Defining a Church Planting Movement

By Bruce Carlton

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“A church-planting movement is a Holy Spirit-controlled process of a rapid, multiple reproduction of indigenous churches among a specific people group so that every individual within that people group has opportunity to hear and respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ.


Let’s work from the end back to the beginning…

…”so that every individual within that people group has the opportunity to hear and respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ.” (I Timothy 2: 4; 2 Peter 3: 9)

God desires all to be saved. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. The end is not planting churches. The end is not planting churches that reproduce. Multiple church-planting movements are not the end. We must be driven by the belief that, indeed, God is NOT willing that anyone perish. Church-planting and church-planting movements are simply vehicles that move us toward the end as we engage and evangelize a people group. As we begin our work among a people group, we must believe with all of our heart and with all of our mind that it is God’s will that everyone within that people group should have the opportunity to come to repentance. If that is God’s will, it must be ours. Everything we do on the mission field among the people group among whom we are working should be directed toward seeing God’s will as expressed in these two verses fulfilled among our people group.


…“of a rapid, multiple reproduction of indigenous churches among a specific people group…”(I Thessalonians 1: 7-8)

This statement implies that the churches planted among a people group are churches that reproduce themselves. The New Testament descriptions of God’s church clearly indicate that church is not a place where we go, but church is whom we are. The New Testament descriptions of church remind us that God’s church is not an organization or institution, but is organic in nature. Organizations exist primarily to maintain themselves. Organisms remain alive through reproduction. Organizations or institutions may reproduce, but organisms thrive on it! Organisms realize their very existence depends on their ability to reproduce themselves (see I Corinthians 12: 12 –27; Ephesians 1: 22-23; I Peter 2; 5-10).


The nature of a church-planting movement is that reproduction becomes more rapid over time as the local churches themselves understand and begin to fulfill their missionary nature. The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 tells us that the growth or reproduction will be different among different peoples. In some places the growth may be a hundredfold, others sixty fold and, still, others thirty fold. Rapid growth is not the same each place or in each movement. However, what is true in every movement is that the church itself becomes missionary, taking the Good News of Jesus Christ to areas and people who have never heard, making disciples of those who believe and gathering those disciples into organic bodies that engage in worship, discipleship, outreach, ministry and fellowship. These churches also practice baptism and observe the Lord’s Supper (see Acts 2: 41-47). Further, these churches have spiritual leadership (see Acts 14: 23; 15: 2; 20: 17; Ephesians 4: 11-14; I Timothy 3; Titus 1: 5-9).


These churches should be indigenous. The word indigenous means different things to different people. However, indigenous means more than just self-sustaining, self-governing, self-propagating and even self-theologizing. Indigenous must also include contextualization. In other words, the church must take root within the culture in which it is planted in order to be effective in reaching the people around it within that culture. One of the major criticisms you may hear from non-Christians in other countries and cultures is that Christianity is a foreign religion. The criticism often is justified when one looks at the churches that have been planted in their respective cultures. Many, if not the overwhelming majority, of churches planted by missionaries in other cultures reflect more of the missionaries’ home culture than the culture of the people among whom the missionaries are working.

…“a Holy Spirit-controlled process…” (John 14: 16-17, 26; John 16: 7-15; Acts 1: 8; 2: 4; 4: 31; 9: 31; 10: 44-45; 13: 2; 16: 6; 20: 28; I Corinthians 12: 1-11; Galatians 5: 22-25)

You cannot manufacture a church-planting movement. In order for a church-planting movement to take place we must recognize and allow for the working of the Holy Spirit in bringing people to faith, in the discipleship process, in the church-planting process, and in the missionary role- both ours and the churches as they fulfill their missionary nature . Failure to do so will result in the quenching of the work of the Holy Spirit and our efforts will fall miserably short.

We must do all we can to prepare ourselves with the tools needed to be effective evangelists, disciplers and church planters, but these tools alone, even if carried out with great precision will not, in an of themselves, result in the rapid multiple reproduction of churches. All that we hear about church-planting movements may lead us to believe that all we need to do is implement the best methods being practiced in missions which will, in turn, produce a church-planting movement where we work. We cannot remove the Holy Spirit from the picture and solely trust in our methods. In all that we do, we must first give way to the working of the Holy Spirit among the people whom we are seeking to reach with the Good News.


People working within church-planting movements often describe these as being out-of-control. Nothing could be further from the truth! The truth is we are not the ones in control, but someone greater is in control. That someone is God’s Holy Spirit. If we seek to control what happens in a church-planting movement we are showing a lack of faith in God and His Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that will begin the work among our people group, it is the Holy Spirit who is in control and it is the Holy Spirit that will complete the work (see Philippians 1:6)


© R. Bruce Carlton, 2003 (Republished Sentergy.us, October 2018)

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