What is Church Planting?

As I've discussed mission work in Salt Lake friends and co-workers, have asked, "What is a church plant?" or "What is church planting?"  Those of us that worship with other American evangelical Christians almost can't understand this perspective because the words "church planting" float around the top of almost every conversation on community or growth or evangelism or ministry.  That being said, I thought I'd try to answer these legitimate questions.  And as I thought through this, I realized that some of us who toss around the words and ideas, might not even have a clear picture ourselves. 

Church planting generally falls into three basic categories (this may be an oversimplification, but for the sake of this post, I'll stick to these three). Two examples are seen in the New Testament; one is not, and of the two that are, one is almost speculation.  I'll start with the model that's not at all found in the Bible, although that's not to say it's wrong or bad.  All three categories have strengths and weaknesses.

Usually not even thought of as "church planting," the first category might be associated with the idea of church sprawl and can sometimes be seen among the mainline, well-established, traditions.  It's also obvious among the LDS Church (which has perfected this model), as well as most other world religions.  Basically, the local church (or ward for the LDS, mosque, synagogue, temple, etc), determines that enough members are attending a local meeting from a specific geographical area.  As more attendees are coming from a specific area--either through conversions, births, members moving in, or community development--the church decides to build a meeting place in that area and then raises up leaders from within the same area or they  assemble a committee to hire a pastor.  Systems that find strength from this model typically have a strong central management system and the culture of the church community is directly taken from the church and its traditions, homogenized no matter the location of the local church.  We don't see this model in the New Testament, but this might be due to the fact that the church was in its infancy and hadn't had the need for this model prior to the close of the Cannon.  In addition, the early Church local communities were united under the name of the area or city.  They may have met together in house churches, but they still associated as one local community. The strength of church planting like this is that it's easy, turn-key.  The weaknesses are found in the objective, which typically serve to accommodate the existing members rather than seek conversions in new areas.   Another weakness is the lack of anonymity and diversity from one congeration to the next.

The second model is that often associated with Paul the apostle's method.  The latter two-thirds of the Book of Acts follows Paul as he journeys throughout what we now know as places like Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Greece, and Italy.  Paul was a church planter in the truest sense of the word.  He and a mission partner would go into an area that had little to no believers of Jesus Christ.  Usually he would start in the Jewish synagogue, preaching that the long-awaited messiah had come.  He'd preach there until he either was ran out or determined that it was fruitless.  Then he would preach in the streets, and in homes, and in places somewhat like the court yards of college campuses of today.  As people would come to know Jesus, Paul would partner with them and start building a community of believers.  From these believing Christ followers, he would raise up leaders for these new local churches.  On occasion he'd leave a believer who originally came with Paul to the area to lead the church. Such is the case with Timothy.  Then, sometimes after a year or more, Paul would head to the next region and start all over.  Today, there are still church planters that follow this model (with the exception of starting in a Jewish synagogue).  Once a pastor has been raised up or hired from another area and good elders are in place, these planting pastors head off to start over again in another city.  Think about this planter like Johnny Appleseed, going from place to place planting apple trees and moving on, not likely to see  much of the many years of fruit the trees might produce.

The third type of church planter is probably the most common within evangelical Christianity.  This is the pastor that might have trained up in a local church, sometimes in a school, who goes into an area to start a local church community.  It's very much the same as the previous type of planter, but this pastor has little to no intention of leaving.  He or she lets the roots grow deep in the new community.  But this planter/pastor still raises up leaders, only this time, to send them out just has he or she started.  This model looks something like a fruit tree that started as a seed and then, when mature enough, produces seeds that grow in another place and eventually produce seeds themselves. The sending church often supports the new planters in many ways.  The best example is the church in Jerusalem sending people to go check out what grew in Antioch. But the biblical model is vague.  The church in Rome might have been just such a church.  We don't know how that church got started there, but most of the theories point to something like this method of church planting.  One speculation is that some of the foreigners present at Pentecost eventually went home to Rome and planted a local church in their home, a place originally with no Christ followers.  Another theory is that returning soldiers planted the church in Rome.  Both of these ideas are purely speculation and it is possible that this church was planted by one of the many disciples doing missionary work not recorded in Acts.  Under this theory, that missionary might have stayed or might have moved on as Paul often did.   

I believe the SLC Project, like most church plants, is like the third on  described above.  The pastors will settle down and call Salt Lake City home, unless that is, they are called by God to go elsewhere. They are coming from a church in Portland, Oregon and will probably eventually send out other church planters from SLC.  Hopefully many.   

*Photo is registered under a Creative Commons License: http://www.flickr.com/photos/finalgirl/ / CC BY-NC 2.0