I remember, when I was in college, driving by a billboard for a new church that boasted, “This ain’t your grandma’s church”. The photo had a guy with a full-sleeve tattoo holding a Bible. I was a relatively new Christian at the time, aspiring for a life of ministry leadership, and this sounded incredible to me.
Like many in my generation, I was frustrated by the stale Southern Christian-nationalism I’d experienced in some churches and longed for a more “authentic,” “organic” experience. So I started allowing myself to be discipled by websites like Church Marketing Sucks and Stuff Christians Like.
This impulse accounts for some of why I was attracted to church planting in the first place. My motive was right, but I was reading from the wrong playbook. In hindsight, I threw out the proverbial “baby with the bathwater.” My first church plant experiences were essentially a series of failed ecclesiological R&D experiments that left me scratching my head in confusion and ultimately turned me back to a historic definition and the ancient practice of the Church.
Turns out, I’m not the only 40-something pastor who took this journey. Lots of “True Love Waits” ring-wearing, DC Talk fans are now confused church leaders still attempting to find a way to lead a church they want to be part of. My advice to church planters after 20+ years of experience is this: If you are going to plant a church, you should have a lock-tight grip on what a church is (and what it is not).
It’s not the aim of this article to convince you to adopt a particular definition of the church, as much as it is my aim to convince you to settle on a definition you can support from the Scripture before attempting to plant a church.
700 years ago …
A French theologian and church planter named John Calvin concluded, “Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.”
Notice in Calvin’s claim that a church has two key characteristics.
- God’s Word proclaimed and received.
- Baptism and the Lord’s Supper practiced.
These are two simple and summary items that cover the most significant portion of the church’s function in the world.
1. The Word of God preached: God and his revealed “Word” is the truest authority in the church. People can explain the Bible and sing the Bible, but they only serve to hold up and proclaim the teachings of God. Preachers and teachers in Jesus’ church – like mockingbirds – have no original song to sing and exist only to repeat and amplify the song of God.
2. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper practiced: Baptism is the entrance into the local church. Like a wedding is a ceremony publicly affirming a commitment made in the heart, baptism is the outward depiction of an inward faith. The Lord’s Supper is the ongoing affirmation of that same faith and a reminder of the sacrifice required to provide your salvation.
I’m not claiming that these two things encompass all that God intends His Church to be, but I am claiming that before you get too carried away fixing the church, you should determine what scriptural practices are indispensable.
Calvin’s clarity on the matter shaped all that he did in church planting. Attempting to plant a church without crystal clarity about church is like trying to put together a puzzle without seeing the front of the box.
For decades, we’ve been having important conversations about missionary practices. The ideas that have emerged from the modern missionary movement have emboldened a generation of entrepreneurial ministry leaders that feel a little too free to revise a centuries-old, Jesus-founded institution.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be creative or innovative, but I’m afraid that, in the name of creativity and innovation, we may have inadvertently compromised the integrity of the institution that God intends to use to bring His gospel to the world.
We think of Calvin as a theologian, and he is, but as the “leading church planter in Europe,” his theology fueled his practice. John Starke explains:
By 1555, Calvin and his Geneva supporters had planted five churches in France. Four years later, they had planted 100 churches in France. By 1562, Calvin’s Geneva, with the help of some of their sister cities, had planted more than 2,000 churches in France. Calvin was the leading church planter in Europe. He led the way in every part of the process: he trained, assessed, sent, counseled, corresponded with and prayed for the missionaries and church planters he sent.
“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18
Published August 22, 2022