Many aspiring preachers have studied the sermons, lectures and other writings of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, hoping to gain from the wisdom and skill of the man often referred to as “The Prince of Preachers.” No doubt his sermons are worthy of the admiration he still receives, but the fascinating scope of his ministry went far beyond the Sunday morning pulpit.
Church planters in particular may be surprised to learn that, among the myriad of ministries to which he was committed, one of the most impactful was his commitment to establishing new churches.
In 1856, Spurgeon founded The Pastors College to train men for ministry. Although much of the training focused on preaching, he admitted “from the commencement, our plan was not only to train students, but to found churches.” Reports indicate that men trained at The Pastors College planted at least 80 churches in the London area and hundreds more around the world. Spurgeon certainly knew a thing or two about church planting and, in his letters to supporters, one can discern certain church-planting ethics by which he abided.
Let me share with you three such ethics that church planters 140 years later still would do well to incorporate into their ministry.
1. Success is achieved in faithfulness.
Describing the efforts of those men he had sent to plant, Spurgeon writes that “Often under very difficult circumstances a brother has labored on under hardship and discouragement.” Anyone who has endeavored to plant a church can likely relate to the adversity these statements describe. Preaching Sunday after Sunday, knocking on doors, doing evangelism, organizing outreach events and making ourselves available night and day is often the routine, yet often it feels like the church gains no momentum. Not only can we feel like our work is insignificant, but often we feel like an outright failure.
This is where Spurgeon’s ethic of success provides comfort. He writes, “A large amount of very earnest evangelistic work results in the conversion of souls, but does not produce any church organization: this, however, is by no means labor in vain, for thereby our Lord sees of his soul’s travail, whether we see it or not.” This is a wonderful reminder that God sees what we can’t and that God has called us to faithful obedience, not monumental results. We hear this truth again as he writes, “In the process [of church planting] a great many prove to be failures as to any church result, but they are not failures in other respects, and inasmuch as Christ has been preached, we rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” The greatest task we can undertake apart from worshiping God, is to preach Christ that others may worship God. Church growth is surely a reason for celebration, but Spurgeon understood, as we should, that faithfully preaching Christ is the ultimate measure of success.
2. Partnership requires honest accountability.
It is likely you have heard of a ministry, or perhaps experienced one firsthand, that tended to embellish results. Church-planters sometimes feel a need to exaggerate results in order to make the efforts appear more worthwhile to supporters. They may fear that if we aren’t producing adequate return on investment, we may lose our supporters. But for a partnership to honor God it must be based on honesty. Spurgeon clearly expresses his gratitude for those who have financially supported both the college and the church-planting efforts but before providing testimonies of success, he writes, “We trust that nothing has been overstated, for we have endeavored in every case to be below rather than above the truth.” Spurgeon understood that inflating numbers and overstating results is not done to make God look better but to make ourselves look better. He therefore took steps to fight against this prideful tendency: “We can only assure our readers that we have not sinned in that direction [exaggeration] in compiling our record, but have rather inclined to the other side.” He built protection into his reporting that allowed him, in his words, “to give an account of our stewardship to our subscribers, and most heartily to lay whatever of honor there may be resulting from it at the feet of the Ever Gracious One.”
Today’s church-planters must likewise fight the urge to exaggerate and instead honor God with honesty as we give an account to those partners He has provided.
3. Church planting is not a competition.
Another trap church planters must be aware of is viewing the work of other churches through the lens of rivalry. This manifests when territory overlaps or methods are copied, and the sad result is that we want to see our church succeed and others fail. Spurgeon however, was wise enough to recognize this danger and avoid it. He writes of his desire that “the new churches melt into the community to which we belong, and will be found to be doing Christian work in perfect harmony with churches before established.” This rings true with his statement elsewhere: “Our desire is that every man may both hold the Truth, and be held by it; especially the truth of Christ crucified.” He didn’t care who got the credit, as long as Christ got the glory. This ethic is vitally important and requires church planters to honestly consider what their goal is: to grow Christ’s kingdom or my own? Spurgeon answers this question: “It is no concern of ours to keep the new spheres for our own men, and when more fitting preachers come forward, we have never expressed any regret at the fact, nor have we been conscious of feeling any.” If our goal is truly to see Christ’s kingdom grow, then we will celebrate other churches that are faithfully preaching the gospel.
These ethics are but a drop in the bucket of wisdom contained in Spurgeon’s writings. Although they won’t remove all the difficulties of church planting, incorporating them certainly will increase our ability to honor God with our work.
Published March 9, 2022