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 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 . 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)