Foundations: No.72 Spring 2017

Building a Church-Planting Movement in a Traditional Denomination

This article explores how we can have the best of both worlds. The dynamic growth of a church planting movement welded to the resources and depth of a traditional ecclesiastical setting. Because most European Christians belong to traditional denominations it is crucial that these institutions learn to embrace church-planting movement dynamics that can counter the decline of the church. The article begins with a definition and analysis of church-planting movements and contrasts these with the benefits of institutional environments. It is argued that movements and institutions cannot flourish without elements of the other and that it is possible to blend the best features of movement and institution in one organisation. This is followed by a case study of how the Free Church of Scotland has worked to foster a church-planting movement within its existing structures. I try to outline the processes necessary to allow this to happen and some of the challenges involved. The article concludes with a look to necessary future developments that might allow this movement to take root and mature.

I. Background

The missional purpose of God, to gather a people to worship and glorify him, is unfolded across the whole of Scripture. From the call of Abraham in Genesis to be a blessing to the nations, to the worship of the Lamb who was slain in Revelation, God has given his church the great commission of calling the nations to worship him. Being true to this calling in a secular, post-Christian Britain, means we need to plant many more churches to declare the praises of God.

The Free Church of Scotland is a confessional Presbyterian denomination formed in 1843. In the twentieth century it became a predominantly Highland and rural church. Demographic change, secularisation and internal squabbles meant that it entered the twenty-first century in poor shape. In the previous twenty years we had declined from around a hundred to about eighty congregations. This precipitated a period of research and reflection which led, in 2008, to a renewed commitment to mission in Scotland. The focus of mission was recognised as the local church and the mode of mission was identified as church planting and church revitalisation.

Church revitalisation has been a steady and rewarding process over the last twenty years with some notable successes, including St Peter’s Church, Dundee and St Columba’s Free Church, Edinburgh. However, church planting efforts over recent decades had been piecemeal and were, in some cases, driven by a desire to extend the geographical spread of the denomination rather than a longing to see sinners turn to Christ in repentance and faith. This meant that the church-planting methodology used was not developed with the intention of reaching the unchurched or de-churched. The usual pattern was to start services that would connect with people who had a “Free Church connection” or who loved Reformed theology. These church plants usually plateaued at between 60 and 80 people. To plant these churches the denomination was purchasing a manse, a church building and paying up to ten years’ salary. The costs were very high, the harvest very small and the denomination was not able to plant more than one new church every five years or so. More churches were closing than starting.

 Mission through church planting meant we had to reconsider our ideas. The early Free Church of Scotland had been outstanding in its missionary and church-planting efforts. The challenge before the denomination today is to discover whether a traditional Reformed and evangelical denomination, operating in a Western European context, can nurture within itself a church-planting movement that will make a significant contribution to the re-evangelisation of Scotland.

II. Church-planting movements

1. What is a church-planting movement?

An initial definition could be as follows: a church-planting movement is a self-sustaining, indigenous movement of church-planting churches that experiences exponential growth in converts, leaders and congregations.

There are multiple definitions of such movements but they all tend to share the characteristics in the definition above. Original definitions of church-planting movements were drawn from experience of exponential church growth in non-Western countries. Later work has endeavoured to take these definitions and work out an application for them in North America and Europe.

David Garrison’s book, “Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World”, gives a descriptive definition based on observations from numerous situations in the non-Western world, as well as some historical church-planting movements from North America. Garrison also seeks to identify possible movements amongst immigrants in Holland and travelling people in mainland Europe. For Garrison, a church-planting movement is “a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweep through a people group or population segment.”[1] In the early 1990’s Garrison identified recent church-planting movements as having occurred in places such as India, China, Mongolia, Cambodia, Kenya, Togo, Columbia and Guatemala. They had seen spectacular church growth. Here are a few of the examples that Garrison points us to: In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh 4,000 churches were planted in seven years, and were home to around 50,000 Christians.[2] In the south of China, a movement produced 920 churches with 90,000 baptised believers in a period of eight years.[3] In Uganda, more than 400 new churches were planted amongst the Teso people over a fifteen-year period with some 20,000 new Christians.[4]

Garrison identified ten elements that were present in every church-planting movement he analysed: extraordinary prayer, abundant evangelism, intentional planting of reproducing churches, the authority of the Bible, local leadership, lay leadership, house churches, churches planting churches, rapid reproduction, healthy churches.[5]

In ecclesiological terms, Garrison defines church-planting movements as movements of house churches, so the rapid multiplication of churches in Singapore and Korea do not qualify. That in turn suggests that church-planting movements cannot occur in more traditional denominations.

 An emphasis on the “organic”, spontaneous expansion of the church resonated deeply with many missiologists and church planters in the West. This was reflected in a revived interest in new forms of church that functioned with a simple, “organic” ecclesiology. It was argued that the structures, processes and biases of institutionalised forms of church needed to be stripped away as these were inhibiting the organism of the church from multiplying as it ought to. These ideas came to the fore through the work of people like Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole, Joel Comiskey and Thom Rainer. In “The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church”, Hirsch writes,

I have tried to learn what exactly it is that makes movements tick, and what makes them so effective in the spreading of their message (as opposed to the more static institution). It is by recovering a genuine movement ethos that we can restore something of the dynamism of significant Jesus movements of history.[6]

Hirsch believes that the early church can be defined in the following way: a grassroots, decentralised, cellular movement. He compares this with the “Christendom mode” of church: institutional-hierarchical and a top-down notion of leadership and structure. What is needed is a return to the mode of the early church.[7]

The organizational structures of Christendom are in a real sense worlds away from that of the early church – something like comparing the United Nations to Al Qaeda (one being a thoroughgoing institution with centralized structures, policies, protocols and the other being a reticulated network operating around a simple structure with a focused cause).[8]

Joel Comiskey pointedly repudiates the Westminster Confession of Faith’s definition of the church in favour of a “simpler” ecclesiology. He writes,

Christ’s church does not require layers of hierarchy, added later by religious institutions… Paul and Barnabas focused on those minimal qualities that made up the church. They were intensely interested in gathering followers of Jesus together under leadership. The churches they planted were simple and reproducible.[9]

North American organisations sought to take the ideas of organic church-planting movements and apply them to denominations working in the North American context, seeking to create systems that would promote such movements. Ed Stetzer in “Planting Missional Churches”, highlights the system developed by Kevin Mannoia in “Church Planting: the Next Generation”, which was taken up by North American denominations. Stetzer lists the key features of these networks in the following way:

  • Parent Church Network – a geographically-based network of churches with a shared vision for planting;
  • Profile Assessment System – an objective assessment of potential church planters which is key to short-term impact;
  • New Church Incubator – a peer-to-peer resource environment, to assist church planters in their work and including a coaching element;
  • Recruitment Network – a network to create a pipeline of new planters;
  • Pastor Factory – a training process for lay people to enable them to become founding pastors;
  • Church Planter’s Summit – a regular event aimed at providing an induction process for new candidates;
  • Maturing Church Cluster – providing new churches with support as they move beyond the first year of the new church;
  • Strategic Planning Network – helping to maintain the movement dynamic and to avoid the problems of institutionalisation;
  • Harvest 1000 – the effort that is focused on raising sufficient financial support for the creation of a church-planting movement – especially for starting new churches;
  • Meta-Church Network – the commitment to churches that transform people through small-group ministries.[10]

My personal conviction is that the key feature shared by all such movements is the continuous multiplication of indigenous, church-planting churches. Once we have multiple local churches, spontaneously planting church-planting churches that plant churches that plant churches we have movement dynamics.

2. Why are church-planting movements important?

In “Church Planting in the Secular West”, Stefan Paas identifies three motives for planting: confessional purity, church growth and innovation in a changed cultural context. Each of these motives has a degree of validity. In the United Kingdom planting is important for church growth and innovation. The rapid decline in attendance and the closure of thousands of churches over the last few decades creates a huge evangelistic need. Evangelism is the work of the local church. It is through the church that God’s mission in this world is carried forward. Local communities need local churches to be a gospel presence in their midst – salt and light, communities of grace that proclaim the goodness of the gospel. And right now, we need thousands of new local churches. They can innovate more easily in order to find better ways of doing evangelism in a fast-changing cultural context. The necessary planting of sufficient new churches can only be achieved with movement dynamics in place.

Most Christians are still part of traditional denominations with institutional features. So there is a massive need to help denominations take on movement dynamics. In “Center Church” Tim Keller writes,

A church (or group of churches) with movement dynamics generates its own converts, ideas, leaders and resources from within in order to realize its vision of the church for its city and culture.[11]

Over time, given the right conditions, the movement will grow steadily and even exponentially. If we have a vision for the United Kingdom, then to realise it we need our traditional denominations and networks to take on movement dynamics. This is the challenge for the Free Church of Scotland: Is it possible to blend the best features of both institution and movement in one organisation?

3. Institution and Movement together

Some advocates of church-planting movements view all forms of institution as the enemy – an unbiblical intrusion on the church that has killed or stifled its organic expansion. Stefan Paas offers helpful observations on this issue. He critiques David Bosch’s influential assertion that the early church failed when it transitioned from movement to institution in the post-Constantine era. Paas believes that recent evidence indicates that the early mission of the church was more ecclesiastical than previously thought.[12] We cannot frame the amazing growth of the early church against the decline and corruption of the medieval church as simply an organism v organisation paradigm shift.

Paas makes three criticisms of “absolutizing the difference between movement and structure”.[13] First of all, “a drive towards affirming the universality, catholicity and objectivity of the church has characterized the Christian movement from its beginnings.”[14] Secondly, “every movement will have to decide about the kind of structures it needs to survive its first few years and to maintain its integrity.”[15] Defining key roles, shared routines and formulating values and convictions are “inevitable”. Thirdly, it leads to a view of structure as a necessary evil:

On this view structure is not really part of church, or at best only a secondary part. Such an approach will preclude a thorough theological reflection on the kinds of structures the church needs, structures that more or less emerge from the fundamental convictions of the Christian movement in an organic way. Exactly this, however, is the core business of ecclesiology: theological reflection on the visible structures that adequately represent the nature of Christianity.[16]

There is no compelling evidence that the lay-led, house church model identified by Garrison as being essential to church-planting movements is more evangelistically effective in Western countries than other forms of church. What Garrison offered as a descriptive definition of the essentials of church-planting movements in the non-Western world cannot be simply cut and pasted into Western European secular societies. House churches can be effective in mission but so can other kinds of churches. And experience in Scotland shows that, in some contexts, house churches are unlikely to be as successful as more traditional church settings. This has been the experience of the church-planting organisation 20schemes which works in Scottish housing estates.

In “Center Church” Keller sets out how we can blend the best of movement with institution. He believes that we need to embrace the strengths of both institutions and movements. Institutions give stability over time and a limit on the pace and degree of change. Institutions preserve what is good and necessary for the inhabitants of the institution to navigate their way ahead: “Institutions bring order to life and establish many of the conditions for human flourishing and civilized society.”[17] They maintain what is useful and necessary from the past. Movements, by contrast, are more suited to bringing about what is needed for the future. Keller picks out certain important features of movement.

(i) Vision. Movements are marked by a clear vision of the future and its energies are all put towards realising that future. The vision is an expression of a strong commitment to particular values and beliefs. Others must be able to own the vision and run with it. This requires clear and compelling articulation of the vision. “The key to the success of the vision is its simplicity and availability, often in the form of content that transmits, expounds and applies the vision.”[18] Institutions are kept together by rules, movements by a shared vision.

(ii) Sacrifice. People will make massive sacrifices to get a movement underway, because they are so motivated by the vision and by intrinsic reward. A movement sees all those involved at every level making real sacrifice to achieve the vision rather than just the sacrifice of those at the top.

(iii) Flexibility and Unity. Vision means flexibility about who does what and how it is done. Achieving the goal is key. It makes allies of all who share the vision. Institutions can struggle to produce the same kind of unity.

(iv) Spontaneity. Movements produce new leaders and new ideas but institutions are more interested in durability and are more resistant to innovation. They tend to attract different types of leaders. Movements will brainstorm and experiment; they are flatter and less hierarchical. They generate new leaders better and are results orientated. They grow faster because they adapt to change more rapidly.

Keller argues for a view of church that is both organised and organic: for movements that are strengthened by institutions. His view is given credence by the fact that we are seeing the beginnings of church-planting movements that include more traditional models of church. We can point to New York as one of those places where movement dynamics are emerging in this way. From 1989 to 2016 the number of Christians in New York City grew from 1% to 5% of the population which, with a population of 8.5 million, works out as a growth from 85,000 to 425,000, an increase of 340,000. A church-planting movement is underway in New York and plans are in place to work towards a further increase from 5 to 15% of the population.[19] This is not a movement of lay-led house churches.

Movements amongst more traditional churches may take longer to ignite and to reach a tipping point of multiplication, but can be very effective over the longer term. They provide the intellectual and cultural resources to reach all sections of society in a sustainable way.

Keller reminds us that the Bible teaches that the church is both organised and organism; the books of Acts describes organic, spontaneous (from our point of view) church growth and Paul uses organic language about what is happening as the gospel bears fruit. It is worth noting that as this organic growth and multiplication takes place, Paul takes pains to organise it; there are institutional features present, such as agreed theological formulations and hierarchical consultations to resolve disputes (Acts 15). To flesh out the place of both organism and organisation in the church, Keller employs the idea of the General Office and the Special Office.

Every believer has a ministry – every believer is prophet, priest and king:

This Spirit-equipped calling and gifting of every believer to be a prophet, priest and king has been called the “general office”. This understanding of the general office helps prevent the church becoming a top-down, conservative, innovation-allergic bureaucracy. It helps us understand the church as an energetic, grass roots movement that produces life-changing and world-changing ministry – all without dependence on the control and planning of a hierarchy of leaders.[20]


the growth and flourishing of spontaneous ministry depends on some institutional elements being in place. The special office represents the way God orders and governs his church by the Spirit…[21] The Holy Spirit, then, makes the church both an organism and an organization – a cauldron of spontaneously-generated spiritual life and ministry as well as an ordered, structured, community with rules and authority.[22]

Paas and Keller help to show that a naïve antithesis of movement and institution is unhelpful. Church-planting movements will always need institutional elements. And institutional denominations will always need church-planting movements. The loss of either element will lead to decline and disintegration. In the Free Church of Scotland we are trying to work out how our institution can embrace the dynamics of a church-planting movement. We need to do this urgently.

III. Building a Church-Planting Movement in the Free Church of Scotland

1. From maintenance to mission

In 2005, the denomination began a process of self-analysis. Led by a Strategy Group this was a two-year process which involved facilitated discussions with laity and leadership across the denomination in multiple locations. Information was gathered on our perceived strengths and weaknesses. Work was done with numerous groups of people to ask what they wanted the denomination to look like in ten years’ time. It was clear that there was a great hunger for change; people wanted to be part of a growing and thriving church, reaching out with the good news of Jesus to the people of Scotland.

The Strategy Group worked to analyse how to turn the denomination from a maintenance setting to a mission focus. This involved financial restructuring, a resetting of denominational priorities and a fresh emphasis on the local church as being the leading edge for mission. This led to a renewed commitment to church planting and church revitalisation. As the denominational leadership considered how the gospel could be shared broadly across the nation, the need to partner with other gospel-centred churches became clear. Our vision for Scotland was articulated as follows: “Individually and together, working with other believers, we will bring the gospel in word and action to all the people of Scotland.” This led to three commitments:

  1. To focus the mission of the church on the work of local congregations.
  2. To equip leaders and members of local congregations for the task of mission and discipleship.
  3. To become a missional church by ensuring that all the structures of the church support the mission of the church as expressed in the Great Commission.

These commitments were to be achieved by pursuing the following objectives:

  1. To equip fifteen congregations for mission and discipleship by developing them in terms of preaching, prayer, vision development, team leadership and every-member ministry.
  2. To enable these congregations to act as hubs for the resourcing of ministry across a broader area.
  3. To investigate and implement new models of church planting.
  4. To work for a change in values, attitudes and culture that will be reflected by growth in the areas of maturity, (body) ministry and mission in order that Christ might be more greatly glorified by the church.

This was a key moment for the denomination. It was a re-articulation of the missionary purposes of the church and reflected a determination to use our structures to support the work of local congregations doing local mission. This was when the seeds for a fresh impetus in church planting were first sown. In “Center Church”, Keller writes, “In movements the structure clearly serves the cause, whereas in institutions, the cause the tends to serve the structure.”[23] This captures well the change that was occurring in the church. Before, local congregations were seen as a way of propping up a denomination that stood for a particular expression of the Reformed faith (and especially for unaccompanied psalm singing). Now the denomination was understood to exist in order to help local churches do the work of mission in a post-Christian Scotland.

2. Culture and organisation

We began a process of trying to influence the culture of the denomination towards mission. We fed back to the groups we had consulted with to help them remain invested in the process of change. I was appointed, on a full-time basis, as Mission Development Officer with a remit to train and organise our leaders and members for mission. We began to organise ministers’ conferences and training in a way that helped to renew the focus on mission, inviting speakers who were seasoned missional thinkers and church planters. We used the annual General Assembly to showcase strategies for mission and to implement changes in legislation aimed at moving the institution towards mission. In a denomination that had seemed to be languishing there was a readiness for change and an eagerness to embrace a new agenda, based on the centrality of the gospel and mission. In 2010 this included a vote to change our worship practice away from exclusive, unaccompanied psalm singing – a change that would allow for much greater flexibility in church planting and mission. This was a clear sign that gospel priorities were taking precedence over denominational traditions.

3. Research and Learning

The next step in the process was to research and learn as much as we could about church-planting movements. We needed to understand different models and methods so that we could do better plants, do them more quickly and do them without placing such a great financial strain on the denomination. Our own model was not working. We began to network with different church-planting organisations. We read literature, attended conferences and courses and received coaching. As we did so we began to learn that we needed to focus our attention not just on planting more churches better, but on planting church-planting churches that would plant churches that would plant churches. We started to grasp the importance of movement dynamics. We tried to share these ideas and strategies as widely as we could throughout the denomination by writing articles, speaking at conferences and informal conversations.

4. Building Partnerships and Catalysing

Armed with the intent to see gospel-centred churches collaborating in mission to Scotland we sought to give concrete expression to this at a local level. This process began in Edinburgh. Attending an “Urban Plant Life Conference” in London in 2009, where Tim Keller was the keynote speaker, I noticed three other ministers from Edinburgh had come for the same purpose.

We created the East of Scotland Gospel Partnership, with a view to catalysing a church-planting movement in and around Edinburgh. Our hope for this was that together we would raise up a new generation of planters, train and resource them, and then send them out to plant church-planting churches. In 2010 we calculated that Edinburgh, a growing city with around 200 churches, saw less than 5% of the population attend church regularly; an optimistic figure was 24,000 regular churchgoers. There is an urgent need to plant many, many new gospel churches in the city. To date, progress has been slow with around seven new churches started in the last seven years. We anticipate, however, that the pace of planting will accelerate over the next few years.

5. Raising the Profile

One of the great difficulties in building a church-planting movement is to convince the existing Christian community that it is necessary. A situation of rapid secularisation and plummeting church attendance creates a defensive mind-set. Starting new churches when “we can’t even fill the churches we have” seems like a waste of resources to many. Moving church planting to the top of the agenda is necessary if we are to create movements. To this end we started an annual conference in Edinburgh that sought to put church planting on the map and to create a greater awareness of the possibilities and challenges that come with starting new churches. Alongside this we organised dinners for key lay leaders. Experienced planters and catalysts came to these dinners to share insights from different global contexts that would help lay leaders grasp the vision. We took the opportunity to visit local churches and also spoke in many different training and teaching venues about why and how we were planting churches.

6. Training lay people for mission

Creating a church-planting movement in a traditional denomination requires planting new churches, revitalising dying ones and growing the ones that are already doing well. Training lay people for mission is critical to each of these pathways. We took a two-pronged approach to this. One was to offer training for lay people across a broad sweep of congregations. To achieve this, we took a pre-existing tool (Porterbrook Training) and created two training hubs, one in Edinburgh and one in Inverness. We were able to deliver Porterbrook Training to hundreds of people, including some key lay leaders. The second avenue of approach was to focus in on particular congregations. About six across the country were chosen to become “hubs” for mission. This had limited success. Training was given in these congregations that was intended to enable leaders to develop mission in their local context and to equip church members to engage in mission in the everyday situations of life.

7. Creating a model

It became clear from an early stage that we needed to model the kind of ideas we were promoting. It was no good just talking about new ideas; we needed to model what we had in mind. Before we could begin to talk about it we had to plant some churches. We decided to focus most of our energy in Edinburgh. We entered a partnership with St Columba’s Free Church of Scotland in the city centre. We calculated that if St Columba’s could become an effective catalyst for church planting in the city then this would create an excellent model for similar city centre churches in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. To create an effective model we wanted to do three things: plant church-planting churches from St Columba’s; use its resources to help other churches church plant; and thirdly, to grow St Columba’s so that it could resource more mission.

Around 2011 Grace Church Leith was launched in Edinburgh. This was not a Free Church plant, but several of the ministers who were influential in getting Grace Church started later joined the Free Church and then Grace Church also joined the denomination. It has been an excellent and successful model of a parachute church plant. In 2012, I led the first church plant from St Columba’s, which was launched in 2014 as Cornerstone using a mother-daughter model. Cornerstone is situated in Morningside on the south of the city, in a high-income neighbourhood with the intention of becoming a resource church for further planting. In 2014 St Columba’s became the umbrella organisation to help start another new Free Church of Scotland – Christ Church Edinburgh. In 2016 St Columba’s launched another mother-daughter plant, Esk Valley Church, situated in a commuter town south of the city. In 2017, a further plant is planned for a commuter town to the east of the city. In addition to this, St Columba’s is in the early stages of planning a plant to the west of the city for 2018. In 2010 there were three Free Church of Scotland congregations in Edinburgh; currently there are seven and by 2020 we hope there will be ten.

During this same period St Columba’s has grown from a church of around 120 people to over 300; Grace Church Leith has outgrown its current building which seats 100 people; Cornerstone has about 75 adults and 40 children; Esk Valley has around 60 people; Christ Church Edinburgh is also a congregation of over 100 people which is searching for larger premises. These are small beginnings but the trajectory is one of growth and, we hope, multiplication. Grace Church and Cornerstone are both looking ahead to future planting opportunities and Esk Valley church has a vision to plant a number of churches in the towns surrounding it. If, by 2020, we have ten congregations in the Edinburgh area, then we are aiming for those ten to plant ten more and for this to be the beginning of a true multiplication process using the knowledge, skills and resources gained from this initial phase of planting.

As church planting in Edinburgh has taken shape, other new plants have been initiated in other areas. Stirling Free Church appointed a full-time planter in 2016. Further north, Rosskeen Free Church began a new congregation in the town of Alness, about thirty miles from Inverness. In Glasgow, Govan Free Church began as a parachute plant in 2013.

As of 2017 the St Columba’s model is beginning to be adopted and adapted by other city-centre congregations: Glasgow City Free Church is starting Hope Church, Helensburgh; St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee is starting a new church in a city housing scheme called Charleston.

8. Planter pipeline

One of our major challenges is to find enough planters to lead the new churches we want to start. This was one reason we began to hold church planting conferences with high profile Christian speakers – we wanted to attract young leaders. A second idea is that of Church Planting Bootcamps. This idea was shared with us by the Latvian Baptist Church at the European Leadership Forum. The Bootcamp is a three-year programme: young leaders attend once a week in each of the three years. The purpose is to develop exceptional young leaders of plants or to be part of a church-planting team.

Once a year we write to all the congregations in the denomination asking if they have any young adults with exceptional leadership potential aged between 17 and 25. Those recommended are then invited to Bootcamp. Each year has an intake of between 10 and 15 young adults. Bootcamp runs for a week with a programme of high-intensity physical challenges alongside in-depth theological teaching. In Year 1 the focus is on Theology of the Gospel. In Year 2 the teaching is on Gospel Leadership. In Year 3 it is on Church Planting and Calling. Throughout the three years the Bootcampers are given a mentor and a reading programme. After Year 2 they are required to start and lead a project in their local church. Each year the Bootcampers are immersed in ideas of church planting: what it is, why it is needed and how it is done. Church planters are invited to come along and talk about what they do. So far each intake at Bootcamp has yielded two or three young leaders who want to become church planters. If this can be maintained then it will become the key pipeline for future recruitment.

9. Assessment

Good assessment programmes are a trusted method of preventing the wrong people from becoming church planters and, in addition, helping to shape the training and preparation of those who are suitably gifted for the task. As we began to develop our own programme a couple of us went through church planter assessment with Acts 29. This helped us to understand the process from the inside out. We also looked at other church-planting assessment programmes. From this we have put together our own, designed as a two stage process – an initial, light assessment before formal theological training is begun and then an in-depth, thorough assessment over two days that is done in the final year of theological training. So far about eight potential planters have come through this programme.

10. Training

Our denominational structures mean that potential planters need to progress along two tracks. In the first place they need be recognised as candidates for the Free Church Ministry. This involves interview and scrutiny by the local church and by the denomination. This is followed by three years of full-time theological education at Edinburgh Theological Seminary. Then finally there are the processes of examination and scrutiny before licensing and ordination. Alongside of this there is church planter assessment, usually accompanied by an internship in an early stage plant. Once a potential planter has been assessed and graduated from seminary we place them in a plant for twelve months to learn on the job as a “Church Planter in Training”.

From 2010 onwards we have run a curriculum for church planters and trainees. This is a peer-to-peer learning system with monthly seminars. Alongside this, time is set apart to pray for planters and their new churches. The curriculum looks at methods and models of church planting, research, evangelism, core group dynamics, training leaders, preparing for launch, discipleship, preaching, prayer and several other topics. These seminar days are attended by a wide spread of people – from those who are preparing to plant to those who are several years into the process. I attended Redeemer City to City’s “Train the Trainer” in 2012 to help us deliver better training. In addition, several planters from Edinburgh have attended the City to City Intensive training in New York City.

11. Coaching

Another critical component of creating a church-planting network is to have a good supply of coaches. A strong coaching relationship is a very helpful way of reducing the sense of isolation and stress that planters often encounter. A good coach can also help the planter clarify his plans and make him more effective at putting those plans into action. Good coaching leads to better planting. We have trained about twenty coaches through the “Gospel Coach” system and are working to establish an effective coaching system for all our church planters.

12. Funding

Funding church planting is a tremendous challenge for us. This is because although we now have over one hundred churches in the denomination, we have very few large churches. Most have less than a hundred attendees and so are not able to finance much beyond their own needs.

At St Columba’s we have sought to mitigate the financial pressure by initially employing our church planters as staff members of the mother church. They have worked for St Columba’s for part of the week and used the rest of their time to begin to put together the church plant. When the plant is underway and appropriate funding is in place, the planter transitions out of St Columba’s to work full time at the new church. This has benefited both churches and meant there is a strong sense of connection between the sending church and the planters.

We have also been blessed with excellent funding relationships with donors and supporting churches in the USA and the UK. These funding relationships have allowed us to do much more than we could have previously. To create a church-planting movement we need to plant and grow sufficient churches in the denomination that will allow the movement to be financially self-sustaining.

13. Communication

Creating and sharing a vision is a key aspect of church-planting movements. We have moved slowly in “vision casting” because too many visions for the future growth of the church in Scotland have been oversold. As we began to work towards creating the conditions for a planting movement we decided that we first needed to get on with the work itself. Once we had planted a number of churches we could begin to talk about what we were doing and the potential for a movement. This is the stage we have now reached. We have stories to tell and church plants to point to.

We are currently in the process of working with a branding consultant to help us think through how we can capture what we are seeking to do and present it to various audiences within the denomination and outside. What is the name of our movement? What is the vision and purpose that we are pursuing? How can we talk about what we are doing in a way that helps others to get on board?

14. Staff

Until 2016 we had no full-time staff devoted to the creation of a church-planting movement. I worked to develop recruitment and training but did this alongside various other jobs. I was assisted by the denominational Mission Coordinator, but again this was not the main focus of her work. In 2016 we recruited a full-time (self-funded) worker to put together all the logistics of recruitment, assessment, training, coaching and funding. He is helping us to build capacity and to be more effective in delivering the different elements of our programme. As the movement takes shape and grows, more staff resources will be needed to help catalyse and organise the movement. The denomination’s administrative and financial staff have played a key role in helping us to reach this point.

IV. What we have learnt and future challenges

1. Progress is possible

In the thirty years before 2010 the Free Church of Scotland had successfully planted six congregations in Livingston, Falkirk, Inverness, St Andrews, Dunfermline and South Uist & Benbecula. Only two of these church plants have grown beyond 100 people. We planted slowly and we planted small. And crucially, none of these churches were in our major centres of populations: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen.

In the seven years since 2010 we have seen seven congregations started and, crucially, the majority of these are in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Three new congregations are in the process of being planted in 2017. We have shifted from one new church every four years (1980-2010), to one new church every year (2010-2016), to a phase which may see three new churches every year (2017 onwards). As a denomination of around a hundred congregations that would see a growth rate of 2-3% per annum.

At this point in time we have many, but not all, the features that are required for a church-planting movement: We have vision; we have sacrifice; we have a pipeline of planters. we have assessment tools and training incubators; we have an increased rate and effectiveness of planting; we have maturing churches. But we still lack some of the key features, in particular: we have no plants that are planting churches; we lack spontaneity and multiplication; and we are still financially dependent on external funders.

2. People want action before vision

Christians do not want maintenance – they want a sense of adventure and purpose. When we began to re-emphasise the centrality of the gospel to the denomination and the priority of mission through the local church this was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. At the same time people are wary of big talk and empty talk; they want a sense of ambition but not one that seems utterly detached from reality. And above all else they need to have healthy change modelled and demonstrated to them by leaders they can trust.

3. Partnerships are challenging

We have yet to break the code on creating thriving church-planting partnerships. Different organisations have not only differing theologies but different priorities and methodologies. We have not reached the level of catholicity, trust and generosity that will see Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Independent Evangelicals, Charismatics and Reformed collaborate well for church planting in Edinburgh and beyond.

4. You can do more than you think you can

The Free Church of Scotland is not slick or fast moving. Overall it is both theologically and culturally conservative. We are not cool and we never will be. But putting our trust in the gospel and the provision of God we have already achieved more than we anticipated. As we have pushed forward in obedience, God has supplied church planters, core team members, training, coaching, funding, buildings, and much more besides.

5. Our ecclesiology and institution are strengths

Having a strong Presbyterian ecclesiology has been a help. We know what kind of churches we want to plant. We believe in the Reformed marks of the church: the preaching of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, church discipline and care for the poor. We know that we are planting churches that have ordained ministers and a plurality of leadership. We have long-standing, tried and tested procedures for the recognition of new congregations. Within that we have the flexibility to allow for different models and methods of planting; Stirling Free Church was started by a lay leader in his spare time. Only later did an ordained church planter take on the leadership of the new congregation. In Edinburgh we have planted churches with ministers who are part-time in the plant. In other situations full-time ordained planters have led from the start.

Creating a church-planting movement in a traditional denomination comes with a number of other benefits: We can draw on the resources of the larger institution; because of our denomination we already have processes for maintaining theological integrity; we have our own excellent theological training to postgraduate level; we have effective and efficient administrative and financial systems; we have thousands of members across Scotland offering a wide pool of talent, experience and expertise. In other words, many of the boundaries, processes and resources that an emerging church-planting movement would need to create for itself are already available to us. We have the best of both worlds.

We cannot do the fast-hatch, lay-led, house church movements that David Garrison and others observed in the non-Western world. But such movements have not been markedly more successful at reaching non-Christians in Europe than other forms of church. And when most Christians in Europe belong to denominations or older networks with institutional structures, the best missionary strategy is to see how these institutions can be shifted to embrace movement dynamics. Movements from within institutions may take much longer to incubate than the kind of movements that Garrison described, but in the longer term they ought to have the ability to keep planting new churches at an impressive rate. If traditional denominations can create a movement to plant enough new churches to grow by 2 or 3% each year then in a twenty-year period they can witness spectacular growth.

6. Barriers

Life in an institution will always have its tensions and we have encountered some barriers: There has been some resistance from those who see church planting as a “fad”; others recognise the need for church planting in Scotland but worry that is drawing resources away from international mission; others want us to rescue dying churches instead of starting new ones; and at times we have been bogged down by bureaucratic processes. None of these challenges have been insurmountable and they certainly do not outweigh the advantages of being in a denomination.

7. Church planting is not the only game in town

We cannot ignore the challenge of revitalising dying or declining churches. If we want to witness a genuine church-planting movement across Scotland we need our older congregations to thrive and to become centres of mission and church planting. Our church-planting efforts are diminished if we allow existing congregations to close whilst we are busy starting new ones. This means that we need to give renewed thought and energy to the work of church revitalisation. Lessons learned via the “innovations” of church planting need to be fed back to older congregations in order to help them re-engage in fruitful evangelism. New forms of ministry and mission need to be adopted in rural areas of declining population, and existing urban congregations need to be ready to adapt to demographic and cultural changes occurring in our towns and cities.

It is key to remember, though, that revitalisation requires not simply a new set of tactics or an updated philosophy of ministry. Spiritual vitality rests on union with Christ (John 15), and union with Christ requires the reality and power of the gospel not simply to be acknowledged but experienced. Undergirding the tactical elements of church revitalisation there needs to be a process of gospel renewal. Such renewal must begin with the church leadership and so revitalisation will mean helping church leaders to refocus on the gospel at a personal level. This accords with Stefan Paas’ belief that older churches can grow as well as new churches, if they have the right kind of leadership and the right location.[24]

8. Future challenges

Consolidating the progress we have made and accelerating the development of a church-planting movement remain the major challenges. A key future step will be to persuade and enable the institution to allow the movement to develop in spontaneous ways that enables the true and swift multiplication of churches rather than simply adding a few churches each year. One way of doing this would be to appoint Church Planting Catalysts for each of our four main cities. These catalysts would be given the authority to create church-planting networks in their city. This authority would give them power to recruit, fund raise, train and deploy new planters and start as many new churches as they can without going through the usual procedure of getting denominational approval for each stage of this process. They could be given freedom to do this for a five-year period with the only condition being that they report annually to the denomination on progress and that they only appoint church planters and lay leaders who meet denominational standards. These would be laboratories where the spontaneous incubation and multiplication of new churches is encouraged and fostered.

A further challenge is to begin to collect and analyse good data from the churches that we are planting. Are the evangelistically effective? Who is coming to them? How many of these people are new to church and how many are returnees? And research also needs to be done to determine where the best church-planting opportunities lie as well as the greatest church-planting needs.


Institution and movement are not to be separated or opposed to each other. Rather they need each other – they live in a relationship of mutual dependence. In the United Kingdom we should be optimistic that church-planting movements can be fostered. And those of us who are in traditional denominations or networks have an opportunity to bring about the changes that will create the conditions for such movements to take root. This will take time, and resources from outside may be needed to give initial impetus. But our experience in the Free Church of Scotland is that by taking a few simple steps the conditions can emerge for a church-planting movement to take root. Pray for us that this might come to fruition.


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