Church planting is not the ultimate goal

I know church planting is in vogue right now. Planting networks are springing up all over the place and churches that want to be seen as right trendy are all talking about it. And, to be clear from the get-go, we badly need more churches in the UK. There are lots of areas of the country that are woefully under-churched with many people who have never so much as heard the name of Jesus other than as a swear word. Anybody working to get churches into areas like these has both my support and admiration.

But I want us to be equally clear that church planting is not, of itself, the goal. The Great Commission was not, ‘go into all the world and plant churches’. Jesus said to go and make disciples. The goal, then, is the making of disciples who make disciples. That does not mean that we don’t need churches as a vehicle for that work. I would go as far as to say the church is God’s appointed means of making disciples. But we need to be clear on the end goal here. It is not planting churches but making disciples.

This may seem like a fine distinction, especially if I am arguing that we need churches in order to make disciples. But it really isn’t. Because much of what we see happening is church planting that seems happy to content itself broadly with having planted churches. That may be well and good but I would want to ask, how many disciples have we seen as a result?

All too often we see church planting as the goal in itself. We move a handful of Christians to a new area, begin teaching the Bible, start taking communion so that we can call ourselves a church rather than a group of Christians in a room together, and we content ourselves with that. We’ve planted our church and now we can rest happy in the fact that a place with no church now has one. But, without putting too fine a point on it, what has that really done for the kingdom? Haven’t we just moved a few people from one area to another? Or, as one minister recently put it, isn’t that ‘moving fat around the body’?

No doubt you will now think of all the churches that have been planted which have seen real fruit for the kingdom. They have been placed on estates, in towns and cities where there was previously no church. Through the ongoing witness of those churches, people have come to know Jesus Christ and are continuing to grow up in him. Some of them may even have been there long enough to train up converts and send them out to lead other churches. I know of those places too and I praise God for them.

But, all too often, that is not the picture we see. We see core teams made up of sending churches, and as your team establishes itself, others look on and jump ship. As your church grows, those moving into your town or city consider joining your church too. But much of it seems to be large amounts of transfer growth and limited growth by conversion. At some point, we’ve got to ask some hard questions. Some of those questions need to include, why is our growth not coming by conversion? Why, by the same token, are we pouring our resources into churches that appear to largely cater for Christian transfer growth?

The reasons for that may be many. It could be that we have contented ourselves with an approach to mission that means we are not really sharing the gospel at all. Simply ‘living our lives in public’ is the extent of our evangelistic endeavour. It could be that the work involved in maintaining a plant is so great that the work of mission to the unreached takes second place. It may be that we are drawn to sending our resources to areas that we have deemed ‘strategic’ – which can be a by-word for all sorts of reasoning – rather than sending them to areas where the kingdom is being advanced and unbelievers are coming to lasting faith in Christ. There are, no doubt, plenty of other reasons too. But, at heart, each of these things loses sight of the end goal.

The whole point of planting churches is to make disciples who make disciples. If, for whatever reason, a church plant (or, if you’re now taking communion, a church) is not making disciples and is not seeing unbelievers coming to faith, we must ask how is it a worthwhile endeavour? If all the members of your church have been sent by other gospel-preaching, Christ-exalting churches in which they could have grown as disciples, what have we actually achieved in moving them to a new place to do the same thing with no new disciples coming in?

The answer is not, of course, to close those churches down as if having no church in the area is somehow better. The answer is to recapture the purpose of our being there. We do not plant churches so that we can have a nice new church in a different area. We don’t even plant churches so we can multiply churches. The end goal of planting churches is to make and grow disciples who make disciples. Our resources, such as we have any, should be sent to those church plants and existing churches who are actively seeking to make disciples of Jesus Christ, presumably evidenced by at least some disciples coming to Christ.

Somebody once pointed at churches in areas like mine and asked, ‘if your techniques are so good, why are we not seeing ex-Muslim people on the stage at major conferences teaching us all how to reach people like them?’ For the record, I had never claimed our techniques were ‘so good’, but the question is an entirely valid one. In truth, we’ve seen lots of ex-Muslims come to faith but haven’t yet brought any onto our eldership or sent any out to plant churches. We’re statistically not bad at making ex-Muslim disciples of Jesus Christ; but we’re not all that brilliant at growing them to maturity. There may be lots of reasons for that but, to some degree, the (flat) cap fits.

But that question bites back. If his – and our wider – approach to church planting is so great, why aren’t we seeing swathes of people coming to faith through their churches? Why are we pouring so much time, money and resource into planting initiatives that are largely failing to raise people up into church leadership positions and seem to routinely struggle to see the conversion of unbelievers at all?

Again, we can all think of those churches that have seen growth by conversion and we can praise God for them. But that doesn’t seem to be the norm. We seem ready to splurge vast amounts of money on shiny new plants and yet churches plodding away, seeing regular conversions, simply aren’t seeing that kind or level of support. Whilst it would be entirely wrong to determine our support based solely on whose numbers look good, we still ought to ask whether we are really prioritising our resources rightly.

The goal is not church planting, but disciple-making. Does that not mean we should put our resources where disciples are being made? That may very well include church plants but we need to remember that planting is not the goal. We are aiming to make disciples who make disciples and, surely, we want to support work wherever that is happening?