How do you plant a Church where there is no Church?

How did your church begin?

In the same way that a child never really questions how their parents came into existence, I would suspect that a vast majority imagine that their church is sort of an uncreated being which “wert and art and evermore shalt be”.

That was true for me, until I delved into the expression ‘church planting’. And so with the same sense of amazement that a child has in imagining younger version of their parents, I have come to appreciate the boldness and vision required of the people who planted my own home church.

As I’ve read more and more about church planting, I’ve come to recognise the strategic importance of the task. Tim Keller calls it ‘the single most crucial strategy for the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city.’ Far from an exotic activity for the particularly bold or gifted, the New Testament presumes church planting to be a natural, normal and continual activity of the church.

As we look toward pioneering a new church plant in rural Japan in our next term, we’ve been doing our best to answer the question: ‘how do you plant a church?’ In his book Center Church, Tim Keller gives a characteristically succinct and helpful primer to conceptualise the task (with my summaries below)

1. Learn

Learn as much about the people you are trying to reach. Seek to know the people you will serve and the culture they live in as effectively as you know the gospel.

Profile their interior life:

  • their greatest hopes, strengths, aspirations, pleasures, weaknesses and fears. Interview people, make use of relevant sociological research, etc.

Profile their worldview:

  • aspects of common grace that are grasped or missed; symbols or stories that function deeply; the internal narrative and identity. Who do people see themselves to be – where are they from and where are they going? What are the ‘defeater beliefs’ that make Christian immediately implausible? What Christian doctrines are already accepted as true?

2. Love

Continually grow in your love for God through learning to maintain a healthy spirituality. Be engaged in healthy spiritual disciplines. Apply the gospel to yourself regularly and grow through the tearing down of your own idols. Model the gospel through community service and in your family life. Experience the gospel in deep community as you develop friendships. Pray a lot. Take every opportunity to share the gospel with people you meet

3. Link

Develop a strategy to service the particular needs of the people (embodying the gospel) while also challenging the fears and hopes of the people (communicating the gospel). Be sure to show the people there what they would look like as Christians. Strive to have your leadership structure, infra-community structure, and music incarnate the gospel in that culture. How will you work for the common good of the neighbourhood? What will make the people in your neighbourhood be glad you are there?

4. Launch

There are two ways to launch a church:

top down

bottom up

The top down approach is normally a daughter church plant from a larger church, with a substantial group of people leaving the mother church and led by a person with strong onstage speaking gifts.

A launch from this approach looks like a regular weekly formal worship service.

The bottom up approach begins with a much smaller team and focuses primarily on evangelistic ministry, led by a person with interpersonal, empowering and evangelistic gifts.

A launch from this approach is gradual and dependant on the success of the evangelistic efforts.

The work starts with a focus on one-to-one activities, to multiple small groups, to eventually a larger regular gathering, with each phase dictating the strategy of the next. Since our team will be only three adults, we will be taking a bottom up approach!

Unique to our situation as church planting missionaries is the fact that we are foreigners. There always remains a gulf between ourselves and the people we are trying to reach (which is both a challenge and an opportunity). Moreover, our place in Japan is always temporary – we are the least permanent members of the church. So we must employ strategies the church can use and reproduce without us with an aim to make ourselves redundant. It sounds strange to say this, but the sooner we can leave the church behind, the better.

But planting a church is not like baking a cake. There may be helpful steps to follow, but following them is no guarantee of success. It is completely obvious to us that ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain’ (Psalm 127:1). Central to all our efforts is trusting that God will bring people to himself – if people do not come to faith then a church does not get planted.

To be honest, this fills me with a strange mix of anxiety and hope. Anxieties about my language ability, my leadership ability, my ability to merely persevere and anxiety at the thought of ‘failure’. But also hope – because God does build his house! Every person I have ever seen come to faith has been a complete surprise to me – perhaps in some part due to my own lack of faith, but also because I am not privy to the journey God has taken them on. Each time it happens, all I can do is pray – ‘Please do it again, Lord.’ Because this is how a church gets planted.

Andrew & Joanna Wong
OMF Australia members serving in Japan.

Will you pray for Workers in New Communities?  

  • Pray for OMF workers like Andrew and Joanna looking to plant churches in new communities. Pray God will guide and help them as they learn about the people they seek to share the gospel with so they can share it as effectively as possible.
  • Pray for missionaries to grow in love for God and people and take every opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus.
  • Church plants in new areas will only truly grow as God draws people to himself. Pray for missionaries to trust him to bring people to know him.

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