I once heard a presentation arguing that the only New Testament method of missions is church planting. The missionary explained that, biblically speaking, the Great Commission is best fulfilled by Christians working to create not just disciples, but churches. This thinking has lead to the Church Planting Movement (CPM) which has sent (and is sending) many missionaries with the purpose of planting churches. One consequence of this movement is that it has led some missions agencies to only send out pastors/teachers/disciplers. The idea is that the only real missions is church planting, so the only real missionaries are church planters. In fact, we were turned away from one organization because we told them that we wanted to do Bible translation, and they told us that they did not send out Bible translators, only church planters.
So, this poses a question. Are you REALLY a missionary if you are not a church planter? To answer this I want to consider first what church planting is:
What is Church Planting?
When Jesus called his disciples to “go make disciples” he explained what that meant:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
We are called to: baptize and teach all that Jesus commanded. We see this played out in the New Testament in a very specific way: church. Discipleship was not confined only to Sunday morning, but these early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The command is to make disciples and the way that we see it played out is in churches. As missionaries, we are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission and we want to do it in a biblical way.
What is the Church?
So, missionaries go out to all of the nations and we work to plant churches. The goal being, a group of believers meeting together, devoting themselves to biblical teaching, fellowship, prayers and in doing so fulfilling the Great Commission. But Paul tells us something very important about churches in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31:
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
The church is a unified body with many members. God has ordained that there should not be just one type of church member. So, he gifted all of his children differently and told them to work together, giving them all the Great Commission.
What is a Church Planter?
If God created his church as a body of different people gifted differently, and then sent them out to plant other churches that operate in the same way, what kind of Christians should we consider as “sent out?” Would it just be the pastor/discipler type? I do not think that the logic follows. It seems rather that he would send out people with various gifts. I believe that this is what we see in the New Testament as well. Paul was an evangelist and discipler. Was he involved in church planting? Of course. But he never stayed anywhere very long. Timothy was a native of Lystra who was evangelized by his mother and grandmother. Paul helped disciple him and Timothy traveled with Paul in his missionary journeys, but then stayed on to work as a pastor in Ephesus. At that point his ministry looked different than Paul’s but both were involved in church planting. Aquila and Priscilla were tent makers that traveled some with Paul and discipled men like Apollos. We do not hear of Aquila’s preaching or itenerate ministry, but it seems that they were just Christians seeking to work and build the church as they lived their lives. Each of these people was a missionary, but they all played different roles.
We Are REALLY All Church Planters
Stacey and I are Bible translators. Can you imagine evangelizing and discipling without the Bible? How about missionaries that are doctors? It is really hard to evangelize and disciple dead people. But here in Cameroon I know several medical missionaries that save lives and disciple souls. They use their trade (medicine) as a means for helping people and disciple and minister to spiritual needs as well. For those that do become Christians and want to seek a deeper education in the Bible, where are they going to get that training? We could, of course, send people like this off to the US to attend Bible colleges and seminaries, but there are so many problems with that. Instead, missionaries work here to do theological training and have actually done such a good job that there are now several Cameroonian seminary professors. These professors are training pastors, evangelists, and future professors. All of us are seeking to build the church in Cameroon. Therefore, we are all church planters, even though we play different roles.
The goal of missions is disciples, and I agree that the best way to make disciples is in churches. But churches have many components. And when one is going to plant a church, especially in an unreached place, there are many roles in the church that will need to be filled. I am all for encouraging church planting, even saying that church planting is what real missions should be. But we must understand that church planting is not only done by pastor/teacher/disciplers. Instead, we need pastors, seminary profs, Bible translators, doctors, IT professionals, administrators, auto mechanics, and school teachers all working together to this end. Let us not claim one of these is more important or more real. Let us instead seek unity in recognizing our various gifts and roles in the task.