Three better questions to ask before planting

Yesterday, I looked at some questions that get asked when we plant churches that aren’t great. You can read that post here. Today, I thought it might be worth looking at some questions that we probably should ask before planting a church that are a little better.

Why are you planting?

This seems to me to be a key question that often gets overlooked. We live at a time when planting is generally seen to be a good in its own right. And don’t get me wrong, I think planting generally is good. But because we believe most plants are good, we assume planting is good of itself.

So, it is worth asking why are you planting? Planting a church for planting’s sake really isn’t a great idea. Nor is planting a church so that you can get the kudos of having planted. Talk of wanting to be ‘church planting churches’ can lead us to plant so that we can bask in the reflected glory of having planted something. None of these are good reasons to plant a church. Nor, for the planter, is it very credible to plant something because you want a job or you like the idea of being a planter rather than a mere pastor (a distinction I think that is often overstated).

There are both good and bad reasons to plant a church. But it pays to ask from the front end, why are you planting this church? Do you have good reasons for doing so?

Can you realistically plant?

At the end of the day, it is all very well having a plan, but if you can’t put it into effect then you aren’t going to go anywhere. It is important to ask whether you are actually in any position to plant something.

Many will read that question and assume if they aren’t a large, wealthy church with all the money and resources to effect the plant themselves, then the answer to this question is ‘no’. That is not what it is really driving at. Our small church, with scant resources, is in the process of planting a church into Rochdale.

The point here, though, is that there need to be some markers for what is realistically possible. For example, do you have a planter? Do you have enough money – either internally or having fund raised to get it – to actually begin something? Do you have any people at all that you can work with to credibly create an ‘assembly’ i.e. a church? What the answers to those questions actually look like in practice are going to vary from place to place and church to church. But at some point, the question needs to be asked as to whether you are actually in any position to plant something.

Is there a need to plant?

We all know that plants are costly, time-consuming and require considerable resource to get going. It isn’t unreasonable to ask, if we are going to throw our weight behind something like this, whether there is any real need for it?

As I mentioned yesterday, some people have different ideas as to what constitutes real need. What is the realistic reach of a single church? When might we consider and area ‘reached’? Those are not inappropriate questions to ask and, again, our answer will probably depend on the particular context in which we are working.

One way of working this out is by comparing the size and population of an area to others and comparing the relative number of churches. So, if a local town of 50,000 has 3 or 4 churches of 50 people each serving it already – whilst we might legitimately argue that town could easily bear more if the town is going to be properly reached, if a neighbouring town of 100,000 people has only one church, we might see a more urgent need there. Another town of similar size with no churches would have greatest need of all.

In fact, if we look at Paul’s model for church planting in virgin territory, it seems he tended to go and share the gospel in public places and synagogues, seeking to make conversions, and then created churches with those converts. He didn’t tend to plant several churches in, say, Ephesus. Rather, he established the one in the knowledge they would continue the work of evangelism and discipleship and plant other churches across the region. That is how Paul could say, ‘from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ’ (Rom 15:19). He obviously hadn’t preached the gospel to every person nor had he planted churches in every village. But he had established churches within each region that would continue the work of evangelism, disciple-making and church planting within their locality.

It seems to me, when assessing need, we want to go first to places where there are no churches, next to places where there are very few and then to places where they could probably do with a few more (leaving those places that are replete to get on happily as they are!) We have to take into account how the local population live and where they go. We have to look at what exists (if anything) and whether existing provision realistically reaches those who are there.

Most of us (I think) would agree that a village of 1000 people with a church of 100 members already in its midst probably doesn’t need another just yet. Likewise, a city of 1,00,000 people with no church really ought to have one. Clearly there is a sliding scale of churches and relative population that increases or decreases the need. But the question needs to be asked: does this place really need another church or would we be better served planting somewhere else?