5.   Confessions of a Failed Church Planter

Karen and I worked in evangelism and church planting for 10 years among a Muslim people group. Although our goal was to plant a church and a number became followers of Christ, we were not successful in establishing a “3-selfs” church (self-governing, self-supporting, self-propogating). Whenever we attended a conference in the country with those engaged in similar ministries, we would compare notes, trying to find out if anyone had been exceptionally successful so we could use their methodology as a pattern.  But no one seemed to be any farther ahead. At one of these conferences I was told about a study which had researched the activities of missionaries in an attempt to determine those factors which promoted success.  It was discovered that there was no difference in methodology between missionaries who worked in an area where there was a people movement and those who worked in an area where there was little progress. The obvious conclusion is that church planting, conversions and people movements occur because of the moving of the Holy Spirit, not because we have discovered that special method or unique spiritual key that unlocks the heart of a people group.

But this raises the question of the missionary’s role in the process: what is the point of missiological analysis and methodology if all depends upon the moving of the Spirit of God?  The encouraging answer to that question which confirms the partnership that we have in the spread of the gospel is found in Mark 1:1-4, the prophesy of Isaiah concerning the messenger who prepares the way. Even as the coming of Christ was a new beginning (v. 2), so every church planter is another John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. Until the Messiah comes, until the Holy Spirit moves, there will not be any conversions, nor will there be any churches planted.  But we still have a job to do.  Our job is to make the path straight, to prepare a road.  What we are exploring in missions is the best way to construct a road; to remove the obstacles so that when the Lord comes in power people are ready.

The fundamental mistake we made in our church planting effort was the attempt to introduce an unfamiliar social structure which we had understood to be the New Testament church pattern. The true goal in cross-cultural church planting is not to impose a NT model of church upon a group of believers, but to discover a communal context that is already present within which spiritual growth in relationship to Christ can occur. Working with social structures that are already being used by the people in that setting is an example of “preparing the paths” of that culture. Those familiar structures can become the channels through which Christ can be met.  The focus is not on the form of a social institution (i.e. an imported model of “church”) but on function, the resulting effect on the spiritual life of individuals.  McLaren says “the top question of the new century and new millennium is … whether [Christianity] can be powerful, redemptive, authentic and good, whether it can change lives, demonstrate reconciliation and community, serve as a catalyst for the kingdom and lead to a desirable future. The drama must be lived out at a local level by communities of people who live by the gospel.”[1]

When I started my ministry, my church planting method was to present the gospel to those whom God brought to me, teach the believers about “church”, meet together to “do church” and then develop a leader who could lead the “church”. Unfortunately it wasn’t until the final step that the unsustainable nature of this social institution became obvious. In my mind a “NT church” was based on the common bond of the members’ faith in Christ rather than on an established social structure. However the organizational structure I had put in place was interpreted by the believers according to a structure they were already familiar with – i.e. the group was dependent upon the wealthiest and most powerful individual who was the recognized teacher.  Rather than accepting their common faith as the bond for the social structure of the church, they understood the bond to be me, the teacher. As a result, when I tried to establish new leadership through the development of one of the members, there was conflict. They had no other social ties to each other except for their new faith in Christ and so there was no social reason for choosing one person over another to be the new leader. As a result the group collapsed.

A more permanent and reproducible pattern of “church” is to discover those social structures already present in the culture which can be adopted to develop a context in which spiritual growth in following Christ can occur. A couple of examples:

Nathaniel[2] told me one day of his favorite chapters in the Bible.  Most of them were the expected ones (Ps 23, Rom 8, 1 Cor 13, etc.), but then he said Genesis 7.  I was a little taken aback as I recalled that this was the chapter in which God destroys the entire world and I asked him why such a chapter would be so important to him.  He replied, “Just as God chose Noah to save his family, God has chosen me to save mine.” On the basis of this, rather than challenging him to be involved in a “church plant”, I encouraged him to focus on being an active and intentional believer within his family.  Thus he is fulfilling a mandate that he believes is from God.  His efforts are all within a given societal structure (family) and as a result the conflict of authority and control which occurred in the church plant I attempted are nonexistent.  Relationships are established on social grounds, not on the basis of a common faith, and within this context biblical teaching is given the opportunity to influence the members of the family.  Moreover because the family unit is ongoing, so is the influence of the gospel.  Such a model is also reproducible when the patriarchal heads of the family are targeted.  As a result of Nathaniel’s efforts a number of family members have come to Christ and worship services are a regular occurrence within the family context.

Another believer was encouraged by his mother to engage in the folk Islamic practice of becoming the follower of a Pir (holy man).  He replied, “I already have a Pir.”  His mother was ecstatic and asked who it was. “Jesus,” he replied. Is this a viable concept?  Rather than being a Christian, he presented himself as acting in accordance with local “folk Islam” practices.  The implications would need to be explored. What are the expectations in a Pir-follower relationship?  How do Pir followers interact with each other?  Can practices and expectations inherent in the Pir societal structure be Christianized?  Would this provide an appropriate context for spiritual growth?  Could the adoption of such a societal form legitimately be called a “church”?

The benefit of failure is that it stimulates us to discover better answers.


  • (1) p. 154. McLaren, B. A New Kind of Christian. San Franscisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.
  • (2) Not his real name.
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development