Church planting, it has been observed, is the most effective form of evangelism. Some statisticians have done the sums and worked out that you get more individuals saved through church planting than from any other form of evangelism. Sadly, however, by simply adding up the numbers they are in danger of missing the point.
Church planting is not simply a matter of getting a number of individuals saved; it is about the advance of God’s community in the earth. Historically, our attitude to evangelism has tended to start with the individual. Once saved, he or she has been free to pursue the secondary matter of finding the church of their choice if they so desire. I believe that we should evaluate church planting from a completely different perspective. God has always been interested in having a people, a family.
Abraham’s international tribe
He started with Abraham but His goal was to include all the nations. Abraham was promised that his seed would bless all the families of the earth. In Abraham’s family, God established a new tribe. Through Christ all nations were invited to join this international tribe, God’s alternative society, a people with a different citizenship (Gal. 3:28, 29).
Through Christ, God has established a new community on the earth, held together by their common commitment to Christ and their common experience of the Holy Spirit. In early Acts, to be saved, therefore, was to be added to this community, not simply to get right with God and go to heaven when you die! Belonging to God’s newly established society was all-important. They were a set-apart people, dwelling together in love and fellowship. They honoured another King. Their allegiance was to another throne. Even their worship could be seen as a political statement.
Most moral and ethical teaching in the New Testament was not to be expressed in private individual piety but in corporate attitude and action. Christians were not taught simply to be kind in a vacuum, but to be kind to one another, not generally to be loving but to love one another; not merely to have an encouraging disposition but to encourage one another.
Single models of saintlihood were not the goal. God wanted a holy nation, a special people who together became a city on a hill that cannot be hid.
Our transformation is only possible in the context of relationships. Private holiness is virtually impossible. We need exhortation, encouragement, correction, confrontation, warmth, humour, love and loyalty in order to bring us to wholeness. Even Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22, 23 is best understood in the context of a loving community. God wants a display of corporate beauty and holiness.
Extending the community
He wants a community, His city, His family in which He could dwell. Church planting is an extension of the community, not simply an exercise in multiplying the head count. Part of God’s purpose in saving us is to overcome our intense selfishness and isolation.
This community then becomes the place where God is manifested on the earth. His people are His dwelling place where He can be found and encountered. There is no need to make a pilgrimage to a designated holy place, be it Jerusalem or Mecca. God’s people are His holy dwelling. God is accessible on His planet among His people. So when we plant a church in a new location, we are establishing a temple where God can be encountered, where His presence is felt and experienced. Holy lifestyles, lived out in holy communities, replace holy relics and historic locations.
Since this is the case, we must beware the danger of being so busy and insensitive that we do not make sure to give high priority to cultivating and enjoying the awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our gatherings.
Some have asked, ‘Are we purpose-driven or presence-shaped?’ Of course, we want to be armed with purpose (see 1 Pet. 4:1 NASB). There is no great gain in having no purpose. But what about the privilege of also being ‘presence-shaped’? Are you in too much of a hurry to let His presence shape your coming together? I love that old song from the musical Come Together that says:
He is here, He is here.
He is moving among us
He is here, He is here
As we gather in His name.
When ‘He is here’ all things are possible. This is what makes God’s people unique – His presence goes with us. Let’s not simply believe in the great objective truth of God’s omnipresence, let’s also take advantage of the fact with a sense of wonder that when we gather in His name, the Holy Spirit wants to make manifest the reality of His presence. How much more would happen in our gatherings if we did! Not just purpose, but presence! Not just music, but presence. Not just routine or rush, but presence. Not just preaching, but presence. Get an appetite for the presence of God! When we plant a church and gather in His name, His presence comes with us. Because you gather in His name, God’s presence comes to town in a unique way.
Therefore we must not grieve or quench the Holy Spirit. Our relationships must be characterised by love, meekness, gentleness and forbearance as we make every effort to maintain this unity in the Holy Spirit’s presence. Again, therefore, the New Testament’s emphasis is not so much on individual piety, but corporate sensitivity to the wonder that God is here, and we guard our attitudes and relationships in the light of the fact that corporately we are His dwelling place.
Living together in love, we become a city set on a hill that cannot be hid. Our loving relationships also provide part of our evangelistic impact. One part of the genius of Alpha is that our guests not only hear the Good News, they also see it being lived out among us. They are exposed to our lives together in Christ.
A message and a friend
Jesus saves us one by one, but he sends us two by two, with a message and a friend! How we behave together is part of our message. When a complete stranger meets you he might note two things; that you are a Christian and that you are also a warm and pleasant person. These two facts could be a complete coincidence. Your new acquaintance has undoubtedly known or heard of religious people who are far from warm and pleasant so your individual testimony may not be amazing to him and the fact that you are a Christian may not impress him. However, when he meets a group of Christians he is far more impacted by the multiplied and corporate Godly qualities that characterise your lives together. Far greater evangelistic impact is felt. People are attracted and saved.
So our evangelistic impact corporately is far greater than the sum of our individual efforts. We should, therefore, not only hold meetings that are accessible to outsiders but actually do more (even mundane) things together such as shopping or taking the children to school to have corporate impact and actually manifest the presence of the body of Christ in the neighbourhood.
From isolation to community
The result is that more people get saved. But isn’t that where we started? Church planting results in more conversions! Yes, but I hope you found it worthwhile to come on the journey that brought us here. God wants a wonderful family growing throughout the world; a place where lives are changed; where His presence is felt and lost people can find a home.
He does not only want to save lonely people and send them in search of a church where individualism still thrives, He also wants to deliver them from their isolation by drawing them into His community. Counting numbers of heads (or bottoms on seats!) is not the only exercise that should preoccupy us. Is the community of the King growing? Is His kingdom being manifest? Has His mighty presence come to town? Is there a city set on a hill that cannot be hid?
Let’s go and plant some churches!