By Dick Grady and Glenn Kendall
(Vol. 28, No. 4)
What sets apart successful church planters from the rest of the crowd?
That’s what many missionaries and mission boards would like to know. Do they use different methods? Are their personal lives different? Are they limited to certain parts of the world, to certain agencies?
To find out, a survey was sent to 100 missionaries chosen as successful by their boards. It was returned by 85 church planters from all geographic areas. From their responses we developed seven strategy principles that successful church planters follow, whether they work in responsive or resistant places.
- More effective church planters spend more time in prayer. The more time spent in prayer, the more effective the church planter. Regardless of field difficulties, those who prayed more tended to be more effective. The most effective church planters average four hours and 15 minutes more in prayer per week than their less effective colleagues.
- More effective church planters use more broadly based evangelistic efforts. The most effective church planters had a greater tendency to use outreach methods that provide a large number of contacts in a given community. Those who enter a new cross-cultural situation, and devise a method for sharing the gospel with a large number of people, may then identify from this large group those who appear to be spiritually hungry. They invest productive time in discipling those who are more interested.
Starting the process, finding spiritually interested people, is best accomplished by some form of community-wide evangelistic campaign, with lots of noise, excitement, and activity, using many people. Traditionally, this meant nightly meetings with a well-known speaker. But successful church planters are not limited to that method.
They often use a variety of tools, including films, video, door-to-door witnessing, surveys, public meetings, book tables, singing groups, drama, media campaigns, parades, special services, extended prayer meetings, and so on.
Evangelistic methods aimed at a narrow range of people become wider if carried out by a sufficient number of people. For instance, a home Bible study group is not a broad-based method. But if multiple Bible study groups are started in a target community, then the outreach is extended, leading to greater overall results.
This principle supports the current use of church-planting teams. More people together in ministry are better able to carry out broad-based evangelistic methods.
- More effective church planters are more flexible in their methods. The most effective church planters demonstrate a high degree of creativity in their outreaches. They identify and use culturally relevant ways to communicate.
Each method has a target audience. Some methods hit one class, educational level, or even sex or age group better than others. Using a variety of methods extends the range of potential successes. The broader pool makes it more likely that people in families, clans, and groups will respond individually and simultaneously to the gospel. This increases the chances for a people movement.
More successful church planters combine flexibility with broadbased efforts. They coordinate multiple, broad-based methods. Evangelizing in multiple ways simultaneously compounds their effectiveness. Each method appeals to and attracts a different cross-section of the population, building up the effort to find those who are interested.
These church planters seek to use numbers of people for bursts of intensive outreach. Nearby church people, fellow missionaries, distant national Christians, international teams, and short-term workers make the contacts for later follow-up.
- More effective church planters are more committed to a doctrinal position. While creativity and flexibility are beneficial in evangelism, rigidity in doctrinal position, at least initially, produces better results. The most effective church planters appear to be very tight in their theology. The specific position itself is not as important as strict adherence to it.
It seems that in establishing new believers it is best not to get into doctrinal controversies, but better to transmit core beliefs. Possibly by focusing on the major point of reaching additional people, rather than taking the time and energy to thrash out all the pros and cons of various theological debates, churches grow faster.
A “this is what we believe, take it or leave it” attitude, while not the best for developing theological creativity, does allow for concentration on the basics. Greater theological diversity, especially at the beginning, can delay expansion. Energy expended in defining and learning the finer points of theology, and then choosing a doctrinal position, is better used in reproduction.
- More effective church planters establish greater credibility. There is a high degree of correlation between missionaries who emphasize activities to increase credibility and who plant more churches.
Credibility is established in two ways, but meeting social needs and by building relationships with community leaders. These steps of themselves do not make church planters more effective. But as church planters incorporate social work and building relationships into their total ministries, people respond.
Social work is not the primary focus of effective church planters, but one of many activities done by the more effective ones. They do not say, “First we will fill your stomach and then you will be willing to hear our message.” Rather, they say, “We will proclaim our message. If you want to have your stomach filled, that is possible, too.”
Social activity and gospel witness go on simultaneously. One does not depend on the other. Often national Christians do the social work while others witness. Local people participate as they will. Social ministries, of course, produce additional contacts. Non-Christians get to know Christians and the church building in non-threatening, need-based encounters. They see the church as credible, as part of the community, not an outside agency. They become more open to the gospel.
Building relationships means getting to know the political, religious, government, military, and other community leaders. After getting to know as many of them as possible, effective church planters develop a few deeper friendships. This reduces suspicions and helps alleviate future problems.
For example, new Christians were having a Christmas celebration in a moderately hostile Muslim area of Indonesia. A low-level official came to shut it down. But the national church planter had developed a close relationship with this official’s supervisor. He arrived and asked if there were any problems. The lower-ranking man bowed out and the Christians said everything was fine. What could have been a disaster was avoided because of the care taken to establish a friendship.
- More effective church planters have a greater ability to identify and then work with people who have a loosely structured religion. Where the religious structure is fairly loose, church planting tends to be more successful. This finding corresponds to the principle that says church planters ought to work among more open people first. As they respond, church planters can build on multiplied contacts provided by new Christians among more resistant people.
Successful church planters in the survey were either finding sectors of society more open to change, or they were using evangelism and making converts in ways that allowed people to become Christians and retain the essence of their culture, while putting a Christian stamp on it. This confirms what Donald McGavran has taught, the “resistance arises primarily from fear that ‘becoming a Christian will separate me from my people.'” (Understanding Church Growth, p. 191).
For example, more people tend to respond to the gospel when they have recently moved. Some of the more effective church planters worked with people who had just migrated into land areas recently opened by the government for settlement.
Other successful church planters find large new housing projects more open to the gospel for the first five years. Once people had settled in and developed new habits, they were no longer as open. They had built a new web of social contacts, so they had more to lose by joining a Christian group than when they first arrived.
- More effective church planters have a greater ability to incorporate new converts into evangelistic outreach. Consistently, the more effective ones quickly involved new believers in ministry and evangelism, even though they had minimal training. The survey uncovered three positive results from this practice.
First, new convert evangelism takes advantage of natural bridges for sharing the gospel while the new convert still has the greatest number of non-Christian friends. The longer people are Christians, the fewer non-Christian friends they tend to have.
Second, as new believers do evangelism, they develop a stronger commitment to the gospel. They become insiders, part of a new family. Even if forced to cut the ties with their old relationships, they can see new friendships developing.
Third, as they share their faith, new believers immediately are hit with questions about what they believe. Rather than destroying their faith, this forces them to study and learn more about it. As they study the Bible and learn from more experienced Christians, their faith and knowledge grow. Their quest for maturity is need driven.
To show how these principles work, we selected the story of church planting by the Association of Baptist Churches of Rwanda (AEBR), where Glenn Kendall worked with the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society for 13 years. During his time there the association grew from 1,100 members to over 17,000 baptized adult believers.
1) Prayer The AEBR outreach emphasized prayer, not just daily prayer, but four weeks a year of special prayer: between Palm Sunday and Easter, the week before Pentecost, during a week of special summer meetings, and the week before Christmas. Almost all churches observed these weeks. Most groups met early in the morning; some met throughout the day; some in late afternoon.
Sending churches mobilized prayer, especially in early days when larger churches sent their pastor or church leader to participate in evangelism and church planting in new areas. They prayed before and ruing the campaign. Participants prayed together each morning; those doing house-to-house evangelism prayed before and often during those visits.
The eight missionaries were prayer warriors. They enlisted prayer from their sending churches. At semiannual missionary meetings, the first day was devoted exclusively to prayer.
2) Broad-based evangelism Even though door-to-door evangelism was the heart of the campaign, it became a broad-based outreach because so many people did it. Our goal was to have everyone on the community know we were there. Those who were spiritually hungry often sought out Christians to hear the gospel. When campaigners went to homes, they were often told, “We were waiting for you to come.”
3) Flexible methods As campaigns progressed, workers found additional ways to present the gospel to different segments of the population. In each of the later campaigns they gave out 10,000 gospel tracts and sold books, Bibles, and Scripture portions. This appealed to more educated people in a media-poor society.
For the first campaign in Uganda, a choir from Zaire ministered. Musically and rhythmically gifted African young people flocked to hear the choir and followed them around. Music was like a magnet.
During a campaign in Zaire, workers conducted their first parade. Townspeople flowed behind the sound system and campaign people. Many stayed to hear the gospel.
Possibly the most effective method was the Jesus film. Translated into the local language, it drew thousands to nightly showings, each in a different place. People even stood through the rain to watch it. Showings were advertised ahead of time. This medium attracted a majority of men.
Each method added to the cumulative impact of the campaign. Methods that worked best were discovered by trying ideas often generated by people beyond the immediate leaders.
4) Doctrinal rigidity The AEBR is very rigid in doctrine. The church often has one position on each issue and that’s it. The association has one church constitution and one church covenant. This helped in church planting. People accepted the church’s beliefs. Later, those who were interested went on to learn about various other positions. Theological debate did not slow AEBR’s expansion, which was unhampered by doctrinal controversy.
5) Credibility Like stubborn customs officials, missionaries at first resisted all the social programs the church leaders wanted them to do. After persistent pressure from both the church and the government, missionaries agreed to go ahead, provided that expansion be the primary mission of the churches.
The AEBR launched a literacy campaign; at its peak, 13,500 people were learning to read. It started a school system (20,000 in primary and 1,000 in post-primary education), health centers, clean water projects, and enterprises like brick making. The projects consumed much energy and resources, but the gain was worth it.
People coming to the reading classes were not afraid to enter the churches. New water sources not only saved church families hours of water hauling every day, but made the churches the center of community activity. The schools are training a future generation of leaders.
These programs gave points of contact for people, drew them in, and integrated the churches naturally into the community. Being part of the church became a normal, expected part of life.
6) Loosely structured religious base The first cluster of churches started by the AEBR was in a new migration area, land recently opened for settlement. Land was easy to get, there was little competition form other churches, and people were quite responsive.
The second cluster was in another place where some previously started churches had died out because of legal complications. The AEBR made the required legal changes and saw about 3,000 ready people added to the church.
The third cluster area was picked because of its strategic location on a ridge about half way between the first and second clusters. The ridge was a traditional trade route. People had settled there years ago and were better off economically. They were much less open to the gospel.
This area still lags behind other, even newer clusters. It was chosen for geographical reasons, not because of receptivity of the people. They were well established in their social and religious structures. Campaigners knew this, but ignored it as a criterion.
7) Using new converts in evangelism By using new believers in ministry, the cluster church-planting model generates many new believers. Early in the campaign, leaders looked for new converts willing to take leadership training. At the end of the 10-day campaign, and with only a week of training, new Christians were given leadership in the new groups of believers. They were supervised and spent one day a week in training.
Contrary to some views, this early, supervised training and ministry produced quality leaders. Many dropped out, of course, but with four or five from each group in training, there were enough.
It was also discovered that waiting to baptize people until after they are thoroughly trained does not help to keep them in church. In fact, a long training process before baptism tends to discourage them. People seemed much more open to training once they were on the inside. Church growth was aided by both quick acceptance into membership and leadership.
Because the mission boards were asked to select effective church planters to participate in the survey, returns were heavily weighted toward those who work among animistic people. These missionaries see a greater ingathering, so that’s why they were chosen by their boards. The survey sample thus has a higher percentage of these missionaries.
Armed with the seven principles discovered in his survey, Dick Grady set off to work with resistant people, the Sundanese of Indonesia. Did the principles apply there as well?
Yes, except for one. Working with Muslims, it was not wise to use methods designed to hit the masses and draw in many people in an open way, lest the wrath of Muslim religious leaders be incurred and the chances for church planting threatened. Even so, it is possible to use broad-based methods by mobilizing national Christians to share their faith in more low-key ways.
Above all, he found that prayer is the most important principle.
DICK GRADY has worked in Indonesia since 1985 with OC International, Colorado Springs, Colo. GLENN KENDALL, formerly a church planter in Rwanda, is now personnel director with CBInternational, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Copyright © 1992, Evangelism and Missions Information Service. This article originally appeared in the October, 1992 issue of Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ). All rights reserved.