Church Planting Is Rarely Rapid


Before Europe’s Iron Curtain fell and Albania’s brutal communist regime collapsed in the early 1990s, Albania was the North Korea of Europe. It showed all the devastating effects of a wicked dictator’s reign. Among other things, the church had been forced underground in those years, and most clergy were imprisoned, exiled, or killed.

When Albania opened up, some of the first people to enter were Jesus-loving missionaries who moved into this dark and troubled land with a sense of gospel urgency. What followed was a wave of evangelistic activities, conversions, and rapid church planting.

However, like so much in Albania today, the church is a disappointing reflection of unmet expectations. Why are there still so few healthy churches in Albania? Why is it so hard to find faithful gospel-preaching Albanian pastors? How is it that after millions of dollars and scores of missionaries Albania remains a spiritually dark place with very few thriving, gospel-centered churches?

One of the reasons why there are so few healthy churches in Albania today is because those early rapid evangelistic and church planting activities were not effectively underpinned by theological precision and a biblical understanding of conversion and the church. The zeal for rapid multiplication ultimately killed the growth.

The Trouble with Rapid Multiplication Methodology

Turning to think about church planting methodologies generally, we have all seen the glossy missionary agency websites and well-edited video clips. We have read the tweets and been amazed by the Facebook posts that celebrate mass conversions, spontaneous baptisms, and rapid growth in church planting. Might I suggest that we look beyond the numbers and ask some probing questions. How do these people define “church”? What do they consider to be a genuine conversion? How are they assessing the character, competencies, and biblical conviction of the leaders they have identified? How are they providing theological training to this rapidly growing number of church leaders? How are they tracking the health (theological and otherwise) of these new churches?

Rapid church-planting movements often follow what are perceived to be moments of mass conversions accompanied by spontaneous baptisms. Leaders are quickly identified—men who show some personality and charisma and the ability to attract others to come around them. They are given a basic training in evangelistic techniques and granted the title of church planter. Such men then assume responsibility for a group of new believers which they call a church.

In much of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, church-planting movements are gathering pace and reproducing at dizzying speeds. I have heard one leader of a Church Planting Movement use language like this: “If a new believer has a Bible and the Holy Spirit then he has all he needs to plant a church.”

Paul’s Example

The church planting movement began in first-century Jerusalem and spread throughout Judea and onto Europe. Yet, when we read the New Testament, it’s clear that theological precision and a robust ecclesiology underpinned this momentum. The Apostle Paul, a learned and well-educated man, went through a period of training and preparation before he began his first missionary journey.

When he went from town to town, he would often stay a while to evangelize, disciple, and train leaders. There is no indication that churches were started spontaneously or reproduced rapidly. Rather, the general rhythm of church planting involved a period of training and assessment of new indigenous leaders. Paul himself warned the churches not to lay hands too quickly on men and not to appoint a new believer to leadership in the life of a local church. Rather, leaders were to be assessed over time.

Paul’s church planting strategy had a high view of ecclesiology. He took time to make sure that churches were preaching the truth, exposing heresies, appointing qualified leaders, overseeing the members, caring for the widows and orphans, and administering the ordinances appropriately. He did the hard work of establishing strong, gospel-centered leaders in strong, gospel-centered churches.

Two Great Threats

I have come to believe there are two great threats to gospel work in the world’s poor and unengaged communities today: the prosperity gospel and the encouragement toward rapid multiplication.

These two threats often appear together. Prosperity preachers chase spontaneous and rapid signs of God moving. Yet the prosperity gospel is graceless, crossless, and depends on man-centered preaching and methodologies. Theological wolves prey on the poor. They seduce hearers with the bait of a gospel that promises health and wealth rather than grace and Christ. Likewise, planters who pursue rapid multiplication through mass conversions and spontaneous baptisms want to see immediate and spontaneous signs of God moving. Yet their methods often produce poorly trained leaders and poorly defined churches. In other words, similar dynamics impel both prosperity preaching and rapid multiplication, and when people mix them together, total confusion follows about what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a church.

In the New Testament, a church is a publicly identifiable gathering of believers who have covenanted together to worship Christ as a display of his glory to the nations. A rightly ordered assembly correctly observes the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as visible markers of the redeemed. It is a group of believers who follow the leadership of tested, trained, and affirmed pastors who preach the Word and shepherd the flock. Establishing such churches cannot be done quickly or easily.

While I want to rejoice at the apparent movement of God when I read those glossy missionary pamphlets celebrating mass conversions and rapid church planting, I also want to heed Paul’s words of caution not to lay hands on men too quickly. I have met many so-called “church planters” who are preaching a false gospel. I have seen many so-called “churches” fail to be orderly or gospel-centered. I have witnessed mass spontaneous baptisms in places like Nepal and yet saw little evidence of conversion in the lives of those who were making a public profession of faith in Jesus. Our task is urgent. But an urgent task completed carelessly rarely produces good results. We must not pursue expansion at the expense of faithfulness. Instead, we should pursue church planting with the same sense of urgency and carefulness as the apostles directed the early church to do.

Training and Assessment

A church planting movement that is not underpinned by theological training, assessment, and ongoing support for an indigenous leadership rarely survives the test of time. In my role as Director for Church in Hard Places, I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds of pastors and planters serving in some of the most remote, poor, and unengaged places on earth.

Over the past few years, we have worked to develop the Church in Hard Places Apprenticeship. We have enrolled over 400 church leaders in a two-year, non-residential training from some of the poorest, most remote, and least engaged places on earth. This training is followed by an assessment process for indigenous church planters and pastors, which examines a man’s competencies and biblical convictions in order to discern if he is qualified and competent to serve as a pastor or planter of a church.

Ours is not the only way to train and assess, but I pray that over the long term the result will be the reproduction of many healthy churches that will withstand the test of time.

Training Takes Time, But Trained Leaders Last a Long Time

It takes time to plant a church. It always has. That is as true in Southeast Asia as it is in Southeast Albania. We are now training close to twenty men from Albania, North Macedonia, and Kosovo, who are seeking to be equipped and supported as they plant healthy churches in the Albanian-speaking world. The rigorous work of being equipped to preach and teach the Bible, evangelize, and make disciples can be a challenge for some, but those who persevere will go on to plant and lead churches that effectively engage their communities. It is not rapid, but praise God, it has been fruitful.

One thing that is consistently clear to me is this: the churches that thrive and survive in the hard places are led by well-trained men who have been tested and affirmed as biblically-qualified leaders. Training takes time, but trained leaders last a long time.

Matthew Spandler-Davison

Matthew Spandler-Davison is a pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church in Bardstown, KY, the Vice President of Acts 29 for Global Outreach, and the co-founder of 20schemes.

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