Missionary roles in Church Planting
A Dallas seminary grad was interested in pursuing the mission field as a possible place where he could be involved in church planting. As we discussed various options, he was adamant. He wanted to plant a multicultural church along with his wife. It didn't matter if multicultural churches were struggling in the city he was interested in, or if American missionaries had yet to produce much fruit as direct church planters in the area, or if there were church planting coaches and trainers needed. He felt he had received a clear call to plant a multicultural church himself, either on the mission field or somewhere in the Dallas area. I do not know where this young man and his wife are today, and I do not want to call into question his call or conviction of what he sensed God wanted him to do. But his story does help introduce the topic of missionary roles in church planting. As we move toward multiplication, what are some roles which missionaries can assume which contribute to indigenous, self-supporting, and reproducing local churches led by national leaders? The roles listed below carry with them the potential to impact a number of churches or even denominations. Often national church leaders have great difficulty filling these roles. This list is not exhaustive. Would you please let us know if you have any comments or have seen a missionary contribute to church planting in other ways?
1) Church Planting Researcher: The research role is undervalued amongst most evangelicals. At a 2008 European church planting institute, a young Slovak pastor showed other attendees a map of his country in which cities and regions were color coded in such a way as to designate areas which had the most and least evangelical churches. It was even coded to distinguish between charismatic and non-charismatic groups. Two missionaries had worked to produce the map and the accompanying statistics. The map was having an important impact across the country, according to the young pastor. The need for new churches was clearly evident and nationals were responding to the need by mobilizing themselves for church planting. Two missionaries put in the work and the national church was inspired to take up the task. In Canada, a database with information about all evangelical churches is generated using a mapping program. Denominations can pinpoint areas where there is significant population growth and few evangelical works exist. This research has demonstrated how the number of new churches is now increasing in Canada and how Canadian church attendance as a whole is now on the rise after dropping for decades. This has encouraged all denominations to continue their progress in planting new churches. They can see tangible results.
2) Church Planting Coach: Church Planting guru Ed Stetzer's PhD thesis was a study of those factors which positively influenced the growth of newly planted churches. One of the factors he noted was the importance of each church planter having a coach and meeting with that coach on a regular basis. Stetzer's data suggested that instituting regular appointments was one of the most effective ways to increase attendance in new church plants. This coaching function should continue through the first four years of the church plant. Stetzer's statistics showed a 25% higher attendance for churches by year four whose planters had received regular coaching over against churches whose planters had no coaching. Coaches keep church planters on track and accountable and encourage them as they go through difficult or discouraging periods in their ministry. They also keep their ear to the ground for potential resources and try to spot potential problems before they grow to affect the church plant negatively. Several denominations in the U.S. have committed themselves to not plant churches without providing a coach of some kind for their church planters. Yet on the mission field, unfortunately coaches are the exception, rather than the rule. It would seem obvious that a great missionary role would be to help national church planters, those who have a greater understanding of the language and culture, become more effective through coaching.
3) Church Planting Catalyzer: Catalyzers are people who use systems, structures, or resources to increase both the number and viability of new church plants. These catalyzers can operate on a national or regional level, with a single association or inter-denominationally. Many denominations in North America have recognized the need for someone to catalyze church plants for them and have placed someone in charge of development for the denomination either nationally or regionally. Some denominations have set up church planting committees, composed of pastors and other leaders who have a heart to see the number of church plants increase and the attendance in new churches increase more rapidly. Catalyzers can operate in a variety of ways, either formally or informally encouraging and supporting church planting through promoting church planting, training church planters, seeking funding for new churches, recruiting candidates to become church planters, or in creating training resources for church planting. In France, a number of denominations and missions are coming together to form a network with the goal of promoting best practices. In order for a denomination to establish someone as a catalyzer, there needs to be an important commitment to church planting already in place and some funding available for such a position. Until the resources are available for a national catalyzer, a missionary could fulfill this function. Some associations (EFC Brazil and Germany for example) use the term Church Planting Director for this role.
4) Church Planting Master Trainer/Professor: In Quebec, leaders from all major denominations have come together to partner in training church planters. A yearly church planters' boot camp is offered with segments being taught by five or six experienced church planters from different denominations. This approach has enabled all the denominations to have high quality church planter training accessible to them on a yearly basis, taught by national church planters. A missionary coordinates the training and updates the French church planting manual yearly with the help of the Quebec trainers. The same missionary works to organize training events in which best practices and their practitioners are given a platform to speak from. In Africa our sister mission ReachAfrica has launched their church multiplication training. But they believe they will not be able to contextualize and distribute the training to meet the needs of the African continent without also training Master Trainers. These master trainers select and coach trainers as well as handle the training.
At times a theological educator with experience in church planting can contribute significantly by teaching church planting and/or using Biblical and theological training to strengthen national movements. As denominations or associations of churches grow, they need leaders who have greater training and understanding of the Scriptures and missiology to keep their movement on track. In Latin America, ReachGlobal has developed Masters-level training which combines sound practice with biblical training in leadership and ministry. This is a great use of missionary personnel as a long term help to depth and stability among the churches of a nation or people group.
5) Equipper of Evangelists: In many places where ReachGlobal works, the greatest challenge is the slow rate of conversion. The key to seeing large numbers of newly planted churches is effective evangelism. But who is helping equip and train evangelists? What methods and means of presenting the Gospel are most effective among various people groups? Who is helping promote the most effective methods? Who is recruiting evangelists to work with new church plants, to help them grow and become stable? Again missionaries could have a dramatic impact on a nation through the training of evangelists. The Billy Graham association offers on occasion large gatherings for evangelists to come and be encouraged in their ministry. There is a great need for training at the grass roots level for those who want to share the Gospel effectively. In countries where post-modernism or agnosticism reigns, there is great need for training to be given so that those who are gifted to share the Gospel can respond intelligently to the rebuttals they receive to the claims of Christ. An equipper of evangelists could see multiplied thousands of conversions take place through their influence and ministry.
6) Church Co-Planter: In Quebec, American missionaries working alongside national church planters are seeing better success in their church planting efforts than those who have taken on the church planter role alone. By working closely with one or more national church planters or on a team, the individual church plant does not depend on the missionary. This also avoids the frequently difficult transition from missionary leadership to local leadership. In one Quebec case, the missionary was called back to the States for a six month period and the church continued to grow in his absence. The national 'co-planter' was more than able to shoulder the additional burden with some help from the mother church. Having missionaries 'go it alone' was discouraged by two French denominational leaders who felt that missionaries have a tendency to experiment by using 'fresh new ideas' which seldom seem to work in their culture. They much preferred pairing missionaries with French church planters, thereby providing some further direction on what was most effective in planting healthy new churches in France. A missionary who steps up into a direct church planting leadership role, becoming the "up front leader" for a local church, creates an entire set of expectations and certain dependencies. Without knowing it, this missionary may well hamper the growth of the church due to his status as a respected outsider. This can take place even if the church initially grows quite quickly under missionary leadership.
Conclusion: These six roles are by no means exhaustive and they are not meant to rule out a missionary doing direct church planting in pioneering situations where there are no local church planters. Which approach will bear the most fruit over a missionary career - working to directly plant one church over a period of ten to fifteen years or impacting dozens of church plants or whole denominations as a catalyzer, coach, master trainer, co-planter or researcher? This allows a missionary to move on more quickly and see more churches planted over their career. Missionaries can have a
greater impact over a longer time frame in a given culture or region by investing in roles which nationals often cannot assume and allow nationals to assume direct planting roles for which they are often better prepared. And isn't this closer to the Pauline model? From a biblical perspective, the missionary role is an apostolic role, not a permanent leadership role in a given church. Before taking on a direct church planting role, missionaries need to consider the possibilities and the multiplied impact of indirect roles which have been effective in impacting larger numbers of people for the Gospel and in creating greater numbers of healthy churches.