By Greg Marksberry
An elder offered his enthusiastic but green minister this sage advice, “Shepherds don’t produce sheep; sheep do.” This wise leader understood that greater ministry is accomplished not by trying to do all the work by ourselves, but by mobilizing others in the effort. D.L. Moody phrased it this way, “I would rather put ten men to work than do the work of ten men.”
Just as sheep produce sheep, churches birth churches. Church-growth analysts often cite church planting as the most effective means of evangelism. It stands to reason that more churches focused on reaching more people will more effectively evangelize the lost. To extrapolate Moody’s vision, I’d rather our church help put 10 churches to work than try to do the work of 10 churches. But the responsibility for church reproduction throughout much of the last century was largely left to evangelistic organizations. These ministries have faithfully championed the need to establish new congregations, while operating on shoestring budgets and often going unheard. But a new day is dawning as congregations, large and small, are embracing the responsibility to birth new churches.
Over the past two decades independent Christian churches/churches of Christ have emerged as catalytic leaders in the church-planting movement. Benefiting from the innovation and influence of church-planting visionaries, our new congregations are being established with higher survival and growth rates than those of other groups. This success is contributing to an increased number of “expectant” congregations, as well as others seriously considering church reproduction. Given this, it may be helpful to reflect on the basic stages involved in churches birthing churches.
Birthing a new church begins with the preconception stage. It is during this time that the vision for church planting is caught.
New endeavors cannot begin until someone or some group envisions what could and should be done. The church-planting vision may come through a local church, a church leader, or someone who senses God’s call to participate in a new church endeavor.
The congregation I serve was initially envisioned by the senior minister of our parent church while on a mission trip to India. After witnessing the effectiveness of newly established Indian congregations in converting unbelievers, he was convicted to lead his congregation to reach more people through a church plant in their region.
The biblical precedent gives us insight into God’s vision for church reproduction. In Acts 11 the Jerusalem church dispatched Barnabas to encourage the new group of believers in Antioch. By Acts 13 the young Antioch church had sent Barnabas and Saul to establish churches throughout Asia Minor. Antioch is known to be a sending church, but it was also a birthing church. Every congregation should consider whether it will leave the legacy of a barren church or a birthing church.
One highly successful church planter relates how fearful he was when initially praying about launching a new church. He ultimately found comfort in the realization that although he had never before started a church, he had successfully launched many new ministries within churches. It is always inspiring to hear how people who never before envisioned themselves participating in a new church can be used by God to contribute with their unique gifts.
The next stage is conception. During this stage a determination is made to give birth.
Reaching this decision requires consideration of the responsibilities that accompany birthing a new church. In some ways, these are questions a good parent asks before having a child. What are the costs? Are we prepared to do everything possible to ensure a healthy birth? Is a multisite or autonomous church plant the most strategic for our area?
Of course, conception also requires finding the right partner. Every species in nature requires a partnership of two in order to reproduce. Should anything less be expected in the reproduction of Christ’s church? John Maxwell captures the synergistic power of partnership with this formula: “1 + 1 = 11.” Church-planting partnerships produce better strategies, more funding, and wider accountability. New churches always benefit when they are birthed through the teamwork of partner churches and organizations.
The emerging church-planting movement is generating a variety of creative partnerships. Church-planting organizations, evangelistic associations, and individual congregations are harnessing the power of partnership to produce new churches. Churches of all sizes are pooling their resources and “owning” the vision for reproducing themselves. Some of the most touching stories unfolding across the country are of congregations reaching the end of their life-cycles, but “recycling” their resources to birth new churches.
Strategic partnerships are leading to more than just planting new congregations here and there. They are fueling a church multiplication movement with results far greater than any one group could produce alone.
After the new church is conceived, it is time for the prenatal care stage. This is the period in which partners prepare for a healthy delivery.
Strategies determined in the conception stage are now implemented. A lead church planter is hired, a church-planting team is secured, and a launch team of volunteers is assembled. Questions such as where the new church will meet and when it will be launched are answered. The myriad of details in a well-laid launch plan are finalized. This is a time when partnerships forged with church-planting experts serve the new church endeavor well.
During my wife’s pregnancies we benefited from the outstanding care of an obstetrician. It would be foolish for parents to go without quality prenatal care, if they have the opportunity to benefit from such support. Like a good OB doctor or midwife, church-planting organizations help existing churches to deliver healthy new churches.
The church-planting expertise offered by organizations like Orchard Group and Stadia is one of our movement’s most significant assets. These organizations provide the objective counsel and specialized training that ensure new congregations launch with the best chance of success.
Proverbs 15:22 says “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” The counsel offered by organizations experienced in establishment of new churches is invaluable. Statistics show new churches benefiting from the influence of church-planting organizations have a far better likelihood for survival and success. Certainly God is able to provide all we need in any given new church endeavor, and there are numerous success stories of congregations that have started with little or no assistance from outside organizations.
The church I serve is one of those stories. But our leaders have determined future new church endeavors will take place only in the context of partnership. Why wouldn’t we, with the high-quality, easily accessible “prenatal” care now available?
Next is the delivery stage, that sacred occasion when a new church is born. Like a baby’s birth, this is a transcendent moment in which the awe of God prevails.
When our church launch team was commissioned by the parent congregation, a prayer offered by our consultant described the wonder of a new church. He harkened back to Revelation 1:20 and asked God to set a “golden lampstand” before his throne in Heaven, representing this new church. What a powerful analogy of the recognition and care God devotes to congregations born for his glory!
Churches that birth churches often experience the same profound sense of joy new parents feel. There is nothing like the anticipation that builds during those final moments before the first public worship service begins. Who will respond to the prayers, the invitations, and the advertisements? How will Christ manifest himself among those gathered for the first time as the ecclesia in this place?
When a new church is delivered, God brings a bundle of joy that is often beyond what we could have imagined. It’s a joy that not only refreshes but can renew the evangelistic fervor of parent churches. Although every delivery requires a great investment of labor and love, the benefits are so profound it is always worthwhile.
The final stage involved in birthing a church is the postpartum stage, a time for nurturing the newly established church.
For decades new churches were established with a “lone ranger” mentality. Often these church planters felt isolated and alone in their efforts. One of the most profound principles to emerge in the current church-planting culture is the concept of “planter care.” The idea is to provide church planters with trained coaches, personal mentors, and networks of new church leaders with whom they can share.
The days of “solo” church planting have given way to the strong support of church-planting teams. Not only does the lead planter benefit from planter care, usually provided by a church-planting organization or a combination of service providers, but so does the entire church—including the planter’s staff and family. Family care for the church-planting team is another concept gaining traction. The unique challenges facing new church leaders can cause distracting, if not devastating, stress loads on families, not unlike postpartum depression. When families can share their common struggles, they can survive those draining initial months.
The accountability and attention provided by new church management teams through their oversight, coaching, and mentoring of the planter actually serve to strengthen the new congregation. When new churches experience crisis or failure in the lives of key leaders, they often fold. But a recent case of a congregation sustaining such a crisis shows that with capable coaching and management team support, it can not only survive, but thrive. This example confirms the need for and value of “postpartum” care during the first few years of a new church’s life.
It is also during this phase that the core value of church multiplication, encoded on a new church’s DNA at conception, is realized. Some of the greatest innovations in church planting have developed within new churches themselves. Organizations such as Passion for Planting and New Thing Network have grown out of new churches that embrace the responsibility for church reproduction.
A true church multiplication movement will require the majority of our churches, new and long-established, to catch the vision for birthing new churches. It will require a fundamental acceptance of the principle that just as sheep produce sheep, churches birth churches.
Greg Marksberry serves as minister with Heritage Christian Church, Peachtree City, Georgia.