Note: This article is the first of a three-part exchange between Jeff Straub and Kevin Bauder.
by Jeff Straub
I have to admit, I like ice cream—chocolate, moose tracks, peaches and cream—you name it, and I like it. Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, Ben & Jerry’s. You get the picture.
I really like chocolate. The more chocolate, the better. One store in Canada had a Chocolate Decadent. It was good!
But this article is not really about ice cream, much as I might like it to be. It is about church planting. Why talk about ice cream in an article on church planting? The two topics do have something in common: variety. Lots and lots of variety.
The efforts of some church planters are little more than a preference for variety. Churches are planted, not because an area needs to be evangelized but because a particular variety of church does not exist in a given locale. This raises a question. Is variety a suitable motive for church planting?
Let me use Atlanta, Georgia, as an example. I choose Atlanta because I am from Georgia. I graduated from high school in Georgia, married there, and have lived and worked there periodically during the last 35 years. I know something about Atlanta.
I have visited in and preached at many of the fundamental Baptist churches in the metro area. In days gone by, I have even preached in some of Atlanta’s Southern Baptist churches. My extended family attends Baptist churches across the metro, and I have visited many of them over the years. I am discussing Atlanta because I know Atlanta.
Not long ago I read a reasonably good plea for church planting that suggested that the USA and Canada comprise the third largest mission field in the world.
The third largest mission field—in the world? As a professor of missions and a former North American church planter, as one interested in the training of men for ministry, and as one who desires to see the work of the Lord expanded, I was a bit puzzled by this comment. The article, apparently following George Barna data, argued that the sheer size of North America and the large number of unchurched people de facto made it the third largest mission field in the world.
Now, consider Atlanta. Atlanta is a prominent city in North America. Shouldn’t this make Atlanta a mission field?
I’ll concede that there are lots (and lots) of lost people in North America and in the Atlanta area. Many people do not attend the churches that can be found on nearly every corner. But does this fact indicate that Atlanta is a prime choice for new church planting as a mission field? Should we strategize to plant a dozen or more new churches in Atlanta to evangelize the metro area? Is Atlanta a mission field?
In my mind, this rationale trivializes the concept of missions and could be highly misleading to Christian people. But I really should qualify my answer, lest some think that I am opposed to evangelizing Atlanta.
First, Atlanta is deep in the Bible Belt. It may even be its buckle. It is home to the Home Mission Board (SBC). Moreover, I am told that there are something like 2,500 Baptist churches in the metro area. This number does not include Pentecostal, Evangelical Free, Brethren, Bible, Reformed, Presbyterian, Southern Methodist, and more churches which also are present.
Second, some of these churches are large churches. In fact, they are really, really large churches of more than 10,000 members. Admittedly, not all these churches are equally strong. Not many would be considered fundamentalist, though some are doctrinally conservative. Not all of them would be your first choice if you were looking for a church, and perhaps some would even be your last choice of a church that you would like to join.
Nevertheless, many (most) of these are evangelical churches. By evangelical I mean a church in which the Bible is used and the gospel is preached. This says nothing of music or seeker sensitivity or worship styles, of leadership style, of Bible translation, or of theological orientation. It merely addresses genuine gospel preaching.
It seems to me that some people think Atlanta’s problem is that there aren’t enough French vanilla churches! There are old-fashioned vanilla churches and New York-style vanilla and “just-plain” vanilla and Neapolitan and chocolate chip and “moose track” churches. Just too few French vanilla churches. And if that’s your flavor, then you have a problem.
When we discuss areas that need churches, for many, it’s a little like buying ice cream. What flavor do you really want? Some might argue that I am trivializing legitimate differences between churches in Atlanta. Maybe there is a bit of hyperbole here. Okay. But a hyperbole is, after all, an exaggeration that is based upon a legitimate point.
What is the point? When we consider the limited resources of our churches today, I wonder whether we should support the planting of new churches in Atlanta when there are whole countries with fewer churches than metro Atlanta. Whole countries! Can Atlanta really be considered unevangelized? I don’t see how. But many countries are unreached with the gospel. Indonesia, for one, and Yemen, for another, have little or no gospel presence, much less a preponderance of French vanilla churches.
Arguably, some of the unevangelized countries are limited-access countries where a new church could not be planted even if we had the will to do so. But still, shouldn’t we look strategically at church planting? Granted that Atlanta has many lost people and that many of the existing churches are weak, does this mean that we should encourage men to go to Atlanta to plant churches? Does the fact that there may be a shortage of French vanilla churches constitute a real need?
We live in a world largely without ice cream. We live in a world largely unevangelized. It just seems that the better way to view our church-planting strategy is found in Romans 15:20-21, “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation; but as it is written, ‘They who had no news of Him shall see, And they who have not heard shall understand.’”
When we talk about church planting, let’s have a world perspective. The United States is the most evangelized country in the world. Atlanta is among the most evangelized cities in the world. Let’s plant churches—lots of churches. But let’s talk realistically about missions.
Sometimes, I fear our missions mindset boils down to little more than flavors of ice cream—“there isn’t an independent, fundamental, premillennial, ___________ (fill-in-the-blank with your essential adjectives) church in this community; therefore, it needs a(nother) new church.”
Let’s not forget that the field is the world!
“If life were a candle and you had only one opportunity to burn, wouldn’t it be better if you burned in the darkness?”
THE INCARNATION AND PASSION.
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
LORD, when Thou didst Thyself undress,
Laying by Thy robes of glory,
To make us more, Thou wouldst be less,
And becam’st a woful story.
To put on clouds instead of light,
And clothe the morning-star with dust,
Was a translation of such height
As, but in Thee, was ne’er express’d.
Brave worms and earth ! that thus could have
A God enclos’d within your cell,
Your Maker pent up in a grave,
Life lock’d in death, heav’n in a shell !
Ah, my dear Lord ! what couldst thou spy
In this impure, rebellious clay,
That made Thee thus resolve to die
For those that kill Thee every day ?
O what strange wonders could Thee move
To slight Thy precious blood, and breath ?
Sure it was love, my Lord ! for love
Is only stronger far than death !
Dr. Jeff Straub has served as adjunct professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN), as well as at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Moscow, the Ukraine, and Romania, at Piedmont Baptist College, and at LIFTS Institute (Kitchener, Ontario). He has been a senior pastor and church planter in Canada and was a missionary among the Ojibway Indians in Wanipigow, Manitoba. He has had several articles published in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, as well as in FrontLine Magazine. Dr. Straub is married to Rebecca, and they have 3 children. He enjoys books, golf, hunting, and fishing.