II. Our Responsibility
In conjunction with my field research, I did in-depth exegetical research in Acts and Paul’s epistles to determine the biblical keys to building mature churches. It was a rich and rewarding study, and much was gleaned!5 What I repeatedly found was that strengthening churches was central to all of Paul’s labours in missions and church planting. We find the Greek word steridzo (to “stabilise, establish, or strengthen”) used four times in Acts (14:21-23; 15:41; 16:5; 18:23) and six times in Paul’s epistles (Rom. 1:11; 16:25; 1 Thess. 3:2,13; 2 Thess. 2:17; 3:3), all describing Paul’s efforts in nurturing young flocks. For Paul, ensuring that young churches were well-established was a key to the very advance of the gospel and fulfilment of the Great Commission.
Reed (2001:17) writes: “One of Paul’s highest priorities was establishing the young churches he had founded. He would even
leave wide-open doors for the gospel if one of his churches was in serious trouble (e.g., 2 Cor. 2:12-14, he left the open door to Troas because of his burden for Corinth). …For the gospel to progress with any stability, with any kind of depth, with any kind of foundation, these churches had to be flourishing and a base for the progress of the gospel.”
For Paul, the activity of “preaching the gospel” equally included both the evangelistic campaigns and the nurturing of new converts in healthy churches. In Romans 15:19 Paul makes a stunning claim to have “fully preached the gospel” across a region of almost 2,000 kilometres. This must mean that Paul was claiming to have left behind him healthy, well-led, reproducing churches in strategic city-centres–churches that were now able to reach their own regions for Christ. Bowers (1993:909-610) concludes: “A distinguishing dimension of the Pauline mission is that it found its fullest sense of completion neither in an evangelistic preaching tour nor in individual conversions but only in the presence of firmly established churches. …What lies, in effect, within the compass of Paul’s familiar formula ‘proclaiming the gospel’ is, I suggest, not simply an initial preaching mission but the full sequence of activities resulting in settled churches. …He was not only proclaiming and converting; he was also founding communities.”
O’Brien (1995:42) reiterates this crucial lesson from Paul’s church planting method: “From his practice of residential missions (at Corinth and Ephesus) and nurture of churches (1 Thess. 2:10-12), from his priorities (1 Thess. 2:17-3:13; 2 Cor. 2:12-13; 10:13-16), and from his description of his assignment (Col. 1:24-2:7; Rom. 1:1-15; 15:14-16) in relation to admonition and teaching believers to bring them to full maturity in Christ, it is clear that the nurture of emerging churches is understood by Paul to be an integral feature of his missionary task.”
Reed (1991:9) punctuates this point, emphasizing Paul’s plan to always establish a “beachhead of Christians” who could “go…and have an impact on their own community.” He knew that he had to stick with that plan, that the churches needed to be central. He also knew that if he kept going further and further out with the gospel and he did not have strong established
churches, his whole base would be eroded. If his base was eroded, the gospel would not progress and ultimately he would have to take the gospel to them again. And, he would not have the additional help and reinforcement or the models that were needed.”
God makes is crystal clear in His Word that we must do God’s business in God’s way, leaving the results and the growth rates in His hands. In the eyes of Christ, our Master-Builder, there is only one way to plant and build churches: “But each man must be careful how he builds… Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss…(1 Cor. 3:10, 12-15).”
We must beware of a paternalistic or relativistic attitude that says, “Well, that weak little church is better than what they had before, or better than the other bad churches in that village”. Or, “As long as a few are saved, it’s all worth it”. Or, “This is normal, you usually only get a few good churches out of the lot”. Nowhere in Scripture do you find that shotgun approach of ‘plant many, get a few good ones’. We also must not be deceived into thinking that just because we don’t see much damage, there hasn’t been any harm done and we can just hurry on ahead to new works. A crack in a house’s foundation usually doesn’t surface for a while; but once it does, it can mean big trouble. Here’s what’s at stake if weak churches are not well-planted and strengthened. These are some of the long-term consequences:
• If these churches are not well-planted, it can dishonour the name of Christ in the community through false conversions and unstable churches filled with sin, conflict, and immaturity (cf. Col. 4; Titus 2).
• By not developing good leaders, we leave the door wide open to false teaching to corrupt the church and lead many astray. (Some of the Zionist churches appear to be prime examples of initially shallow church planting.)
• Hasty evangelism can harden people to the gospel through either giving them false assurance based on walking an aisle, or leaving them disillusioned by a false conversion.
• By not planting these churches firmly, we only create more work for the mother churches down the line when they have to go back and sort out the mess, resolve conflicts, and un-teach so much error. (This is precious time that could be spent advancing the gospel and planting new churches, if the job had been done right the first time.)
• If these churches are not well-planted, we set a poor example for the daughter churches who will then turn and follow this model by planting their own (granddaughter) churches in a hasty, ineffective way. So the cancer of mediocrity and instability (and often nominalism) spreads and worsens with each new generation.
• If we are not building quality churches, here is the most severe consequence: According to 1 Cor. 3, one day Christ will test the quality (not quantity) of our work, and we will have to answer to Him.
Let’s not forget that the Golden Rule also applies to church planting. In other words, plant the kind of church for others that you would want them to plant for you. Who would want to hire an architect or builder who admits that out of his last fifty buildings, only five of them have collapsed within the first two years after they were built?! Yet those kinds of statistics are commonly accepted among church planters. One wonders how this kind of hit-and-miss approach to church planting has become so acceptable? Think of how affectionately and earnestly Paul laboured for the maturity of each church he was involved with. Surely he would see such neglect of infant churches as synonymous with child abandonment, an awful practice in the ancient world and in heathen cultures that was outlawed long ago. As another African proverb says, “Only a foolish woman throws away her own baby.”
Maybe we in the BUSA should, instead, start saying, “Since 1990 we’ve started 350-400 churches or fellowships and we are still planting them until they can truly grow and flourish on their own”. The hour has come for launching an all-out, wholehearted effort at strengthening these young churches until they are well-led, mature, reproducing churches that exalt our Lord.
– Tim Cantrell, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Shepherds’ Seminary