Why do we struggle to create meaningful planting networks?

I have been asked why we struggle to see meaningful planting networks established in certain places. In my view, there are several factors at play. Here are some thoughts from my own area.

We don’t talk to each other

Several church plants have taken place of late. On the face of it, that is something for which we ought to praise God. But at one point, three of those plants were happening in the same part of the region – a place where there were already existing churches. Why would three churches end up in the same place, planting right next to one another? Essentially, it is because nobody was talking to anybody else. By the time it became apparent these new places were going to spring up, plans were already well underway to make each one happen. A lack of discussion meant there was no co-ordination on the best place(s) to go.
We can’t agree on a vehicle for it

I once dared to point out that we have at least two separate planting organisations, linked to different churches, who were seeking to set up new congregations in the region. I was immediately rebuffed by someone involved in one of these organisations who insisted theirs was not a church planting outfit. I must have misread their own website that specifically states that they are a movement for the planting of church planting churches. That is alongside another organisation who want to plant church-planting churches and yet another who claim to want to multiply churches in the region. All that is alongside other organisations, that are not primarily about church planting, who have a stated desire to want to see further churches established but who are independent of those planting organisations.

None of that is to get at any of those groups. Indeed, my church belongs to some of them. But it is hardly surprising that we can’t get a regional planting network off the ground when we can’t even agree which vehicle to jump onboard to do it. If, when presented with competing options for existing networks we all pick a different one, is it that surprising that we can’t figure out how to create yet another network locally?
We can’t get our people to move to where they’re most needed

One doesn’t have to be a genius to open a map and see where there is a lack of churches. In fact, Tom Bassford has helpfully drawn the map for us. You can view it here. Sadly, it doesn’t cover the Greater Manchester region, only the City of Manchester, but it is a good starting point. Tom has helpfully mapped every kind of church, so depending on your particular convictions of what amounts to a “gospel preaching” church (or whatever your preferred nomenclature happens to be), the picture looks more or less rosy. But, essentially, most people can tell you that the further North, and particularly North East, you look in the region the more sparse things appear.

But, interestingly, few people are countenancing planting in the North and East. I suspect the only place in the North that would get a look in would be Prestwich. No prizes for guessing why that might get singled out. I’ll give you a clue: what statistics do Rochdale and Oldham have in common on which Prestwich doesn’t tend to feature? We don’t have a major issue getting people to move into and stay around South Manchester. When I made this point, I was told, ‘But you’re unusual. You’re doing “cross-cultural mission”. We can’t all do that’. Well, maybe. But it shouldn’t be so unusual and nor is that a knock-down reason for none of us to bother. Nor is it a terribly encouraging measure of the health of our churches that our supposedly ‘gospel-centred’ members aren’t prepared to move to the places of greatest gospel need.
We are wedded to a view of planting as a good per se

Controversial as this may be, I do not think church planting is an inherent good. It is not essentially good of itself. If I go and plant a church quite literally next door to an existing gospel-preaching church, that is likely to be detrimental to the cause of Christ. It neither serves that church nor will it reach that area more effectively than had those same people joined the existing church. Similarly, if I take a load of people from an existing church such that its gospel work is decimated and move them to another place, what have I really added to the kingdom? I have simply stopped gospel work in one place and started it in another, potentially less effectively if the entire church didn’t move to the plant. There are times when planting is not beneficial to the gospel.

But many of us have bought into the view that church planting is good of itself. We send people off to wherever we can get them to move and establish new congregations in those places, irrespective of need because we see planting as an essential good per se. The argument du jour is ‘X place could do with more churches’. That argument is essentially correct. Very few urban areas – and I use that term in the broadest sense – do not need more churches. But the question is not whether X place needs more churches – it most likely does – it’s whether X place needs extra churches more than Y place needs any churches at all. Is it more beneficial to the kingdom to plant more churches where there are already churches or to establish them where there are none? If we don’t see church planting as inherently good of itself, we are more likely to plant according to need rather than seemingly for the sake of more churches being planted (whatever the motive behind that happens to be). You can see some thoughts on that here and here.
We are overly concerned at the effect on our churches

As keen as we often are to be seen to plant, we are similarly troubled when somebody else decides to plant in an area we consider within striking distance of our church. Now, sometimes that is not illegitimate for the reasons noted above. Often, however, we worry that people from our congregations will jump ship. But if our members are godly and the new church being established will be undertaken in a godly way, why would we worry about that? Whilst we would be right to concern ourselves if existing, fruitful gospel work is being threatened, if we’re honest, often we’re less concerned about that gospel work and more worried about the size and shape of our particular congregation regardless of the impact thereon.

I suspect, in part because we don’t talk to each other, there is a fundamental lack of trust about these things. We presume – sometimes because, in reality, these things do go on – that people are not establishing those churches for altogether godly reasons. We can assume they are planting from less than pure motives and thus the success of their plant, even to the detriment of our church, is primary. Because we are tempted not to trust the motives, approach and the rest of those who are planting – at least in part because we (and they) are often not talking to one another – we become focused on the (potential) detrimental effects on our own church.

Those are some of the reasons I think we have struggled to get a working planting network running.