What Could Be Wrong with ‘Church Planting’?

Six Dangers in a Missions Strategy

Every Christian is for church planting, right? How could you be against it? It’s biblical: Paul writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

The church is God’s chosen instrument to advance his kingdom. If the Lord tarries, the church will be here long after today’s nations and civilizations have passed into oblivion. No single government existing today has lasted as long as the church. Every missionary I know says they love church planting.

For the record, I love church planting too. I’ve planted churches in the United States and the Middle East. Some have failed; some have grown large; some are the greatest joy of my life — such as the church I now pastor in Erbil, Iraq. Not only that, but by his grace, God used me to start a movement that helped plant churches.

“The church is the chosen instrument of God to advance his kingdom.”

So, I’m not surprised that a relatively new missions strategy called the Church Planting Movement (CPM) has captured the imaginations of missions-minded people around the world. CPM is tied to examples from the ministry of Jesus, filled with anecdotal stories of success, and presented with the hope of massive worldwide revival. It focuses on house churches, inductive Bible study, self-discovery, ethnic indigeneity, and a journey toward Jesus. The movement is defined by radical indigeneity, and a rapid reproduction of “churches” — in quotes because “church” for many in CPM is merely that “two or more are gathered.”

The vast majority of missionaries who desire to put CPM into practice have an earnest desire to see Jesus known among the nations. But as I’ve lived and ministered in the Middle East for twenty years, and watched missionary strategies come and go, I have concerns.

Strengths in the Strategy

First, let me outline what I appreciate about those I know who attempt to put CPM into practice.

1. Motivation. They are dedicated, sacrificial, and God-fearing. They long for those who are lost and without hope to know the love and mercy and forgiveness of Jesus, and to a person, I like them.

2. Indigeneity. They challenge traditional forms of church that are extrabiblical. Their reaction against extrabiblical and/or sinful practices of the Western church can be a helpful corrective.

3. Scripture. This is the emphasis that most resonates with me. Over the years, the way I have personally seen the most people come to Jesus from unreached people groups is through inductive Bible studies, usually whole-book studies in the Gospel of Mark.

4. Discipleship. I’m alarmed that many missionaries don’t know how to disciple people. They often come from churches that didn’t disciple well (or at all). So, I’m grateful for the emphasis CPM gives to discipleship. It’s no wonder that, when struggling missionaries are given some training on CPM, they latch on to this method. It’s the first tool they have been given for discipleship.

Six Concerning Weaknesses

Alongside the strengths of CPM, however, are several weaknesses I find concerning. Each of them, in one way or another, relates to the first word in the CPM acronym: church. CPM aims to plant churches, but in my judgment the strategy often fails to prioritize biblical structures and standards for churches.

1. Sloppy Definitions of Church

“We don’t want Western church” is a refrain I hear often from CPM advocates. Of course, in one sense I agree; we don’t want an American church. We don’t want to Westernize people into our church culture. On the other hand, however, all cultures are fallen and broken, so just as we don’t want to reproduce American church culture, neither should we want to produce a church that imitates local culture, with its unique blindnesses and brokenness. What we long to see is a biblical culture founded on biblical principles.

Our aim is never to erase our ethnic and cultural identities, of course. But as a missionary friend of mine says, we aim to make these identities “secondary to our new identity as the people of God.” Also, faithful expression of a biblical culture will vary some from age to age in different places, but they will all have the same basic DNA.

When I’ve asked CPM folks to define church — the end goal of their movement — many of them seem to be at a loss. Many respond by talking, ironically, about form: “not a building, but a house church; not pews, but sitting on the floor; not a sermon, but a Bible discussion.”

“What we long to see is a biblical culture founded on biblical principles.”

What about doctrine? Can a non-Christian become a member? If we’re being rapid about church planting, how do we avoid the unbiblical appointment of young believers to eldership, something forbidden in 1 Timothy 3:6? Frankly, what I hear in CPM is an evangelism strategy, not a church-planting strategy. I love evangelism, but it’s confusing to call an evangelistic outreach “church.”

This inability to define a church is sad because it’s not that hard. In four tweetable sentences, let me try to explain the irreducible, critical parts of church as prescribed in the New Testament.

The church is a gathering of baptized, born-again believers who covenant together in love to meet regularly under the authority of the Scriptures and the leadership of the elders.

Churches do just a few critical activities: They hear the word preached. They sing and pray. They give. They participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion. They practice church discipline.

The overarching mission of the church is the Great Commission: to disciple all nations, teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded.

The church exists to worship God, to be a visible image of the gospel, and ultimately to give God glory.

In order for a gathering of believers to be a church, these elements must be in place. Some gatherings may be on their way to becoming a church, but they are not yet biblical churches without these basic foundational principles.

I know of nothing more important right now in modern missions than for indigenous churches to be established on biblical principles. New churches with young believers need to get these basic biblical principles right from the start. We ought not to relax biblical principles for new churches; rather, we ought to be more rigorous about them because of what is at stake for the future.

And here’s the rub: it takes time.

2. Vulnerability to Error and Heresy

The second deep concern I have is that, since mature teachers and preachers are sidelined in the CPM model in the name of indigeneity, the fellowships can be susceptible to wolves and charlatans.

Consistently over time, I have seen indigenous churches and individual believers destroyed by outside cults and inside heresy. As I have watched these train wrecks, I often have thought that with clear leadership and biblical teaching these issues could have been dealt with easily.

The dangers confronting these churches have included heavy-handed, dictatorial indigenous pastors; leadership that accepted outside money for an outside agenda; nasty fights; cultic and legalistic outsiders worming their way into the fellowship; and the importation of Western heresies such as the so-called prosperity gospel. And that’s just a few.

These errors are tragic, but not surprising, since a good chunk of the New Testament is written to combat the threats to new churches. But because CPM calls for an extreme commitment to indigenous leadership, they often leave these young believers open to destruction.

A missionary friend of mine noted that even Paul (a Jew) delayed total indigenous leadership by staying in Ephesus for three years (Acts 20:31). We need rock-solid, biblical teaching by those who have watched their life and doctrine well, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity.

3. Temptations to Pragmatism

CPM can fuel in many missionaries desires for results and numbers and dramatic stories. Although these desires may not always be harmful in themselves, they can easily tempt missionaries and missionary administrators to jettison scriptural principles about the church, and take on worldly models for growth. The result is a missionary fad, and the landscape is littered with them.

Often, the charge from CPM practitioners is that they are casting off the Western principles that don’t work in other cultures. And yet, their desire for growth and numbers and rapid effects sometimes seems like a distinctly American value wrapped in different words.

4. Lack of Clarity

Paul’s prayer for himself was to be both bold and clear with the gospel (Ephesians 6:19–20; Colossians 4:4). But the CPM strategy struggles to maintain clarity on several issues besides ecclesiology.

“Clarity about biblical conversion on the mission field is crucial.”

Who is a genuine believer, for example? If someone says he loves Jesus, does that mean he is his follower? (I’ve heard Muslims claim they love Jesus more than Christians do.) Or what constitutes the gospel, for that matter?

Clarity about biblical conversion on the mission field is crucial, but CPM is often fuzzy at best.

5. Ethnically Homogeneous Congregations

The missionaries I know would give their lives to oppose racism. But we must be very careful here not to slip into valuing some ethnic groups over others by calling for “homogeneous church growth,” which CPM advocates often do.

What would you think if someone came as a missionary to America and said they want to establish a white people’s church? I would hope you would be horrified! No, the church is for all people. Ultimately, all churches should desire to be international churches (as far as they are able) because that is our ultimate end before the throne of God.

Ethnic limits may occur because different groups speak different languages, but to limit based on ethnicity itself is unbiblically pragmatic at best, and wicked at worst. Does it help growth? Sure, I suppose, if the goal is rapid growth. Is it right? No.

6. Over-Contextualization

Many involved in CPM over-contextualize in the name of radical indigeneity. Certainly, there are many ways that missionaries can and should contextualize: food, living situations, clothing, language. But we cannot contextualize the gospel itself.

When we cut and paste the gospel, even giving different interpretations to clear biblical texts so that we can fit the gospel to culture, we are giving up the biblical narrative — we are giving up the story line of the Scriptures that God has carefully woven. To give up the biblical narrative is to over-contextualize.

“Missionary fads come and go. Clear proclamation of gospel truth in the context of healthy biblical churches will last.”

It’s astounding that there are Christians who think they have the authority to adapt the gospel for their situation based on their own understanding. Do we need to be loving and thoughtful about presenting the gospel message? Absolutely. Do we need to be sensitive to other cultures? By all means. But what is needed more in modern missions are people who understand the gospel, present it boldly and clearly, and know that Jesus promises persecution and even gives instructions about how to act when it comes.

Over-contextualizing the gospel may indicate that the missionary has been converted, rather than the people to whom they’ve been sent.

Dial It Back

My request for those who advance CPM is to dial it back. Speed is not the call. Indigeneity may be helpful, but my experience is that partnership is more fruitful long term. There is much to learn from those who have gone before us in the Western church. The aversion to paternalism denies indigenous leaders time to see Christian leadership modeled for them by missionaries — the kind of leadership Paul and Timothy regularly modeled for new churches. Careful and thoughtful theology of the church, the gospel, and biblical conversion is essential.

I’m convinced that gospel proclamation and church planting can come together in ways that address the concerns of those who follow CPM. Our church in Erbil, Iraq, for example, includes believers from a variety of cultures and languages. Together, we see our primary responsibility as living out a biblical church in the middle of an unreached people group. Unbelievers regularly visit and see Christians worship together across ethnic lines — and some of them come to Christ that way. Along with proclaiming the word from the pulpit and individually, we practice one-on-one discipleship and inductive Bible studies, all with the aim of planting more churches pastored by indigenous leaders. Our church is not perfect, and we don’t pretend it is or will be, but we work to grow and teach and model and correct.

I mentioned above that CPM is new — and it is new in the overall history of missions. But in the world of modern missionary methods, CPM (circa 2001) is old. It is already being shelved for something newer. Another missionary friend says, “DMM (Disciple-Making Movement) is a kind of next-generation CPM with a focus on obedience-based discipleship and discovery Bible studies, and with less focus on planting churches.” But this new method only serves the point: Missionary fads come and go. Clear proclamation of gospel truth in the context of healthy biblical churches will last until Jesus returns.