Book Review: Church Planting Movements, by David Garrison
It is genuinely exciting to read the International Mission Board’s booklet on “Church Planting Movements.” I am proud to be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, in large part because of the good work that is being done around the world by men and women who are supported and funded by the IMB. This is the reason the SBC was founded in the first place, and I am glad to see the men and women of the IMB so determinedly pursuing their goal of preaching the gospel of Christ to every people group on the earth. The philosophy of church planting in the IMB is mostly good, and new in many respects. Certainly people have written and talked about indigenous churches for centuries—since the days of Matteo Ricci in China—but the last few decades have seen the IMB wisely scuttle its strategy of erecting mini-Southern Baptist churches in the rural wilds of Africa and East Asia. What has taken that strategy’s place is a much better one—to establish indigenous Christian churches within a given people group or population segment. More specifically, as David Garrison puts it, the goal is to nurture among all peoples what he calls “Church Planting Movements,” which are defined as “rapid and multiplicative increases of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment.” (7)
A Church Planting Movement begins when a foreign missionary brings the gospel to a people group for the first time. “The gospel is not able to spring up intuitively within a people group,” writes Garrison. “The gospel always enters a people group from the outside; this is the task of the missionary,” (8). Once the missionary has established a church among that people, the task is to instill in them a passion for starting new churches, not under the direction of the missionary, but by their own authority and with their own resources. In fact, Garrison writes, by the time a third-generation church is planted, the original missionary should have little or nothing to do with it. The work by that time is entirely indigenous. Most churches in a CPM, as he calls them, are either house or cell churches, small in number, and led by what Garrison calls “lay leaders,” which he seems to define as leaders who are not formally trained in theology by an institution such as a seminary and who are usually bi-vocational.
In several ways, this is a radical and important departure from missions efforts of the past. Where the Foreign Mission Board of yore might have spent thousands of dollars and many years planting a single church—you have to send the pastor to seminary, send Southern Baptist youth groups over for a week to construct a building, set up Vacation Bible Schools, etc.—this new approach seems to have a much higher metabolism. There is an urgency here to see these people groups won to Christ. The focus is not on creating a denomination or an institution but rapidly spreading the gospel to as many people as possible. That urgency in itself (even if it raises some questions that we will later discuss) is commendable. Another well-conceived aspect of this strategy is the obvious determination to keep the movements indigenous. IMB missionaries are to be conscious and deliberate about making sure that every part of the church planting effort is autochthonous.
Whenever missionaries begin planting churches with components that cannot be reproduced by the people themselves, they have undermined a Church Planting Movement. The temptation is always there: it seems quicker and easier to import a solution for a local challenge than search for an indigenous solution. Extraneous items may be as innocuous as cinderblocks for construction, electronic sound systems or imported folding chairs. . . . CPM practitioners evaluate every aspect of each church start with the question: “Can this be reproduced by these believers?” If the answer is “no,” then the foreign element is discarded, (50).
This, I think, is a wise strategy. It is refreshing to hear this kind of strategy discussed with no trace of the normal reasoning that so often lies behind this kind of “nothing-American” talk. The end here is not simply to preserve culture for the sake of preserving culture. My guess, in fact, is that the IMB would have no problem at all with Buddhist or Muslim or any other satanic, pagan culture being completely erased, so long as the gospel reaches these people. On the contrary, the end of limiting American and Western assistance is to preserve the “wild” in these new believers so that even when Western financial assistance dries up, they keep their resolve to carry the gospel of Christ to their lost countrymen. A commendable goal, in my opinion. Finally, I think the use of house churches is a fine aspect of the IMB strategy as laid out in Garrison’s book. Church buildings are fine to have in a culture where Christianity is firmly ensconced. But among a nation where the frontier of the gospel expands with each passing day, there is hardly time or need to take a few years off to build a nice worship center. Christian churches may meet just as well in homes as in steepled structures with glass doors. In fact, meeting in a church building could actually lead to church members having an unhealthy sense of establishment and permanence, and so losing their passionate urgency. These three aspects of the IMB’s strategy—urgency, indigenous churches, and house churches—are, I believe, wise and commendable.
If there is one part of the Church Planting Movement strategy that raises questions in my mind, it is the insistence on rapidity. I have said that I think there is a right sense of urgency in Garrison’s book, but I wonder also if there is some measure of a wrong impatience. Speed is a part of the very definition that Garrison gives of a CPM. It is a “rapid . . . increase” of churches, (7). He lists “Rapid reproduction” as one of the Universal Elements of CPMs. “Some have challenged the necessity of rapid reproduction for the life of the Church Planting Movement, but no one has questioned its evidence in every CPM,” (36). The logic there is slightly tortured—the reason no one has questioned the existence of rapid reproduction in every CPM is that you have defined a CPM by rapid reproduction. That’s a little like saying that no one has questioned the presence of peanuts in every jar of true peanut butter. But tortured logic aside, there is in Garrison’s work a pressing demand for rapid growth, a demand that raises legitimate questions.
The desire to see these Church Planting Movements exploding with “multiplicative” speed has forced Garrison into a defensive posture against institutional theological training, or to be less euphemistic, against seminaries. Consider this statement: “Since the first theological school at Alexandria, Egypt, seminaries have proven themselves capable of transmitting heresy as well as sound doctrine. The same is true today,” (47). Or this: “It is striking that moral character and willingness to follow Christ are given much greater weight [by Paul] than theological training or academic degrees,” (51). I can sympathize with what Garrison is writing. In the past, a denominational demand that church leaders be pulled away from their brand new churches to go through three years of seminary has been disastrous. I agree with Garrison that it is good to avoid that temptation, (44). Seminaries are a luxury that we can afford as a result of having a fairly established Christian witness in the West. But long seminary training programs are not what we see in the New Testament. Church leaders were trained in the churches themselves. That is what we are seeing on the frontier of the gospel. Leaders are being trained within the churches and are then turning to mentor others for the same task of leadership. We cannot expect the church of the frontier to conform to or even benefit from the luxuries that we have as a society with a long-established Christian witness (making no statement there, of course, about the health of that witness, which is another question entirely).
That said, I am left with many unanswered questions from Garrison’s description of the IMB vision. Most of those questions have to do with the development of strong leadership in an environment where rapidity is so prized. I worry that the push for speed may be cutting the feet out from under these many churches before they are even started. It is one thing to start a huge number of churches in a short time; it is quite another for those churches to remain healthy and sound witnesses for decades to come. For that, you need solid, well-grounded leadership. I cannot say for sure that Church Planting Movements are not producing these kinds of leaders, but from Garrison’s book, neither is it clear that they are. Garrison mentions a training program that consists of “eight two-week modules,” (29). If you do the math, that comes to a grand total of four months of formal training in the doctrines of Christianity before a person is sent to plant another church. Those leaders are presumably being trained in their churches for longer than those four months (Garrison, in fact, says that the four months of formal training are spread out over two years). Maybe that’s enough. God, of course, is sovereign. The concern here is not that leaders of these churches have formal training. They can all be “lay” leaders, for all I care. My concern is that they all be solidly instructed in the doctrines and beliefs of Christians, and be taught how to rightly divide the Word of truth. One section of the book is particularly disturbing. Garrison writes: “Church Planting Movements are driven by lay leaders. These lay leaders are typically bivocational and come from the general profile of the people group being reached. In other words, if the people group is primarily non-literate, then the leadership shared this characteristic. If the people are primarily fishermen, so too are their lay leaders,” (35). Fishermen, okay. But illiterate Christian leaders? That can’t possibly be a good idea. How is a Christian leader supposed to rightly divide the Word of truth if he is illiterate? Garrison defends the practice like this: “This reliance upon lay leadership ensures the largest possible pool of potential church planters and cell church leaders. Dependence upon seminary-trained—or in nonliterate societies, even educated—pastoral leaders means that the work will always face a leadership deficit,” (35). Seminary-trained I am not so worried about, but a pastor needs to know how to read. That’s okay. Let the explosion of new churches slow down for a few years because of a leadership deficit while these men are taught, at the very least, how to read. Otherwise, a decade from now, you will undoubtedly see a thousand indigenous churches with an orthodoxy-deficit. Wouldn’t it be worth the time spent to teach these leaders how to read the Bible instead of planting thousands of churches who claim to have the Bible as their authority but are utterly incapable of knowing what it says?
My final question is with how these new churches are being structured. Garrison writes on page 34, “Even among nonliterate people groups, the Bible has been the guiding source for doctrine, church polity and life itself.” That’s a good sentence to read. I am glad to hear that these churches are at least intending to be structured according to biblical teaching (church polity). I still have some questions, though. For example, it is strange to me to see a Baptist publication talking about cell churches, and describing them as being “linked to one another in some type of structured network, often linked to a larger, single church identity,” (35). I thought Baptists were settled in their conviction that the Bible teaches that churches are to be fully autonomous, each having what theologians have historically called “the keys,” that is, the authority to admit and discipline its own members independent of any other earthly authority. Other questions: Are the churches in CPMs being established with a strong body of elders to lead them permanently, or at least long-term? What is the role of deacons in the churches? These are not just academic questions that one can sweep aside by saying, “We’re winning people to Christ and you’re worried about church politics!” No, these are the leadership structures that the Lord has set up to make sure that CPM churches, or any churches for that matter, are not just flashes in the evangelistic bucket. It is part of the essence of planting a church to teach it what the Bible says about how it is to structure itself, how it is to sustain itself. What we want here are strong, healthy churches that maintain their witness for decades and centuries to come. It is precisely to that end that Christ has instituted leadership structures such as elders and deacons. The IMB would be wise to consider that the Lord does not intend for churches simply to be planted, but also to be taught from the Bible, at the very beginning, how they are to be sustained.
This is all in all a fine book. I am excited by reading it to think and pray about the churches that are being planted among nations all over the world. I look forward to the day when every tribe and tongue and people and nation will erupt in praise to our Redeemer! I would, though, encourage the IMB to give some further thought, and put into writing, a sound strategy for teaching these churches what the Bible says about how they are to organize and structure their lives together as a church. In other words, don’t simply plant churches; teach them how to sustain themselves for decades to come. The Bible has much to say on that topic—even about how their leadership structures should look. Fortunately, this is an area in which Baptists are well-practiced. The structure of the church is our denominational raison d’etre. I hope that the leaders of the IMB and of the Church Planting Movements around the world will see the wisdom of learning from their forbears, and especially from the Bible, about these important matters.