Written by Ron Smith / Ron & Amy Smith serve as a Church Planters in Milan, Italy
Church planting is easy. At least on paper. Reality seems to have a way of raising its ugly head to introduce quite a few wrinkles along the way. That said, there are a few principles that the cross-cultural church planter would do well to maintain to see a healthy, thriving, and multiplying church begin to sprout. These are personal principles I have picked up along the way while church planting in Italy.
Commit to the authority of Scripture.
How committed are we to the authority of Scripture? This is a question that needs to be constantly on the mind of anyone seeking to plant a church. Why is that? Because one thing that is essential is that biblical methods are followed, not the latest fad. Following the latest fad is a huge temptation because of the perceived immediate success that will come. Who doesn’t want people coming to the Lord, small groups started, disciples making disciples, etc.? To be clear, the latest fads are not all wrong. We just need to continually filter the fads through the lens of Scripture. When I first arrived on the field, I thought to ask my father-in-law how to plant churches since he had been doing it for forty years in France. His response was essentially, “Have a biblically solid doctrine of the church.” Yes, it seems boring and perhaps “old fashion.” However, when we remember that the Word of God is living and powerful, has the ability to penetrate the hardest of hearts, and reveals God himself to us, why would we not want to completely put into practice what our God teaches us through it? We want churches that intimately know the Living God. That becomes reality when we marinate in his self-revealing Word.
You are free to be innovative.
The ancient path of God’s Word brings us to cutting-edge innovation! Church planting in another culture is like having a blank page before you. Committing ourselves to the authority of God’s Word does not in any way turn off the flow of creativity. Find out what the heart-level life questions are in the culture you are ministering to and find ways to answer them. Find culturally relevant ways to uncompromisingly present the gospel. In Italy, beauty is a high value bested only by good food. Accordingly, we found that people would come to beautifully decorated thematic dinners where we would have a simple presentation of the gospel.
Be prepared for things that are merely different – not necessarily wrong.
This principle should be obvious, but it is too easily forgotten. We are in a different culture and should not expect things to operate the way they do back home. We must put our church experience in our home culture through the filter of God’s word. Church will look and feel differently, and if the church planter simply tries to replicate the home church they are leaving, they may end up more frustrated than anything.
Humility is a rock to stand on.
Tied to the previous principle is the need to be humble. When a church planter shows up in the new culture, the posture must be that of learning. There is a lot to learn: language, culture, how to go shopping at the grocery store… We come as students ready to learn and as workers ready to contribute where we can.
Be humble but not silent.
And with the need to be humble, remember that you have something to offer. In my pre-field training, it was drummed into us the need to respect the local culture where we would minister; to defer to the local Christians, recognizing that they know how to best reach the lost in their own culture. All good training. But in my case, I went too far. I forgot that I had a voice and I had something to offer. I needed to remember that the Word of God is my guide first and foremost, not the local Christian believer. We can’t, in the name of being humble, just go along with the flow, deferring to the locals when the direction runs counter to God’s will. We must be humbly courageous.
Equip and Release
Another principle of church planting flows from World Team’s central ministry focus: reach, invest in and equip others to release them into ministry. As church planters, equipping and releasing others must remain at the forefront of what we do. Certainly, this involves grounding them in the faith through the teaching of God’s Word. It also involves helping local believers discover the gifts that God has gifted them with so that they might be developed and used for his glory. Sometimes it is the small things that go a long way in this regard. Simply trying to involve others in everything we do can help equip people in practical ways.
Focus on the big vision AND short-range goals.
Don’t lose sight of the immediate objectives because you are blinded by the long-term vision. This is a dance that must always be engaged in. We need to have a long-term vision that causes us to look to the Lord in faith, knowing that he is the only one who can accomplish the vision. And we must also be mindful of the short-term objectives and goals that help us take steps (often small baby steps) toward fulfilling the vision. So, for example, if a team has a vision of seeing two church planting movements started in 20 years, they cannot be so obsessed with the long-term results that they don’t stop and plan for the very first church plant.
Be willing to evaluate.
The church planter should always be open to having their ideas criticized, analyzed, and modified. And on a regular basis, they should look back at what has been done and what is being done and ask tough questions to make sure that the work is worthwhile. As we do things, we keep learning about the people we are ministering to and may find that we need to make changes to our strategy.
Consider the culture, but don’t focus on the culture.
The culture you are ministering to is not the boss. God is. Any church planter will wisely start the work considering demographics and cultural customs. This research bears much good fruit and aids us in how to celebrate and resonate with the host culture and, at the same time, appropriately challenge the false beliefs of the culture. An Italian pastor told me once that we missionaries do a good job presenting the gospel, but we are weak in bringing people to the point of commitment to Christ. The gospel will be offensive no matter how hard we try to be culturally relevant. And that’s OK.
Pray and then pray some more.
Prayer should permeate everything the church planter does from morning to evening. Since arriving on the field, I have learned what it means to pray without ceasing. I was particularly impressed in this area by our team leader when we arrived. I remember going to do some mundane things like looking for car seats for the kids and him taking just a few seconds before leaving to ask the Lord’s guidance. Another time that showed me the importance of prayer and that will forever remain burned in my memory happened five years ago. We had just moved into a new neighborhood and knew of one other believing couple. We agreed to meet once a week to pray together for the neighborhood. The months that followed were filled with some of the most fruitful ministry we have ever had. Now, to be extra super-duper clear – prayer is not a magic wand. We have prayed over many ministry opportunities and events that we have done, and things did not go well. People don’t show up to events, friends reject the gospel, there are problems in the small church plant, etc. But prayer keeps us focused on the Lord, reminding us that this is ultimately his work that we have the great privilege of being a part of.
Many other principles could be added to this list. Some of the ones listed here may not even be among the most important. But I pray that they will be helpful as you consider the call to church planting.