The Essential Strategy of Planting New Churches

Desiring God 2011 National Conference

Finish the Mission: For the Joy of All Peoples

Well, good afternoon. It’s good to be with you and thank you for coming and being here today. So excited about being at the Desiring God National Conference, specifically talking about church planting today. What Kenny was referring to was a funny incident we had last time that I was here. We had Global Church Advancement at Bethlehem, and we were doing some training. John did an introduction video that played just before I spoke, and my job was to speak on strategies and methodologies for planting a church. Here’s the actual quote from what John Piper said just before I was to teach from my book on church planting. It said this: “Beware of conferences. Beware of books. Beware of seminars that tell you how to plant a church.” Ladies and gentlemen, Ed Stetzer is here to tell you how to plant a church from his most recent book.

My counsel is give your life to sowing, and he talks more about this, but anyway, I could not resist this. But on the other hand, I wrote this and blogged about it just for fun, and then I think I freaked everybody out. I didn’t mean to, but wasn’t at all offended. I agree with all of those statements. I mean, how could you not? Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

And so we’re going to talk about some issues that are practical today. I’ve specifically been given the assignment of talking about the essential strategy of church planting and really, to some degree, making a case. Now for some of you, making a case on the essential strategy of church planting is a bit like making the case for air. You’re already breathing this. This is where you are living. This is not, then, news to you.

For you, I would say, and my hope is that it will be an encouragement, perhaps a tool with which you can address some of the complaints that come at you when people say, “Why are you planting a church?” We’ll walk through at the beginning five reasons why we don’t plant churches, and then we’ll walk through some texts in the second part of my time and we’ll talk about instead, six reasons why we should. I wanted to give one more reason we should compared to those that when we don’t. We’ll walk through those and we’ll get a picture of these things, because the reality is we know that there is not a significant movement of church planting movement in North America today.

Five Reasons Why We Don’t Plant Churches

As a matter of fact, the last time we’ve seen a church planting movement on the soil that is North America took place between 1795 and 1810 among Baptists and Methodists on the Western Frontier, Tennessee and Kentucky, that is. In 15 years, in just a small region, they planted 3,000 churches and we’ve not seen anything like that in a very long time.

Matter of fact, I’m a little jealous. I’m a little envious. I hate to confess sin early on in my talk, but I am, because there’s two tracks going on right now and the other track, they’re talking about some of that which God is doing around the world and I’m a little jealous, because we do see church planting movements around the world. This summer I’ll be in a Central Asian nation as part of a church planting movement, connection, and training there and here’s what it boils down to. I am a little bit tired and perhaps somewhat frustrated with hearing about church planting movements over there, but not hearing about church planting movements over here. What, then, is hindering us from those things?

Well, the reality is if we look statistically, we can see some cause for concern. I’ll quote statistics here. I’m the president of a research company. The reality is churches in the United States today, this is a US stat, are significantly uninvolved in church planting. Matter of fact, about 3 percent of Protestant churches, in a survey we recently did at Lifeway Research, would be what we call mother churches or parent churches and have, quoting, “Accepted direct financial responsibility for the new church as the primary sponsor.” That’s 3 percent — 1 out of 33 are engaged in this kind of church planting endeavor. Yet, the necessity is clear to you, but perhaps not to everyone. We’re going to look at five reasons why people don’t plant churches. If you’re taking notes, first section, why we don’t plant, first section, why we don’t plant.

1. The Desire to Rescue Dying Churches

Number one in that outline is real simple, because we want to rescue the dying churches. Now you say, “Ed, is that not important?” Of course, it’s important. I want to address it in just a moment, but the reality is, is this often becomes not a passion for church revitalization, but a reason that we don’t engage in church planting.

Now, I believe in church planting. I’m guessing that probably I’ve done more research and written more books on church revitalization than just a few people have. I’ve written books and done studies and done seminars and I’m very passionate about church revitalization, but the reality is, church realization needs to be more. It needs a strategy that includes a refocus on the gospel and engagement in faithful endeavors of God’s mission, but at the end of the day, the reality is, well, it’s just often more strategically appropriate to plan a new church, while we are revitalizing established churches.

In a research project we did for a book I co-authored with Mike Dodson called Comeback Churches, we studied 324 churches from about 10 denominations that kept statistical records that we could evaluate, and we began to analyze them and to see, well, what was it that led to these revitalizations? How was God at work in these churches? What was God doing, so that we could tell their story and report it to others?

What we found was a consistent theme. Church revitalization is often tried, but not frequently accomplished. You know that. This is not a secret to you. We studied 7,000 churches in a study we called Transformational Church, and we found church revitalization is often tried, but seldom do we actually see the breakthrough.

Now, at this point, it’s very easy for us to say, “Well, why do we care about these kinds of breakthroughs? Just preach the gospel and love people.” I want us to preach the gospel and love people, but I also want us to preach the gospel, love people, revitalize churches, and plant new ones. We think strategically about this issue, because the reality is that church planting has to be a part of any strategy that we’re going to be a part of reaching North America, and I’m going to talk more about the nations in my main session tomorrow night, but reaching North America for Christ. Church revitalization has to be, but so also must church planting. Why? Well, for one reason, church revitalization is exceedingly difficult and often impossible because of sin and structures and stability that’s valued more than gospel fidelity. I’ll put it this way, too. It’s easier to birth a baby than it is to raise the dead.

And so the recognition of the need for church planting is not to devalue church revitalization, but instead to value both, but I will tell you that often those who say, “No, no, no, fix the dying churches,” well, they’re not really fixing the dying churches. They’re just saying that to keep you from planting new ones. We want to rescue the dying churches, that’s a good thing, but the reality is churches go through life cycles. They’re birthed, they live, they thrive, and often they die, yet we don’t have a mechanism or a means to allow churches to die because we equate churches with the facilities and the facades that have been created, and so we think of, “Well, we don’t want that church to die.” Listen, if that church is in that shape, that church probably is already dead. It just still has a facility that has running air.

What do we need? We need both. Why? Because if we’re going to love evangelism, if we want to see men and women trust in Christ who have been redeemed by the power of the gospel, trusting by grace and through faith on what Jesus did on the cross for our sin and in our place, we know that that happens frequently, even more frequently in new churches. In a study in my denominational family, we looked and we compared the churches that were under 2 years of age with those between 3 to 15 years of age, with those who are 16 years of age or older.

Here’s what we found. The baptism ratio in my denominational family, after a person trusts and follow Christ, she or he is baptized, and what we found is this: this is often an indicator of conversions that are there, not always, but we would hope that they’re consistently an indicator of conversions. What we found is this. New churches, zero to two years of age, have twice the baptismal ratio, the baptisms per 100 members, than churches that are 16 years of age and older.

Peter Wagner is credited with a famous statement that said, “Church planting is the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven.” I actually don’t know that I believe that in its totality. I would say that church planning, when done according to God’s plan, God’s direction, God’s will, and God’s passion for people, that kind of church planning is the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven.

The reality is if you represent a movement, a denomination, a network, a family of churches, to not plant means you miss out on being a part of God’s great ingathering of his people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. You miss out on the work of God and to be perfectly honest, you guarantee decline. If a movement doesn’t plant, a denomination doesn’t plant at least 3 percent of their number each year, that movement will decline, simply through attrition and through regular progress of decline. Why don’t we plant churches? Well, because people often want us to help the dying churches. I want us to, but not at the expense of planting new ones.

2. Parish Mentality

The second reason we don’t often plant is we have a parish mentality. We have a parish mentality. This is an interesting mentality inherited from history. The idea here is that a denomination or a network or a family of churches gets one church in that town and if there’s a gospel preaching church in that town, then that town’s reached. If we’re Presbyterians and there’s a Presbyterian church, we say, “Well, praise God.” If we’re Charismatics and there’s a Charismatic church, say, “Praise God.” No one else needs to be there.

And what’s interesting, and the reverse is often true, I’ve seen maps made in my own denominational family, of places where there are no churches, vast tracks of land where there are no churches that are out there. And yet I happen to know there are all kinds of evangelical churches preaching in the gospel in those cities and those places. If it’s not one of ours, it must not be reached, but if it is one of ours, then it is therefore reached. That parish mentality keeps church plants and church planters out of places where they’re desperately needed.

When I was 21, I planted my first church in the inner city of Buffalo, New York among the urban poor. We moved into the city. There was already a church of my denomination there, so there was some concern that we were moving in, muscling in on the territory, the parish of this church. This church, I’m so thankful for the work they’ve done, the pastor and I became friends. This church had been reaching up to this point about 70 people of the 200,000 people who lived in the community where we were. It was reached. The work here was done. We found that there were plenty of lost people to go around. Part of the challenge is to not think in terms of, “We need one church here,” but in that place there were actually four evangelical churches, four churches preaching the gospel in that community and we needed more.

Our church would later plant one out of our church and then another church who we planted in partnership with that church. Why? Because we didn’t need two new churches there. We needed two hundred new churches there. The reality is churches often don’t get planted because people have a parish mentality. Matter of fact, there’s an old saying in church planting. It goes like this: “Start a church in another state, it’s all for God’s grace and glory, but start a church in my backyard, that’s another story.” You might hear that.

3. Territorialism

The third reason is again, churches, networks, and denominations have often become territorial. They’ve become territorial and the reality is they don’t look at the fields that are wide unto harvest, but instead, they look at the faithful who don’t want any more harvesters in their field. Do you see the distinction between the two? The question is, do we look at the fields that are wide unto harvest or we look to the faithful who don’t want any more harvesters in their fields? And in doing so, we miss out on the fact that God’s desire is that more churches would be planted there.

4. The Reluctance to Sacrifice Comfort

A fourth reason we don’t plant as many churches as I believe God has called us to is people don’t want to sacrifice. The reality is we’d often rather go into our own churches. We prefer our programs and the bubble that we’ve created, where we all listen to the same music on the Christian radio station, where we all learn how to raise our kids from the same authors, and we learn how to do our finances from the same well-known communicators, and we read our fiction from the same person who writes weird things about the end times, and the end result is — I’m not naming any names. I’m going to just leave that behind and move on — but the end result is that we create a bubble within which we are comfortable, instead of, well, living as agents of God’s mission. Church planting will force you out of that bubble.

I’m planting a church right now. It’s about six months old. I decided after serving as the interim pastor at some churches, and that’s a wonderful ministry, some of you may do that very ministry, and serving as interim pastor, helping churches through the interim times between pastors, I decided that wasn’t good for me spiritually or my family spiritually. I go around speaking at things, right? I’m a motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river. Rest of you can check with a friend on what that actually was about. The ones who laughed could help.

Why would I plan a church as lead pastor on the weekends? Well, the reason is because of where I live. I live in a neighborhood. I live on a street maybe like you do, and I began to talk to my neighbors. The neighbor right behind me to the left is unengaged and uninvolved in a church. Matter of fact, hadn’t been to church at all. Came to the first Bible study I hosted in my home and his comment was, when I turned to turn to Matthew 4, his question was, “Who’s Matthew and why does he have a number after his name?”

And then the neighbor directly behind me who walked away from the Lord after a tragic death, and then the neighbor on the other side, who’s been in and out of church was considering, and then the family just across the street whose wife’s walking with the Lord and husband’s having good and hard questions about it, and we began to get into this community where we opened God’s word together and began to ask questions along the way about what it meant. And I will tell you, it’s a lot easier to just be that motivational speaker, to come in and preach a message, preach a sermon, and to go home. It is harder to live in community and on mission and to plant a church, but it’s worth it so much more.

See, the reality is the reason we don’t plant a lot of churches is too many Christians want to be customers of religious goods and services. They want to come to the church and they want to be blessed by quality music. They want to be challenged by inspirational teaching that is just an appropriate level of amusement and humor, combined with deep teaching, and ending up with a wonderful, practically applicable message. And they’ll pay good money for that. I mean, they’ll come as customers and consumers and they’ll fill up your church and they’ll line up in rows like shelves at Walmart, facing forward, watching the show, and it’ll be hard to get them out of those seats.

One of the greatest challenges in church planting is to get people to leave good churches to be a part of a Great Commission. Don’t miss that. One of the great problems of church planting is to get people to leave good churches to be part of a Great Commission, but the reality is they get comfortable. And what we need, if we’re going to see church planting become, I believe, all that God has a design and desire for it to be, we’re going to need a lot less customers and a lot more co-laborers who want to say, “We want to plant this church together.”

5. The Already-Reached Myth

Number five, and that’s the last of the reasons we don’t, is too many people believe the already-reached myth. Too many people believe the idea that now, specifically this session is dealing with, and my assignment from the organizers is dealing with, this practical and the essential strategy of church planting, and specifically talking about this context, the North American context. When we look to the North American context, some believe it’s already reached. Now, please, do not make the mistake of saying statements like, “It’s just as lost here as it is over there.”

Well, I mean, it depends upon where over there is. The reality is there are 6,000 people groups, 1.7 billion people with little or no access to the gospel. And so to make that distinction is unhelpful, unwise, and untrue, but a better distinction is to say, “Well, God has sent me, God has called me, God has directed me to plant a church and he has sent me here.”

Some God will send to the Pokot in Africa, and some God will send to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and some God will send to the inner city of Portland. At the end of the day, God sends where he sends, and we say, as Isaiah did it, encountering the holiness of God, we say, “Here I am Lord. Send me,” but is America reached? Well, by the standards of, is there an indigenous church that is capable of reaching and proclaiming the gospel in appropriate ways, the answer is yes, but I don’t want you to miss that. From a missiological perspective, we often call a community entered when there’s an indigenous church capable of proclaiming the gospel and propagating new churches. Well, there is, but what’s the assumption? That this indigenous church will proclaim the gospel and propagate new churches, so therein is the challenge and the call.

Now, because I’m of two minds here, I think right now sometimes there’s a lot of bad statistics out there that, “Well, the last Christian is going to be leaving the church.” You’ve heard some of them. How many of you heard the statistic that 94 percent of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school, never to return? Raise your hand just a second if you heard that stat. Lots of you. Look at that. Look at that. It’s not true. I know where it came from. I spoke at their meeting. They’re really sorry. A couple of guys that love Jesus made an estimate and all of a sudden it gets reported all over the world. The reality is among evangelical churches, the majority, in some cases, the vast majority of evangelical youth are engaged in church after they graduate from high school. When you count on the main lines, the numbers shift drastically.

There’s this idea out here. I called 2009 “the year of Christianity’s predicted demise.” We saw an article, I think it was Jon Meacham wrote an article on Newsweek, I think, and the article title was “The End of Christian America.” Michael Spencer, better known as the internet monk, wrote an article on the Christian Science Monitor called “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” The American Religious Identification Survey came out this year and announced that the percentage of self-identified Christians had declined by 10 percent in the last two decades and everyone thought the end had come, but people didn’t bother to actually look at the data.

See, we’re evangelicals, Christians who believe, through the power of the gospel, we were born again and made new in Christ, and the percentage of people in America who believe that today is actually higher than the percentage of the people who believed that in America last year and who believed that twenty and thirty years ago as well. Now, does that mean everybody’s reached? No, but it does mean that there’s a significant indigenous population of Christians here that need to and should be prepared to be engaged in church planting, so I believe there is the base to reach North America. From a missiological perspective, we are an entered and engaged country, but ironically, we’re not engaging or entering the next phases of the mission that God has called us to. See, you need to go global, but you also need to engage in local.

Six Reasons Why We Should Church Plant

Now, the reality is, depending upon your passion, you’re probably engaged exclusively or mostly in one and slightly in the other. Well, I want to encourage you to consider us to join God and his mission and to do so globally and locally. “Locally” is the phrase that some have coined, but to recognize that church planting is simply the normative expression of New Testament Christians. In a sense, it can be confusing, and I want to transition to some of the reasons why. In a sense, it can be confusing because nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Thou shalt plant churches.” You can look in 2 Corinthians 2:7, and maybe you’ll get a hint, but it’s not there. Doesn’t say go and plant churches. Why? Because that’s what they were doing.

Some have said that the New Testament is a book that’s written in the milieu of church planting and missions. In a sense, it can be confusing. They talk a lot. They don’t talk a lot about church planting because that’s so much of what the narrative is about. Let me give you some specific reasons we should plant. Let’s recognize the New Testament points to that. I’ve given you five reasons why we don’t. I want to give you six reasons why we should, why Jesus establishes his kingdom. We see it throughout the text. Dave began to talk some about that and I got excited.

If Jesus establishes his kingdom in the gospel and the church is birthed in its wake, the Spirit empowers and sends the church throughout Acts in chronological order described in Acts 1:8. In the rest of the book of Acts, it goes from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth. The Scriptures are written to the church plants in the New Testament, guiding and directing them doctrinally through the epistles. It’s so much about church planting. Let me give you six reasons that I think you and I should be engaged in church planting.

1. The Commission Reason

Number one is the commission reason. Listen to Dave talk some about the Great Commission. I like the Great Commission. I think they’re all great, I’m going to talk about more of them tomorrow, but the Great Commission is uniquely great, and the commission reason we should be church planting is because simply of what Jesus said. Now, Jesus lays out for us, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18–19).

So he talks about the central verb of the Great Commission is that disciple making, so we’re called now to make disciples and then it tells us to baptize them. This is a function of the church. You can’t do what Jesus said in Matthew 28 until you plant the church in Acts 2: “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).

So if the Great Commission involves reaching people and if church planting is the most effective way, then churches that plant churches are effective engagers in the Great Commission. Now, is that the only way to engage in Great Commission work? No, not at all, of course not, but I think if we look at the North American cultural context today, what was the normative expression in the New Testament has become the abnormal expression in modern American Christianity. Let me say it again. What was the normal expression of mission in the New Testament, planting of churches, has become the abnormal expression of such.

Here we say, “Well, that’s because we have so many churches.” There are very few places in the United States where I would say there is not room or place for churches to reach people who are far from God. It’s amazing to me, having lived and worked with church planters for years before I would later do my PhD work in missiology and transition into research, but before that, I was a church planter in New York and in Pennsylvania.

Then I became a church planting seminary professor in Louisville for three years, and then I ran a national program to train church planters at seminaries across the country, but I will tell you this. I was always struck by the fact that for so many church planters, their call seemed to be more driven by demography than by the call of the Holy Spirit. I mean, it could be that God is really calling a disproportionate number of people to reach whites in growing affluent suburbs. That could be, but what I see in the pages of Scripture about the character of God would perhaps teach me something else.

When I planted that first church in Buffalo, New York, Buffalo, New York is not exactly the West Palm Beach of the country. My father called it the armpit of New York. We’re from New York. We’re New Yorkers; I grew up on Long Island, and so later we would go over and I would go to plant this church, and we moved into the inner city of Buffalo, New York during the crack epidemic of the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s. The mayor Jimmy Griffin, they called him 6-Pack Jimmy, and not because of his workout regimen, and I met the mayor and the mayor said, “Why are you moving into the city when the rest of the people are evacuating it?” Buffalo was the fastest shrinking city at that time. We moved into the neighborhood and people were without Christ and they were on drugs and there were some drive-by shootings two houses down from us, we were robbed on multiple occasions, and yet we were there.

Why we were there — well, here’s why we were there, right? Bad people make good soil, and it was amazing to see God at work in the lives of people who were at the end of their rope, who had nothing left but to call out to Jesus.

Now, it wasn’t always easy, I can assure you, but in doing so, when we see the Great Commission, that means that if they naturally responded through church planting, that means that that church plant is going to be among the urban poor. It means it’s going to be among Latino illegal immigrants and undocumented aliens. It means it’s going to be, yes, in affluent suburbs, but when we act out the normal expression of New Testament Christianity, which leads to the establishment of new congregations through disciple making, then the church is advanced as churches are planted.

The second reason is because it’s very easy to look at the Great Commission. I’ve heard some say this. People who find out something and they’re quite proud of their newfound knowledge will say, “Well, look. This is not a church planting command. It’s a disciple-making command,” and they’ll go around and they’ll say, “Listen. The central command of the New Testament is disciple making. It’s not going and planting,” and though they do miss how they go and the make disciples are connected in the original language.

2. The Hermeneutic Reason

The second reason is the hermeneutic reason. Can I talk about hermeneutics here? Is that okay? Hermeneutics, the understanding — the science — of the interpretation of Scripture.

If the first reason that we’re talking about church planting is the commission reason: what Jesus said, the second reason I want to propose to you today is the hermeneutic reason: what the disciples did. I want you not to miss this. One of the principles of hermeneutics is this, is that we don’t ask the question in a small group Bible study, I’ve been there, you’ve been there. Someone opens up a Bible verse, reads it out loud and goes around the group and says, “What does this verse mean to you? Share your feelings.”

I’m all in favor of sharing your feelings and I’m all in favor of thinking through these issues, but that’s a hermeneutically irresponsible way to do Bible study. Why? The better question is what did it mean to the original hearers, what’s the universal applicable underlying principle, and then how do we apply that today? Some people call that the hermeneutic bridge. What did it mean to the original hearers? What’s the universal principle? How do we apply that today?

And so from this perspective, I don’t want you to miss this, the hermeneutic reason you should be about church planting is upon hearing the teachings of Jesus, the Great Commission, John 20, where he sends us Luke 24, where he gives us the message, Acts 1, where he talks about the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, that upon hearing those things, the disciples decided that Jesus was telling them to do something and what they did tells you something important. They planted churches. Thomas, historians have debated, but more and more people believe, went to India to plant churches. Peter went up to Asia Minor to plant churches somewhere, we forget that. Paul goes to plant churches where it never been planted before.

When Jesus says, don’t miss this, when Jesus says, “I will build my church,” the disciples responded by planting them, church planting, not simply seeing men and women trust and follow Christ. Church planting was the focus of so much of the New Testament. In fact, Roland Allen, a very well-known Anglican missiologist, put it this way. I’m quoting him. He says, “Church planting, not the converting of individuals, was the method of the Apostle Paul.” Now, we want to temper that by saying that disciple making, which leads to church planting, was the methodology that was there. So the first reason is the commission reason: what Jesus said. The second reason is the hermeneutic reason: what the disciples did.

3. The Example Reason

Thirdly is the example reason: how Antioch is our model. Well, how can Antioch be the model? Shouldn’t Jerusalem be the model? No, you probably don’t want to make Jerusalem your model. You’ll drive around and you’ll see churches. You see very few churches call themselves the first Jerusalem church, and there are some historic reasons. You see a lot of Antioch churches.

See, Jerusalem was not that healthy of a church. You see some indicators of it in the text, but historically, we know afterwards what goes wrong, and they eventually become what’s called the Ebionites, the sect of the Ebionites, and eventually those Ebionites would continue to, well, fall back into their Mosaic law, requiring new converts who’ve trusted and followed Christ to follow the Mosaic law, so the new evangelism strategy at the Ebionite church involved circumcision. The response rate tended to drop drastically, but they wanted to continue to maintain and hold their traditions. It looks like it’s going good in the council in Acts, but it historically doesn’t end particularly well, but I don’t want you to miss this.

The Jerusalem church doesn’t send out people to plant churches. Have you ever noticed that? Oh, the Jerusalem church sends out people. They send out people to inspect the new churches that others are planting and to express their grave concerns about how those churches are being planted. I think today we’ve got a lot more Jerusalem churches than we have Antioch churches in North America.

You ever notice that when you’re not engaging in mission, you get so focused on your practices and your preferences that nothing else matters? That’s one of the things that happened to the Ebionites, and they would later be declared heretics by the early church fathers. It only sent out people to check up and express concerns, but the reality is the better model is the Antioch Church. The Antioch Church is a better model because it becomes the sending church.

We heard Dave talk about the Antioch model as the sending church, and we have to celebrate the sending that’s so present in the character of God but then becomes the practice of the Antioch Church, and I would encourage you to celebrate that in your own church, to celebrate multiplication.

One of the signs of life of living things, scientists debate and study whether certain things are living, a virus for example, and one of the signs that something is actually alive is this: It reproduces. I would say that that means a lot of our churches are, well, not alive because instead, the normal practice of living things is to reproduce. Antioch does that, and then we see the celebration there, laying hands and sending out. Why? And this is an important principle: If you want to be a church planting church, celebrate church planting. Why? Because what you celebrate, you become.

When you celebrate multiplication, when you celebrate church planting, when you celebrate those things, you’ll become that. If you celebrate instead, long philosophical and theological debate on every issue without end, then your church will be driven by that. If you celebrate reproduction and disciple making in a theologically rich and robust environment, your church will be driven by that as well.

4. The Congregational Reason

Why should we plant churches? Well, number one’s the commission reason: what Jesus said. Number two, the hermeneutic reason: what the disciples did. Number three is the example reason: Antioch over Jerusalem. Number four is the congregational reason. God desires all of us.

It is God’s intent that we would be part, as believers, of a congregation living on mission. God wants to glorify himself through congregations of people who are making him known, and in the process of making him known, men and women from every tongue, tribe, and nation can give him praise. And so when all things begin to multiply in churches, we see the privilege of being a part of God’s ingathering of his people so that they might give him praise, and what a privilege it is that we are being there and being a part of that when things multiply.

5. The Multiplication Reason

A few years ago, I was preaching at the Wesleyan National Gathering, the first time they brought their districts together, and I stole something from them, and I want to give them credit. I was there to speak on this issue of, really, a message.

This isn’t a message, more of a talk, a seminar, if you will, but they asked me to preach a sermon, and the sermon that I was to do was on the importance of church planting. I looked to Acts 17 and some back in Acts 14–15, but they had a phrase. I thought this was so helpful because I want my congregation to be a place where multiplication is normal, and here’s what they said. They said that everything, it’s not just churches should multiply, but everything should multiply.

Here’s what they said: “We should be multiplying disciples.” And I said, “Yes, we need disciples and then groups,” because why? We need to move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles so that then those groups can multiply, so disciples, groups, ministries, more people being engaged in ministry to the hurting, to those without sharing the gospel to those who do not know. And lastly, churches multiply. Listen, if you finally get to the end and you say, “Why will my church not multiply?” maybe because nothing’s multiplying inside of your church.

Now, what’s the alternative? Well, I want to encourage every church in this room to get pregnant. If you’re planting a new church, I want to encourage you to be born pregnant. A few years ago, actually, it was more than a few years ago, September 8th, 1966, TV show premiered and it went boldly where no man would go before. That show had the most famous episode of all time, was written by a guy named David Gerald, and in that episode he wrote about these little creatures called, does anybody know? Shout it out, Tribbles. The Trouble with Tribbles was the name of the episode.

I won’t go through the whole plot line because you would think me a major geek even more so than you do now, since I mentioned September 8th, 1966 as the premier date. I think it was around there. In this episode, these little creatures keep multiplying and they multiply all over and they end up saving the day because they eat the grain and the Klingons. Anyway, you don’t need to know. And so they got to stop them from multiplying. Jot this down, jot this down. First time anyone ever mentioned Klingons at the Desiring God National Conference, I can assure you. Dr. McCoy, DeForest Kelly, comes in and he says, “Jim,” Captain Kirk, “Jim, I figured it out. I can stop them from multiplying.” He said, “See, they’re born pregnant. All you do is you feed them and they multiply.”

Why is it that so many churches today, they keep getting fed and fed and fed and it seems the more they get fed, the less they multiply? See, if you don’t make it a passion from the beginning, and there are models out there that are both deep, robust, rich, theologically driven churches that are multiplying all over.

A couple of years ago, Outreach Magazine put a list of the top 25 church planting churches in America. It was an amazing, well-crafted, discerningly researched list. Just to be honest, we did it at Lifeway Research, and some of the churches in the top five were number one church was Redeemer Presbyterian and their serious engagement in church planting or Perimeter Presbyterian in their engagement church planting, Mars Hill Church and its engagement in church planting, and we see churches that can value these things.

The challenge is this. If you do not build it into the DNA that congregations should multiply — the congregational reason — what you will end up doing is feeding and feeding and feeding and not multiplying. If multiplication’s in your DNA, all you got to do is feed your people and they’ll multiply.

The Lostness Reason

Number six, and lastly, and I’ll close with this. You know what it means when a guest speaker says, “I’ll close with this”? Absolutely nothing. Number one is the commission reason: what Jesus said. Number two, the hermeneutic reason: what the disciples did based on what he said. Number three is the example reason: choose Antioch over Jerusalem. Number four is the congregational reason: the normal practices of reproducing congregations. Number six, and finally, is the lostness reason.

There was an interesting article by one of my heroes, Robertson McQuilkin, a few years ago in Christianity Today. It talked about the shift of emphasis in missions from concern for the perishing to the glory of God. What I would say to you is this: the Scriptures point us to both. I believe God has called his church, gathered his church, and appointed his church for God’s glory and for God’s mission, and the lostness reason points us to passages of Scripture that are overwhelming in their reminder to us. You say, “Well, we’ve got so much to do in our own church.” And when we think there’s so much to do in our own church, I think we would do well to look at the parables in Luke 15.

Jesus speaks in that parable of one who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does not he leave the 99 in an open field and go after the one? You say, “Well, I’ve got a whole church full of people that need me.” I want to say to you there’s a whole world full of people that need your church to be multiplying and multiplying. And then he goes on, in case we didn’t get it the first time, because he says in Luke 15:7, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Then he goes into the parable of the lost coin, in case we didn’t get the message the first time. He says, “Now, there’s someone who has got ten coins or she’s got ten coins. She loses one. Doesn’t she search the whole house?” And he says in Luke 15:10, “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” And then if we didn’t get it there, he goes into the parable of the lost son. What I would say is some of you here today are feasting with the fed, and what I would say is, “Why don’t you join Jesus on his mission to the lost and plant a church among those who are far from God?”

I speak a bit from experience because I’m in the process of planting this church, and it’s strange at my stage of life. That makes me sound remarkably old. I preach at my church. I’m the lead pastor of my church. I preach at my church about three out of four Sundays, and it’s so I’ll go out and speak to a group like yours or at a church like yours, and then I go back to my church, and I’m preaching to 160 people meeting in a movie theater with a really nice, strange lady who talks back to me when I actually do the message. It’s a funny conversation we have. I really don’t know how to respond to it, or last week, the baby crying in the third row, and I got a little irritated till I found out that, “Well, that family’s there for the first time since he got out,” I’ll say that, and they came to church that morning.

The Hard and Glorious Task

I will tell you this: Church planting will be one of the hardest things you will ever do. It will be challenging, it will be disturbing, it will be irritating, it will be tiring, and it will be glorious. They’ve asked me to talk on why it matters and the essential strategy of it. What I would say to you is this: for some of you, you say, “Yes, Ed, I know.”

Well, use this to overcome some of the objections and use the affirmations to listen in obedience to God’s call, but regardless, all of us can do this one thing. We can plant churches because God has called this church for God’s glory and for God’s mission, and God’s mission is advanced when he grows his church. When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” the disciples responded by planting churches. My encouragement to you is to do the same.

I’m probably an odd church planter. You’ve got people like Jeff you heard earlier, and I work full-time in research and writing and encouraging pastors and church leaders, but what I would say to you is this. Someone said to me recently, “There’s a lot of time you could be spending with your life doing other things. You could write another book, you could speak at another seminar, you could fill in for another pastor.”

And what I said to that person, I want to say to you: first, I don’t think you can lead what you do not live. And so to get up and say, “Let’s do all these things,” and not be doing those things. But secondly, what I would say to you is there is no place I would rather be and no thing I would rather do than to be planting a church that is reaching people far from God and then planting other churches that plant other churches that are engaged in God’s global mission. I pray the same for you.

writes and speaks on theology, missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and church innovation.