How can we start a church planting movement?

Alan Hirsch begins his book, The Forgotten Ways, with a question.[1] He claims that in AD 100 there were as few as 25,000 Christians and in AD 310 up to 20 million. His question is: ‘How did they do this?’

Perhaps it was a fluke of history. So Hirsch asks the same question of twentieth century China. In 1949 Mao Zedong took over China and in 1952 expelled all foreign missionaries. At the time there were about 700,000 Protestant Christians. Mao then set about trying to eradicate all traces of Christianity. In the early 1980s China began to open up again and Westerners wondered what would remain of the church. They discovered it had not only survived, but flourished. There were then an estimated 60 million believers.[2] ‘How did they do this?’

How can we start a church planting movement?

It often said that both the early church and the Chinese church grew despite the following factors:

– persecution

– a lack of buildings and professional clergy

– a lack of Bibles

The spread of the early church and the Chinese church is often said to be ‘despite’ these factors. But what is it was ‘because’ of these factors? I was already disposed to think that meeting in homes was a theological and missiological choice rather than an historical contingency. What if this was true of the other factors? What if these were not ‘despites’ at all, but ‘becauses’! So let me therefore restate them as positive principles:

In church planting movements:

– the pattern for living is martyrdom

– the pattern for church is reproducible

– the pattern for disciple-making is non-literate

I want to add one more:

– the pattern for mission is supernatural

Over the coming weeks I want to blog a few thoughts on some of these.


[1] Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Brazos Press, 1986), 18.

[2] Tony Lambert, China’s Christian Millions (Monarch, Rev. Ed., 2006), 19, 26-27.


13 thoughts on “How can we start a church planting movement?

  1. Tim,
    It was great meeting you in San Diego. I look forward to seeing where these posts are going to go. Some initial thoughts I had…
    “the pattern for living is martyrdom” – isn’t this the pattern for being a Christ-ian; willing to follow in His footsteps, etc.? The slave is not greater than the master. I completely agree with you.

    “the pattern for disciple-making is non-literate” – is this really the pattern in every society or is this culturally determined? I’ll be interested to see where you go with this.

    “the pattern for the mission is supernatural” – I’ve noticed recently that the very terms ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ expose an inherent dualism that is still existent in our thinking. Maybe it would be better to say that the pattern for mission is holistic; although that would have to be defined. It certainly has what we modern, westerners would call ‘supernatural’ elements, but it seems inappropriate to separate those from the ‘natural’ elements.

    Just some initial thoughts. I look forward to seeing where you’re headed in these posts.


  2. There are so many things I could say here,

    First off in the book of Acts we see how church was done and who Christians lived in verses like Acts 2:40-47 as well as I Cor 14:26, this is how they did church compared to what we see now. (how church is done now must change, this is the core of where it all begins)

    We see this lived out in China today, the do church as we see in Acts 2:40-47, I Cor 14:26 and Mat 28:19-20, they live on mission. They abide in Christ, preach the Gospel and make disciples. (this must also be the heart of the body in America)

    Today American Christians see church as a consumer based institution, something you not only just attend but it is something created and put on by professions and their only part is to consume what the pros put on. (this must change, from the Going to church attitude to a being the church lifestyle, that everyone has a part)

    That evangelism is also something done by the paid pros, not by them, and when and if they do “witness” they only act as salesmen presenting a well rehearsed script or program to persuade people to come to their church so that the paid pros can convince them to join the church. They focus completely on selling church and church attendance, not preaching the gospel by both a life transformed by the Gospel and lived for Christ and the proclaiming of the gospel in words. (this must change foremost)

    In visits to the underground church in China what you will find has nothing to do with the persecution as to why they are exploding, but everything to do with a people who are passionate about Jesus, His word, not going to church. To them church is the result of abiding in Christ, a lifestyle. That Jesus said go and preach, and so they go and preach, not about come visit my church, but Jesus, who He is and what He has done. They preach Jesus to everyone they meet despite the risk to their life, they are passionate about people coming to Christ.

    In a visit to China a friend witnessed a Church that gathered every morning at 5 AM, they first worshiped in spirit, heart felt praise to God, prayed and prayed intently for the lost and strength to go out and preach the gospel, then they had a time of study of the word. Then around 8 AM they would eat breakfast together in heart to heart fellowship and further discussion of the word and their lives in Christ. Then they each went on their way to work or school or home to take care of the children. My friend asked them do you do this every day? Yes the pastor replied. Then he asked him how could you do that every day. The pastor replied, how can we not! How can you being a Christian not live this why? My friend was so convicted, said he realized for the first time in his not only Christian life but his 25 years of pasturing he did not have a clue as to what the Christian life really is, what the church is really about.

    Let me paraphrase what Jesus said here, “Never in all of America have I see such faith” Jesus also said, “abide in Me and you shall bear fruit” so the focus should be abiding in, living for Jesus not programs. And Jesus said to a church “Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love.” The American church needs to return to Jesus, to love Jesus as passionately as the China church loves Jesus that would be the place to start.

  3. Hi Tim

    I was struck by these thoughts when you outlined them on the NTI residential, so I’m looking forward to see where you go with them, especially regarding the non-literate point. This is pertinent for our church in a working class, predominately non-literate town.

    I was contemplating it yesterday, and I remembered that one of the first things that struck me when I studied the bible with an older Christian (in the usual one bible each, focussing on a particular passage, the other guy asking me questions to which answers were found in the passage, tackling the it verse-by-verse etc.) was that the bible wasn’t the mysterious/irrelevant/indecipherable book I thought it was when growing up. I could read a portion of the bible and understand what it said and found it relevant to me.

    Which was an exciting thing! And I suppose what I want others to experience when I meet with them to read the bible.

    I’m interested to think through how I can help someone have that experience themselves but also do it in a non-literate way.

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  10. I’m confused…though I agree that the church grows strongest amidst persecution, I’m not sure how you arrive at “the pattern for disciple-making is non-literate”. I think we would have a hard time convincing people that we need to return to the Dark Ages in order to make disciples more effectively. In China and in other places of persecution, the thirst was for literacy…Biblical literacy. People would sacrifice their lives to get a hold of a Bible. We shouldn’t suggest that growth happened through a lack of Bibles but rather for a desire to obtain Bibles at any cost.

  11. I like your blog, but you are trusting the CPM book more than the bible. I have been to four of the places that David Garrison claims a CPM occurred. Ask the people who are there now and they will tell you it was a farce. The Cambodian, Hainan Island, Dhaka, and Indian CPM’s have less than 5% of those supposed quickly reproducing churches still in existence today. The Dhaka leader, named Sha, is now driving one of the most expensive cards in Bangladesh and has an international ministry. When I talked with him he said that he should not be questioned because he was featured at the SBC annual convention! Churches in the US are throwing tons of money at him and claiming his results. No one is questioning this! Something was reproduced, but it was not a church. Two of the leaders in these CPM’s have confessed that the pastors were paid (after being forced to admit it, I might say). Missions hype is rampant today. Everyone wants to report great results; but few want to admit that the results are not long lasting. Church planting is not like selling Amway. Keep that in mind.

  12. Tim,

    It is great that the Lord led me into the Ivory Coast during our 14 years of war. I was opportuned to attend the church planting movement seminar held in the Ivory coast.

    Now that I am back home and working with my own people, how can we start a church planting movement here.

    I work with the Church of Truth as Evangelism commitee chairman and my job description is planting and nurturing churches and leadership development. The church is located in Liberia, West Africa. We have five branch in three of Liberia’s provincial cities. I am sure other evangelical denominations will highly welcome such an eye-opening experience that your organization offers.

    We would highly appreciate were you to partner with us in bring this worthy teaching into our country in other to foster rapid church development and growth.


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