I care about church planting because my world was turned upside down by the Gospel. I encountered the truth and love of Jesus and it transformed my life. And since then, I have also seen the Gospel transform the lives of countless others.
I just finished an 11-month church-planting residency with our mother church in preparation to plant a church in Washington, DC. Towards the end of my residency, the lead pastor of the church asked me the question “Why Is Church Planting Important to You?” which is a pretty reasonable question to ask a guy that is about to be sent out to plant a church. And yet, it was a little difficult at first to articulate an answer. It is not that church planting is not important to me, on the contrary, hence why I am planting a church. But because I have been in one way or another involved in church planting for so long, it seemed like a question that should not even be asked because the answer was too obvious. It was like someone asked me, “why is breathing important to you?” My answer would be “What do you mean why is breathing important to me? Because I like to live??”
Sometimes this is what happens with church planting, we are in the thick of this endeavor with other people for whom it is equally important that we forget how to articulate the importance of church planting in general. We can answer the question “Why are you planting a church in your neighborhood? Or your city? Or why are you trying to reach this particular group of people? But it is helpful from time to time to step back and remember why we do this in the first place. Why do we plant churches at all? After all, it will be a question we will have to answer often, particularly during the early stages of planting. And it might not only be asked by a friendly face, like my pastor, it could be asked by inquisitive neighbors, disgruntled Christians, and mission boards. Being able to articulate a compelling and genuine answer to this question might be critical for your church plant.
So why is church planting important to me?
I remember watching a mini-series about the life of Jesus when I was a kid. Up until that point I had heard about Jesus but I don’t think I had ever realized the sacrifice He had made, or the fact that He had done it in order to save us. So my mom was explaining the mini-series to me, filling in the gaps, and telling me the story. That he had come to earth to die for my sins and save me. That I could have a relationship with him. And there is a moment in that mini-series, right after Jesus is condemned to die, when the doors of Pilate’s fortress open and there is a single shot of Jesus, tortured, covered in blood, ready to walk to His death. And the actor that plays Jesus looks at the camera with this… I don’t know, sadness and compassion. And something inside me resonated with that shot. The best way I can describe it is that I realized that Jesus had died for me. Yes, I know that He died for the whole world, but at that moment I had this realization that He had also died for me in particular. Everything my mom had been telling me started to click, Jesus loved me. And I found that love so compelling, so wonderful, that I surrendered my life to Jesus.
What does that have to do with church planting?
Well, you see, church planting is important to me because it is important to Jesus.
One of my favorite passages in the Gospels is chapter 15 in the book of Luke.
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Luke 15:1-7 (ESV)
Jesus made it a point of His ministry to spend time with “sinners,” people that are far from God. And when judged by the religious elite of His time as to why He did that, the answer He gave was that “those people,” the tax collectors and sinners, were actually very important to Him, they were valuable. How valuable? Just as valuable as one lost sheep would be to a shepherd. The whole chapter keeps making this point actually. Jesus then tells the story of a woman that had ten coins and lost one, and he closes with the story about a father that has two sons and loses one. In the first two stories, the main point was that the owner of the lost item, be it a sheep or a coin, would spare no effort or cost to get the lost item back. The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep behind to go after the lost one. The woman flips her house upside down in order to find the coin.
This is exactly what Jesus did. He came down looking for us. A few chapters later Jesus explicitly says that his mission statement was to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). And for Jesus, rescuing us was not a mere matter of coming down looking; it required that He give up His own life. That is the extent to which God goes in order to bring is back to Him.
Which takes me back to that moment watching the Jesus mini-series. When Jesus looks full of sadness and compassion, when I understood at a heart level the truth that Jesus loves me. This is why I care about church planting, because I know that Jesus loves people, because I have experienced that love. And if Jesus loves me, He also loves everybody else, and He wants everybody that is far away from Him to come back home. Just like the father longs for the prodigal son to come home.
Lost people matter to God
And church planting matters because it is the best way to reach lost people.
Tim Keller, on his essay “Why Plant Churches” presents some of the data that supports this claim: “…the average new church gains most of its new members (60–80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshiping body, while churches over ten to fifteen years of age gain 80–90 percent of new members by transfer from other congregations. This means the average new congregation will bring six to eight times more new people into the life of the body of Christ than an older congregation of the same size.” According to Keller, this is due to the tendency of established churches to turn their attention and focus inward, to their existing members, while new churches, by vision or necessity, have to turn their attention outward, since they don’t have any members initially. In addition to this, Keller explains, a new church in an area or neighborhood that is changing demographically will be more likely to reach new generations, new residents, and new people groups. This is because “new congregations empower new people and new peoples much more quickly and readily than can older churches. Thus they always have and always will reach them with greater facility than long-established bodies can.”
This is why missiologist C. Peter Wagner coined the famous phrase
Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.
C. Peter Wagner
For someone familiar with the New Testament, this is not news. After all, the great commission of Jesus to His disciples was to go into all the world, baptize people and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). And, from what is told in then book of Acts, the way in which Jesus’ original disciples carried out that Great Commission, was precisely by planting churches, and God revolutionized the world through their church planting work. There is one story in particular that shows this: The Apostle Paul and his friend Silas arrive to the city of Thessalonica, they are there to preach the Gospel and start a new church. And as people start converting and believing in Jesus, the religious establishment of the time becomes scared of them, to the extent that they try to throw them in jail. Frustrated by not being able to find them, they try to throw the people they are staying with in jail. And the accusation they use as to why they should be thrown in jail has always fascinated me.
These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also. Acts 17:6b
What I gather from that verse is that this was not a one-time occasion; Paul and Silas had a reputation for preaching the Gospel and starting new churches. And these new churches had such a transforming effect in their communities that they were known through the region as those men that had “turned the world upside down.” Keller says that this pattern of going into new cities and planting churches was Paul’s whole ministry strategy.
“The greatest missionary in history, Saint Paul, had a rather simple twofold strategy. First, he went into the largest city of a region (cf. Acts 16:9, 12), and second, he planted churches in each city (cf. Titus 1:5—”appoint elders in every town”). Once Paul had done that, he could say that he had “fully preached” the gospel in a region and that he had “no more place . . . to work in these regions” (cf. Rom. 15:19, 23). This means Paul had two controlling assumptions: (a) that the way to most permanently influence a country was through its chief cities, and (b) the way to most permanently influence a city was to plant churches in it. Once he had accomplished this in a city, he moved on. He knew that the rest that needed to happen would follow.”
Because that’s what happens when the Gospel is proclaimed, the lives of people are turned upside down, or actually I should say, right side up.
People that are spiritually dead come to life
The eternal destiny of people changes
Relationships are restored
People are liberated from the bondage of sin
The power of the Gospel is such that it transforms the lives of those who repent and believe. It turns lives “upside down” in the best possible way.
The apostle Paul in the book of Romans says it this way:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Romans 1:16 (ESV)
Why should we care about church planting?
I care about church planting because my world was turned upside down by the Gospel. I encountered the truth and love of Jesus and it transformed my life. And since then, I have also seen the Gospel transform the lives of countless others. And if you are a follower of Jesus, chances are this is true of you as well. And that alone, love for Jesus and for the lost people that He loves, so much that He gave His life for them, should compel us to go and plant churches wherever He sends us.
I have been involved in several church plants throughout my life, and every time, I have seen the same thing happen, over and over again. People that don’t know Jesus hear about His love, and His sacrifice on the cross, and His triumph over death. And when they hear the message, something happens, they too are captivated by this love, and they repent of their sin and surrender their lives to Jesus, and they are raised to new life in Him. People that did not know Jesus, come to know Him, and it turns their lives upside down, it transforms them.
It is because I have been captivated by that love, and because I have seen what that love can do in the lives of people, that I cannot help but devote my life to telling the story to others. I don’t think there’s anything worthier or more important to talk about than the message of Jesus. And I don’t think there’s anything the world needs to hear more, particularly today, than the message of Jesus.
There’s a passage in the book of Jeremiah, where the prophet is talking about how he cannot keep quiet about God, even though it keeps getting him in trouble.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
Jeremiah 20:9 (ESV)
This is how we should feel about the Gospel, that we can’t help it but go. Because that’s the nature of the Gospel: it keeps spreading, it goes new places. The “good news” is too good and too important for us to keep them to ourselves. This is how I feel. And I believe that the impulse and desire to go is guided by the Holy Spirit.
That was the impulse that led the original Apostles to plant churches. And if you are a follower of Jesus, it is because the same Gospel that those men who had turned the world upside down believed and preached, came to wherever you were. They made disciples, who made disciples, who made disciples… And these disciples kept doing the same thing. Taking the message further and further; from Jerusalem, all the way to us. And now, we keep taking the message to those who need to hear. In the same way in which God led Paul and Silas to Thessalonica, He is guiding us to plant a church that plants other churches. Because lost people matter to God, God has the power to transform their lives with the Gospel, and church planting is one of the most effective ways of reaching them.
- Tim Keller, Why Plant Churches © 2002 by Timothy Keller, © 2009 by Redeemer City to City. http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Why_Plant_Churches-Keller.
- C. Peter Wagner, Strategies for Growth (Glendale, CA: Regal, 1987), 168.