Church Planting 7

MANY PLANTS – ONE PLANTER

I have heard it said that the church is ‘growing and expanding’. As the church expands, is there a direct relationship between the type of church that plants and the model of church planting that it employs? How does a church choose which model of church planting to employ? Where do divine strategy and human activity meet, and where do they collide?

The apparently simple church types and church planting models raise many fundamental questions that are very difficult to give overall and binding answers to; indeed, it often seems that there are more questions than answers. In addressing these issues and trying to answer some of the questions, a number of examples of church planting situations have been looked at and will be reflected on; but, before that, there is an even more fundamental question to be asked: Why church plant at all?

Should church planting be on the agenda at all in an age of church decline since, according to Tozer, ‘In our churches, we have fairly well programmed ourselves into deadness and apathy.’

If church planting is the answer to deadness and apathy, then it would seem to suggest that the answer lies primarily in quantity rather than in quality. This assumption must be challenged, and we begin with the motive for church planting.

One such motive for church planting is the denominational motive, which says that there is no Baptist witness in a certain area, and therefore we should seek to church plant there. However, there may be half-a-dozen evangelical churches already in the area, and a Baptist church would only further the cause of division among Christians, rather than bringing them together.

But perhaps there is no Christian witness in a certain area, and that is why we want to church plant there. If this is so, is it a Christian church that we want to plant, or is it a Baptist church? The issue of denominational reproduction is an important one, although it is actually often an issue of denominational survival; but is denominational survival really that important?

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

For us in Neilston, an issue that we had to resolve was what name to use to identify ourselves in the community, since we were not yet a church (in the constituted sense). Furthermore, we were trying to win people for the kingdom and not for Queen’s Park Baptist Church, therefore we were reluctant to use the Queen’s Park name and appear to be recruiting for the church. Furthermore, what does the word ‘Baptist’ mean to the unchurched people in Neilston?

After grappling in the home groups with the issue of a name for use in Neilston, the Neilston Core Leadership Team eventually settled on ‘Neilston Christian Fellowship’. We considered that the negative aspects of the ‘Baptist’ name outweighed the positive, and did not include it; for we did not want only Baptists to be able to join us.

In my discussions with Alan Stoddart, he had felt that you would not know what a church (or fellowship) was unless the name told you, and we in Neilston had felt that ‘Christian’ was more meaningful than ‘Baptist’ to those who were not Christians. Nevertheless, my discussions with Alan were important to probe the motives for a name (or name change), and it was therefore interesting to see that Castlemilk Baptist Church had renamed itself as Castlemilk Community Church. This was something that they wanted to do in order to make contact with local Castlemilk people, and yet that was something the church had historically failed to do. Alan Stoddart had warned against changing names for the wrong reasons, but Castlemilk were clearly concerned to reach their local people, and felt that a change of name was crucial to achieving this.

Is this issue about a name indicative that denominations are losing their importance and that being Christian is crucial, or is it a watering down of the presentation of ourselves to the people in our communities? Alan had clearly and powerfully impressed upon me that, for church planting, we need to understand the community in which we are working, and build a Christ-like reputation before them.

He also said that church growth cannot be engineered by human beings and stressed the importance of being our own people in church planting. Following that advice led us in Neilston to try and be Christ-like Christians to the people of Neilston, and be community-focussed rather than building-focussed. We wanted to keep the people that we reached.

 LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING

Why do so many Baptist Churches lose so many people? Even to ask a question like that, as Alan Stoddart did to me, is to bring out the defensive in people and (usually) leads them to point out that most of the other denominations are losing people too – and some much faster than us! Yet, this is a crucial issue, and one that we cannot answer for other denominations but we must answer for ourselves.

It must look strange to any outsider that the Baptist denomination is losing people in their hundreds each week, yet we go on planting churches. Alan saw no point in planting churches if we continue to lose members, and we need to be truly open to what the Spirit may say to us if we are to face up to this issue.

Planted churches have generally tended to pick up the Baptists in an area, but see no conversion growth. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to address the issues of what church is and how we do church, these are critical questions that need to be asked at this critical time.

While Newton Mearns Baptist Church may need to consider whether they have grown through conversions or just through the redistribution of Christians (or both), there is an area in which they and East Kilbride Baptist Church have shown clear leadership to the denomination. Learning from others and working together with others is surely one of the greatest weaknesses in the Baptist denomination, and yet those who have done it have benefited greatly – why do we not learn this lesson when it comes to church planting? As Rick Warren says, “You can learn from other churches without becoming a clone.”

Newton Mearns Baptist Church are currently focussing on the needs of the community of ‘Valium Valley’ (a name given to that area of Newton Mearns by a local doctor) in which they are placed – is this not the beginning of true church planting? Furthermore, if Newton Mearns Baptist Church have members in Neilston (and area), should we not work together with them towards a Neilston church plant?

Castlemilk Community Church are determined to reach the community in which they are placed, and they have been prepared to shoot the golden cow of the ‘Baptist’ name in order to try and be effective in that. They have a long-term vision to be a place where families can come to, where young people and children can come; where everyone can be family together. A crazy dream? Or is that much closer to what church should be?

Surely the experiences of even the few churches whose stories are told briefly in this paper should cause us to ask fundamental questions about what the local church actually is and is not? How can any church reach a local community when most of its members do not live in that community?

Jim McGillivray is leading East Kilbride Baptist Church East Mains into missionary concern for their community, and wants the members to be friends of the people in the community – for Jesus was a friend of sinners. Jim pointed out that making contacts is not the same as making friends, and contacts are not enough for church planting. Indeed, as he pointedly asked, ‘Is planting churches a consequence of making disciples, or is it a substitute for it?’ How we can seriously think about planting churches elsewhere when we have not become friends of the people in our own community?

John MacDonald stated very clearly that conversion growth would be the hallmark of any church that they planted in the West End, and that no conversion growth would mean no church plant. But it seems to me that most Baptist Christians are not terribly keen on the cost of truly reaching the people in the communities around them, and that is precisely why there is so little growth in the denomination. Are the Christians in our Baptist Churches willing to put their own comfort, convenience and tradition aside in order to be friends with the people around them where they work, live and play?

‘Churches can become so traumatised by their internal problems that they fail to notice that society at large is in the midst of a cultural shift of seismic proportions, which affects every area of society.’ If Eddie Gibbs is right about this, then are our Baptist Churches willing, like East Kilbride, to say that life and growth together is more important than autonomy, or do we prefer to die alone? Growth through redistribution of Christians is not growth at all, it is merely a desperate rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. Great story, lousy end.

What we are determines what we plant, and how long that plant will live. At the end of everything, only the gardener can plant, only the gardener can give life. A radical rethinking about what church is lies beyond the scope of this paper, but the issue must be tackled for, according to Hall, ‘It’s not just the ordinary person in the congregation who is enslaved by the traditional way of doing church. The leaders are enslaved too.’ How we think through these issues determines how and what we plant; it determines the way ahead.