Perhaps it is because whenever we read the verse, we think of claims to papal power and the need to prove that Peter was not the first pope. Whatever the reason, we often forget the other more positive side of Matthew 16:18.
“I will build my church.”
This is a momentous statement, for it describes Jesus’ program for the future. At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, the storm clouds are gathering. In the very next paragraph Jesus tells his disciples for the first time about the violent death that awaits him. But Jesus’ vision for the future goes beyond his death. The big plan is to build his church—to gather his people from all over the world to himself.
In the rest of the New Testament, we see this grand purpose begin to be realised. As the disciples scatter throughout the Roman Empire, they take the gospel of Jesus with them. They preach it, and churches are planted (to which the apostles return in due course to appoint elders, as in Acts 14).
We aren’t told about any special program of church planting. It just seems to happen as the gospel is preached and people respond to the message in each place. The believers gather together and a church is born. And each of these gatherings (or ‘churches’) is part of the one great gathering of all Christ’s people.
Evangelism will always lead to church, and church is Jesus’ program. It must be our program too. In particular, given the situation that we find ourselves in, the challenge before us is to plant new churches.
Any discussion of church planting must assume three things.
Firstly, true Christian churches are planted only where the pure gospel of Christ is preached. We must not vary from the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified, with its accompanying call to faith and repentance. This is the foundation for building Christ’s church. This is the seed for planting. And we must not think that the church of Christ can be planted by any other method. If we are not preaching the gospel and seeing people come to faith through the power of the Spirit, then we are not planting churches. We may simply be transferring existing believers from one place to another.(This may be a good thing in some cases—especially if they are being ‘transferred’ from churches which are not teaching the Bible. But it is not planting so much as transplanting.)
Secondly, we cannot preach this gospel of Christ without carrying the cross, as he did. This is not optional. We cannot preach Christ and expect to avoid suffering. We cannot preach Christ and be popular. We cannot preach Christ without being willing to lay down our lives for the salvation of others. Very often, the suffering will come in the form of persecution. And most painful of all, it will often be from other Christians. Just as for Christ it was his co-religionists who persecuted him most, so for us it will be members of other Christian churches and denominations who are most hostile towards church planting. Most Christians are all for evangelism and church planting, so long as it doesn’t affect them—the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Backyard). But in a country like Australia, it is almost impossible to plant a church without affecting someone else. And when it does, tension and disagreement inevitably occurs. We cannot discuss church planting, and get involved in it, without being prepared to suffer for it.
Thirdly, any discussion of church planting assumes a passion for the lost. Millions of Australians will be born, grow old and die without ever hearing, in a meaningful way, about what Christ has done for them. The Bible may still be a top seller, but there is little evidence of it being high on the list of what people actually read. The lost are all around us. There are many areas, communities and sub-groups in our society which have little or no Christian witness within them. How can we reach them? We cannot expect them to come to us. We must go to them, and plant churches in their midst.
Given these three assumptions, what can we say about church planting? Before we say anything else, we must first clear up the confusion that continues to surround the word ‘church’.
Confusion about ‘church’
It is a truism these days to say that ‘church is people’, or that ‘the heart of church is the congregation’. This is an important and right perspective, and one which reflects the biblical emphasis. In the New Testament, ‘churches’ are fundamentally gatherings of Christians. Whenever, wherever or however they met was a matter of some flexibility, but that they met was the key thing.
However, even though this view of church is now held by many people, we are still influenced by other connotations of ‘church’ much more than we realise or care to admit. We need to think and speak carefully about ‘church’, for if we are confused at this point, our efforts at church planting will almost surely fail—or more likely, will never even get started.
We all know, for example, that the ‘church’ is not the building. The building is the convenient rain shelter that the ‘church’ meets in. Even so, the ‘church building’ dominates our thinking more than we acknowledge. It has a habit of setting our vision for us.
For instance, if our church building holds 200 and we pack it three times a Sunday, it is tempting to think that we are doing quite well. We are filling the building after all. However, in most areas, 600 people would still be a tiny proportion of the population—in the average suburb of 30,000 it is 2%. We would need five churches, each of 600, just to be getting towards 10%. We must not let ‘church’ as ‘building’ affect our consciousness of the task before us.
Denominations are the same. As evangelicals, we are more committed to the gospel than we are to any human association or tradition, and yet we continue to fall into the trap of thinking that the denomination is important, and must be maintained and grow. Even though we know that the denomination is not even a ‘church’, it is still easy to allow the expectations and demands of the denomination to dominate our thinking and set the parameters of our activity. For example, we will not consider planting a church where the denomination already exists, even if the area is crying out for a new Bible teaching church.
Of course, both church buildings and denominations are useful things. Life is very difficult without a church building—it is possible but awkward. The same is true for relations between congregations. It is entirely right and appropriate for us to set up associations, to maintain fellowship and to pool our resources. Indeed, the New Testament assumes that there will be some sort of relationship between churches, not only in terms of mutual collaboration but also with regard to standards of doctrine and behaviour (“If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God” [1 Cor 11:16]). However, both the building and the denomination can loom too large in our minds when it comes to church planting, and nip our efforts in the bud.
Another common confusion is to confuse the ‘church’ with the ‘parish’. Parishes are basically geographical zones of rights and responsibilities. Within this area on the map, a particular congregation has the responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the people. The nature of parishes varies from denomination to denomination, and even where the system is well established (such as in Anglicanism) their legal status is hard to determine.
However, even though we know that the ‘church’ does not equal the ‘parish’, we have a habit of allowing our sense of ‘parish’ to dominate our idea of ‘church’. Instead of seeing ourselves as having a duty or responsibility to an area, we begin to nurture a sense of ownership about our particular part of the vineyard. This is our patch, and if anyone has the temerity to come and start to work in our patch we will be suspicious and hostile. We may only be reaching 2% of the parish (which would make us a very successful church by today’s standards), but we still feel that the other 98% is ours!
Finally, it is also most helpful not to confuse ‘church’ with the ‘church complex’. Most of us have a host of associated bits and pieces which are usually lumped together and called ‘the church’—there is the minister and his residence, the various Sunday services, the youth group (and its youth worker), the parish council or committee of management, and so on.
It would be more accurate (and helpful to our thinking) if we did not speak of this whole complex of things as ‘the church’, if for no other reason than to recognize that there are usually a number of quite separate ‘churches’ who are part of the whole. Remember, the essence of ‘church’ is the congregation. Most ‘churches’ have several congregations within them who have very little to do with each other. The 8 o’clockers don’t know the 11 o’clockers who in turn wouldn’t know the 7:15’ers from Adam. Speaking biblically, we should probably say that there are three churches here, sharing a common pastor and property.
This is important to recognize, because it means that we can plant new churches without going anywhere. We can start a new congregation meeting on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon or whenever. There are many ‘church complexes’ who need to do some church planting in their own backyard, so to speak, by starting new congregations.
Why we must plant
Let us turn to our current situation, and why it cries out for church planting.
There has been some focus over the last 15 years or so on ‘church growth’. The church growth movement has its pluses and minuses, and here is not the place to enumerate them. However, it is fair to say that the overall result of ‘church growth’ strategies has been fewer but larger churches. There has been little appreciable change in the net number of Christians in our community. The spread of them has been altered. The deck chairs have been re-arranged. But the 3% or so of Australians who are recognizable as born again, Bible-believing Christians has not changed for some time. We remain a tiny proportion of the population. Even though there is a multiplicity of Christian churches throughout Australia, in every town, suburb and village, we are making very little real progress in winning Australians for Christ.
How did we get to this position?
As Australia was settled during the 19th century, the churches followed the settlement routes. In each town and village, churches formed, although the methods of their formation varied from denomination to denomination. By 1900, the area of settlement was basically full, and from that point began to contract. Country towns diminished in size or disappeared altogether. Urban consolidation gathered pace. The country town of 15,000 now contained only 3,000, but the churches still lined the main street—the Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist and so on. They all had their buildings but their congregations were tiny.
The village churches surrounding the cities became suburban churches. As the city expanded into a new area, there was already a village church waiting to greet them. Some of these churches adapted well to their new suburban environment; others not so well. But across the board there was very little drive to plant new churches. The consequence is depressing.
To take Anglicanism in Sydney as an example, the number of parishes has remained largely unchanged since World War II, and the number of churches within those parishes has decreased (as branch churches have closed). Attendances within the congregations have not grown—if anything they have shrunk. And during this time, the city has trebled in size! We have been pushed to the margins of the community. As the city grew, we did not plant churches, either within our church complex or in new areas. The same story could be told (if not worse) in every capital city in Australia.
Some might respond: Why don’t we start by building up the many churches that are dwindling and struggling, rather than starting new ones? To which the answer is: it is easier to bring to birth than to resurrect the dead. It is almost always easier to start from scratch and plant anew congregation, than to work with a church that has real problems.
Why we don’t plant
It is little wonder, in some ways, that we avoid church planting. It is a hard task. There is the pain and sweat of doing the evangelism, and the discomfort and insecurity of starting something from scratch.
However, even more difficult is the opposition and hostility which greets all efforts at church planting. There will be opposition within our own congregations if we decide to plant another church. Even if the new congregation is within our own church complex, tension will be unavoidable. If we decide, for example, to take 40 people out of the Sunday evening congregation to form a new Friday night church, those left behind will feel hurt that their friends are no longer with them in church. There will be jealousy over the ‘new baby’ getting attention and resources.
It is even worse if we take these 40 key members and send them down the road to start something entirely new. It will not only attract all the negative feelings above, but there will be the added burden of losing 40 committed givers. It will stretch the budget. It will cause strain. It will inevitably be accompanied by a loud chorus of “Why don’t we just leave things as they are?”
Moreover, if we decide that we can live with these tensions, and we go ahead and plant a new church in another area, the other churches in that area can be guaranteed to object. “Why are you planting a church here?” they will ask. “Are you saying we’re not doing our job properly?”
One must ask however: Is anyone really doing the job properly? Our country is crawling with unbelievers. They outnumber us more than 30 to 1. There is more evangelism to be done and more new churches to be planted than we can even begin to describe. And yet in our petty jealousy and defensiveness we resist new initiatives in church planting.
It is as if we have turned Christ’s great statement on its head, and made it an expression of our self-centred insecurity: “I will build my church—so don’t go planting your church”.