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Friday, July 9, 2010

Dr. Wagner's Cart Has Been Pulling The Horse for Too Long

For years missional leaders have repeated the refrain articulated by Dr. C. Peter Wagner that "The best means of evangelism under the sun today is church planting." I myself have even quoted Dr. Wagner in some of my earlier resources. This statement has become a banner for church planting in the US for the past 20 years.

The reason given for this statement is that new churches tend to be hungrier, evangelistically speaking, than their more established sisters. The very survival of the new church depends upon her outreach ability, so the people are more motivated to do evangelistic work. Statistically this is proven to be true as well. New churches do win more converts than long standing ones, but does that make the quote right?

In the past few years I have come to realize that Dr. Wagner got it backwards. We need to make a shift in our missional understanding:

The best means of church planting under the sun today is evangelism (gospel sowing).

You see, we have a great many people starting churches today but not necessarily doing any true gospel work. There are a number of fast growing churches that simply draw Christians from other churches to form new ones. I do not believe that such a practice is indeed the best form of evangelism or of church planting--but it can still fly the banner quoted by Dr. Wagner.

No, we must get back to seeing church as a fruit of evangelism not the other way around. The Bible never commanded us to plant a church or even instructed us in church planting. The gospel (the good news of the intimate reality, redemption and rule of Jesus daily) is the seed we plant, not a church. If we sow the gospel much, we will reap many more disciples and a whole lot more churches will be started as well.

Of course we must also shift to a more holistic understanding of the gospel and the kingdom of God than we have had. Simply throwing out a lot of tracts or shouting at people on a megaphone is not likely to reap spiritual disciples or churches. Jesus brought the kingdom with him to the people who needed it most in a very incarnational and transformational manner. That is what He instructed us to be about.

Stop planting churches, start planting Jesus. Don't build churches, that is not your job or mine. Jesus said, "I will build my church." What He told us to do is to "Preach the gospel," and make disciples (or followers) of Jesus. To risk being cliche: the horse must come before the cart. The seed must come before the tree, and the fruit will follow. Plant Jesus, and let him start the churches. Frankly, He is better at it than we are anyway.

21 comments:

Matt Summers said...

Excellent Post!

Erik Fish said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent. Right on Neil!

Anonymous said...

Hello, Pastor Cole.

FYI, I recently read the Puritan, Thomas Brooks (1608-1680), where he equated evangelism with prophesy. In both prophesy and evangelism, the truth is told and it gives direction to lives.

Yes, I believe you have the better cause and effect direction regarding evangelism and church growth. Evangelism promotes church growth and church planting. Thank you for your leadership in evangelism and church growth by both example and precept.

jasonkuo said...

Thanks Neil, this is right along what I've been seeing and hearing. Thanks for writing.

ChosenRebel said...

Amen, a thousand times, amen!. For the past two years I have begun my church planting class at TEDS with this statement: "We are not called to plant churches; we are called to plant the gospel. The effect of planting the gospel will be the planting of churches."

Too many church planting guru's and churches, both of the "brick" and "organic" variety don't seem to get this. You can grow a church of either the attractional form or the organic form and still not be evangelisticly healthy or effective.

Thanks for your leadership. Keep planting the gospel brother.

Anonymous said...

Neil, I agree that evangelism will lead to churches being planted. But, you must not discount the use of Gospel literature or public proclamation to sow seeds so that God will give the increase. Public proclamation is the best way to sow seeds in our culture and teach people the Good News of Jesus. My question to you would be what type of Gospel are you creating disciples from? Is it an easy-believism type of Gospel or one that calls people to repentance and faith in Christ alone.

We must look at the book of Acts to see the clear example for how to bring the good news of Jesus to cities...publically proclaiming what Jesus has done. This doesn't seem to be something you agree with, but it is clearly presented in Acts. We must have boldness to share the Gospel publically as you see throughout the early church. Why is the church today unwilling to do this?

Stan said...

I couldn't agree more The best means of church planting under the sun today is evangelism (gospel sowing).

Later on you talk about wholistically sharing the Gospel which mans it reaching out to people physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually not just spiritually.

Word and deed are combined together not just verbal proclamation.

Darius Namdaran said...

Yes

Nick Bekker said...

I don't entirely agree. I don't think its an "either/or" kind of thing. Yes, we must evangelize, but new believers need to be discipled and they need to start "one-anothering" and this can only happen in ekklesia - gatherings (or for lack of a better word, churches). Jesus did say that he would plant his church, but he does so through the agency of humans. Most of Paul's ministry and more than half of the content of the New Testament is about church planting and discipling believers who are in community.

I agree, however, that if the main purpose of planting a church is to win converts, then the cart is before the horse. But that should never be the main purpose of church.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the concept of not starting churches without winning new people.

But I think planting a church through winning new people is the best form of evangelism. This isn't because churches are forced to win people to survive as mentioned in the post.

It is that the church doesn't have an identity or culture yet. You aren't inviting people to accept both Jesus and a new church culture. You are inviting people to accept Jesus and the culture is created through a gathering of new believers. It is the excitement of missionaries entering and creating a new community. It is serving from the position of weakness, rather than from a position of power. This is a more full representation of Christ.

I would almost argue that beginning a church without evangelism isn't "planting" a church but "stealing" one.

Jason Pope

Jon Van Bruggen said...

Great insight Neil!

upstream said...

I definitely resonate with this Neil. I wish 'church planting' equated to evangelism, but clearly it doesn't.

I've been reflecting on what I/we may need to do differently and this is a strand of thought that is important.

I guess my hesitation is that 'the church' must exist in some form for evangelism to occur, so it may be a case of semantics in some ways.

However I get the gist of what you are saying - that we can get too caught up with establishing an organized church - that we neglect the vital work if evangelism.

Plenty of challenge there for me mate!

upstream said...

I definitely resonate with this Neil. I wish 'church planting' equated to evangelism, but clearly it doesn't.

I've been reflecting on what I/we may need to do differently and this is a strand of thought that is important.

I guess my hesitation is that 'the church' must exist in some form for evangelism to occur, so it may be a case of semantics in some ways.

However I get the gist of what you are saying - that we can get too caught up with establishing an organized church - that we neglect the vital work if evangelism.

Plenty of challenge there for me mate!

Hamo

Dan Benson said...

Thanks for the post. I too have quoted the dictum that planting churches is the best way to grow the Kingdom. I would just add, as someone else has, that the point of new home churches is that they more easily attract not-yet-Christians who have no interest in attending a legacy church. So in that regard, planting house churches does help in the process of advancing the Kingdom through evangelism and discipleship. I also would say that our definition of evangelism needs to be as broad as possible. Public proclamation, serving the poor and needy, "friendship evangelism." The one principal to stick to, however, is the Person of Peace, though. We don't want to take people out their environment and bring them into our Christian ghetto. The church need to follow them into theirs.

David Kueker said...

In order to see why Neil's statement is so correct, I think it is useful to understand why the Wagner statement was effective. "The best means of evangelism under the sun today is church planting."

1. Long existing churches are closed networks that exclude new people; in a church plant, networks are forming and are totally open because everyone is new. When the new church reaches a certain size, networks close and growth stops. In organic disciple making, disciple makers create networks by building healthy relationships with the lost.

2. When a church is newly planted, it is focused externally; when it reaches a certain size, it refocuses internally on its own business. Organic disciple makers are always focused externally upon the lost.

3. Everyone understands that what makes traditional churches grow are the personal relationships that lead to invitations to attend worship. That is tacked on as an obvious addendum to hundreds of pages of text on how we need to change institutions to be "relevant" and grow. Organic disciple making organizes individuals to develop these relationships, making most proposed changes to churches irrelevant and unnecessary.

If you'd like to read some of the secular research undergirding these statements, it's in Everett Rogers Diffusion of Innovations and Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (www.bowlingalone.com).

David Kueker said...

I should have added a #4. Church plants are exciting because they are new; this excitement wears off when the church is built. Organic disciple makers are excited about God at work in the lives of people being transformed, which is never ending as they continue to interact with new people.

Brian Stevenson said...

Good word.

Dan Benson said...

Thanks David.

Steve said...

Great book: Church 3.0 - just got it and now have it heavily marked. Got the Kindle book of your on leadership as well for my iPad!

Thanks for your writing...

Steve

Peter said...

Neil, this was a great post. Perhaps, both methods should be accepted. Churches lead to evangelism and evangelism leads to churches. Since God's wisdom is so much greater than ours, He has many ways He can build His church. In every situation, we should be walking closely with God and listening for what He wants us to do. You are exactly right that Jesus will build His Church. And, we must available when He tells us our parts.

mikeyoder said...

I completely affirm this, Neil. Thanks for putting it is succinct and memorable form. For years now, I have felt like church planting has been touted as the ultimate ministry and the core of the Great Commission. But in my Bible, making and multiplying disciples is the core, of which gospel proclamation is the essential foundation. Just last year, you and I sat in a conference where a well-known and exceptionally good communicator equated church planting with the Great Commission. I groaned, because everything he said was a ringing endorsement of disciplemaking, not church planting. Church planting is the fruit of that disciplemaking.

Thanks for your excellent post. I look forward to seeing you in that same city, Columbus, in October. I hope that you will continue to trumpet this message at that important gathering.