Guest post: Six bad reasons to plant a church

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.

Church planting often engenders quite a negative response in people. Sometimes this is because they have experienced a church plant that has been planted for the wrong reasons. Having written a blog about why you might want to plant a church, I thought it might be worth reflecting on some bad reasons for planting.

In his book on church planting, Graham Beynon asks a good question at the end of his chapter discussing motivations for planting: How can we best grow in both quality of discipleship and spread of the gospel? This question gets us to focus on whether we are being obedient to the Great Commission. In particular, it moves the focus away from us (and building our kingdoms) to obedience (to the King of the Kingdom). I think where we tend to go wrong is when we start focusing on ourselves (and probably our pride/selfishness), especially as “church planters”.

Let me suggest six bad reasons for planting, which I think focus on me rather than Jesus.

  1. Sectarianism. I plant because I think that what I am doing is the one true church. This is actually the way to build a cult not plant a church! In this context, there tends to be either some rather unusual doctrinal distinctive or the raising of doctrinal issues of a relatively low significance with respect to church unity to a much higher significance.
  2. Charisma. I plant because I’m a particularly charismatic leader. People want to follow me and build a church/movement around me. If the last reason led to a cult, this leads to a personality cult. We need to remind ourselves that while we should follow the good example of our leaders, we do so only as they point us to Jesus. That is we are disciples of Jesus, not our church leader. A plant built around a charismatic leader rather than Jesus is a sure way to disappointment!
  3. Competition. I plant to show everyone else that my idea of church is better than yours. This is, I think, a real temptation for those planting out of a denomination or a church split. The goal of the church is to show it is better than the alternative. So, for example, if I have left my denomination because of its increasingly liberal positions, I want to prove that they are wrong by growing bigger and faster. Of course the question then becomes, what if you don’t grow bigger and faster? Were you wrong to leave? Planters in this kind of situation will need to take care not to always want to show they have made the right decision.
  4. Preference. I plant a church that suits me. Maybe it’s just a bit more conveniently located. Maybe it fits my style (music, preaching, dress code or whatever). Maybe it happens at a time that fits a bit better around my commitments. In short, I can tailor the church around the way I would like church to be be. We might dress up our preferences with more gospel language, but underneath it’s essentially a pretty selfish reason to plant a church. A church that is selfish like this, will only reach those who also want to be selfish like this and I suspect would gradually become more and more insular.
  5. Boredom. Local church life is seldom exciting. It is a long obedience in the same direction to quote Eugene Peterson. However, following our culture, we have a tendency to seek change and excitement – perhaps especially when we’re younger. That can lead us to want to do a new thing and avoid some of the strictures of more established churches. On the one hand this can lead to constantly trying to surf the wave of the next ‘big thing’ in church. On the other, it can prevent a plant from ever really maturing into a church with appropriate and necessary formality and process.
  6. Escapism. Local church life can also be tough and often requires the work of reform at individual, corporate and institutional levels. Sometimes it seems like the easiest thing would just be to start again and escape the problems (and some of the people?) that we have to deal with in church.

Now because we’re all sinners and apt to be proud and selfish, we know we won’t be eliminating all negative motivations. There is also the problem that many of these bad reasons spring for good motivations. It is not always wrong to escape a bad church situation, if reform isn’t possible perhaps. It’s not great to leave a church because of preference for an area, but it may be true that your preferred area needs a church.

If you’re a church planter this will mean you need to evaluate your motivations constantly (like many things in the Christian life!) and that it’s good to listen to the advice and criticism of others. You might ultimately conclude they’re wrong, but in the process you might at least see where they are partially right. You might conclude they are right and so make some pretty radical changes to your plans.

If you are negative about a plant or about church plants in general, then it might be good to reflect on whether the poor motivation that you see is actually, at least in part, rooted in a good motivation. It does us good to think charitably of others and their motivations, given we can’t see their hearts. It may also help us to see a need that we’ve been blind to. Even if the motivation is wrong and the plant or potential plant is misguided, if we approach someone with grace, assuming the best, they may be able to hear and understand the criticism better.