Recenty Bobby Ross, the Chief Correspondent for the Christian Chronicle asked Don Myers some important questions about an article they are doing about Church Planting for the upcoming Issue. We wish to share those answers here. This is very descriptive of the work we are attempting to do, and gives a clear insight into our work.
Bobby - How are churches of Christ doing as far as church planting? How can we improve?
Don - My doctoral thesis will explore, hopefully, a representative sampling of churches of Christ to probe nuances of your question. That study will be done over the next year or so. One of the central issues regarding your question goes to our intentions. The issue is not whether we have planted churches, but if we ever intend to plant churches in the U.S.
Bobby- What can you tell me about your ministry's experience with church planting as far as number of plants, where, success or failure, etc.?
Don - The elders of Elmore congregation in Elmore, AL oversee a church-planting vision called The Antioch Initiative (see aicoc.org). The slogan of the Antioch Initiative is "TAKING THE NATION BACK BY TAKING JESUS TO THE NATION" keying on planting churches domestically. The original vision was to plant four congregations in Northeastern Pennsylvania in four counties (Bradford, 63,000 residents; Susquehanna, 56,000 residents; Wyoming, 24,000 residents, and Sullivan, 6000 residents). Our research revealed no congregations the church of Christ in any of those four counties. On October 19, 2014, a church-plant was launched in Sayre, PA (Bradford County) with Arthur Barry of Dryden, NY as the evangelist. Over two years were expended in seeking and interviewing evangelists for this new plant in Sayre before launching took place. God blessed us with Arthur & Sandy Barry.
On June 5, 2016, a new congregation will be launched in Tunkhannock, PA (county seat of Wyoming County) with God’s blessings. The very interesting feature of this plant (and future plants) is that it will be done whether or not we are blessed with a permanent evangelist by the target date. Various campaigners will be coming and going during the entire Summer 2016 from Alabama, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky following up on World Bible School contacts, conducting a VBS, door-knocking, and, generally, meeting the residents of that beautiful county. If a permanent evangelist has not been located on or before the first Sunday of September 2016, then brother Bill Garrett (Lewistown, PA) will have recruited four to six rotational church leaders, Bible teachers, and/or preachers to revolve in and out of Tunkhannock until which time a permanent evangelist is located. Our group is aware that discipleship is the key to development of indigenous leadership; indigenous disciples are the key to evangelistic passion; and evangelistic passion and expertise are the keys to duplication of more plants; and, germinal plants will result in global evangelism.
Future demographic research of areas being considered for church planting will include the availability and willingness of regional church leaders and Bible teachers to do rotational preaching and evangelizing. When the Apostle Paul went into virgin areas, he, invariably, went into Jewish synagogues if one was present. Jewish people in those synagogues had been raised studying the Old Testament Scriptures, which foretold the coming of the eternal church kingdom, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the enthronement of the Messiah (Christ) on the throne of the eternal kingdom. Paul taught that the Jewish expectations of these things were correct being founded on inspired Scripture and, yet, he was able to announced and confirm by miracle that the kingdom had come, the Christ had been enthroned, and that the Spirit had been poured out. The conversion of such knowledgeable people coupled with the fact that Apostles could lay their hands on people and the Holy Spirit was imparting supernatural gifts, such as prophecy, to whom He willed account for the rapid rise and placement of men into the eldership of each autonomous congregation. As we plant churches today, we do not normally encounter men with such knowledge and maturity, yet, such men are, often, readily available in the regions where church plants are targeted—men who have grown to spiritual maturity over decades of their study and growth in the Lord. This is what might be referred to as a 21st Century parallel to the mature men Paul encountered in Jewish synagogues that were appointed as elders.
Seeking to emulate the non-paternalistic method of the Apostle Paul in preaching the gospel of grace, we have no intention of buying church property or building church buildings. Whatever those established church plants decide to do regarding church meeting places will be their autonomous choices. We are of the strict belief that paternalistic relations with a new church plant smothers indigenous leadership of congregations that need to become germinal in four categories--self-propagating; self-financed; self-led; and self-theologizing. We do not want to support a work, make their decisions for them, do all their evangelizing, or teach them proof-text answers to doctrinal questions. Such could later render them twenty-year-old spiritual babies who do not evangelize and who cannot interpret the Bible themselves. None of this is to undermine God’s plan for a congregation to be overseen by elders. Yet, elderships are to prepare God’s people for works of service, not to do the work for God’s people. Before elders are raised up, the key to assisting the church plants is to provide a man of God (evangelist) who is mighty in the word of God who can teach the whole counsel of God. When spiritual infants grow to spiritual maturity, they should be able to interpret God's word for themselves and, we trust, will remain true to the faith. That puts other elderships and planting churches outside the church plant in the position of teachers and those who can admonish, but not those who can interfere in the autonomous decisions of a church plant. We, for instance, are non-instrumental and that is the type evangelist that will be placed in those plants. But, who can predict the future? Will forces come to bear in the future that could turn some of those church plants in the instrumental direction? We know that is a possibility. What power would we have over an autonomous church plant with its own rising leadership? We have the power to choose whom we will support and the power to love and teach what we consider the right ways of the Lord to the extent the church plant is willing to listen. But, that is where it ends. (Bobby, this gets off on question #3.)
As a result of some contact with core leaders of the Antioch Initiative, brother Phillip Bailey of the Memorial Drive congregation in Houston, TX received the blessing of his elders in recently planting a congregation in a Houston suburb that has a greater population than Pittsburgh, PA. Philip and his fellow planters are seeking the planting of, yet, another congregation on a major thoroughfare in Houston that will, also, boom in population. Core leaders of the Antioch Initiative will fly to Houston to meet with those planters to expand fraternity and our network of partners.
The Antioch Initiative has the vision of recruiting visionary church leaders from around the nation to do multiple church planting in other parts of the U.S. The Elmore elders and the growing partners of the Antioch Initiative have no power over any other congregation or its leadership, but stand ready to pray and collude with any congregation true to the gospel of grace who would like to learn of our failures and successes enabling others to begin years ahead of where we began. What a joy it would be to meet annually in different mega cities of the U.S. with church leaders from around the nation who are multiple church planting in various places in the U.S. to pray, share ideas, fellowship, and gain new insights for expanding outreach?!
Bobby - Must church plants be more traditional in order to succeed?
Don - Bobby, the central obstruction in the present state of our failure to plant churches in the U.S. is a need for the restoration of the missional priesthood of every believer. Every Christian possesses the essential spiritual DNA of Jesus to reproduce themselves. This is in evidence with every convert to Jesus recorded in the New Testament (e.g. the Ethiopian; Lydia, etc.) Unlike the metaphor of being a baby in Christ needing the milk of the word, that milk (fundamental knowledge of Jesus) is all it takes to produce another Christian. The Hebrew writer quoted Jeremiah in contrasting those under the old covenant to those under the new,"They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer.31:34; quoted in Heb.8:11). Alan Hirsch uses the illustration of the octopus and the starfish. If an octopus suffers the severing of one of its tentacles, God has given it the regenerative power to grow another arm. If a starfish suffers the loss of one of its arms, it, too, has the innate regenerative power to regrow a new arm, yet, the severed chunk of the starfish’s arm can produce an entirely new starfish! God has endowed each Christian and, hence, each congregation with the spiritual DNA of Jesus capable of reproducing themselves. If that is true, we can get a better handle on how Paul could write to the Colossian Christians in A.D. 62 indicating the gospel had been “proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col.1:23c). Paul had not, personally, seen every lost soul in the Western Roman Empire face-to-face, but his planting of germinal congregations in hub cities was done under the assumption that each Christian and each congregation would reproduce themselves. This is predicated on the fact, as Dave Browning underscores, that those saints believed Jesus really meant the “stuff” He said (cp. Mt.28:18-20). Yet, many of us have spent our lives climbing a ladder only to realize it has been leaning against the wrong wall evangelistically speaking, says Browning.
What does it take to plant churches? Must we be traditional or progressive to appeal to this millennial culture? Think of it this way. What would it take to plant a church where you live—property, a building, a paid professional, funding? All the things needed to plant churches already exist in the majority of regions in the U.S. The funds needed are already there—in the pockets of the new Christians who are about to be born again. The property and meeting places needed for the new congregations are already there—the homes in which the new converts live, or a free meeting place (e.g. a fire hall, room at the library, or use your imagination)! The evangelists needed are already there—those “chunks” that would be willing to be severed from regional congregations with the cooperation of their leaders/elders to replicate themselves in another part of the city or county. Further, if such is not possible in some instances, just imagine an eldership or evangelist in some region coordinating knowledgeable, mature men of the word to circulate on some kind of a schedule into the new church plant to evangelize and preach.
As far as the Antioch Initiative is concerned, we are dreaming of going to the next level of church planting. Instead of planting one congregation at a time, we ask, “What is stopping the church from being planted in multiple locations, simultaneously, all over the nation?" Although the elders of Elmore congregation (a group of scarcely over 140 people) have no power over any other congregation or leadership, we see the nation laying out before us. Hence, we are formulating a plan to seek out visionary elderships over the nation to take up the challenge to multiple church-plants, simultaneously, in their regions. The strategy of Jesus was not to go to the “uttermost parts” first, but to begin in “Jerusalem” (Acts 1:8). The resources of the mother church in our “Jerusalems” can radiate out to our “Judeas and Samarias” and, then, “into the uttermost parts.”
Any leadership who preaches and teaches the true gospel of grace through faith in Jesus Christ should be spreading the gospel leading to the planting of churches. Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We can do nothing to improve on who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in His winning of our salvation. All we can do is trust who he is and what he has done. Certainly, saving faith includes repentance of sins, confession of that faith, and baptism identifying with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and trusting the operation of God (Col.2:12; Rm.6:3-6). There is nothing we can do to merit our salvation, but true faith will surrender to the Lordship of Jesus and prove itself true by works of faith that grow toward maturity.
We, of the Elmore church and the Antioch Initiative, are "traditional" in regarding to women's role in the church, singing without instruments, etc. We are going to, with God's blessings, plant churches until Jesus returns. Although this may not fit here, it is my conviction that once persecutions hit the church in Jerusalem sometime after the Day of Pentecost, that Christians scattered and met in homes. It is estimated by some missiologists that the church grew from 20,000 in the First Century to 20,000,000 (million) by the Edict of Milan about 313 A.D. Constantine "converted" to Christianity, persecutions ceased, and the church, essentially, digressed to a state of evangelistic domestication. Cathedrals were built on "holy sites" by Constantine's mother "Helena". The simple man or peasant who had shared Christ with his neighbors was, certainly, not seen as worthy to teach or speak in one of the cathedrals. The joy to teaching (evangelism) was seen as the work of the professionals. This Constantine-model, as described, is killing the church in Europe and around the world. We are prayerful that God’s people will center our evangelistic aims on people--not properties; on discipleship--not spectatorship; on the concept that every Christian is a missionary and a priest of God. Jesus gave the great commission that mandated discipleship. It was not the great suggestion. The church must enter a restoration of evangelistic fervor on the discipleship model. Greg Ogden said, "Jesus had the wisdom to think small." He invested in and spent nigh 70 -90% of his time with the Twelve. Their transformation into obedient, evangelistic missionaries and disciple-makers lead to global evangelism in the First Century (cp. Col.1:23). The message of grace must not be compromised. The man of salvation must be at the center of our faith. And, yet, the method of the Master must be restored. The church was never intended to be a house full of consumers that have to be pandered, but a house full of proclaimers. Under this biblical paradigm, we will stop asking, “How will the gospel ever reach the world?” We will begin shouting, “How can you stop the gospel from spreading to the world in our lifetime!?"