Yesterday, I spoke about church planting. Specifically, I was suggesting that – contrary to what seems to pass for popular opinion on the matter – church planting is not a goal of itself. Our purpose in planting churches is to make disciples who make disciples. Whilst the church is God’s vehicle for evangelism and spiritual growth, if we simply content ourselves with church planting as the purpose of our endeavours we will have missed the point of the Great Commission. Jesus commands us to make and grow disciples who make disciples and church planting is only valuable inasmuch as it moves us to that aim. You can read the full post here.
A point I alluded to in the article, and am now going to make absolutely explicit, is that we should stop resourcing church plants simply because they are the thing du jour. Instead, our focus needs to be upon resourcing the disciple-makers. That may well include some church plants but it will also, necessarily, exclude a good number of them too. For, as keen as we all are to see churches planted in unreached communities, we should have no part in simply funding someone’s special interest nor propping up a zero-sum game of transferring one set of believers to a new area.
If we had an unlimited set of funds and people, naturally, we would resource every possible gospel opportunity under the sun. But given that we don’t, it bears asking where will our money and people be best used.
Indulge me for a second and think, in your mind’s eye, of a Corby Trouser Press. Whilst they do perform a function and can be useful, nobody is ever likely to prioritise getting one because they don’t really add much to your life and are seen as frivolous compared to the many other calls on your money that would have greater and wider value. Now imagine, had Alan Partridge not made this scenario highly improbable, Corby Trouser Presses came into fashion (stick with me!) Perhaps some hipsters found one in a travel lodge and began using them ironically, which turned into less irony and more some sort of badge of coolness. Suddenly, owning a Corby Trouser Press is quite desirable. But even under those circumstances, you would be a colossal fool to get one if it meant you would struggle to pay your rent, feed your family, run your car or any other basic necessity.
Many funding and resourcing decision regarding church planting feel a bit like buying a Corby Trouser Press because it’s in vogue. Some plants, much like the Corby Trouser Press, undoubtedly have some value in their existence but, by and large, have grown by transfer growth – mainly from the original core team – and see limited, if any, growth by conversion. Yet, because it is the in vogue thing to support, churches and organisations line up to throw money and people at them. Look at us, we’re supporting church planting! All the while, those making real headway making disciples who are making disciples struggle on and feel like the rent isn’t being paid and people aren’t being fed (quite literally in some cases) because we’ve decided to blow our money on a big ticket, de rigeur, vanity piece.
Whenever funds and people are limited – and few people or organisation have as close to unlimited resources as you can get – we have to make decisions as to where they will go. If our focus is rightly on making disciples who make disciples, we will presumably want to encourage our resources to the places actively pursuing that goal and seeing some results for their labour.
This means that we may have to take long-term funding decisions to support churches in deprived communities who – even with the wind behind them – are never likely to see internally, self-sustaining churches by virtue of the people coming to faith. It may mean saying no to certain church plants because they are not doing much to make disciples and are contenting themselves to grow disciples who would have grown just as much, and potentially had greater gospel impact, had they simply stayed in the churches they came from.
Conversely, it may mean ceasing to fund churches who have been in receipt of our support because there seems to be no more disciple-making going on. Ideally, it would mean funding a revitalisation of that work so that a disciple-making church would exist in the area. It may also mean funding church plants who have a clear plan to be disciple-making churches and who, over time, show that they are seeing people come to faith, grow in Christ and go out to share the gospel with others.
Nonetheless, as with many pendulum swings, a perfectly legitimate focus on church planting feels as though it has led to a level of support for new churches that simply isn’t seeing the return in disciples that the funds and people being poured into them would seem to warrant. Meanwhile, there are small churches running on a shoestring, with a handful of people, seeing real strides for the kingdom. Statistically, they punch above their weight in disciple-making but they simply aren’t getting the support that a genuine vision for supporting disciple-making churches would appear to generate.
What is more, context seems important here too. It has never struck me as hugely difficult to convince a core team to follow you to a trendy city centre or bohemian suburb. Thanks to Tim Keller, we can also go to those places with a righteous sense of superiority because we have moved to the city. And yet, for the ease of transferring people to such places and the funds poured into them, I am not seeing vast amounts of disciples coming into the kingdom. Can I gently suggest that it might be time to revise our support and start encouraging both people and funds towards those who are seeing people genuinely saved and entering the kingdom with frequency?
Of course, we should support churches going into unchurched areas. But let’s not do it unthinkingly. Let’s consider it with respect to other existing churches who might be making great strides in the making of disciples. Let’s not just support planting because it’s the fashionable thing to do. Let’s ask whether all the money and people we are pouring into it is seeing the kind of results that make it worthwhile. Let’s also see whether there are churches struggling on that are seeing frequent conversions and ask whether there is some way we might increase the work in a place that the Lord is obviously choosing to bless. Let us honestly look at where are disciples being made and support such work and look at where disciples need to be made and be sure to support plants that are actually about that work rather than simply bussing some believers into a new area and couching it in the language of ‘gospel community’.