Book Review: Church Planting Movements, by David Garrison

Review
07.25.2009

Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. WIGTake Resources, 2003. 362 pages. $18.95

 

Sometimes a book contains important biblical truths and helpful suggestions even though its theological methodology or hermeneutic is flawed. In that situation, I might recommend the book, but only if the reader has good biblical and theological instincts, and even then with all the requisite qualifications. At best, David Garrison’s book Church Planting Movements falls into this category for me. And even then….

I cursorily checked online reviews of this book and found mostly uncritical, breathless accolades, probably because most readers want to celebrate God’s work redeeming a lost world. I want to celebrate that, too. Nevertheless, this review will be more critical of Garrison’s hermeneutic, his missiological pragmatism, his advocacy of rapidly reproducing churches, and the very thin ecclesiology of church planting movements (CPMs).

Church Planting Movements used to be required reading for all Southern Baptist Convention International Missionary Board personnel and is still read widely inside and outside of the IMB. Yet the book’s basic strategy seems to be this: take a look at CPMs around the world; identify common characteristics of those movements; find some proof-texted biblical example of said characteristic and then dub the characteristics as “biblical”; and then urge church planting teams to adopt these best practices while avoiding the worst practices that hinder a CPM. Finally, you can say that all this will bring God glory.

I will begin with some positive aspects of the book and then consider some problems with Garrison’s definition, methods, and approach.

WHAT’S GOOD

First, I should state that few people have as great a passion for seeing the lost reached as David Garrison, especially the remaining unreached people groups.

At the same time, he rightly notes in the first chapter that Church Planting Movements are not an end in themselves. The end of all of our efforts is for God to be glorified, which occurs whenever individuals enter into right relationship with him through Jesus Christ and are then incorporated into churches which enable them to continue to grow in grace with other like-minded believers. Any time a church is planted—no matter who does it—there are grounds for celebration (27).

Garrison has a zeal for evangelism and church planting that’s infectious, and he is particularly good at challenging people to be more intentional about their evangelism and church planting efforts. Our evangelism should result in churches, he says. That’s exactly right. And he’s right to say that we cannot blame God or his sovereignty for our failures to see disciples made or churches planted.

Further, our church planting efforts should be regularly assessed and evaluated, says Garrison, for which I commend him. We who are cross cultural gospel communicators should welcome regular assessment of our tactics.

MISSIONARY PRAGMATISM?

Yet this book isn’t all good. Many of the practices which he promotes are good and right correctives to more traditional, sometimes culture-bound, and extra-biblical ways of planting churches overseas. But the book still reads like a how to manual for missionary pragmatism. Despite his apparent stance for theological compatibilism, the author emphasizes CPM methods because they “work”—if only you will try them! And the reason we don’t see CPM in some places is because we’re not using the right methods.

To be fair, there are places where Garrison recognizes God’s role in CPM, but at the end of the day, it’s all about best practices. Garrison seems to strongly believe that a church planting team plays the decisive role in beginning and nurturing CPMs (see 287).

Furthermore, the book is heavily influenced by western cultural assumptions: faster is better, newer is better, bigger is better, more is better, simpler is better, and authority is bad (especially ecclesiastical authority). Ironically, the book makes these assumptions while ostensibly embracing a kind of primitivism that glamorizes the New Testament environment, a church environment that was anything but glamorous (hence many of the New Testament’s epistles)!

More than that, the book is imbued with the triumphalism that presently characterizes much Southern Baptist Convention life, a triumphalism that would have seemed utterly out of place, I dare say, to the apostle Paul, who was happy to take his place at the end of the procession (1 Cor. 4:13).

FASTER IS ALWAYS BETTER?

According to Garrison, “A Church Planting Movement is a rapid and multiplicative increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment” (my emphasis). There is nothing unbiblical about the definition except for the emphasis on rapidity, which seems to be critical to CPM methods and strategy. According to the more fantastic case studies cited in CPM research, in fact, parts of Latin America, India, China, and Bangladesh are seeing multiplication that is much more rapid than anything described in the New Testament, or during the first three centuries before Constantine—by orders of magnitude! Here’s a sample of Garrison on this topic:

First, a church planting movement reproduces RAPIDLY. Within a very short time, newly planted churches are already starting new churches that follow the same pattern of rapid reproduction. “How rapid is rapid?” you may ask. Perhaps the best answer is “faster than you think possible.” Though the rate varies from place to place, Church Planting Movements always outstrip the population growth rate as they race toward reaching the entire people group. Once you’ve viewed a few of the case studies, you’ll begin to get the idea. (21-22)

The real-life CPM studies and stories that Garrison recounts are all very encouraging, although the obsession with data and statistics is at first a bit off-putting, at least to this reader. Since part of the definition of CPM is rapid reproduction, CPMers must somehow document this rapidity, a term never defined as far as I can tell.

HERMENEUTICS 101?

The hermeneutic behind the CPM strategy is not without problems. Scripture is sometimes cited, and there is even an appendix providing a biblical rationale for CPMs. But Scripture is handled in a surprisingly cavalier fashion. Just take a peek at the appendix (331-342). Garrison should know better. Doesn’t the New Testament have anything normative to say about church, church leadership, or how to plant churches?

In reality, Garrison doesn’t look to Scripture, but to current or historical examples of CPM. He studies them and then marshals the stats. Then he assigns a cause and effect relationship—usually asserted not proven—between the methods he observes and the effectiveness of the CPM. Voila! Observations become causes.

To what extent is Paul’s missionary example as recorded in Acts normative? Questions like this go unasked and unanswered. That’s because Garrison doesn’t begin with the Bible and ask what principles it might offer for church planting among unreached people groups. Instead, he ransacks it for proof-texts that support CPM ideas and methodology. This failure in hermeneutics leaves Garrison open to the charge of pragmatism: do whatever works and whatever works is right, and mostly do what is fast, because faster is better! Whatever hasn’t worked or takes too long isn’t right.

To the extent that he provides anecdotes from Paul’s journeys, Garrison’s only point seems to be that Paul’s methodology gives us great freedom to try many things, except work hard to plant sound, biblically-ordered contextual churches, patiently equip and train indigenous pastors/elders, hang around for a decade or more in one area discipling new believers, and spend precious time encouraging spiritual maturity as well as reproductive outreach efforts. Whatever you do, don’t do that! Garrison writes,

Some missionaries insist on taking the time to “lay a good foundation” with a small group, rather than sowing the gospel widely and expecting a Church Planting Movement. Time is not the precondition for a good foundation: sound doctrine and sound practice are. In fact, slow sowing and slow harvesting communicate to the hearer that the message isn’t urgent so why bother responding to it? (244).

Patiently and carefully working the harvest slows down reproduction, so even if Scripture enjoins it, CPMers know better. They know that being careful takes time! Of course, it’s not clear how sound doctrine and sound practice can be rapidly developed and reproduced. Paul’s emphasis on doctrinal teaching seems to escape Garrison’s attention. Didn’t Paul actually stay in Ephesus three years? Was he in a big hurry?

RAPID REPRODUCTION? NOT SO FAST!

A careful reading of the chronology of Acts will show that, except for Pentecost, the church did not grow very rapidly in the New Testament. The verses cited for rapid growth in the book’s appendix include Mark 2:2, Acts 2:47, Acts 14:21-23, Acts 16:5, and Acts 19:20. Only one of these—Acts 2:47, which says, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”—might be hinting at some kind of rapid growth. The church did receive a kind of redemptive-historical jump start at Pentecost, but the other verses cited don’t say anything about rapid reproduction.

During his public ministry, Jesus seemed more interested in clarifying the cost of discipleship than in rapidly multiplying his followers.

After his conversion, Paul was in no hurry, but spent a decade before being sent out by the Antioch church to be the apostle to the Gentiles. He did frequently have to move quickly to another location to carry on his ministry, but this was because of persecution. But rather than join hands with any and everyone who wanted to try out church planting, Paul was careful about whom he enlisted to join his apostolic church planting troupe. In his epistles, Paul also takes great pains to evaluate tried and tested workers before commending them to the churches.

Unfortunately, Garrison shows little interest in recognizing, equipping, and training local church leaders to shepherd the local flock, which is clearly a New Testament emphasis (e.g. 2 Tim. 2:2). Instead, he says that new converts should be given immediate responsibility by being trained to start new “churches” and then move on to start more. He offers no discussion of the qualifications for elders and deacons, or on the restriction of the role of elder to men. Apparently, all this would slow things down. Garrison does have a point about church planters holding onto the reins too long, or failing to train and “release” local leaders. The solution, though, is not to set aside culturally appropriate, biblical local church leadership. Healthy, exemplary local church leaders would seem to be essential to healthy churches.

THIN ECCLESIOLOGY?

When Garrison writes about the church, his ecclesiology is slim (242). Now that the IMB has embraced specific and biblical guidelines for church, I would hope future editions of the book would include those guidelines, at least as an appendix.

On the other hand, I would be more than surprised to see these guidelines included in CPM books, because those guidelines would interfere with more rapid reproduction, which is what makes CPM what it is.

NOT SO FAST CPM…MAYBE A GOOD THING?

Apart from the rapid reproduction, a CPM isn’t objectionable. In fact it’s a worthwhile goal.

At the same time, it’s not something normative, not in the Bible or in church history. Among the ten universal characteristics of CPMs, several are basic, like prayer, abundant seed sowing, intentional church planting, scriptural authority, local lay leadership, and healthy churches. Garrison is correct to say that degrees and academic training are not necessary for church leadership, but he doesn’t appear to value highly enough the importance of the elders’ or leaders’ doctrinal understanding. Hebrews and Paul’s epistles, especially the Pastorals, all emphasize doctrine and Christian practice. Doctrine and Christian maturity belong together. In fact, Titus is written so that Titus will remind the Cretans of the doctrinal bases for living a godly, mature life. Teaching these things to budding leaders and a young church takes time, maybe less time than we think, but it doesn’t happen overnight, either, not in the Bible I read. And given the number of follow-up pastoral letters in the New Testament, it would seem to be important.

But in this book on church planting, the emphasis on watching one’s life and doctrine seems conspicuous by its absence.

Only three of the common characteristics strike me as discretionary or questionable: rapid reproduction, churches planting churches, and cell or house churches. But all of Garrison’s other CPM characteristics are normative because Scripture says to do them, not because they are best practices teased out by Garrison and his investigators. And, please understand, these biblical characteristics don’t guarantee a CPM as the assured result. God may or may not begin a movement in response to our prayers, seed sowing, and so forth.

SHOULD YOU READ THIS BOOK? PROBABLY NOT

In the end, Garrison’s book may provide some helpful criteria for evaluating a church planting strategy for the savvy reader who matches this profile: a reader or church planter who already has a robust biblical ecclesiology and biblical theology; a reader who understands the centrality of training local church leaders and not just sending out inexperienced and immature church planters; a reader who is not particularly gullible; and a reader who is not likely to be fooled by bad hermeneutics, fallacious reasoning, or worldly (read pragmatic) assumptions that may lie behind an author’s point of view. Certainly, the common characteristics of CPM which are biblical should be a part of every church planting effort.  But then again, do we need this book to tell us that?

Eckhard Schnabel writes, “Just as tradition and reason can come into conflict with Scripture, so can experience. And just as tradition and reason need to be submitted to the witness of God’s revelation in Scripture and to the truth of the gospel, experience never trumps the normative voice of Scripture.”[2]

For those readers who are infatuated with current business literature, with best practices, and with the triumphalism of mega-church life in the West; and for those readers who prefer a light hermeneutic (or none at all!), this book might end up affirming some very unhelpful and unbiblical tendencies. Hence, I would not recommend it. I appreciate the encouraging stories which have some motivational power as well as the emphasis on regularly assessing our church planting efforts, but the CPM book may not be very helpful to the church planter wanting to plant a church by the Book.

For a bracing challenge to traditional missionary church planting methods, read Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? by Roland Allen [see the review in this eJournal]. Or for a scholarly approach to Paul’s church planting life, ministry, and methods, let me recommend Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods, by Eckhard J. Schnabel.

* * * * *

  1. For more on this, see Eckhard J. Schnabel’s book Early Christian Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
  2. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies, and Methods(Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 380.
By:
Ed Roberts

Ed Roberts has been planting churches in Central Asia for nearly twenty years.