower of Christ. So by God’s grace, let’s make these moments count. For the sake of intimacy with him, and for the sake of fame for him. And when we live this way, it will be good for us, and glorifying to him.
That sounds like a life that counts.
Read about more Outreach 100 churches at OutreachMagazine.com/church-profiles.