by Jeff Straub
Last week, my colleague and friend, Kevin Bauder, challenged my notion that North American church planting is little more than a preference for variety. He argued that people ought to choose churches out of a sense of biblical obedience. They implicitly make a covenant with a church that they believe teaches and practices what the Bible prescribes. He also suggested that while some places have an abundance of biblical churches, other places are woefully under-churched. Moreover, whole ethnic communities within North America—the Hmongs, Somalis, etc.—are virtually unreached. Of course, he is right on all three points. He has made a good argument for North American church planting, even in Atlanta, if one can find an area that evidences a legitimate need. One needs to keep in mind, however, that only mature Christians will be able to enter the kind of covenant Dr. Bauder suggests. Many believers are not mature in the faith and de facto choose churches for a variety of other reasons. The sheer number of church choices is a testament to the desire for variety. To go back to my ice cream illustration, the very fact that a flavor is on the menu suggests that it sells. If it does not sell, it disappears quickly from the list!
Expanding on Dr. Bauder’s good ideas, I would like to suggest appropriate general categories within a North American context where church planting ought to be considered seriously.
Growth areas and new communities. Historically, North American Baptist expansion has come as a direct result of population growth. The city of Minneapolis is 150 years old. The land west of the Mississippi was opened to settlement in 1855. By 1856, Minneapolis became a recognized town. The First Baptist Church was organized in 1853, on the cusp of the westward growth. In 1874, a group of Baptists from First Baptist Church started a Sunday school in the northwest part of the expanding city, which became Fourth Baptist Church. It formally organized in 1881 with 60 members from First Baptist being seeded out to form the core membership of Fourth Baptist. This kind of seeding of new members from a mother to a daughter church continues to be an excellent approach to church planting. Churches begun this way have a better-than-average chance to survive, given that they are started proactively rather than reactively due to a church split. This kind of church planting is strategic, cooperative, and can be truly evangelistic as the desire should be to plant a solid gospel witness in a growth area.
Unreached people groups. A second important target area for new churches is in either unreached or little-reached people groups. A people group is an identifiable collection of people who share common values, culture, language, and worldview. Because of a generous immigration policy in North America, large migrations of peoples from other cultures have flowed into this continent, presenting fresh challenges for evangelism and church planting at our own doorstep. The Hmongs of Minneapolis are one such group. After the war in Southeast Asia, a great migration took place resulting in nearly 200,000 people of Hmong descent living in the U.S. by the end of 1999. More than 60,000 were living in the Twin Cities. The opportunities and challenges of reaching this community are formidable and growing. While existing churches are striving to reach into this community, it will ultimately be evangelized only when there are indigenous churches that arise from within the community. New churches which strive for indigenousness must be planted to reach this group.
Church replanting. For a variety of reasons, churches die. Churches die when communities dwindle. A small rural farming town may suffer the drastic loss of population when the local employer closes, leaving the town without an economic base. Young people are forced to move elsewhere to find work. Churches also die from theological decay. Theological liberalism erodes the foundation, leaving a hollow shell. It undermines missions and evangelism, leaving little more than social work in its wake. Churches die when members become ingrown and fail to obey the biblical injunctions regarding evangelism and outreach. Churches die from a number of causes, some of which may have been preventable, but they die nonetheless.
In some cases, a church can be rescued. Recently, we had a representative at Central Seminary whose ministry specializes in church recovery work. The group will consider a recovery effort only after serious reflection on the causes of the decline and the prospects for recovery. Sometimes they reach the conclusion that the best choice is for the church to die. This would pave the way for a new church, with a new name, a new organization, a new location, new leadership, and a new direction to be started in its place.
Some churches are dead without being aware of their own necrotic condition. While not going liberal, a church may succumb to the spirit of the age so that the Word is obscured and the gospel confused. In cases like this, the only real solution is to plant a new church. Indeed, there may be places even in Atlanta where such a condition exists.
Several cautions, however, need to be articulated regarding North American church planting. First is what I would call the “Elijah syndrome.” In 1 Kings 19, Elijah commended himself for his zeal for God and lamented that he alone in Israel proclaimed the truth. God reminded him that there were 7,000 who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Granted, many churches have surrendered the truth of the gospel for the ways of the world, and their ministries are so corrupted that the gospel is scarcely heard within its walls. Yet we must be careful not to assume that because there is not an “independent, fundamental, ___________ (fill-in-the-blank with your important adjective) church,” no church exists to proclaim God’s truth in an unadulterated form. The fact that I do not know of a good church does not mean that one does not exist. Rather than starting a new church, it might be better to drive a little farther and strengthen the hands of those striving for a biblical ministry.
Second, church planting must not be simply sheep reallocation—seeking to gather sheep from other folds. I fear that some church planters are willing to take any warm body. We ought to give serious consideration to why people have left the churches from which they came. Even if they give an acceptable answer (“that church compromises the Word”), a church planter should still contact their former pastor to ensure that these new prospects are not under discipline. There are plenty of wandering sheep who will make no greater commitment to the new church than they have to the last seven churches they joined. Sometimes a prospective member should be encouraged to stay where he is, even if his church is less than perfect because his reasons for departing are unbiblical and sinful.
I do support any and all legitimate efforts at church. Nevertheless, I also encourage students first to consider the foreign field because whatever the state of the American church is, the needs of the world are far greater. For those of us who wish to support North American church planting, let’s do our homework! Does a new church really need to be located in this neighborhood, or do we simply have a desire for a particular flavor of ice cream?
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
LORD ! what a busy, restless thing
Hast Thou made man !
Each day and hour he is on wing,
Rests not a span ;
Then having lost the sun and light,
By clouds surpris’d,
He keeps a commerce in the night
With air disguis’d.
Hadst Thou given to this active dust
A state untir’d,
The lost son had not left the husk,
Nor home desir’d.
That was Thy secret, and it is
Thy mercy too ;
For when all fails to bring to bliss,
Then this must do.
Ah, Lord ! and what a purchase will that be,
To take us sick, that sound would not take Thee !
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 Pi edmont 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.