“Why should we plant more churches when the churches we have are not full?”
Some version of this question continues to be voiced within churches, districts and denominations around the country. I have grappled with it myself, even as I seek to provide leadership to ReachNetwork, the EFCA’s church planting ministry. When the church I pastor served as a sending church to a new plant in Oakland, California, in 2021, we were still meeting online due to the pandemic-related restrictions in the San Francisco Bay Area. I looked at all the empty seats on a Sunday morning and at times wondered if it was wise to focus our attention on creating a new opportunity for people to connect to a new church that was only 10 miles away.
We must take seriously the “why plant?” question if we are going to be united around our movement’s mission to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.
The evidence for church planting
Many people have articulated the biblical rationale for church planting. Tim Keller’s 2002 article has been shared broadly and begins with the now familiar quote,
“The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city.”
Ed Stetzer, J.D. Payne and others have very helpful summaries on the subject as well. One of the most thorough treatments comes from our very own EFCA partners, Gene Wilson and Craig Ott. In their excellent book Global Church Planting, Wilson and Ott review the biblical reasons for planting under six headings:
- Church Planting as a Part of Salvation History
- Christ Loves the Church and Desires to Build His Church
- The Great Commission Entails Church Planting
- New Churches are the Normal and Necessary result of Biblical Mission
- Church Planting is Central to Paul’s Understanding and Practice of Mission
- Church Planting is an Integration Point for Ecclesiology and Missiology
In addition to the biblical rationale, there are many practical and strategic reasons for planting churches. Wilson and Ott cite the important renewal effect that church planting can have on existing churches and denominations, its significance in reaching new people groups, stimulating evangelism and discipleship, saturating cities and regions with the gospel and more.
But church planting becomes more complicated when it comes to how new churches relate to established churches, and there are many different versions of the question: Are all our current churches at capacity? Why not just add to our existing churches? What will happen to my church if we plant another church nearby? These are not bad questions. They are real questions asked by real pastors, leaders and congregants who genuinely want to serve the Lord and fulfill the Great Commission.
If we can unite on the answer, perhaps we can increase our sense of partnership in church multiplication and the gospel. This will lead to more people coming to know Jesus and more glory to God.
Bounded-set versus centered-set mentality
In my recent wrestling, the concept of “bounded-set” versus “centered-set” mentality has been helpful. I was first introduced to this concept by Don Carson, conceived by Tim Keller and himself.
The terms apply to the way we think about groups of people. Those leading out of a bounded-set mentality focus their attention on the outer edges of the community, who’s in versus who’s out. In many ways, this kind of thinking characterized church leadership thought during the “church growth era” through an outsized focus on who was “in” as measured by attendance and giving numbers.
[I]t is more biblical (not to mention satisfying) to shepherd our people as they figure out what they’ve been called by God to do and then empower them to do it.
Those leading out of a centered-set mentality focus their attention on shepherding and energizing the core of the community towards the fulfillment of gospel mission. Think of the example of Jesus: He poured into the twelve disciples, encouraging them to go out and make disciples, compelled by the Holy Spirit.
In reality, no one leads from a purely bounded-set mentality nor from a purely centered-set mentality, but the categories help us to consider where our primary focus is.
A focus on shepherding and energizing the core of our churches will inevitably lead to the planting of new churches, as we “send” our people and discover that some portion of them have the gift and call to be a church planter or a church plant team member.
In some cases, being sent will mean traveling to new cities. In others, it will mean planting a church relatively near the established church to serve a group of people who are not yet being reached.
The centered-set approach to mission is tremendously freeing. We don’t have to try and determine the unique missional call of each person. Our job as pastors and leaders is to help discover and develop that call as the Lord leads and provide support along the way.
Becoming shepherds that let the Spirit lead
There are times when we do have to think boundedly, asking good questions about who’s in and who’s out. Membership and the biblical call to church discipline come to mind. But in terms of how we spend the bulk of our leadership energy, it is more biblical (not to mention satisfying) to shepherd our people as they figure out what they’ve been called by God to do and then empower them to do it.
If we learn to approach ministry with more of a centered-set mentality, we will likely discover that many of our people will tie their missional efforts back to our established churches. Some, however, will be called to start new gospel initiatives and churches beyond the walls of our existing churches.
The church of Antioch in Acts 13 had the privilege of laying hands on Paul and Barnabas to send them out for what would become massive gospel impact through church planting. In the same way, a centered-set approach will lead us to the blessing of laying hands on some precious brothers and sisters in our midst and sending them to reach people who are not yet being reached. Those newly reached people become part of our spiritual heritage and a means for us to rejoice deeply in the goodness of God.
Consistently, for some portion of those people, the shape of their “sent-ness” will be to lead or participate in a church plant.
Recently a pastor friend told me how one day his worship leader came to him and, with a measure of trepidation, shared that he felt the Lord was calling him to plant a church. When he pressed the leader on where and to whom the Lord was calling him, he shared that he sensed a call to a geographical region close to the established church—where there was a group of people not yet being reached by the church.
As lead pastor, my friend had a decision to make. Shepherd and energize the call or, with a bounded mindset, focus on any potential negative impact it would have on the established church and seek to manage his worship leader away from the call. He chose centered-set thinking and, in the face of some criticism, he shepherded and energized the call of this worship leader.
Today, my friend worships and serves at the thriving church planted by his former worship leader. The established church is thriving too. It has re-grown past what it was when they sent out the new church – though that is, admittedly, a bounded set perspective. Even if they hadn’t grown back, perhaps it was still the right thing to do. That’s centered-set thinking.
Trusting God as He sends new planters
In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to Himself as “sent” no less than 38 times. The very last time He says it, there is an important addition: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21, emphasis mine).
Taking a centered-set approach to ministry is about shepherding and energizing the core of the church to live into their God-given calling to go and make disciples – to be sent. They will do this in myriad ways that reflect their unique design and contextual opportunities. Consistently, for some portion of those people, the shape of their “sent-ness” will be to lead or participate in a church plant. We know this because church planting is at our biblical and theological core.
For those people called to planting, answering the call to church planting is equal to their being faithful in discipleship. As church leaders, we shouldn’t get in the way of God’s sovereign call on their lives. We don’t want to forfeit the Acts 13 blessing of laying hands on God’s servants and sending them to do what the Lord is calling them to do.
Like the church in Antioch, we have an exciting opportunity to join the Lord in supporting His call upon those He’s called to plant churches; we have the privilege of being gospel partners in sending them to do what they have been called by the Lord to do. As we anticipate Church Multiplication Sunday, my prayer is that the Lord will continue to raise up many new planters—that those of us who are serving established churches will love them well.
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