Planting Urban Churches

Two Fundamental Questions

Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to meet young men preparing to plant urban churches. Many of their primary supporting and sending churches have great ministries, mostly in suburban or rural areas. Suits and ties are still de rigueur, morning and evening Sunday services with Wednesday night prayer meeting is the established pattern, the doctrinal statements exhibit great precision, and music is traditional. Personal separation issues and traditional taboos often prevent church members from having meaningful relationships with people outside the church. These are observations gathered in discussions and not meant as criticisms. As a matter of fact these churches often have effective ministries with Christians although they see few non-Christians coming to Christ. The churches have been built and have grown primarily by adding Christians who left cities or who moved into the area.

These churches have established niche ministries ministering to Christians. In other words these churches have their place in the world and God uses them, though many are stuck in expressions of cultural Christianity which rarely engage non-Christians.

These young prospective church planters find themselves in a dilemma. The churches they envision planting share the core theological convictions of their mother churches, yet there are traditional practices, more cultural than biblical, which they feel need to be shed in a new church plant. The church planters ask themselves: Do I retain the status quo, model the new church after the mother church, and wait to introduce change in a few years when the ministry is independent and self-sustainable? Or do I transparently express my intentions to the mother church and risk withdrawal of support and burned bridges?

Planting new churches is a daunting task that, like matrimony, must not be entered into lightly. When people ask me how to plant a church, what steps need to be taken, I try to explain that church planting is more of an art than a science. You make lots of plans, but the unfolding of God’s purposes is stroke by stroke. There must not only be a personal conviction that God has called you to church planting but also affirmation from others that you are so called.

Church planting involves numerous details such as strategy, demographic studies, fund raising, location, and gathering a leadership and launch team. The reality soon sets in that you are not adequate for the task. It is God’s work, and without Him you labor in vain. However before launching into this most noble and challenging of endeavors, there are two questions you need to ask and answer. Who are you trying to please? And whom do you want to reach? How church planters answer these questions will help determine their direction in church planting. Here’s how I answer church planters.

Whom are you trying to please?

The answer to the first question should already be evident. Of course you want to please God, not man. However you will be tempted to look over your shoulder to see what others think of what you are doing. You might be surprised at how many people think that new churches should dance to the same tune as churches which have existed for decades with their well-established traditions. The traditions are not necessarily wrong but may be unnecessary barriers in planting an urban church among those unacquainted with those traditions. Doing ministry differently than it’s been done by your peers and potential supporting churches often invites intense scrutiny and criticism.

Certainly you should avoid offending Christians by intentionally creating controversy or championing causes that are divisive. You want to say, transparently, that this is who you are, this is how you live, and this is what you understand that God wants you to do. Yet you want to be discreet and not accentuate those areas where you might not be following traditions and opinions held firmly by some. In other words you should not poke your fingers in the eyes of Christians and churches who see and who practice some things differently than you do. You want to be biblical, not edgy—yet still having an edge and always pushing further into your understanding of the outworking of God’s purposes in the church and in the world.

Whom do you want to reach?

The second question should also have an obvious answer. Of course, you want to reach people who are without Christ. However you might be tempted to take stock of the kind of Christians who find their way to your door and cater to their preferences and expectations. Please don’t misunderstand me. You want to meet Christians where they are, and you would be delighted if God led them to journey with you. In fact, you should ask God to create a launch team of Christians to partner with you in church planting. But you ask them to come with humility and with a teachable spirit. You might need to ask them to be open to different forms of worship, a different leadership style, a different philosophy of ministry, and a different way of living out practical Christianity. You must not be bent on upsetting Christians or seeking to undermine what they believe about the church and the Christian life. You must have complete confidence in the authority of Scripture and the power of the Spirit to transform lives. You want to follow God’s Word, not human agendas—not even your own.

New churches are planted to make Christ known to those who do not know Him as He is really is. These people may have heard of Him. They may be acquainted with those who profess to know Him. But they do not yet have a saving and loving relationship with Him and the Father. Therefore, as much as lies within you as a Christian and as a church, you do not want to erect unbiblical and unnecessary barriers which prevent others from hearing the good news and having a redemptive encounter with Christ. Never be fearful that some may be offended by the truth of the gospel, but be careful that the offense is related to truth and not to how you articulate it or live it out.

In answering these questions church planters should not deliberately irritate supporting churches or needlessly alienate Christians by emphasizing differences in a way that’s divisive. Neither should church planters be expected to adhere to extra-biblical, albeit longstanding traditions which would be impositions on a new church and deform its identity. There should be mutual respect and humility between church planters and their sending churches. Church planters should not have any illusions about being able to perfectly balance the response to these two questions. They must simply desire to plant God’s church—a grace-filled, gospel-centered church—and journey together with those whom God calls alongside them to accomplish His purposes in urban America.


Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.

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There are 9 Comments

Andrew Comings's picture

Dr. Davis does a very good job of identifying the challenge faced by urban church planters. The tension between a supporting constituency and the needs of the field is real, and I have known it to end ministries. Domestic, urban church planters are not the only ones who feel said tension--it is a fact of life for those of us on the foreign field as well. We have all heard the stories like the one about the missionary who lost support because it was discovered by a supporting church that the nationals were wearing shorts to his services--with no thought given to the fact that shorts represented great progress in tribal modesty. More "close to home" is a friend of mine who wanted to rent out a theater for showings of "The Passion of the Christ" in his very secular culture--and found himself afoul of the "theaters are evil" conviction of his constituency.

I would like to see, sometime, a follow-up by Dr. Davis with practical advice on dealing with this tension. How do we educate our consistency without alienating them? How exactly do we balance responsibility to the churches that support us with responsibility to the actual church we are planting? As it stands, the article left me hanging. "Yes folks, these are the tensions. Good luck in dealing with them."

Missionary in Brazil, author of "The Astonishing Adventures of Missionary Max" Online at: http://www.comingstobrazil.com http://cadernoteologico.wordpress.com

Joel Tetreau's picture

Great article. The dynamic here between the more "traditionalist" approach and the less "traditionalist" is not just seen in new churches that are "inter-city." Great work.....looking forward to seeing more on this. I like the idea that both sides must be careful. Both sides must show charity. Both sides must be what they believe God wants them to be.

Straight Ahead!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think Steve raises some good questions here. Some good food for thought.
But many nowadays credit updating/accommodating cultural niceties with more power than they really have. I'm all for removing unnecessary cultural obstacles to a point, but we need to understand that these obstacles are very small compared to the main obstacle to success in building churches: the unbeliever's aversion to the Gospel itself.

Sometimes it seems like the thinking is something like "If only we could get rid of the pews and hymnals (and hymns) and pulpit and have our pastoral staff wear tattoos and ear rings, so many more people would come to Christ!"
More people would come... but we have biblical reason to doubt it's Christ they are coming to, if what everybody's wearing is making that big a difference in their desire to be there.

2 Cor. 2:12-17 is insightful on this. Paul describes his church planting work as taking the aroma of knowledge of Christ everywhere he goes... and everywhere he goes he finds that some are drawn to that aroma as the fragrance of life but most are repulsed by it, perceiving it to be the stench of death (2Cor.2:15-16). In reference to the problem of so many sensing the gospel as a stench of death, he asks "Who is sufficient for these things?"

What we should take from that is that sinners are profoundly averse to the knowledge of Christ (the gospel stinks to them) and this is the biggest barrier to effective church planting (by a very large margin). And we are not sufficient to solve that problem, whether by tweaking the worship environment or by any other departure from tradition. God must quicken the dead and enable to them to "smell" the true life-giving nature of the knowledge of Christ.

That said, it doesn't follow that we should be stupid and insist on customs that are clearly just our own preferences. But these are far more often issues that matter to believers rather than unbelievers.

ssutter's picture

I think that the answer starts with the parent church being one who's identity in Christ is has a more substantial form than the trivial cultural cues that people label as "christian".

_______________
www.SutterSaga.com

CLeavell's picture

This article was unnecessarily vague. What churches are he talking about? It would be helpful if Steve could provide names and links so we could get a closer look at they type of churches he is writing about.

My experience has been very different. In most of the rural churches I have been apart of the dress is extremely utilitarian. Many of our most godly men I have never seen in a tie or even a collared shirt. Also, many of the rural and suburban churches here in the West must be extremely creative in their approaches to ministry and outreach in their community. Some of their blogs used for outreach would exceed in readership any of the blogs linked to on SI.

I’m not sure who Steve is addressing but it seems that this article is probably limited by a certain geographical and cultural area and therefore limited in its usefulness.

Steve Davis's picture

CLeavell wrote:
This article was unnecessarily vague. What churches are he talking about? It would be helpful if Steve could provide names and links so we could get a closer look at they type of churches he is writing about.

My experience has been very different. In most of the rural churches I have been apart of the dress is extremely utilitarian. Many of our most godly men I have never seen in a tie or even a collared shirt. Also, many of the rural and suburban churches here in the West must be extremely creative in their approaches to ministry and outreach in their community. Some of their blogs used for outreach would exceed in readership any of the blogs linked to on SI.

I’m not sure who Steve is addressing but it seems that this article is probably limited by a certain geographical and cultural area and therefore limited in its usefulness.

Cleaver:

"The article was unnecessarily vague."
No, it was purposely vague so guys planting a church in an urban setting can answer those questions.

"What churches are [sic ] he talking about? It would be helpful if Steve could provide names and links so we could get a closer look at they [sic ] type of churches he is writing about.”
My intention is not to criticize particular churches. It may apply to other church planting situations as well but certainly not to all in every place in every age. I think what I described fairly represents many churches - out East anyway. Churches in the West may be more creative than churches in the East.

"Many of our most godly men I have never seen in a tie or even a collared shirt."
And that indicates something? I don't care if they wear shorts and sandals. My reference to ties and suits was a small part of the description. But I guess you don’t work for a haberdashery.

“Many of the rural and suburban churches here in the West must be extremely creative in their approaches to ministry and outreach in their community. Some of their blogs used for outreach would exceed in readership any of the blogs linked to on SI.”
Please feel free to share these links with us.

"I’m not sure who Steve is addressing but it seems that this article is probably limited by a certain geographical and cultural area and therefore limited in its usefulness."
Exactly. That's why the title was "PLANTING URBAN CHURCHES." If you’re not planting an urban church I don’t expect you will get much from it. But thanks for reading anyway.

Steve

CLeavell's picture

Thanks for the clarifications.
Here is one example.
We usually average over 200 hit’s a day.

Rob Fall's picture

At Hamilton Square, we don't have many (3 actually) three+ generation families in the membership. By three+, I mean families with grandparent though grandchildren. In fact, most of our membership is couples (with and with out children) or singles (at various ages, college career or senior).
This means our membership is more like a church plant than a church founded in 1881. So, I can understand the vicissitudes of urban church planting.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Duane Braswell's picture

Great Article Steve,

While not quite inner city here in one of the outermost suburbs of Phx, we have seen many of these issues, including leadership in shorts and sandals while those in suits and ties were often rebels at heart. We have pocket ghettos and huge tracts of land where no one under 55 is allowed to live. We have catered to several groups and understand some of your points. (At least I think I do)

Often it was said if you church plant you get to create your own headaches rather than inherit the quirks of the previous pastor. We found that we inherited the quirks of MANY previous pastors. Our sending church was very supportive of stylistic differences, yet our attempt to soften the blow for those moving from that church were often mistakes. We attempted to take on projects we were neither funded, nor staffed for adequately.

I especially liked, and would want to stress, that 'looking for the 'unchurched' is difficult to determine what we will be. Determine what type of sheep one can handle, get some, and then go out and get some more; might be a better plan. (in other words is covenantal/dispensational Calvin/non Calvin; KJV/KJB/some other version; traditional tie/bola tie/no neck wear; skirts/pants etc/etc. all these issues are not core, but oh how people want to be comfortable and no church plant will have an easy time of it with uncomfortable leadership. Chief used to try and run off the core groups of the church plant, early on I thought that was harsh. Now I see the kindness he had for the pastor. Yes we all want to please God, but we must make the sheep comfortable if we are to get them to trust us enough to sheer them...

Thanks for the article Steve.

He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent. - Augustine

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