“If ministry really became about discipleship, that would transform everything about how we truly plant.”
Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Peyton Jones talks about the winding road that led to his becoming an “accidental church planter,” the difference between church starting and church planting, and the principles that lead to a church planting movement.
The opening quote of your book is adapted from Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins asks, “You can promise I will come back?” To which Gandalf replies, “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.” Tell me why that fictional scene was right to begin this project.
Gandalf is trying to pull Bilbo out of his comfortable Hobbit-hole. He’s trying to get Bilbo to embrace the adventure of being on a mission.
So much of what we’ve done today replaces the mission with marketing. We’ve taken the safe approach to everything. We don’t want any risk, and therefore, we hide behind our structures, we hide behind marketing, we hide being other things. I’m not against any of that; only if it replaces the necessary missional practices that we need to employ in order to reach our communities. And that’s what we’ve done. And it is safe and unable to really change us.
When I left America and went to the United Kingdom as a missionary, I felt much like John Wesley among the Moravians. He found that it was he himself who needed saving. I found myself transformed probably more than anyone else around me, and that was simply because I realized all the things that “worked” in America had failed me there. And, of course, they are failing America now as we culturally catch up to Europe. It is kind of like the apostle Paul says, judgment has to begin with the house of God. We have to change if anyone else around us is going to change.
That was the journey that I went on. I did come back, but I was not the same. And like Bilbo, I am better for it.
Talk about what planting—not just church starting—does in the soul of the planter.
One of the key things was the change in me from being the central figure in my ministry to becoming really an equipper and enabler of others. The secret of church planting is the secret of real ministry: mobilizing every believer with their gifts. I went from thinking it was all about my gifts to realizing it’s about everybody else’s gifts. My gift simply is meant to stir them up.
For example, in a worship service, the average pastor gets in front of the congregation and tries to whip them up into activity. But they’re sitting there every Sunday. That’s all they really ever do in church. Sit. So, the pastor’s message is at cross-purposes with the activity. The theory is mobilization. The practice is sitting. Which is more influential?
“The secret of church planting is the secret of real ministry: mobilizing every believer with their gifts.”
Real church planting empowers every believer to operate in their gifting. Picture that church that starts in the Starbucks. Our ministry would usually meet in a public venue, not sitting in rows, but around coffee tables. Sure, there’s worship and preaching, but at the same time, there is interaction and conversation. Everyone is involved and being discipled in real time. First-century church services were highly interactive and connected. I find that as we’re eating together, doing those kinds of things together, it’s not a polished Sunday service. But it’s real. In the last church I planted, we had everyone from gang members to addicts to prostitutes there on a Sunday morning.
My neighbors would ask, “What kind of church do you go to?” I’d reply, “The kind of church Jesus would go to. We are hanging out with the people Jesus ministered to.” The average “church person” would find it intimidating at first, yet incredibly empowering and emboldening over time. When a believer begins to tap into their gifts, they become passionate about ministering to others. You’re not giving a pep talk to mobilize people; you’re actually enabling them. You’re creating a literal gathering time where they will be mobilized on mission when they’re together so that when you scatter, they’ve already been discipled and equipped to minister. It’s about opening the zoo, releasing gospel animals out into the community.
This seems uniquely timely for our age—the call to a discipleship extreme enough to actually inspire the human soul.
And that’s why church planting has the capacity to change us. The Holy Spirit’s gifts to the church call us into the game. I have learned that when every believer’s gifts are activated, they become evangelistic automatically. They can’t help it. All of our gifts serve an evangelistic function, whether any of us feel evangelistic or not. Somehow who we are becoming will bear witness to Christ in a community, whether we’re verbally sharing the gospel or not.
As people awaken to those things, it is powerfully fulfilling. They begin to have a sense of doing what they were created to do. In my experience, when you release believers on mission, many of the issues you face as a pastor are eliminated because there is a fulfillment that replaces many of the drives and hungers for fulfillment in illicit places.
When believers feel they’re doing what God created for them, it begins to provide that kind of satisfaction that I think Jesus was talking about when he told his disciples, “I have food that you don’t know anything about yet.” They had no idea. But they would come to know. The great trick that Jesus played on the Twelve was at the feeding of the great crowds when he told them, “Hey, you give the people something to eat.” They had no idea he was about to work the miracle in their hands, but they got a taste of that true food—which was to do the work of their Father. They learned that God was going to start doing his miracle through them, and as they began to take part in that process, they began to change.
What is one story from your ministry that illustrates this principle?
When we planted Refuge Long Beach in the open air, our first Sunday service fell on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. It’s a long story, but because of that, our venue fell through the Friday night before our Sunday launch. So instead, we decided to gather outdoors in a park. Now, I’m not a large launch guy, so I didn’t think we would have a ton of people. Unbeknownst to us, God had other plans. Hundreds of people in this massive park on a Sunday morning saw us and thought, Oh look, there’s a 9/11 memorial service.
Somebody had stuck an American flag on one of our tents, and no disrespect, but when you’re planting in inner-city Los Angeles, there’s not a bunch of flag-wavers around. So, I was torn. Do I have them take that down? We’re not here to fly the banner of America. We’re here really to proclaim Christ. But as I thought about it, I felt in my spirit that I should just leave it there. As it turned out, I think that was the Lord talking to me. Because that flag drew a big crowd.
I completely ditched my sermon notes and preached a spontaneous sermon that (at least in terms of how I felt about it) was one of the best I’d ever preached. I still don’t remember what it was about. I preached something about Jesus, something about the twin towers, something about the cross and the grace of God. And at the end of that, a woman raised her hand and said, “Excuse me, I don’t mean any disrespect, but I’m a lesbian. What does this have to do with me?” And my answer was, “It’s the same for you as for anyone else.” You could hear a pin drop and a woman gasp. Somebody was scandalized by that statement.
“If ministry really became about discipleship, that would transform everything about how we truly plant.”
But what happened next embodies to me everything I’ve been talking about, which is the mobilization of every believer with their gifts. The church was on a knife-edge at that very moment. I had trained our core group for months leading up to that day to be an interactive church, one that would be mobilized on mission. That we wouldn’t be having one guy standing at the front doing all the talking. That it would be body ministry all the way throughout. If you cut us in half, you would see a cross-section of everyone’s gifts. And immediately—spontaneously—people began to speak into this lady’s life. “Hey, I used to live in my car.” “You don’t want to know the kinds of things I had to do for a few years of my life.” “If you think you’re God’s problem child, trust me, you’re not. I am.”
Then a person who had come to faith a few years before, and who was part of our team said, “Let me share. I was a stripper for years.” I stood back and watched it unfold in front of me as people began to share their testimonies of God’s grace in their life. And we all knew that day that this is church planting. It’s not me trying to throw a show. It was sowing the seeds of the gospel into our community. It was showing up and rolling with the punches and loving it. I had no idea what the Holy Spirit was going to do that day. He completely blew our minds and threw every plan sideways. It was beautiful.
One of the principles that emerges from that story is the relinquishing of control. But it takes genuine faith to do that, and a certain level of risk. Can you talk a little bit about growing faith strong enough to let go of our addiction to control?
I think of church planting as the long defeat. Done right, it is a process of slowly surrendering everything over to God.
“Planting is not about running a great religious show. It is about one-on-one community.”
If I look at my career, it’s like the kids game Chutes and Ladders gone really wrong. Rather than going up the ladders, I started at the helm of a megachurch and started just going down the chutes. Eventually I ended up serving in a legacy church—Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ of all places—but again, my missionary support dropped. That time, I had to go work in a factory. At every point, things just looked backwards. Eventually it looked like I was quitting ministry, and then started that thing at a Starbucks. At every point, my ministry career seemed to spiral downward, downward, downward. But the more down the chute I went, the closer to first-century ministry I felt. And things, real things, just kept happening.
And the more of God’s action through the Holy Spirit I began to experience.
With that in mind, what would you tell a young planter?
Begin to embrace the process of going down. Eventually you realize that what you are clinging to is like a life ring made of lead. Ministry, done right, is going to take you farther down—until you have come to the end of yourself. But that’s the beauty of mission—that it will eventually break you apart. It will dismantle you. Then God will recreate you. He will begin to re-form you.
To understand that reality at the beginning—that your church plant might actually exist to change you more than anyone else around you—allows you to find the true story of transformation.
That’s a powerful reminder, especially after a year of pandemic reality—when so many have either thrived or faltered.
Last year laid much of the church flat on its back. It could only look up. It could only start listening. When the Sunday service was taken away, for example, many established pastors suddenly had to start thinking like planters. In fact, one of the things I say at the very beginning of the book is that when I train church planters, I ask them to describe what their church plant looks like. The only rule is they are not allowed to start a Sunday service.
The reason I say that is because once a planter can understand the implication there, they’ve cracked the nut of church planting. It’s about mission. The gospel. People. COVID-19 stripped the church back. It’s taken away many things we mistakenly thought of as “church.”
My fear is how this has reinforced the idea of church as a show to be watched—just by livestream now, instead of in physical community. Immediately after the pandemic hit, pastors discovered they could take the show digital. People realized that they could stay at home and watch the same show from the comfort of their mobile devices on their own time. There wasn’t really much reason for them to go, apart from interaction as a congregation for being involved in mission. What they realize now is that they are unnecessary during a typical church service. And, may I add, it has become apparent to them that church itself may be unnecessary.
“I think of church planting as the long defeat. Done right, it is a process of slowly surrendering everything over to God.”
As a church planter, I do not believe church is unnecessary. But I understand the perspective that the way we do church may be providing an addition to people’s lives they don’t think they need anymore. But if they could come to church and it were truly interactive, if they were valued contributors, if their gifts were not only used but needed and necessary, that there were interactive forms of worship such as prayer and communion, the kinds of things that people find in small groups, then I believe that church would be an unmissable experience. That’s, in fact, what happens in church plants done in a first-century style.
Right now, people have a deep-seated hunger to interact with others. And if church will not provide that, then people will go elsewhere for it. They will join a non-church-body home group. They will join a book club. They will join other places that will provide what their soul has been hungering for and what the church historically and biblically was designed to provide better than anything else.
The church today is at a crossroads and a threshold. It really could reinvent itself. COVID-19 was an opportunity to reinvent, to reimagine, and I would say more importantly, to return to the first-century principles of Scripture. Will we do it?
Can you tie this all back to discipleship?
Discipleship is the key to sustainability in ministry. Everybody in a church can disciple someone—and when they do, it takes remarkable pressure off the pastor. If ministry really became about discipleship, which is hardwired into the Great Commission, each one to each one, that would transform everything about how we truly plant. Strangely, many planters would feel that their work had gotten easier. Planting is not about running a great religious show. It is about one-on-one community. About transformation, one life at a time.
Once we see that shift in ministry and that shift in the church, then we’ll begin to see, I believe, what we see in Acts. They shared in the breaking of bread and the apostles’ teaching and in times of prayer. That passage doesn’t mention the grand work of the leadership. It highlights what the average, everyday believer was doing. Why? Because they were the backbone of the growing church.
There’s a beautiful picture of well-discipled believers discipling others leading to churches being planted quite naturally, fulfilling the Great Commission. And isn’t that what it’s all about?