How Did ‘Church Planting Movements’ Gain a Foothold Within the IMB?
In his book Strategy Coordinator: Changing the Course of Southern Baptist Missions, R. Bruce Carlton sets out to provide a historical analysis of what he considers the most significant shift within the strategy of the International Mission Board since its inception in 1845.
Between 1980 and 2000, he contends the Board focused on bringing the gospel to the remaining unreached people groups of the world. At the center of this shift was a transformation of the missionary model. For over a century, missionaries served as life-long frontier workers (what Carlton refers to as the “incarnational model”). Their role changed late in the 20th century to itinerant or remote “trainers” (first dubbed “Non-Residential Missionary” and later “Strategy Coordinator”).
Understanding this shift, its causes, and its consequences is central to understanding how “Church Planting Movements” took hold of the International Mission Board in the late 90s and early 2000s, both as a logical development and a betrayal of the original vision of the “Strategy Coordinator.”
Throughout the book, Carlton outlines five shifts over the course of these tumultuous years (209):
Shift 1: The emergence of an ethno-linguistic people group focus
Shift 2: An increasing emphasis on missionary deployment to unreached people groups (“World A”)
Shift 3: An emphasis on wider cooperation of "Great Commission Christians” (GCC)
Shift 4: An emphasis on church planting rather than denominational institution building
Shift 5: An emphasis on Church Planting Movements rather than evangelism that results in churches
Many of these shifts were for the best. For instance, recovering the biblical meaning of panta ta ethne and restoring the focus of missions from “world evangelism” (a never–ending task until Jesus returns) to “world evangelization” (a definite target) narrowed the Board’s focus from institution building in reached or partially reached countries (World B and C) to unreached people groups (World A). The Board shifted their focus from “nation-states” to individual people groups.
Additionally, recognizing that most of the world's Unreached, Unengaged People Groups (UUPGs) resided in countries that were politically closed to missionary work, the Board began to embrace alternative “platforms” and methods for reaching UUPGs. This was a shift from an earlier practice that only allowed missionaries to operate in countries where they could legally obtain visas “as missionaries.”
Out of this process of investigation emerged a new missionary model referred to as the “Non-Residential Missionary,” or NRM for short. “No change has dramatically altered the way Southern Baptists do missions like the non-residential missionary/strategy coordinator paradigm.”
NRMs had a specific job: to focus on a particular unreached people group while living “outside that segment or it’s country (because legal residence is prohibited or otherwise impossible)” (52). Their strategy was to work through “Great Commission Christians” (i.e. National Partners). They hoped to train believers to bring the gospel to the people group that they could not access themselves. Their job description could be summarized by six simple steps:
- Become an expert in the people group within six months.
- Learn the language.
- Draw up a strategy with a wide range of options for reaching that people group.
- Report progress to the Board.
- Relate progress through the World Evangelization Database.
- Aim to see at least a dozen converts and a “beachhead church” established by AD 2000.
The “Non-Residential Missionary” was neither a permanent nor present feature in the life of the community they sought to reach. Instead, they merely deployed resources to the unreached people group...
As one practitioner described, “The genius of this approach . . . is the way it can multiply evangelization. The non-residential missionary is not a solitary witness, but an 'agent of evangelization'” (53).
In other words, the focus shifted from the missionary being the primary agent of evangelism to a catalyst for evangelism. It didn’t matter so much who was doing the witnessing, only that it was being done.
IMB President R. Keith Parks elaborated on this vision in 1991:
Part of our emphasis, not just in World A, but wherever our missionaries are, is to really encourage them to move out beyond existing churches and stay on the cutting edge of the gospel. . . . In my estimation, the initiation of leadership training and the institutionalization of church activity is a temporary detour for missionaries, and once local churches have come to the place where they ought to be doing that, we need to keep aware that our thrust is a "missioning” thrust. We do not go overseas to build up the institutions of a denomination. (55)
David Garrison was the first director of this new NRM program (9). That name may sound familiar because of his role in identifying and advocating for “Church Planting Movements” within the IMB. As Garrison later recounted, he had been approached by David Barrett in Chicago in 1986:
We had lunch together, and then he came to our apartment for tea and dessert that evening. Even then, he was asking, “Have you ever heard of those _____ people?” After explaining to me who they were, he began describing the kind of missionary who might reside outside of a restricted country and then work through others to project the gospel back into that country. Before the evening was over, [Barrett] had asked me if I would like to join him as a research associate at the formation board. (48)
In 1987, the Board assigned its first non-residential missionary focusing specifically on evangelizing neglected ethnolinguistic people groups (2).
Despite the support at the executive level, this alternative model for missions faced significant pushback from the field. As Carlton explains,
Since its inception, the board has espoused a strong incarnational approach in its mission efforts. This strong incarnational approach often led missionaries to interpret their calling as living and working in one location for an extended period or even the entirety of one’s missionary career. With the emergence of the NRM paradigm came the beginning of a shift in interpreting and understanding the missionary role. (58)
Nevertheless, with the cover of executive leadership, the new NRM role flourished. By 1992, the Board had NRM personnel targeting 40 major unevangelized people groups (73).
Eventually, the title was changed to “Strategy Coordinator” to clarify some misnomers that had developed and to define the role positively rather than negatively . In particular, Garrison had found that most of the so-called NRMs were actually able to be residential (79). The new Strategy Coordinator role was to be “a coordinator of a comprehensive evangelization strategy for a World A [unreached] people group, population segment, or unevangelized city” (79).
As the Strategy Coordinator (SC) role grew in significance within the Board, something else happened as well: several of the regions reported fruit unlike anything they had ever seen.
THE PHENOMENON OF CHURCH-PLANTING MOVEMENTS
According to Carlton’s recounting, which follows Garrison’s account, the IMB basically stumbled upon Church Planting Movements. As they began launching dedicated Strategy Coordinator teams, they began hearing staggering reports of thousands of new believers and hundreds of new churches.
The results started slow at first but quickly generated momentum.
In 1992, of the 1,606 churches started by IMB personnel and their partners, 20 were launched by NRM/SC teams in World A. In 1993, they claimed 75 churches. In 1994, 169 new churches. And in 1995, 367 new churches were started in World A, just by the NRM/SC teams.
These results were overturning a long-standing assumption that unreached peoples would be resistant to the gospel message. But these results were “demonstrating that World A people, upon having the opportunity to hear the gospel, indeed were responsive” (97). In fact, in many cases, they were more responsive than many of the Board’s traditional mission fields (97-98). As David Barrett stated in 1994, “We can definitely say that World A is a more responsive harvest field than World B or World C. Some World A peoples have current response rates over 500 [conversions per million evangelism hours expended]” (98).
But this was just the beginning.
In 1998, David Garrison reported to the board of trustees they had documented four “Church Planting Movements” among the unreached people groups their Strategy Coordinators were targeting. By 2001, they were tracking 35 such movements. In 2003, Garrison reported they had “assessed and confirmed seven church-planting movements” and were tracking 42 more (176).
In his initial draft report to the Board, Garrison defined a CPM as “a rapid and exponential increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment” (177). He later updated the definition, dropping the term exponential, to “a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment” (177). In a video produced by the Board, and in Garrison’s book on CPM, he defined “rapid growth” as “growth that outpaces the population growth of a people group” (178).
A SHIFT IN STRATEGY
Carlton never doubts the genuineness of the movements Garrison was describing. He concludes, “Church-planting movements are genuine. The Board has documented numerous movements” (202). But in Carlton’s view, the danger of focusing on Church Planting Movements lay in shifting from a descriptive task (“Look at what God is doing!”) to a prescriptive one (“Here’s how you can reverse engineer a movement!”).
First, he contends that these findings distorted a complex reality into an overly simplistic formula. Second, he argues that political considerations made it difficult for Garrison to report his findings objectively. Third, he laments that Garrison’s overemphasis on method downplayed the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in conversions.
As reports of these “movements” spread, Garrison quickly worked to identify a common set of conditions in which these movements occurred. He began to describe practices that could either encourage or prevent movements. While Garrison claimed “objectivity” and “neutrality” in this task, Carlton concludes otherwise for two reasons.
First, in response to criticism from skeptics, Garrison added a tenth characteristic of a Church Planting Movements in 2000: healthy churches. Carlton finds this sudden addition unconvincing, as much of what Garrison has to say about “healthy churches” mimics Rick Warren’s best-selling 1995 book The Purpose-Driven Church. According to Carlton, the addition primarily seems to respond to critics who “questioned the validity of these reports, often assuming that rapid growth rate indicated unhealthy churches” (188). As Garrison later told Carlton, he “needed to be sensitive to the constituency for which he was writing,” leading Carlton to conclude, “The addition of this tenth characteristic was in response to those who questioned the legitimacy of the churches emerging in these movements” (188).
The second reason Carlton questions Garrison’s purported objectivity was his reluctance to recognize the role “signs and wonders” had played in each of the Church Planting Movements he studied. In contrast to Garrison’s report to the Board, Sergeant and the Smiths, members of the Board’s Global Resource team, listed “signs and wonders” as a characteristic discovered in “every CPM study.” Signs and wonders did not appear in Garrison’s 2000 booklet, but they did appear in his 2004 book, as well as in his initial 1999 draft where Garrison wrote:
Typically, individuals involved in church-planting movements lived with a sense of expectancy that God was intimately involved in the work of His people and churches. This sense of God’s activity overcomes the spiritual powers that plagued the worldview of the people prior to their salvation. Occasionally this divine involvement took the shape of visions, signs, healings, exorcisms, etc. (188–189)
Similar findings were reported by Smith and Sergeant in their internal report:
In every church planting movement which was examined, signs and wonders played a part. In some cases it was through dreams and visions, in some cases through healings, and in some other miscellaneous miracles or power encounters. In any case, the power of God was manifested in supernatural ways and people responded in faith and were incorporated into new churches. (189)
When asked by Carlton why “signs and wonders” weren’t included in the 2000 booklet, Garrison responded that “listing signs and wonders might not play too well with the Southern Baptists” (189).
The success of the CPM model led to a shift within the Board to “intentionally promote this model of church planting around the world,” especially by pushing the “house-church model,” since this was a common denominator among CPMs. The Board also began to de-emphasize paid pastors and pushed for “unpaid, lay leadership, participative worship and Bible study, and obedience-based discipleship" (192). These were shared characteristics of CPMs, so the Board adopted these characteristics as methods in hopes of seeing them reproduced.
Carlton says this shift accompanied potential problems:
What began as an effort to describe a model of church predominant within these movements and an effort to help missionaries develop a healthier, biblical understanding of church quickly shifted to a descriptive methodology for church planting. The prescription of the house church model as normative for IMB missionaries demonstrates reductionism in much the same way as reducing the CPM phenomenon to a list of characteristics, hindrances and practical handles. (194)
Throughout the book, Carlton’s main concern about Garrison’s CPM model is that it is overly prescriptive and reductionistic:
The Board must be careful not to become overly prescriptive in this effort. A review of the case studies presented in Garrison’s 2000 and 2004 publications, respectively, reveals the uniqueness of every church-planting movement described. . . (199)
The Board is walking down a treacherous path if it simply seeks to reduce church-planting movements to methods. (200)
The fact that Garrison at one point developed a computerized “CPM Assessment Tool” that allowed personnel to assess their “progress or lack of progress in stimulating a CPM” illustrates the reductionistic oversimplification that was being engaged in (192). He aptly points out the irony. Though Garrison himself stated “God’s work isn’t mechanical or magical,” he also benchmarked “specific methodologies that help strategy coordinators connect the dots in order to facilitate a church-planting movement.” Admittedly, he did make the disclaimer that “connecting the dots will not guarantee a church-planting movement” (201).
As Carlton concludes, in their enthusiasm about movements, the Board gave in to pragmatism:
The Board’s efforts to define and describe these church-planting movements resulted in a reductionist understanding of these movements . . . [and] led to a bias toward pragmatic approaches. The Board moved [from describing phenomenon] toward prescribing methodologies that it believed, if implemented, would lead strategy coordinators and other missionaries toward facilitating church-planting movements. Although the Board did not claim these methodologies would guarantee a CPM, it discouraged innovation in favor of methods that it perceived demonstrated effectiveness. This partiality toward pragmatism further resulted in a reductionist missiology, one that neglected the crucial role of the Holy Spirit in mission and in these church-planting movements. (208)
Carlton does note some positive lessons from the CPM experiment. First, personnel learned “the mobilization of resources closest to or from within the people group itself were the most effective” (202). Second, they learned “the planting of indigenous churches with the ability to multiply resulted in a self-sustaining gospel witness capable of continuing the evangelization of the people group” (202). Third, they learned that the presence of believers among an unreached people group does not guarantee missionary expansion (202). Fourth, they discovered the development of an “exit strategy” at the outset was a “healthy change,” forcing the SC to work in such a way as to “facilitate local churches to assume responsibility for the evangelization of their own people group” (202).
Carlton’s main concern, however, is that the Board’s focus on method neglected the necessary work of the Holy Spirit: “Movements are the result of the Holy Spirit moving throughout a people group,” not simply the result of the execution of a mechanical process (202).
To neglect the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit is to embrace man-centered pragmatism. As Carlton writes,
The Board’s interpretation of the SC paradigm and church-planting movements reveals a bias in its missiology toward pragmatism… The Board needs to adequately address this issue and strike a balance between the pragmatic methodologies and the spiritual dimension of mission. (204)
An overemphasis on pragmatic methods at the expense of the spiritual in mission produces a theologically deficient missiology. As people who uphold the authority of God’s Word as absolute, Southern Baptists must ensure that their missiology is firmly rooted in His Word. (210–211)
Understanding how the “Church Planting Movement” phenomenon took hold of the International Mission Board is impossible without understanding the gradual shifts—many of them for the better—that took place in the final quarter of the twentieth century under the leadership of IMB leaders like David Barrett, R. Keith Parks, and Jerry Rankin. Through their leadership, the IMB reoriented the missionary focus of the Southern Baptist Convention on the evangelization of unreached people groups. These efforts are worthy of commendation. Indeed, the fact that so much of IMB activity today is focused on the 10/40 window is largely thanks to these men. That story is meticulously explained by R. Bruce Carlton.
But these changes started a process that was not all for the better. As Carlton summarizes the central shifts within the last few decades,
Initially, the non-residential missionaries’ (NRM) objective was to mobilize Great Commission resources for missions among the targeted people group so that everyone in that people group might have an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel message, anticipating the planting of a beachhead church. This objective was congruent with the Board's emphasis on evangelism resulting in churches. With the emergence of the CPM [church-planting movement] phenomenon, the overall objective shifted. The board still defined the SC as one responsible for mobilizing Great Commission Christians (GCC) to evangelize a people group, yet the objective was to accomplish this through the planting of reproducing churches or a church planting movement. The planting of multiple reproducing churches replaced the emphasis on evangelism that results in churches, a subtle, yet significant shift. With the shift of emphasis toward church–planting movements, other aspects of the SC paradigm also changed. (175–176)
Pastors and Southern Baptist leaders would be helped by this book. After reading it, they would more clearly understand the shifts that have occurred in the understanding of the missionary’s role since the days of Adoniram Judson, William Carey, and John Paton. Bringing the gospel message to unreached people groups, in many cases, required re-thinking the traditional “incarnational model” of missions in favor of alternative models. The “Non-Residential Missionary,” “Strategy Coordinator,” and today’s “Team Leader” roles all capture something of the shifts that have taken place as the Board has strategized to bring the gospel to those hardest to reach. Carlton’s book shows that just because many missionaries are not planting themselves permanently among a single people group does not mean they are being unfaithful to the missionary task.
However, Carlton’s penetrating work should also give us some pause as we analyze “movement methodologies” that claim rapid results. When something seems “too good to be true,” it's usually because it is. Was something extraordinary happening among some unreached people groups that IMB workers were involved with in the late 1990s and early 2000s? Carlton says, “Absolutely!” Does that mean the ordinary means used by God can be readily identified, reduced to a formula, and reverse engineered in a way that guarantees the same results? Absolutely not.
Pastors and missionaries should be absolutely allergic to any methodology that claims to axiomatically yield results.
God has called us to faithfulness. On the last day, our faithfulness will be rewarded, not by the number of converts we can claim, but by our obedience in faith to the commands of Christ—whether that means sowing and weeping like Jeremiah or rejoicing and reaping like Peter. We should learn from Carlton’s carefully documented lessons and take heed, lest anyone who thinks he stands falls. Then we should press on for the goal of the evangelization of every unreached people group in faithful obedience to Christ’s commission.
 Carlton notes that Garrison’s definitions mirror what Roland Allen had referred to as “the spontaneous expansion of the church,” and Henry Venn’s concept of a three-self church: self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating (178).
 Curtis Sergeant, William Smith and Susan Smith, Characteristics of a CPM (Richmond: by the authors, 1999).