At the recent Church Planting Canada Congress, Missiologist Alan Hirsch spoke this word to planters and catalysts across the country: “Plant the Gospel, not churches.”
You may be wondering, “aren’t they the same thing?” Not necessarily. At CBWC Church Planting, we’ve long advocated that church planting is the making of disciples who make disciples. From that increase of disciples comes new communities of gathering: churches. Jesus sent us to make disciples; He didn’t say “go and make churches of all people.” Churches are a result of disciple making. Maybe this seems like a bit of a chicken-or-egg conversation. Does it really matter which came first?
We think it does.
It all comes down to fruit. Which is the intended fruit of the Gospel: an organization, or the disciple who is committed to the work of the Spirit in transforming them to reflect God’s love and character into the world and make more disciples? This is the outworking of discipleship. Thus, the clarification from Hirsch: “Plant the Gospel, not churches.”
Measuring by this metric also shapes the dynamic of how we view success and failure. If the Church, beyond the period of the Epistles and Letters, were to view success and failure the same way we do now, mass discouragement would have probably wiped out the establishing of new faith communities. Paul and others planted churches in communities throughout the diaspora that are no longer in place. Does that mean those planters, those churches, failed?
What if instead we would ask, “where do we see ongoing evidence of the Gospel planted in Ephesus, in Europe, in my city?” We could point out evidence of the Story of God and His people, of Jesus as the Son of God who ushered in God’s kingdom dynamic, of people pursuing lives as God’s image bearers and ambassadors, as being still active and present. Thus the Gospel was successfully planted. Even if the number of believers in a specific location have diminished, they are the fruit of the seed long-ago planted, nurtured and going through life cycles.
How we measure, or by what metric we use to deem success or failure, will vary greatly on what we determine the goal is. If the evidence of a successful church plant is ownership of a building, the number of folk engaged with the ministry of that church, and financial stability, then it is a natural progression to see the decline of people, funds and ability to hold on to a building as a “failed” church plant.
But if the metric is planting the Gospel, then a plant dying to the ground and scattering seeds with the Gospel DNA embedded would still be success. People came to faith in Christ, grew and flourished in a particular community and then scattered to plant Gospel wherever they find themselves. Thus the church plant is a successful Gospel Plant!
In our world today and even in our own church communities, we are experiencing a decline in church attendance, and some churches have just aged out. But does that make them failures? Can we celebrate with what has been planted and scattered even if the particular location of gathering is no longer on the geographical map?
Isaiah’s beautiful recounting of God’s words in chapter 55 reminds us of the invitation for people to come to the well of God’s goodness: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
A no-longer-gathering worship location does not return void. There is seed that has been and is still being scattered. It has accomplished far more than we understand with our human limitations. Perhaps we see closed churches as fails because we have been planting churches, when we were meant all along to plant seeds of the Gospel in our gathering and our scattering. Perhaps we view this as just a nuance of the same thing, but what if it isn’t?
Can we ask ourselves these, and questions like them, without feeling like we’ve somehow failed? I don’t think we have failed. I think we may need to simply, in a variety of ways, realign ourselves with the reality that any planting at all is “…for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed.”