Thursday Review: Stuart Murray on Planting Churches

A review of Stuart Murray, Planting Churches: A Framework for Practitioners, Paternoster, 2008. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

I have an aversion to books on church planting! There’s a confession from a church planter who loves books. One reason is that most of them are boring. They are too often just lists of things you need to do. But the real problem is that this approach treats church planting as a mechanical process. They read a bit like an instruction manual for flat-pack furniture. ‘Complete this sequence of steps and you will have a church!’ In a Christianized culture this creates boring books. In a post-Christian culture it is dangerously misleading for it assumes we are simply replicating the models of the past without the need for fresh missiological and biblical reflection.

So Stuart Murray’s earlier book, Church Planting: Laying Foundations purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US was breath of fresh air (even if I didn’t agree with all of it). Here was a theological approach to church planting. Now Murray, the founder of Urban Expression, has written a book called Planting Churches (how does he come up with these titles?!): A Framework for Practitioners purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. Here’s the ‘how to’ book. But Murray successfully avoids the instruction-manual-approach by posing lots of missiological questions and offering different models rather than assuming a set sequence for planting or a set pattern for church. ‘It is not a step-by-step guide … It identifies strategic questions and offers a framework for reflection, prayer, and action. It recognises that there are many different reasons for planting churches. And it explores the dynamics of several approaches to church planting.’ (xvi) He argues that different contexts call for different types of church plants (14-17).

Murray reviews some of the failures of the fashion for church planting in the 1990s. He remains convinced that church planting offers ‘fresh ways to incarnate the gospel in a changing context’ (5). But it needs to be:

  • Planting that reflects deeply and continually on the cultural context in which churches are planted.
  • Planting that pays attention to the criticisms of those for whom present forms of church are not working.
  • Planting that attempts to incarnate the gospel into areas and people groups beyond the reach of existing churches.
  • Planting that refuses unthinkingly to replicate models of church or imperialistically to impose models on communities.
  • Planting that encourages creative engagement with diverse communities and allows this to inspire theological and ecclesiological developments. (5)

Churches, says Murray, are normally planted too quickly rather than too slowly. People rush ahead without adequate consultation and preparation. The planting church needs to be prepared. ‘There are three priorities: preparing the church to become a planting church, clarifying expectations, and selecting and equipping the planting team.’ (111)

Churches, says Murray, are normally planted too quickly rather than too slowly.

There’s an interesting discussion of when a church has been planted.

Murray says: ‘It is time we reinstated mission and community as equally central constituents of church … Mission and community are indicative of a new church emerging as regular corporate worship. So intentionality may be the defining criterion. If a community is forming with the intention of engaging in mission, or if missional activities are intended to create a community, we may recognise that a church is emerging, whether or not this community is yet worshipping together.’ (129) He also argues, though, that a church has not been planted until it includes people who were not in the planting team (129).

One of the problem with church in the 1990s was that church planters did not ask the What? question. As a result they too readily assumed a model of church, usually a replicate of the one from which they came. Now we are asking ‘Where they truly missional? Were they contextually appropriate? Were they culturally attuned? Were many different kinds of churches needed in a diverse society?’ (135) ‘Planters may not appreciate how many assumptions about church they bring with them … Many “fresh expressions” are really not all that fresh!’

Murray believes that cloning is not the answer. However he also highlights the opposite danger of ‘planters who become besotted with imagining and designing a new church … Missional and relational priorities can be subverted by intense and lengthy discussions about what the new church will be like’ (139). Also, ‘planters can be unduly dismissive of inherited church practices and idealistic about new practices.’ (139)

Missional and relational priorities can be subverted by intense and lengthy discussions about what the new church will be like.

Church planters need to start to lay a good foundation for the church by considering what the values, vision, purposes and ethos of the church will be. Values are who we are or aspire to be (150); vision is about what we see, maybe by imagining what the church will be like in 5-10 years (151); purposes express what we want to accomplish, maybe in a mission statement (152); ethos is the way the church feels, both to regulars and newcomers (154).

Two guidelines might have saved many church planters from unnecessary grief. First, do not start too many activities too soon … Second, build into all decisions and initiatives a review process so that nothing is set in stone.

‘Two guidelines might have saved many church planters from unnecessary grief. First, do not start too many activities too soon … Second, build into all decisions and initiatives a review process so that nothing is set in stone.’ (163) Murray also explores some of the difficulties and potential solutions planting team members can encounter during the development of the church. He encourages planters to be aware of these issues, such as (if things go well and the church grows) loss of control and loss of intimacy within the team – all issues I recognize from our own experience of planting (194-201).

‘One quality most, if not all, church planters need,’ argues Murray, ‘is a pioneering spirit, so perhaps we can assess would-be church planters in relation to features that mark out pioneers in other spheres of life. Four, in particular, stand out: pioneers are dissatisfied, visionary, hopeful, risk-takers.’ (172) Maybe. But I wonder if this hinders us from normalizing church planting. There is a danger of making church planting the domain of the super-gifted maverick. There is a tension here with Murray’s closing (and welcome) call: ‘Directly or indirectly, strategically or locally, full-time or part-time, in planting teams or in support roles, hundreds of thousands of us could become involved. And that might just galvanize a movement after all.’ (222)

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Review: Stuart Murray on Planting Churches

  1. One of the most interesting passages in this book for me is on p12/13. It is a critique of Christendom in terms of incarnational theology, reflecting on Andrew Wall’s ideas of the indigienising and pilgrim principles in contextualisation. Murray writes of Christendom:
    “So what went wrong? Christendom overemphasised one aspect of incarnational mission at the expense of another. Incarnational mission means both identifying with our culture and living counterculturally…Christendom was strong on the indigenising principle but weak on the pilgrim principle. The gospel was inculturated but compromised.”

    The idea of Christendom as an over-indigenised form of Christianity was a new one to me, and helped me understand how the magisterial reformation’s insistance on integrating itself with the State damaged the legacy of western Christianity. Admittedly this is a view coming from someone influenced by Anabaptism and the radical reformation, but surely the compromise that reformed theology made with the State (e.g. Calvin’s experiments in Geneva, and later Chalmer’s concept of the Godly Commonealth in Scotland, inspired by Knox) has caused/perpetuated some of the most damaging legacies we inherit today from our forefathers: the complicity of a state endorsed religion used to force people towards Christendom conformity rather than fascinate them towards Christ has left a residual resitance amongst those on the margins especially. One local guy in the area I live in said recently “All because a wee man wrote ten sentences on a stone tablet they think they can tell me how to live my life! They are not really interested in people; they are interested in money, and then spend it on a building! They don’t help ordinary people.” Where does that come from? It comes from the legacy of enlightenment and victorian Christianity influenced by the magisterial reformation which (for example) rejected the Chartist movement for political reform for the poor and sided with the Establishment, one reason why we have lost the poorest to our churches and why marxism became such a powerful force against Christ in the 20th Century.

    How we contextualise really does matter. Are we creating exclusive middle-class ghettos or are our churches genuinely open to the most destitute? I still really wrestle with this and the challenge towards suffering and repentance it calls from me. Comfortable, conforming Christianity indigenised for the suburbs and students can be a hidden, destructive force even today. We must be careful of ‘relevance’, as Henri Nouwen points out and allow the deepest challenge of scripture, the Beatitudinal promise that the Kingdom will be deeply meaning for the poor to shape and challenge every effort we make to evanglelise – are we prepared to work from a position of powerlessness rather than power in terms of our allegiance to the assumptions of the State? Check out the humbling story of a forgotten victorian dissenting hero – Edward Miall (sort bio here: “”) and get hold of a copy of David Smith’s article about him, if you can – truly inspirational. If only his prophetic voice had been paid heed in Victorian England. Perhaps then we would not have to deal today with such entrenched resitance to Christ in our poorest communities if the church had actually listened to him a couple of hundred years ago. The question remains whether we will learn from these mistakes today.

  2. Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful comment. I’m intrigued by your phrase: ‘admittedly this is a view coming from someone influenced by Anabaptism and the radical reformation, but …’. Are you suggesting we normally not pay heed to people influenced by the Anabaptists? If so, I better warn you against reading my blog too much!

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