Comment from across the partnerships

Are church planters actually biblical?

11 September, 2014 John Samuel

are church planters biblical

It feels like heresy to be asking the question in today’s climate, where church planting is all the rage. Maybe I am feeling a bit insecure and upstaged because I am only an old workaday pastor and not a young whizz-kid church planter.

So let me say right away that I have been involved in ‘church planting’ for years. The church in Ireland where I pastored for nearly twenty years decided not only to plant a church but to think of itself as a church-planting church. By the grace of God a new church was planted. I was totally in favour of these developments. I still am.

But I am uneasy. Let me explain.

When we use biblical language, it is helpful to make sure that we are using it to describe the same biblical realities it is used to describe in the Bible. For example, ‘being baptised in the Spirit’ is used in the Bible to refer to the unique, start-up experience and reality the Christian is given when the Spirit of God gives new life to a spiritually dead person; in other words, when they first become a Christian. It does not refer to the continuing command to yield to the influence of the Spirit of God which is described by the biblical phrase ‘be filled by the Spirit’. To use the word ‘baptism’ or ‘baptised’ with ‘Spirit’ to refer to an experience some time after you first become a Christian really does not help.

Let’s use Biblical terms biblically.

Here is my question: where is the term ‘church planting’ or ‘church planter’ in the Bible? It is not there, is it? Neither is the phrase ‘the Trinity’, you retort. Sure, but there is no other term for the concept of the Trinity in the Bible and it is definitely a biblical concept. You will not be able to charge me with heresy on that front at least!

But what are we talking about when, for example, we describe someone as a ‘church planter’? What biblical reality are we seeking to describe? Are there other biblical terms?
If we are going to restrict ourselves to biblical terms, it seems to me we have a choice of two biblical terms. We should either talk about ‘evangelists’ or about ‘pastor-teachers’, as in Ephesians 4. (I am assuming that the apostles and prophets are foundation gifts and not around today.)

Did the Apostle Paul know nothing of the role of ‘church planter’? On the contrary, he was the ‘church planter’ par excellence. But he never used the term. He only talked of evangelists and pastor-teachers. Why?

Maybe because the apostolic, biblical categories and language we should be using are those of ‘evangelist’ or ‘pastor-teacher’.

I remember a conversation with my friend, who was doing a great job as church planter in the church that had been planted out of the church where I was pastor. Years earlier, sixty of the congregation had been ‘hived off’ under his leadership. The new church seemed to have ‘taken’, thank God. But what was my friend to do? Should he continue as the church grew, or should he go and do the same again somewhere else? We agreed that it all came down to whether he saw his primary gifting as being that of an ‘evangelist’ or a ‘pastor-teacher’. In the end, after much prayer and reflection, he decided he was an evangelist who could teach and pastor, rather than a pastor-teacher who could do the work of an evangelist.

Would it not be helpful if we could drop the term ‘church planter’ from our vocabulary and use the biblical terms ‘evangelist’ and ‘pastor-teacher’?
Then we would be thinking the right way about the gifting of church leaders in new churches.

Then we would be asking the right questions of people who want to serve the Lord in new churches.

The question is not, ‘am I (or is he) a church planter’ but ‘am I (or is he) an evangelist or a pastor-teacher’?

There is a related question: is church planting actually biblical? Yes, I am more heretical than you thought! But that will have to await another blog…

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