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In 1 Corinthians 3:5–10, Paul uses a mixed metaphor to describe the congregation at Corinth both as a plant and as a building:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.

This passage is one of the reasons that we speak about new congregations as church plants. In this particular congregation in Corinth, God’s workers Paul and Apollos were like tools in His hands—one planting, another watering, while God provided the growth.

If you’ve ever done any gardening, you know that certain things are essential to the growth and development of healthy young plants, things such as nutrient-rich soil, water and sunlight in appropriate amounts, proper spacing, pruning, and protection. If you nurture a young plant or sapling in the proper way, you give it the best possible chance of success. And yet there is still something mysterious about the process. Some plants just seem to have a vigor that others do not. Saplings provided with exactly same environmental conditions can sometimes produce very different results. Indeed, some plants die in the nursery before they even have the chance to be transplanted to the orchard. Ultimately, while the gardener is responsible to do his very best to ensure the success of the plant, he knows that God must give the growth.

So it is with church planting. Churches are born and churches die. But the failure of some does not reduce the responsibility of the workers to do all that they can to ensure the growth and vitality of those that survive. Thankfully, because we have Christ’s promise that He will build His church, we know that many not only will survive but will thrive and bear fruit for the kingdom of God. That means that we His servants can go about our gospel labor with confidence and courage, knowing that God will provide the growth. This article endeavors to answer some of the questions about how we as God’s fellow workers have attempted to give our church plants the best possible start so that they might grow and flourish into robust and thriving Reformed congregations of Christ.

That begins with local churches’ being committed to the work of church planting. Fruit trees produce fruit not just for eating but for propagating. That means that healthy, fruitful churches both locally and internationally need to be cultivated in such a way that they desire to produce other healthy and fruitful churches. Church leaders need to cultivate a vision for church planting among their members. Here are some steps for church leaders to take to foster such a vision.

Fruit trees produce fruit not just for eating but for propagating. That means that healthy, fruitful churches both locally and internationally need to be cultivated in such a way that they desire to produce other healthy and fruitful churches.

Begin simply by talking about it and praying about it. Give regular reports on the work of church planting being done in the presbytery or denomination of which you are a part. Learn the names of the church planters in your presbytery or denomination and how you as a body can be praying for them. Put church planting in the budget so that the members have a real stake in the work.

Our church has supported church planting financially in two ways. First, we support our denominational and presbytery efforts in church planting through their respective home missions committees. Actually, we have done this from our inception as a church plant. Even while we were still receiving support from our regional church, we were giving back to the work of church planting. We desired from the very outset to be a sending and self-propagating church. To that end, the second way that we budget for church planting is by creating a specific fund with a view to planting a daughter church of our own. We talk about it, pray about it, and put money toward it. As we commit our resources to church planting in these various ways, we are preparing the soil of the hearts of our members to desire to be a part of the effort. And it is our prayer that some of these members may one day desire to be a part of the core group of a church plant themselves.

That brings me to say something about the various ways that faithful churches and denominations have gone about the work of church planting. There are three principal ways that church planting has typically been done. We might call them the mother-daughter model, the core-group model, and the parachute-plant model.

A mother-daughter plant is the kind of plant that our church hopes to take part in someday. In this model, a healthy mother church births a daughter church. Sometimes this model materializes when a mother church has several committed families driving some distance from an area where there is no faithful Reformed church. This presents an opportunity to consider planting and supporting a daughter church from among those committed families. This model can be a real blessing both to the mother church and to the daughter church. It can be a little daunting, to be sure, for a mother church to send out a number of families together with their resources to form a new church, but a church-planting friend of mine whose church has now done this at least three times (birthing three daughter churches) has said that each time the church sends send out a group of members, the Lord fills the church back to capacity. Within just a few years, the church is ready to plant again. In fact, now those daughter churches are beginning to plant churches themselves, so the original vision of the church is seeing granddaughter churches. May God make us such fruitful churches.

A second method of planting is often referred to as the core-group model. This model was employed at the church that I had the privilege of helping plant some sixteen years ago and of which I am still the pastor. In this model, some like-minded believers, who may have been meeting together for prayer or a Bible study, determine that they would like to see whether the Lord might be pleased to plant a church among them. Often members of that core group will make contact with one of the Reformed denominations and inquire about the prospect and process of affiliating with the denomination and becoming a church plant. This method often requires a good bit of work on the part of the denominational body. Home missions committees have to exercise great discernment about the viability of such a work, what resources it will take, whether the group is really committed to the task, and often whether the group has good reason to pursue a church plant. It may be that the group has coalesced around pet theological issues or a shared sense of dissatisfaction with another church. Sometimes those reasons are sound and warranted, and sometimes the issues are not pet theological issues at all but simply orthodoxy. But sometimes the reasons are not sound, and great wisdom and discernment need to be exercised by home missions committees as they seek to discern the Lord’s will before committing the denomination’s resources and efforts to a work.

A third model of church planting has sometimes been referred to as the parachute-plant model. It is so called because it doesn’t begin with any sort of core group at all other than perhaps a few contacts. Rather, a chosen and evangelistically gifted man is dropped into an area of need, where he begins to labor to see a new church plant formed. He may go door to door; he may begin advertising a Reformed Bible study; he may beat the bushes, evangelizing and trusting the Lord to give the growth. Of all the models, this is the most rare and the most dependent on having the right man for the job. But there are times when the Lord places a burden on a man’s heart or a desire among the men of the presbytery to see a church planted in a place of great need. And the Lord has gifted some men with extraordinary faith and great zeal for evangelism. Think of the zeal and courage of Paul, who would just go into a city and begin talking with people at a synagogue, by a river, or at the Areopagus. Such a man might go with the financial support of his presbytery, he may go as a tentmaker like Paul, or he may go with some combination of both.

My grandfather was such a man. With the support of the church and with the undying support of my grandmother, he planted several churches throughout Southern California. The Lord would burden his heart for a city, and he would be sent out by his church to plant. He would often find a plot of land with a house that had a large meeting room, and he would begin a church in the house. Then when the church had grown, it would construct a church building on the property. The first role that I had with a church plant was as an associate pastor with my grandfather during the building phase of such a church plant.

One of the most crucial aspects of successful church planting is obviously having the man for the job. Not just any man will do, but the right man. Just as the right tool is important for the craftsman, the right man is important for the church plant. The right man will be one who is qualified, called, and equipped for the work, a man who first and foremost knows, loves, and fears the Lord and feels called to lead others to know Him as well. And yet in spite of his own sense of internal calling, he will not take on the work himself but will respond to the external call of God through the means of the visible church. And if he is called to the task, he must necessarily be equipped for the work. He must be led by the Spirit, trained in the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and life, able to rightly divide the Word of God, and gifted by the Lord to preach it in season and out. And he must be ready to preach the Word, thoroughly committed to making disciples of the nations, through the work of church planting.

Here, then, is the single most important thing that individual church members can do to support the work of church planting: pray that the Lord would raise up such men. Jesus said, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” for “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37–38). So we should pray for men who will faithfully plant, water, nurture, prune, and protect the planting of the Lord as they look for Him to give the growth.

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From the May 2024 Issue
May 2024 Issue