Church Planters, Founders and Sponsors

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
16th October 2009

Tagged: church growth church planting

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What is a church planter?  What theological training does he need?

Playing one round of golf does not normally qualify you as “a golfer”.  It is the person who regularly plays golf that deserves the dubious title of “golfer”.

So it is a little strange to call somebody who has only planted one church a “Church Planter”.  While he is planting the church the name may be appropriate but generally somebody who is a “Church Planter” plants more than one church.  In this he differs from a “Church Founder” or a “Church Sponsor”.

It is fair to describe the Apostle Paul as a church planter.  He evangelised in city after city and wherever he went he planted churches.  So we read of his first missionary journey in Acts 13-14 where on the return trip he appointed elders in the churches he had planted.  On some of his journeys he stayed in some cities like Ephesus and Corinth for a considerable time, but he always went on to new work elsewhere.  He evangelised new fields so as not to build on others’ foundations (Romans 15:20).

The person who plants a church and then continues on as its pastor without ever planting other churches is hardly a church planter.  He is a “Church Founder”.  He may have planted the church but his life’s work is not that of church planting but pastoring the church that he has founded.

Others involved in church planting are “Church Sponsors”.  Many rectors, churches and missionary societies sponsor new congregations and ministries.  They have not themselves planted the church but they have seen the opportunity, organised the resources and staff team and given the encouragement for a new church/congregation to be started.

Now you may ask what is in a name?  What does it matter what we call people?  And in one sense it does not matter much, whether a person is a planter or a founder or a sponsor.  But when it comes to training and selecting for future ministry it may have great significance.

If somebody is going to dedicate his life to planting churches there are specific issues that he will need to be trained in.  If on the other hand he is going to be the lifelong pastor of a single church there are slightly different skills and abilities required.

There are basic characteristics needed for both jobs.  Both need to know the Lord Jesus and his gospel.  This knowledge will need to shape their Christian character and convictions so that they will be able to use their particular abilities and gifts in ways that will bring glory to God and salvation to his people.

But their competencies may be different.  The church planter needs to make quick and effective relationships with people.  He needs to be able to communicate the gospel with strangers.  He will need to gather resources and persuasively lead people to make sudden significant changes to their life.  He needs to adapt to any and every situation very quickly.  He will be like the SAS soldier – able to fight in unconventional warfare behind enemy lines, and have a high tolerance for situational uncertainty.

The church founder, on the other hand, takes a much slower approach to his work.  Like the infantry soldier, his approach is more persistent, long-term and conventional.  He develops deep and lasting relationships as he builds the congregation in Christ-likeness as well as in numbers.  Some of his initiatives can take ten to twenty years to bear fruit. 

It may seem from this that, while the church planter needs a firm grasp of the gospel, he does not necessarily need the same depth of understanding as the founder or the sponsor.  And there is some truth in that observation.  The pastor is going to preach, teach and lead the same group of people for years.  All will experience the depth or shallowness of his theological education.  The church planter will soon move on before people realise his inadequacies.

Yet he too must have some depth of understanding.  It is not simple to adapt the gospel method to different situations without adapting the gospel truth.  It requires a sophisticated grasp of the essentials and the non-essentials.  In particular he will have to understand the doctrine of the church lest he lays some faulty foundations for others to build upon.  It is therefore important that he is either following a clear template or has thought out the theology of the church with great clarity.  Preferably the later, so that he can adapt to the different situations in which he is planting.

If a person is a church founder, planting a single church which he intends to pastor for the foreseeable future, it is important that he is well skilled as a pastor rather than as a church planter.  For the first few years of planting will soon give way to the long slow and insightful work of pastoring God’s people.

So how should the diocese recruit, train and select church planters and pastors?  We need both kinds of skill sets, but we must not be confused by their differences or their similarities. The evangelist who is going to plant many churches is the harder person to find.  But we can equip him for his work at any time.  For his life is always changing as he leaves churches to move to new fields of work.  The church founder is easier to find.  However he will need to undertake his training before he has planted the church, for once it is founded, he is committed to stay there.  Both he and the church will find it hard for him to leave to be properly trained later.

So in our desire to grow congregations and to plant more churches, we as a diocese have to reconsider the various tracks of education and training required for the work of sponsoring, planting and founding churches.