I have learned immensely from interviewing church planters throughout the world. In January I interviewed an articulate, long-term evangelical missionary in Guadalajara, Mexico. He described the ups and downs of planting a cell-based church in urban Mexico. Toward the end of the interview I as ked, “What one thing would you do differently if you were beginning all over again?” His reply was incisive–a lesson for all missionaries to hear: “I came to be a church planter, and after planting one church, I assumed the role of its pastor. If I were to start all over again, I would adopt an apostolic rather than a pastoral role.”1 Too many missionaries begin as church planters but become waterers.
We then discussed the basic presupposition for apostolic ministry:Missionaries must believe that new converts will soon become church leaders. Beer party organizers, drug dealers, spirit-house diviners, and secular business executives can be transformed by the power of God’s Spirit to become leaders in the kingdom of God. Because they believe that God works powerfully in transformed lives, missionaries deliberately nurture new Christians to fulfill God’s calling for them. They intentionally develop processes of leadership equipping to empower new Christians. Paul reflects this distinctive trust in new Christians when he writes: “[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
While in Guadalajara, I discovered another American missionary who had not lost sight of his apostolic ministry. His goal was to start one new church each year. To do this he worked with already established national churches to select an evangelist to be his co-worker in planting a new church for the year. People in the area of the prospective church plant were invited to camp meetings held in a tent where the gospel was to be preached. Partnering churches–those previously initiated in this church-planting movement–actively participated in initiating this new sister congregation. Within a year the new church was meeting in a store front, able to fully support their evangelist, and paying the rent on their facilities. In then years this missionary had worked with ten national evangelists to plant ten churches. In this case the missionary served principally as the mentor of evangelists rather than primarily as an evangelist.2
Paul’s writings differentiate between apostolic and pastoral ministry. He used a farming metaphor to explain that he “planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6) and employed a building metaphor to describe how he “laid [the foundation of Jesus Christ] as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.” He continues to say that “Each one should be careful how he builds” (1 Cor. 3:10-11). Because Paul recognized that he was called to be a planter–an expert builder laying the foundation of Jesus Christ–he wrote, “From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Rom. 15:19-20). Paul’s entire life was dedicated to apostolic ministry.
At least two factors hinder apostolic ministry. First and foremost, innate ethnocentrism leads some missionaries to perceive that national leaders are too immature to lead the local church established by the missionary. Second, national leaders are frequently intimidated, even unconsciously smothered, by the presence of trained missionaries. They say within themselves, “How am I to minister when these people are trained and experienced?” If we are to establish what Erich Bridges calls church-planting movements, missionaries must spread their influence and allow national leadership to quickly rise. A church-planting movement, according to Bridges, is “the rapid multiplication of churches among a people group that enables them to reach their entire people–then to reach out to other peoples” (1999, 7).
Limited vision leads to limited results. Thus while one missionary team plants a single church in a city or ethnic unit, another employs a multi-church orientation to plant numerous viable churches within the same culture. One team smothers national leaders by micro-managing church affairs; the other encourages national leadership and works with maturing leaders to develop models of mobilizing national leadership. The difference between these missionaries is the working models or paradigms they use in church planting and development.
Bridges, Erich. 1999. Whatever it takes. The Commission. (February):6-7.
1 In this discussion the term apostle does not mean “one of the twelve” (Acts 1:21-22) but a broader biblical definition inferring “one sent for a particular purpose,” especially for the purpose of initial evangelism. Within this broader definition Jesus (Heb. 3:1), those sent to preach to Israel (Luke 11:49), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25), and Titus (2 Cor. 8:23) were all called apostolos, or apostles.
2 The next task should be for the missionary to train national church planters to do the apostolic task that he is now doing.