Foundations: No.72 Spring 2017


Ralph Cunnington

On 7 September 2014 my wife and I, along with 25 other believers, planted City Church in the centre of Manchester. It was the third church that we had been involved in planting (the other two were in Birmingham) over the course of fifteen years. It was no small matter for us to relocate our young family from Liverpool to Manchester (a divide that few cross!) but we did it because we were convinced that (in the words of Steve Timmis) church planting is both a principle and a strategy.

Church planting is a principle because the gospel demands it. In the third century AD, Cyprian famously claimed: “Outside the church there is no salvation”. By the Middle Ages that statement had been used to assert that salvation was only to be found in the visible Church of Rome. In that sense, of course, it was utterly false. But there is a sense in which Cyprian’s statement does hold true: There is no salvation outside of Christ and the church is the body of Christ. It is both the ordinary means by which people come to salvation and also the community into which people are saved. The New Testament makes clear that the church has been entrusted with the gospel (2 Tim 1:14), holds the keys to the Kingdom (Matt 16:19) and has been commissioned to take the good news of Jesus to all nations (Matt 28:19-20; 1 Cor 9:16). Moreover, it is the body into which people are incorporated when they are saved. God does not intend for his people to live siloed lives in glorious isolation. Rather, his purpose in the gospel is to unite the redeemed into one new community in Christ (Eph 2:13-22) and through this community to display his glory to the heavenly realms (Eph 3:9-10). Local churches are not social clubs or teaching centres or even a good method for evangelism; they are an expression of God’s glorious purposes in the gospel. Therefore, as a matter of principle, we should be committed to growing existing churches (both numerically and in maturity) and planting new churches. It is a biblical principle mandated by the gospel itself.

In addition, church planting is also a strategy. Missiologist Peter Wagner once said: “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven”. That is true and it was certainly a vision embraced by the early church. Following the outbreak of persecution in Jerusalem the believers scattered (Acts 11:19). Most went to preach the gospel to fellow Jews but some went to Cyprus and Cyrene where they preached to Hellenists and a great number believed (Acts 11:21). Thus the church in Antioch was planted and the church in Jerusalem sent one of their best, Barnabas, to train them (Acts 11:22). Barnabas in turn travelled to Tarsus where he persuaded Saul to join him in leading the discipleship program at Antioch (Acts 11:26). Together they spent a whole year training the fledgling church. By the time we get to Acts 13, the church in Antioch is already well established. It is led by a team of five prophets and teachers, drawn from a variety of races and backgrounds. Already the church has a radical impulse for mission and, as they worship and fast together, the Holy Spirit directs them to set apart Barnabas and Saul for further church planting work.

This is a pattern we see throughout the Book of Acts. Paul and his team focus on strategic commercial and intellectual centres (Corinth, Ephesus, Athens), preaching the gospel there in order to see the gospel go out and churches planted throughout the provinces. The Pastoral Epistles show us that a key means by which this objective was realised was through Paul leaving members of his team behind in regions to ensure that churches were planted with properly-appointed elders (1 Tim 3:1-7; 2 Tim 2:1-2; Titus 1:5).

Church planting is a biblical strategy and it is a strategy that works. New churches really do reach new people. Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York has produced a church-planting manual. In it they collate research from numerous studies on the effectiveness of church planting. According to this research, the average new church gains most of its new members (60%-80%) from people not currently worshipping anywhere else. By comparison, churches that are 10-15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer from other congregations. This means that the average new church congregation will bring 6 to 8 times more new people into the Body of Christ than on older congregation of the same size. Tim Keller posits the following explanation:

As a congregation ages, powerful internal institutional pressures lead it to allocate most of its resources and energy toward the concerns of its members and constituents, rather than toward those outside its walls. Older congregations, therefore, have a stability and steadiness that many people thrive on and need. Many non-Christians will only be reached by churches with long roots in the community and the trappings of stability and respectability. But new churches, of necessity, are forced to focus far more of their energies to the needs of their non-members and become much more sensitive to the sensibilities of non-believers. There is also a cumulative effect. In the first two years of our Christian walk, we have far more close, face-to-face relationships with non-Christians than we do later. Thus new Christians attract non-believers to services 5 to 10 times more than a long-time Christian. New believers beget new believers.

Church planting is a biblical principle rooted in the gospel and a biblical strategy driven by concern for the lost. Therefore, we have decided to dedicate the current issue of Foundations to a theological examination of church planting. We have four articles on the topic. The first, authored by Neil Powell (Chairman of City to City Europe) examines church planting movements and considers how they differ from both institutions and networks. The article addresses the nature of gospel partnership within movements and considers what these movements unite around. Common challenges are addressed and the argument is made that such movements are necessary if we are to reach our cities and nations with the good news of Jesus Christ.

The second article by Philip Moore (Director of Acts 29 Europe) argues biblically and historically for the importance of doctrinal distinctives in church planting networks. He highlights the distinctives of Acts 29, with an emphasis on complementarianism and Reformed soteriology, seeking to show how they are rooted in biblical fidelity and gospel centrality, determinative for ministry and practice and the bedrock for collaboration and trust. As such, he contends that these distinctives are essential for a network that has the ambition of planting healthy, theologically robust churches throughout Europe.

In the third article, Neil MacMillan (Free Church of Scotland) considers how to create a church planting movement in a traditional denomination. He challenges the assumption that church planting movements are dependent upon a “house church” methodology and shows how the antithesis of movement and institution is unhelpful. The church is both an organisation and an organism and it is important that this be remembered. MacMillan then recounts the experience of the Free Church of Scotland over the past twelve years as it has sought to develop a church planting movement within the denomination. The various steps and challenges are outlined and MacMillan highlights the advantages of developing such a movement within a traditional denomination.

In the fourth article, Andy Paterson (FIEC Mission Director) examines multi-site church and considers how it might be used as a transition tool in the process of church planting. He begins by recounting his own experience as pastor of Kensington Baptist Church in Bristol. He then traces some of the American influences on the multi-site movement and outlines key criticisms of it. Having set out the arguments in favour of multi-site, Paterson suggests that it has a continuing role to play in facilitating church plants and church revitalisations.

The final article returns to the doctrine of creation from the previous issue of Foundations, and argues for “chronological creationism”, an approach to the creation-evolution debate which emphasises the importance of the Bible’s chronology, both relative and absolute. Stephen Lloyd argues that maintaining the relative chronology of the Bible allows us to develop a robust scientific approach to origins which is innovative and apologetically appealing.

The issue concludes with ten book reviews on various theological, ecclesiological and pastoral topics. As ever, we welcome correspondence and submissions for future issues, and trust that the current issue will be of benefit to the reader.

Ralph Cunnington
June 2017


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