Starting new churches has been a normal part of church life for 2,000 years. In the New Testament alone, 30 towns are mentioned where a new Christian community had been planted.
Of course, for us, “church” doesn’t just mean a Christian community. If we say, “I’m going to church,” it generally means I’m going to the church building for a service. If we say, “I’m going to the church,” it means I’m going to the church building for some other purpose, perhaps a committee or a Bible study or a working group. We very naturally equate “church” with “church building,” however much we might dislike that reality (and I do).
Buildings complicate things. If you have been in church any length of time, you know that all too well. But buildings are not at the heart of church, and so neither are they at the heart of church planting. When St. Paul started a new church, it would normally meet in someone’s home. At the end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he sends greetings to “Prisca and Aquila” and “the church in their house,” and that was apparently nothing remarkable. In fact, there is no record of a special church building till 200 years after Jesus!
What is a church for?
So if church is not the building, what is it? There are lots of good answers, of course: the church is the Body of Christ, it is the people of God gathering for worship, it is a sacrament of the presence of God in the world, and so on. But here’s another answer, and it sheds light on why church planting is important: Church is a hub for the Good News of Jesus, a place where the Good News is talked about, understood, enjoyed, celebrated, lived out, and shared.
And what is that Good News? That through Jesus Christ the Creator of all is at work in the world to put right all that we have made wrong! This is Gospel—good news about the mission of mercy our God is on. As one young church planter explained it to me, “God is changing everything—and you can be a part of it!”
Of course, God putting things right takes many forms: on one level, it means such things as social justice, reconciliation, work for the homeless, and care for the environment. On another level, the Gospel is expressed in bringing diverse people together in a supportive community, working to forgive one another, learning to be more generous than feels comfortable, affirming people’s gifts, going the second mile, and so on. The curriculum in the missional school of Jesus is very far-reaching!
We often speak of “our church” or even “my church.” But the church is not really “ours.” As Archbishop William Temple said, “The church is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” The church is for the world: Christ is for the world, so it makes sense that Christ’s Body is for the world. So planting new churches is also for the sake of the world.
Where should you plant a church?
A local Reformed church in Hamilton planted a daughter church a few years back. Why? You might think it was because there were lots of church members living in the new area who didn’t want to commute to church. You might think they were worried that there were only Baptist and Anglican churches in the neighborhood, and they felt there should be a Reformed church there, to claim its market share. But the motivation was none of the above.
The pastor showed me a map of the city the church had drawn up, with all the churches of every denomination marked on it. And he explained that they looked for an area where there were almost no churches—and that’s where they planted the new congregation. In other words, they chose a neighbourhood that was not yet being served by a Gospel community. They didn’t plant the church for their own benefit, but for love of their neighbours. They planted a new church in order to be part of the mission of God to make all things new. They planted in order to be a blessing, to bring life and joy to a neighbourhood where those things were in short supply.
I haven’t checked recently, but if all is going well, folks in that neighbourhood are saying, “Thank God that church moved into the neighbourhood when they did. They have made this such a better place to live. Where would we be without them?” Come to think of it, that’s a good thing for any neighbourhood to say about their local church—whether new or old.