Four reasons to plant a church and one question to ask

This is a guest post by Stephen Watkinson, who is shortly going to join Oldham Bethel Church as a planter with a view to establishing a new church in Rochdale. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

You may have picked up that we have plans to plant a new church in Rochdale, which is north east of Manchester. I’ve been interviewed about it and Steve Kneale the pastor of Oldham Bethel Church has blogged about their reasons for helping us. The two of us will be talking about it in an upcoming podcast too.

This is a really exciting thing for me to be doing, but people often have questions about planting and so I thought I’d begin to put my thinking out there to help answer those questions. One basic question might be: why plant a church?

Here are some reasons:

  1. Planting churches is biblical and apostolic. As they follow Jesus’ command to make disciples in Matthew 28:16-20 across the world, we find the disciples naturally dividing into house assemblies, starting assemblies in new places and organising those assemblies, such that the apostles over time start writing the local church(es) in different places (e.g. Acts 2:46; 11:22, 26; 14:23; 16:4-5; 1 Corinthians 2:1; Galatians 1:2; 1 Timothy 3).
  2. We need church plants in 3 contexts as a consequence of reason 1:
    1. Where there are no churches. This is classically in the context of going to a new mission context (e.g. a new country or area) where there are simply no churches for a long way. In the UK this can be a little complex. In a mobile society, in one sense most people could get to a good church without too much problem. However, many of us know from an evangelistic perspective, it is difficult to get people to travel to a church. Local and accessible is ideal for both evangelism and long-term discipleship.
    2. Where there are not enough churches. Sometimes this is as simple as saying that the church(es) are too full for more people to join. It is not unusual for example for a growing congregation to keep planting churches simply to create space in your building(s) so that more people can come to be disciples of Jesus. Other times, it may be looking at an area and recognising, even if all these churches were full, there wouldn’t be space for, for example, another 5% of the local population to start attending church. This latter situation would be a strong reason for planting almost anywhere in the UK at the moment.
    3. Where the local churches are not ideal. This is the most difficult, because it inevitably involves a viewpoint about other churches. Sometimes I might be comfortable in saying that a set of local churches simply aren’t faithful to the gospel and as such a faithful church is necessary. In other cases, it might be more complex. There may be local churches that are preaching the gospel, but aren’t, to my mind ideal, perhaps for theological issues that are important but secondary (e.g. views of baptism, or the charismatic movement). In the UK, given there are not enough churches in most places (see above), we are better to not to tie ourselves in knots on whether current churches meet the need even if they don’t fit our theology. We need more churches, having more gospel faithful churches is a good thing for any area. In my context, having a conservative evangelical church in an area without one is a good thing.
  3. Church plants may be evangelistically the best strategy. From working out the biblical imperative we move to some more pragmatic things – how it might be best to work out those imperatives. These are less important, but worth considering strategically. Tim Keller, for example, argues that church plants are better for reaching the unchurched and new groups of people. In the UK context where many older churches are struggling and we have a largely unchurched younger population, it may be a better (or at least it may need to be a consistent part of our strategy as well as revitalisation) to plant a new church.
  4. Churches are often being planted as a lifeboat. I would add a final and increasingly common reason in the UK.  As many denominations and churches are overtaken by liberal forms of Christianity, many people are leaving and are wanting to leave in a more structured way, i.e. by forming a new church. An increasing number of church plants are, in effect, a large proportion of the congregation of a church that has left the denomination and had to leave buildings and so forth behind. In the UK we have seen this with both Church of England and Church of Scotland churches, as the liberal pressures within the denominations have increased. Complexity comes in here, because there will tend to be a continuum from an entire church leaving at one end to the minister leaving at the other! In reality congregations/memberships are often divided over what to do and so different proportions of a congregation will leave. But leaving is done with the intention of forming a new faithful church, where without leaving there would only be a compromised church.  Thus, the new church is a lifeboat for faithful Christians escaping an unfaithful church or denominational context.

So I think the case for the necessity of church planting in the UK is strong. In the above, I have also implicitly been dealing with some concerns about church planting (again Keller goes in to some more detail about this). In any given context, there are always particular questions to ask, but it’s hard to argue that there are many places in the UK that are overburdened with clear and faithful churches. Where many would tend to ask, “Why plant a new church?” It might be better to start asking, “Why not?”