David Platt: Reproducing Church, Transcendent Community—Part 1

“Unless we’re going to disobey Jesus, we must prioritize making disciples and multiplying churches.”

The present pastor of McLean Bible Church near Washington, D.C., David Platt, previously served as president of the International Mission Board, and is the author of multiple books, including the New York Times bestseller Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream and more recently Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need (both published by Multnomah). His perspective on the urgency of modern mission has inspired many. Outreach caught up with Platt to discuss how church reproduction fits into modern mission—and the kinds of Christians we need to lead and develop these outposts of transcendent community.

What priority should leaders give to the planting of new churches now, in this troubled year?

Regardless of what year it is, as long as Jesus has commanded us to make disciples, we will, should and must inevitably prioritize planting new churches. In one sense, it’s simple math. The more we make disciples (in other words, the more we lead people to follow Jesus), the more we will multiply churches. And in another sense, it’s simple obedience. The church is biblically designed and directed to send people to new places to make more disciples and multiply more churches.

This is especially true for places where few or no churches exist. Jesus hasn’t just generally commanded us to make as many disciples as possible among one group of people or in one place. Jesus has commanded us to make disciples among every group of people on the planet and in every place. So, unless we’re going to disobey Jesus, we must prioritize making disciples and multiplying churches.

What needs can new community expressions meet that existing church congregations can’t?

The biblical picture we see of the church is of a people who love and care for each other like family, help each other follow Jesus and work together to lead other people to Jesus, all under the leadership of pastors who are faithfully serving and shepherding them according to God’s Word. As the gospel spreads and disciples are made in new places, God intends for his children to gather together in those places and experience these realities. This has been the story of the expansion of the church since Acts 1: new churches in new places displaying the power of the gospel to change people’s lives and create transcendent community that supersedes every other type of community this world has to offer.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a quiet boom in church planting initiatives. We’ve seen many plants fall short of accomplishing what they set out to do—even with all the “right” answers, strong support and everything working on paper. What underrated personal qualities are nonnegotiable for you in a planter?

Well, this one is going to sound obvious, but it’s absolutely nonnegotiable, and I fear it’s often wrongfully assumed. It’s intimacy with Jesus. Disciple making and church multiplying were not designed to be carried out in pragmatic ways where we learn the newest models, most innovative strategies and set the most creative vision. None of these things are required of pastors or elders in Scripture. Instead, they must walk with God. Like, really walk with God. Spending long times with him in prayer, memorizing and meditating on God’s Word day and night. Being led by his Spirit. I fear that we’ve substituted all the things you mentioned for intimacy with God’s Spirit, and it’s dangerous. And I should add it’s most dangerous when we’re successful.

Here’s what I mean by that: I’m convinced we’ve created a whole host of means, methods and strategies for doing ministry today that require little if any help at all from the Holy Spirit of God. We don’t have to pray to grow a church; we have social media for that. We hardly ever fast, but we spend hours whiteboarding our plans. We’re fooling ourselves, thinking that we can do supernatural work through our natural means. We’ve totally lost sight of the fact that we could do more eternally valuable work in one week in God’s power than we could in 100 years in our own power.

I can’t emphasize this enough. I was convicted not long ago when I was preaching at a church in South Korea, and was reminded of the massive multiplication of the church there. According to Pew Research Center, in 1900, the Korean peninsula was less than 1% Christian. One hundred years later, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported that there were thousands of churches with over 14 million followers of Jesus in South Korea alone. According to the Korea World Missions Association, they are second only to the U.S. in terms of sending missionaries (which is pretty amazing when you realize they’re only the size of California and Florida combined).

Just imagine a country today that’s less than 1% Christian, like Afghanistan. Can you imagine, 100 years from now, thousands of churches with 10 million followers of Jesus who are spreading the gospel around the world? How does that happen?

Here’s how it happened in South Korea. They prayed. Every morning, at 5 a.m., they gathered in their churches, and they prayed. They did the same thing all night on Friday nights. And they’re still doing it every morning, and every Friday night. They realized that the church wasn’t intended to multiply based upon their natural ingenuity, but on God’s supernatural capability.

I came back from that trip, and we started doing all-night or late-night prayer gatherings as a church. Since doing that, we have seen God show his power in ways I have never seen before in my life.

All this to say, the No. 1 characteristic in church planters is a true walk with Jesus. Do they really, authentically, personally, truly love Jesus? Are they meditating on and memorizing his Word, day in and day out? Are they praying like it matters? Are they dependent on themselves, or are they desperate for his Spirit? Those are the big questions.

And then you add to that the ability to teach God’s Word, personal obedience to God’s command to make disciples of all the nations, evident gifts in leading people and all the characteristics that God requires of pastors in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

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How do you identity or cultivate the character, grit and adaptability needed to be successful in this very demanding calling?

I don’t think I (or we) can prepare them for all that’s to come. That’s why they need that intimacy with the Holy Spirit, who is the One who will be with them when they face the daily demands of this calling. As I’m looking for that intimacy with the Holy Spirit, I’m looking for that which comes from the Holy Spirit alone.

Do they teach God’s Word in the power of the Spirit? (Acts 1:8; 2 Tim. 4:2). Do they have wisdom and discernment from the Spirit? (Job 32:6–9; 1 Cor. 2:12–14; Col. 1:9). Do they exhibit courage from the Spirit? (Joshua 1:8–9; 2 Tim. 1:7). Are their families and marriages Spirit-filled? (Eph. 5:19–6:4). Can they make adjustments according to the Spirit’s leadership? (Acts 16:6–10). Do they fast in dependence upon the Spirit? (Matt. 4:1–11).

If things aren’t clear in their lives, they shouldn’t be stepping into this calling—at least not yet.

In my experience, many church planters in recent years seem to have focused their efforts on narrow bands of opportunity—relatively stable suburban communities or rapidly gentrifying city neighborhoods. While obviously this isn’t the whole story, the trend is widespread enough to have become a stereotype. How do we encourage planting in spaces that have been overlooked, mocked, feared or dismissed—the deep inner city, rural communities, decaying post-suburbia, etc.?

When I look at church planting in the New Testament, that’s what I see: continually pressing on to new places and continually pressing in to needy places. Paul is traveling from place to place, making disciples and multiplying churches. And he’s continually drawn in a Romans 15-like way to places where there is the least access to the gospel.

Let me draw from a global perspective for a minute. Based on figures from the Joshua Project and The Center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are over 2 billion people in over 7,000 people groups that are identified as unreached, which means they don’t have access to the gospel in a way that they can understand or accept. They are unlikely to hear the gospel in their lifetime unless something changes.

Meanwhile, North American churches are involved in missions work around the world. The only problem is that over 90% of our missions resources are going to places in the world where disciples have already been made and churches have already been planted. Most of our work is in places like Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. I’m not saying there’s not good work to be done in these places alongside our brothers and sisters, but we’re fooling ourselves to say we’re focused on missions while we’re still ignoring 2 billion people who haven’t even heard the gospel.

When I observe this reality, I can’t help but wonder about the reason. And as best as I can tell, the reason is because those 2 to 3 billion people are a lot harder to reach. They’re a lot more difficult to reach. They’re even dangerous to reach. And we don’t have the resolve to reach them.

In the end, then, I think that’s what’s missing, and that’s what it’s going to take. In order to reach unreached people around the world, and in order to reach hard places in North America, it’s going to take resolve to go where others aren’t going, to do what others aren’t doing and to pay a price that others aren’t willing to pay. These are the kinds of planters I want to send out from our church, and as their pastor, I want to lead the way in helping them go there.

I should mention how grateful I am to be a pastor of a local church that’s training members, leaders and church planters to live this way. I am thoroughly convinced that it is the privilege and responsibility of pastors to fan a flame for God’s global glory in every local church, and to call and lead followers of Jesus to lay down their lives and futures toward that end. For a time, I experienced the joy of leading an international missions organization, and I loved so many parts of that role, particularly the missionaries we supported around the world. At the same time, I am completely convinced that the landscape of disciple making and church multiplication around the world will change not when missions organization presidents step up to the plate, but when pastors step up to the plate and shepherd people to spend their lives making disciples and multiplying churches right where we live and far from where we live, including the areas with the greatest needs. And when pastors are leading in this way from our local churches, we’ll experience the power of Christ’s presence and the fullness of Christ’s joy in the spread of the greatest news in the world and the accomplishment of the greatest mission in the world.

What have you learned about true church reproduction—planting churches that in turn plant more churches?

My first inclination is to say that reproduction is a sign of health. My wife and I struggled for years with infertility, and it was a clear sign that something wasn’t healthy in one (or both) of us physically. And in a sense, I think something could be similar about the church. God has designed the church to preach and teach his Word, pray in the power of his Spirit, grow in his image, express his love and make disciples of more people, and when these things are happening, churches will multiply.

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But two critical caveats I would mention at this point are just because something is reproducing does not mean it’s healthy. Cults and counterfeit gospels are reproducing around the world, and they’re not healthy at all. We’d be fooling ourselves to think that just because we’re reproducing, we are healthy and honoring God. That’s not true. Beware thinking that multiplication means health.

And second, there are some healthy churches that don’t look like they’re reproducing—or at least not as fast as they (or others) would like. But that’s not necessarily a sign of unhealth. God told Isaiah to preach his Word, and God promised him that no one was going to listen to him (Isa. 6). Just because disciples aren’t being made and churches aren’t multiplying doesn’t necessarily mean anything needs to change. Sure, we need to evaluate all that we’re doing according to God’s Word and wisdom, but sometimes in the sovereign operation of God’s Spirit, he doesn’t move in the way we would expect or want.

In the end, I always come back to 1 Corinthians 4:1¬–2. I think this passage is Paul’s definition of success as a church planter—and success is not the number of disciples made or churches planted. Success is not the number of people baptized or missionaries sent out. What is success according to Paul? Faithfulness. Period. That’s the one thing that is required of servants of Christ and stewards of the gospel who are planting churches: faithfulness to God. I understand that faithfulness to mean working hard according to God’s Word, working smart according to God’s Spirit and trusting God with what happens. And I am thoroughly convinced that faithfulness will yield fruitfulness every time in God’s time.

In your experience, what can Western churches learn from global Christians in this area of ministry?

So many things. One is the biblical simplicity of the church. Not ease, as if church planting is easy around the world. It’s hard, particularly in places where the gospel has never gone. But it’s biblically simple. So many of the things we prioritize in Western church planting, from a great venue to a good stage to putting on a great performance to having good programs, are the furthest things on the minds of our brothers and sisters around the world. They just want to lead people to Jesus, gather them together, open up the Word, pray, sing and spur one another on toward Christ, no matter what it costs. And if we’re not careful, we can lose sight of this biblical simplicity and get pretty focused on and consumed with a lot of things that are not in the Bible.

Along these lines, I’ll just mention that this is one of my primary prayers for the members of McLean Bible Church. I want to shepherd this church in such a way that God could pick up any member from this church, put them anywhere else in the world, and they would know how and have confidence to make disciples and gather with them as a church with only the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and with no dependence on performances, professionals or programs around them. In order to equip all of our members in this way, we are calling all of our members to be a part of what we call Church Groups that possess most of the characteristics of a biblical church. We are committed as a leadership team to seeing every member equipped to make disciples and multiply churches among the nations through these Church Groups. This is the kind of disciple making and church multiplying that is happening around the world, and this is what I want every member to be trained, equipped and empowered to do.

Another thing that comes to my mind that we can learn from the global church is a willingness to pay the price. Through Radical.net, we are working right now with indigenous brothers and sisters who are living and working on the front lines of urgent spiritual and physical need. Just picture the places in the world where there is the least access to the gospel and the most dire physical needs (poverty, trafficking, persecution, etc.), and that’s where these men, women and their families live. Day after day, they’re giving their lives to make the gospel known on the front lines, and every time I’m around them, I want to be like them.

One last thing I’ll mention is that the picture I see in Scripture and around the world is predominantly focused on people going out, planting a church, raising up a pastor and then moving on to plant another church. This is what Paul was doing, and this is what people are doing around the world. Obviously, there’s a place for planting and continuing to pastor a church. But I am convinced we need many more planters in Western places who are making disciples, raising up a pastor from among those disciples and then moving on to plant new churches. It sure seems like biblically this should be a priority not just around the world, but also in the West.

In Part 2 of the interview, David Platt talks about McLean’s response to COVID-19, how they do remote discipleship, and how he deals with the increasing polarization in the church at large.

Read about more Outreach 100 churches at OutreachMagazine.com/church-profiles.