Some thoughts on church planting

May 14, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Is the received model of full-time, housed and salaried pastor for each local church necessary or even biblical? How else do we ensure good teaching, pastoral care, leadership?

Roland Allen was a high church Anglican who served in the Church of England and then as a missionary in China in the late 19th/early 20th century. He wrote his classic critique of contemporary mission methods in 1912 [helpful summary here], arguing that they were based on contemporary colonialism and ignored the lessons of St Paul. Not surprisingly it wasn’t until 50 years later that leaders of overseas mission organisations began to take notice. Allen is still largely ignored in Church of England theological training institutions, even though we are now in a pioneer mission situation just as the church was in China in the 19th century.

Allen’s basic premise was that the apostle Paul was driven in his mission by, and fully trusted, the Holy Spirit. While he did focus his preaching and church planting on urban centres, and his method was to begin in the synagogues, he often had to separate from them and move to other locations which were determined by the people who responded to the message. He assumed that as long as a number of people were genuinely converted and had a rudimentary understanding of the life of Christ, Old Testament ethics and the background to the way of salvation, principles of worship, and a testimony of new life in the Spirit, a local church had been established. He believed that because the congregation was an expression of the body of Christ, within it there would be provided the gifts needed for teaching and pastoral care, evangelism, and leadership. While Paul did collect money from the churches for the church in Jerusalem, he did not appear to take a salary for his own work, and nor did he interfere in the administration of finances, property etc for the new church, whose local members handled these things from the beginning. Paul would move on from a church established in this way after a short time, and believe not only that the congregation would survive, but that it would bring the gospel to the whole surrounding region.

By contrast, missionaries from the Church of England (and by implication, from most Western countries) would bring a complicated package of church paraphernalia: buildings, salaried clergy, Western-style administration and worship; they would see the local believers as ‘sheep’ who would need looking after for years. If indigenous leaders emerged, they would be put through years of Western-style training, before usually being sent not to their own communities, but other churches under Western oversight. Missionaries would complain about the immaturity of the Chinese church which necessitated this paternalistic approach, but in fact, according to Allen, it was a result of a misunderstanding of the gospel, which restricted the work of the Holy Spirit.

35 years after Allen’s prophetic book, all Western Christians were forced out of China. Many were convinced that the church would die, but in fact what happened was the biggest advance of the gospel in terms of numbers of converts than at any other time in history, as millions of Chinese turned to Christ under communist rule from the 1950’s onwards.

Does this have any relevance to England, or the West generally, as we face a time of rapid decline in nominal Christianity, pressure on orthodox believers to conform to secular values, and financial shortages?

While statistics show that numbers of people regularly attending C of E churches continues to decline, this needs to be balanced against the fact that many evangelical churches outside the C of E are growing, and that there appears to be an unprecedented effort in church planting happening right now, including within the C of E. However, most C of E church plant initiatives begin with the appointment of a full-time minister with salary and housing package, funded from central resources, and the equipping of a building. While this is not wrong in itself, it may have some disadvantages, especially if seen as the only valid model, much as the ‘colonial’ methods were seen in Allen’s day.

Conventional thinking: People in pews are ‘sheep’ who need ‘feeding’ in word and sacrament by experts.

Allen’s thinking: The biblical image of shepherd and sheep is only one of many images for the church. The concepts of the body with many parts, the gifts of the Spirit, the priesthood of all believers radically challenge the ‘professionalisation’ model; the family, the building are all pictures which do not presuppose a salaried leader and passive followers.

Conventional thinking: The larger the congregation, the better. Large churches can produce better quality in terms of music, children’s work, social events, to attract and keep the congregation. Large organisations need skilled full time people; smaller ones need people with the time to make them grow bigger.

Allen’s thinking: this can become worldly rather than biblical. If the church attracts by making people feel comfortable with the building, the coffee and the exciting kids work, it is less likely to risk repelling people with counter-cultural teaching on discipleship. If it’s aiming to look impressive, it is less likely to risk alienating Diocesan or civic leadership with prophetic stances on issues of biblical principle.

Conventional thinking: Church has to be done ‘right’, following inherited administrative processes, worship patterns, unspoken social norms of the institution, leadership selection.

Allen’s thinking: the gospel has to be preached right, and a group of genuinely converted believers guided by the Holy Spirit needs to come together in love, for worship, prayer, study of the word, outreach.

But does this actually work?

It’s worth remembering that most churches in the world, especially in the global South where the church continues to grow, do not have salaried pastors. In fact the preachers and pastors in most churches are not only unpaid or poorly paid, but without any formal training. This is why one of the best ways of supporting mission today around the world is to resource locally delivered, low cost informal methods of training in bible understanding and servant leadership, like the BUILD Partners programme in East Africa. Most pew-fillers in an average C of E evangelical church have had more and better biblical input than the average pastor of an African church! In many Anglican Dioceses in Africa, one full-time salaried ordained minister looks after up to thirty congregations; each church is run by a small team of lay ministers. Some might benefit from the ministry of retired or self-supporting clergy. Some of these congregations have over 100 people attending, even though there is no coffee, no sound system and no Sunday school!

Might there be something to learn here? Of course the context is very different, and it may well be that the work required to get a church off the ground is much harder in most of Europe. But a number of thriving non-C of E churches here operate with a team of bivocational, self-supporting leaders; some start that way and then pay a full time pastor when the congregation has grown enough.

The lessons from Roland Allen’s study of Paul’s mission methods are not to rule out salaries, buildings, centralised administration and other aspects of the scaffolding of church life, but to prioritise the biblical gospel message, and to trust not finance or gifted individuals but the work of the Holy Spirit in the different members of the local body of Christ. This is especially important as new expressions of Anglicanism outside the Church of England are being contemplated and started.

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