"Don’t plant churches, plant ministries!"
In our recent BC convention (May, 2003) Dr. Ray Bakke challenged us to reach the city for Christ. At one point he said "Don’t plant churches, plant ministries!" Focus on meeting the needs of people in practical ways and the transforming power of the cross will be experienced. By living out the gospel in an intentional, sacrificial manner that results in identification with the people, the gospel message can be heard and understood. Rather than being the focus or even the aim of mission, "church" emerges as fruit from the initiation and promotion of the kingdom of God through ministry.
Is "church" the goal or simply one part of missions?
Is church the goal of missions with "church-planting" the means of missions? Or is the church simply one part of God’s mission within a multitude of actions and means working towards the establishment of the kingdom of God? Hesselgrave affirms the former concept stating that "neither a missionless church nor a churchless mission is in accordance with the plan of God" and views the heart of missions as establishing people in congregations of believers. Conversely others see the purpose of the church fulfilled not in calling people to itself but in being an influence for initiating the kingdom of God in the world. Is the church to have an "inward focus" of pulling people out of the world into the church? Or is it to have an "outward focus" of being missionary by acting as an agent of change in the world? The former perspective views the church as a place of refuge surrounded by enemy territory, sending out rescue parties to bring in those who are dying. The latter concept is one of gardeners equipped with life giving seed and water who bring renewal to a desperate world. In both cases the world is desperate, but in one it is the enemy about to be destroyed. In the other it is the patient, needing to be healed.
The practical outworkings of missions with a focus on "church" or "kingdom" are enormous. At one end of the spectrum the church is the sole bearer of a message of salvation. On the other the church is an "illustration – in word and deed – of what God is doing with the world". In the one view the church is the sole expression of the kingdom; in the other the church is both an expression of the kingdom and an instrument to bring the kingdom into the world. The danger of the former is an unhealthy dichotomy between secular and sacred life, whereby our spiritual life is segregated from our involvement in world. The danger of the latter is compromising spiritual values in relating to the world and undervaluing the impact of an identifiable community of faith.
The danger of "church-planting" as methodology is that a group of believers meeting in a specific location becomes the mark of success. The purpose of the church as the instrument of renewal and transformation becomes overshadowed by a sense of completion and fulfillment simply by existing. The problem with ministry as the aim of missions, such as with "para-church" ministries, is the tendency towards a one-dimensional focus (relief work, students, counseling, etc.) that lacks the more comprehensive and holistic expressions that can be found in church.
Church growing out of ministry
It seems obvious that an integration of these two concepts is required. But maybe we should question the thinking that makes the church the means whereby the community is reached. Rather than focusing on establishing a community of faith in order to be a transforming influence, perhaps the sequence should be reversed. Establishing the kingdom through ministry within a community as the initiating priority and as the prerequisite for a church would both confirm the need for a church and provide an internal impetus for its establishment. The church would then grow out of and be shaped according to the needs of the community, rather than limiting the form to the comfort zone of the initiating community. Worshiping groups of believers who begin by impacting the community in the name of Christ, will continue to focus on establishing the kingdom of God in practical ways as an essential part of their identity.
The Missionary Church
The Pauline method of missions as described in Acts unmistakably focuses on establishing communities of believers. However NT teaching does not allow this to translate into a fortress mentality that views the world as the enemy (e.g., Jn 3:16). It is the world and not the church that is the focus of God’s plan, although the church is the primary means of fulfilling that plan (Mt 28:18-20). The church is not chosen or elect in order to be granted certain privileges, but called to a task of being the presence of Christ in the world. The church is "missionary by its very nature". Any distinction between being the people of God and acting as redeeming agents of God needs to be removed. By its very existence the church is to be "a sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society" as it acts out the gospel in loving, sacrificial commitment to others in the world.
The thrust of missions is that the whole people of God be involved, not just specialists. Missions is not solely evangelism or church planting because people have different gifts and abilities and all are called to use those gifts so that the gospel becomes evident in their daily lives. Believers need to minister with the community rather than to the community, so that Christ can be revealed along side of and together with those in need of salvation. The church then becomes defined by God’s people as they are active in the world and not just when they are gathered together. The goal of missions can only be "church" when it results in a church in the world and for the world. Not a fortress church in competition with the community, but a church that is a change agent for the benefit of the community and the whole world.
Among the unreached people groups of Pakistan where Christianity has only had recent and minimal impact, there is frustration over the inability to establish a viable church of dedicated believers. A lot of thought and discussion takes place in the endeavor to find a form of church that will be successful. But this is probably a misplaced or at least premature concern in that it would be better to create a need for church through the vision of and attempt at relevant Christian living. What is required first is intentional Christians who are noticeably valuable to their community. Such activity may do more to encourage gatherings of the faithful for worship and encouragement than attempts to discover a right way to structure church.
- (1) Hesselgrave, D.J. 1980. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally. Grand Rapids: Baker. pp 39-41.
- (2) Newbigin, L. 1989. The gospel in a pluralist society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p. 234.
- (3) Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission. Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll: Orbis. p. 372.
- (4) Newbigin, The gospel in a pluralist society. p. 233.