Church planting: what I was and wasn’t saying

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the term ‘church planter’. You can read that here. It seems to have got under the skin of some. Mainly, it has to be said, those who consider themselves church planters. So, it seems sensible to explain what I was and wasn’t trying to say.

First, just to be clear, I am not anti-church planting. In fact, I am particularly well disposed to church planting. I have, indeed, been making calls for more churches to be planted. Whilst I do believe we need a bit more honesty about what is going on sometimes, the essential principle is right. We should be seeking to multiply churches in areas where there is currently none. Nobody who has followed this blog for any length of time could doubt my desire to see such happening.

Second, given that I believe more churches need to be planted, I obviously expect somebody to do that work. I do not believe churches simply pop into existence. Someone, or rather several someones, have to go and establish new congregations. It is what we saw Paul doing throughout Acts. It is manifestly biblical. The church is God’s mission plan for the world and is the vehicle he has licensed for local evangelism.

I am, however, dubious of the term ‘church planter’. I am not bothered that it is ‘trendy’ or the term du jour. I am dubious because of how I see it being applied. The following discussion with my friend, Dai Hankey, might help to clarify:

The main point of consternation in my previous post appeared to be my comment, ‘I am, in fact, inclined to go so far as to say there is no such thing as a church planter.’ That single sentence has been variously understood to mean that I don’t believe in church planting, that I don’t believe anybody is ever sent to establish churches or that I have a problem with those doing these things. But, were you to scroll down the post a little further, you will read, ‘I understand why the term is applied to those who have been sent off as leaders of core teams to establish new churches.’ My point, which comes immediately after that sentence is clear enough: ‘once you have sent a group of people, established regular meetings at which the Word is being faithfully taught and you are taking communion, why do we continue to call that a plant and the guy leading it a planter? It’s not a plant; it’s a church. He’s not a planter; he’s a pastor.’

So what was the main issue here? I was querying the continued use of the term ‘church planter’ by those who are evidently working as pastors. I was querying the continued use of the term ‘church plant’ for congregations that have evidently been established and are now churches. The strength of feeling from some quarters about what they perceived I was saying rather serves my point. Some of us may have unhelpfully built our identity around being ‘church planters’.

I previously made the point that some hold onto the term ‘church plant’ even years after our church has been established because it is sexier and lends a bit of kudos. I strongly suspect many of us who are clearly acting as pastors leading established churches hold onto the term ‘church planter’ because it sounds more exciting than being an ordinary run-of-the-mill pastor. Nobody was arguing (at least, I wasn’t) that people shouldn’t establish new churches and there was a recognition that we might hire somebody we call a planter to establish that new church. But, if there is an intention for that person to setup a church and then lead it, they are only planters at the point they are establishing that church. Another way of saying this is that they are people who are about to be pastors.

My point, then, was a simple one. It was just to press into why we insist on clinging on to the term ‘church planter’ when we are now, manifestly, pastoring a church. Whilst some who would call themselves ‘planters’ were irenic in their discussion and – whether agreeing or not – understood my point, the agitation and upset coming from other quarters merely served to make the point. Maybe we hold onto the term once we have established our churches (secretly or otherwise) for reasons that are not wholly excellent.