At the risk of being too simple, I’d say successful church planting boils down to being the right person in the right place following God’s Spirit at the right time. Yet surprisingly the essential dimension of the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit is often overlooked in church planting strategy. Francis Schaeffer once commented: “The central problem of our age is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit.”
Too often church planting is carried out with a mind-set that omits the supernatural. That’s mostly because a lot of church planters are poorly informed about the supernatural mechanics of the Holy Spirit. They’re either unfamiliar with him or untutored in the art of listen to him. The Book of Acts makes a big deal of the Spirit regularly speaking and guiding by means of angels, visions, dreams, and other supernatural operations. He’s revealed as the Spirit of missions, the main ingredient in church planting, giving birth to the Church at Pentecost and heading-up the church planting business.
Our basic operating procedure: Doing what the Father is doing
It should go without saying then, that in order to carry on Christ’s ministry requires adopting Christ’s methods (“…as the Father has sent me I am sending you”). Unfortunately, most Western Christians would rather implement methods and programs that reduce ministry to reproducible components to be applied indiscriminately. Now there’s nothing wrong with developing and utilizing tools for team building, or evangelism or for launching public services, but should they be used arbitrarily or all the time in every instance? I don’t think so. Shouldn’t we first ask what’s appropriate for each situation and learn the art of discerning what God is doing, the way Jesus did?
Jesus did all the things necessary for a vibrant, reproducing worldwide church plant movement by paying close attention to his Father. How? Well we’re told that he “often went off to be by himself and pray”. He evidently found time to unbusy himself, get alone with his Father and pray, making it possible for him to keep in step with the Holy Spirit and do what the Father was doing.
I think Jesus used whatever approach his Father directed him to use in each particular situation as it presented itself. It appears that his powerful naturally supernatural public ministry was the result of him cultivating the inner conditions of his soul that enabled him to pay attention, listen and obey the promptings of his Father. This might give us a clue why he would go out of his way to address the despised Zacchaeus sitting up in a tree, or heal just that one man at the pool when apparently there were many sick people waiting and hoping to be healed. This seemed to be his standard operating procedure for doing kingdom work and the pattern he left for us to follow (Jn. 5:19, 30).
That’s why in the Vineyard we try to enter each ministry situation with the question, “What’s the Father doing?”. With this as our rule of thumb, making the decisions and exercising spiritual gifts necessary for planting a church becomes a matter of discerning what the Father is up to and then joining in with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Paying attention and listening become essential skills because Jesus is the project manager of every church plant. It is after all, his ministry, his authority, not ours that gets the job done. Our part is to cooperate and get on with his agenda. It’s the Lord who conceives, gives birth to, builds and adds to the church, not us no matter how dedicated, smart and gifted we are. He graciously stoops to use our efforts. Church planting philosophy and practices, though helpful, only tell us where to seed, water, prune, and what fertilizer to use. In no way do they cause or even explain the miracle of the birth and growth of the Body of Christ (1Cor. 3:6-7). That’s God’s business.
It seems that the Vineyard’s extraordinary early success in church planting was due more to the empowering of the Spirit than our strategy, training or planning. To be honest many of us were under-prepared and in over our heads but succeeded nonetheless. Having our imaginations captured by a fresh vision of the kingdom of God and our lives set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit made up for what we lacked in training, resources and experience. And let’s not forget how power evangelism played into this success. This is a naturally supernatural way of sharing the gospel aimed at the heart not just the head. In addition to sharing their stories and inviting just about everyone they met to join in their venture, these planters regularly prayed for the sick and casually shared prophetic words as well as words of knowledge that opened the eyes and hearts of even hardened skeptics to the presence, love and power of God, increasing their receptivity and the odds that they’d show up and get saved.
I’m not saying training, tools, and planning are not necessary. They absolutely are! But by relying heavily on methodology and systems rather than the Spirit is putting the cart before the horse. We need more of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. He’s our main ingredient.
No Spirit, no Church
The Spirit launched the first disciples into the church planting business. Without the Spirit there are no church planters or churches. He makes the church The Church. It is possible to successfully plant a church without the power of the Holy Spirit. You can argue that a group of talented, charismatic leaders can draw a crowd and form it into a community. You can find the right creative team, talented musicians, and speakers, attract a lot of people and call it a “church”. But it doesn’t mean you have a church. A growing and energetic assembly is not necessarily evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work. Every week there are plenty of growing and lively gatherings that are not. For example, thousands of Mormons, Muslims, Unitarians, and Jehovah’s Witness, Christian Scientists, Scientologists gather each week for worship. There are hundreds of dead “Christian” churches that gather weekly that deny the gospel. In other words it’s possible to successfully plant a community without the power of the Holy Spirit and call it a church. But it won’t be a church – a community of the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 3:16).
Spirit-driven Church Planting
So then, it should go without saying that a church planter should be Spirit-filled. But what does that mean? It centers on the issue of control. The word “filled” that Paul uses in Ephesians 5:18 carries the idea of living “constantly under the constant control of…” In other words, being filled by the Spirit doesn’t mean we get more of him he gets more of us: more trust, access, more cooperation, more control. It’s almost the opposite of relying on shear dedication, training muscle and smarts to succeed. The Spirit-filled life is a life of surrender and dependency. At times it’s more about not doing than doing. It’s about learning to abide and exercising quiet acceptance (something Jesus himself was really good at). It’s about trust, paying attention and following the promptings of the Spirit so you can stay in step with him and the Father. And all this is of course activated and worked out through the agency of listening prayer the way it was in Jesus’ life.
The good news is that the Holy Spirit is just as ready to shape, empower and guide church planting today as he was back in Ephesus and Corinth. The Holy Spirit is an expert church planter. He hasn’t reduced church planting into a reproducible model. He’s reduced it to a dependent relationship. Since every church is unique, my best advice to church planters is to develop an ever-deepening, intimate, dependent relationship with the Holy Spirit and make it your aim to keep in step with him.
Each church plant is distinct and special. God’s kingdom is busy at work in a unique way in each location and situation. Each presents the unique challenge of discerning what the Father’s up to and joining in. The Holy Spirit’s power and guidance is essential and he’s ready to lead every step of the way. He’s the expert so we don’t have to be. But planters have to trust, pray, stay alert, and keep in step with him and work hard nevertheless. This means they’ll have to constantly choose between the Spirit’s leadership and their own, which presents four constant challenges: 1) The challenge of overcoming compulsiveness and pray (unbusying yourself) 2) The challenge of discerning the promptings of the Spirit (issue of familiarity) 3) The challenge of relinquishing control and becoming Spirit-controlled (developing quiet acceptance) and 4) Developing a naturally supernatural lifestyle.