Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

Book Reviews

Urban church planting: Journey into a world of depravity, density and diversity

Stephen Mark Davis, 2018, 66pp, £7.80 (Amazon) / £3.89 (Kindle)

I have read this book several times in the last week. From reading the introduction I thought this book is a banger! I have pored over it again and again, looking for something to dislike, but the more I have read it, the more I like it.

The author, Stephen Davis, has almost forty years’ experience as a church planter, pastor, missionary and academic. Stephen has been there, done it, worn the T-shirt and now he is giving the opportunity for potential church planters to try the T-shirt on for size, and make sure it fits, before they have to go there. He has planted churches in his home city in the USA, been involved in cross-cultural church planting abroad, been a missionary and has trained missionaries and church planters in countries including France, Romania and China.

Unlike other church planting books that I have read, this one deliberately avoids glamourising the work. It is clear from the start that this is not a book that offers “practical tips to help you plant churches”. Its focus is to share the author’s experiences – both good and bad – in order to prepare potential church planters mentally and emotionally for the rollercoaster ride that is ahead.

This book is real and honest; there is enough information in the introduction to help church planters avoid the mistakes that I made in my first few years of planting New Life Church: Making sure you don’t neglect the importance of culture or your marriage and managing unachievable expectations are just three things which would save church planters a lot of hassle in their early years.

Regarding culture, the author tells us that in 1982, after successfully planting a church in Philadelphia, “We left the US for the mission field as heroes and arrived in France as idiots (in that we couldn’t really function on our own)” (Kindle loc. 124). He continues “I knew something about the struggles and challenges of church planting. The problem was that I knew little to nothing about planting churches in France” (124-5). He then recognised the need for an insider, a local French man, to help guide and introduce him to the culture. This is something, from my experience, that UK church planters and sending churches are failing to do, when building church planting and mission teams.

Regarding marriage, he stresses the importance of making sure that a church planter’s wife is “…on board, not as a reluctant woman following her man and guilted into following you, but committed and content to live and serve the city. Unfortunately, this is something that isn’t always thought through” (163). Many wives that I have spoken to have either been reluctant to live in the community of the church plant or reluctant to serve its community, leading to a huge strain on marriages and the ministry.

One of the reasons that I have found myself feeling defeated was that I entered into church planting with unrealistic expectations and this is something that the author also warns against: “All your plans, expectations and dreams will not be accomplished. You will at times alternate between joy and sorrow, between grateful and begrudging ministry, between delays and display, between encouragement and disappointments in yourself and in others” (163).

He reminds us that we may see failure where God sees success. And we may see success where God sees failure (162). But all we are called to do is faithfully live out the gospel, make disciples and represent the faith well in our world (163). His best nugget in the book is when he writes that we should “…adjust our ambitions in surrender to God’s sustaining grace, even if that means that our results do not pass muster in the eyes of others” (181). Ambitions of a big church, a good salary and a nice house are what get in the way of many potential church plants in gospel priority areas, and also cause many planters to feel defeated and give up when their ambitions are not met.

I have previously spoken about why the working class are missing from UK churches: Because the dominant culture places barriers in their way, based on culture, tradition and preferences. So when Stephen warns against putting our preferences – for which Bible version we use, how we should dress for church, or our style of worship – above the gospel, I give a hearty amen.

The author’s forceful words convict, comfort and reassure me when he explains that as urban church planters we need to know who we want to please and where we want to go; ultimately, we need to be pleasing God and going where the gospel is not. He writes frankly about how, if we choose to plant in an area of the city which is less desirable, we will struggle to build a team, struggle to be accepted by the local community, will have to do evangelism and church differently, will struggle to find funding, and some people that do join us will leave because they cannot hack it. He is also honest enough to admit that eventually some of the planters themselves will have had enough of doing church in hard places, and leave.

Although he recognises that planting churches in hard places is inherently difficult, he suggests that the culture of denominations, organisations and churches does not help the situation either. This can lead to the sending out of ill-equipped planters, not providing sufficient financial and practical support or failing to send out planters in the first place.

As helpful as I found this book, I am critical about two things: the promotion of working bi-vocationally and the fact that there is no chapter on raising and training indigenous gospel workers/planters.

Bi-vocational ministry does not work in our context; even with the qualifications and experience to command a great salary and flexible hours, to reach urban areas in the UK requires a presence on the ground 24/7. There is no way to plant a successful church in a “hard place” whilst working in another job; both mental health and ministry will eventually suffer.

I also believe that Stephen misses a trick by not featuring a chapter on training indigenous leaders. To be fair to him, this may be something on his mind, and at times he seems to allude to it. His comments on the church’s failures to raise, train and equip planters and his years in facilitating foreign church plants suggests that he sees this as valuable. For me, a section reflecting on his experience of discipling, training and employing indigenous urban Christians would have made this book complete.

However, read in context and alongside some contemporary books and articles from working-class Christians in the UK, this book could help to make changes in the culture of recruitment, training and support for church planting in the UK’s “hard places”.

Ian Williamson
Pastor, New Life Church, Middlesbrough

 

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