Tag Archives: Church Planting

Restoration in the South Bronx

The South Bronx of New York City is filled with loud, creative, proud, and resilient people. Yet it’s still an incredibly poor neighborhood where we do all we can to get by from one week to the next. Our community is host to countless liquor stores, check-cashing spots, and methadone clinics. You’ll also find a church or two, but despite the presence of a few older churches, our people don’t often see Jesus as precious. Finding joy in the cross is a foreign idea. All we can see are the hard truths we face on a daily basis:


  • Surveys reveal 37 percent of our families cannot provide enough food to feed their families because of a lack of financial resources.
  • Median annual income for Melrose and Morrisania is $8,694. Yes, you read that right.
  • One out of three South Bronx residents lives in subsidized housing (the projects).
  • As many as 98 percent of homeless families in the South Bronx are black and Latino.

These statistics give you a small idea of the daily hardships we’ve faced for as long as I can remember.

The question I’ve begun asking myself is this: What would the South Bronx look like if everybody who “made it out” didn’t leave but instead made their home in the same neighborhood that formed them, where they grew up? What if instead of placing our children in a private school (that we can’t afford in the first place), my wife and I got to know the teachers and parents in the school across the street? What if it were possible for a church to be “present” on the block, bodega, and parks of the South Bronx? What if the local church were actually local?

Of course, the hardships would persist. After all, no one knows the hardships our community faces better than we do. But would our neighborhood and community be better equipped to serve those needs if the local church truly became local? Would we be able to face them—hand-in-hand with our neighbors—with a stronger united force for good? Although overwhelming and monstrous to undertake, this strategy is the only way to face these needs.

Real and Hard

Contemplating that scenario ultimately instigated my desire to plant Restoration Church in the South Bronx. I read Matthew 9:36, and I was completely broken. God moved me to understand his grace in a way that I never had before. I began to see the people as Jesus sees them. Because of the real and hard circumstances in our neighborhood, we simply do not see hope or help as viable options. Then God opened my eyes to an incredible truth. Grace is hard to extend if it has never been received. Because the everyday difficulties of living in the South Bronx are indeed real and hard, it’s challenging to grasp God’s grace when life is seemingly absent of grace or second chances. We need someone to point us toward the real hope and help we so desperately need. I knew immediately that God was calling me to say, “Yeah, I know how you feel, but take a look at Jesus. Do you see what I see?”

So when I walk around my community, I know in my bones that this place was built for the gospel. The hope and help that comes attached to God’s grace is precisely what we need to grab a hold of the good things we’ve made ultimate things and put them back in their proper place. Preaching the power of God’s truth in the same community that I call home makes his undeserved grace even sweeter to my soul.

While there are many organizations doing amazing work around the globe, not many are doing ministry in my neck of the woods. That’s why we need more men who have been called to cultivate the natural resources of a people made to create culture. My dream is that God would use Restoration Community Church to crank out men who are rightly motivated and gracefully equipped to make the South Bronx a cultural stronghold of the Christian faith in New York City.

Call me crazy if you want, but I believe God can make it happen. After all, our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases (Ps. 115:3).

Redeemer City to City helps local leaders start churches in global cities.

How to Become a Church-Planting Church

How can a church that has never been involved in church planting become a church-planting church? Many churches aren’t sure where to even begin this journey. Some churches dive right into church planting by sending out one of their own. This process usually involves investing a significant amount of resources into the planter and rallying behind him. But this effort often ends poorly as the existing church frequently ends up disillusioned with church planting altogether when their ill-equipped church planter fails.

Sending out a church planter is not the best first step in becoming a church-planting church. This transition takes time. But there is hope! You can’t become a church-planting church overnight, so don’t be in a hurry. The following steps can over time position your church to make a great impact through church planting.

4427584446_4699584dca_zYear 1

Assess and re-define your church missions strategy/philosophy.

Many churches do international missions well. Other churches do local outreach well. But few churches model their missions strategy after the three-fold holistic pattern of Acts 1:8: ”But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

In Acts 1:8 we see three aspects to church missions:

  • Local Missions: Jerusalem—ministry to our city, mercy ministries, local outreach
  • Domestic Missions: Judea and Samaria—domestic church planting
  • International Missions: To the Ends of the Earth—missions beyond our international borders

Many churches are involved in various parts of these three aspects, but few churches have combined them under one holistic strategy. Does your church value all three of these missions aspects? In order to become a church-planting church, you must believe that church planting is an essential part of what the missions call.

Need more convincing?

Tim Keller has argued that church planting is the most effective evangelistic strategy. Take some time and re-align your church missions strategy to include all three priorities of Acts 1:8.

Allocate a certain percentage of your annual budget for church planting.

Now that you have made a decision to emphasize all three aspects of missions, the next step is to allocate resources for each. How much will be allocated for missions overall? How will this money be split among the three different aspects?

When I was leading Sojourn Network, we encouraged our church plants to allocate 15 percent of their overall budgets to missions—5 percent to each of these three areas. Whatever you decide, keep in mind that there is no such thing as a church-planting church that does not allocate a significant amount of financial resources to this work.

If you accomplish these first two goals in year one, you have made major progress. Once you have finished these first two steps, you can now move on to years two to five.

Years 2 to 5

Partner with other churches in supporting a church planter.

What should you do with your newly freed-up church-planting resources? I suggest at this point partnering with others in supporting a church planter or planters. This process could include:

  • A few churches that together collaborate to fully fund a church planter.
  • Being a part of an association where you can partner together to support a church planter or planters.

Think of this work as a church planting mutual fund. Rather than trying to fund a church planter by yourself, look to partner in doing so.

Adopt and support an existing church planter.

Alongside step three I also recommend that a church adopt and build a relationship with an existing church planter. This step could coordinate with step three. Here are some ways to proceed:

  • Choose a church planter to get behind.
  • Offer financial support to that planter.
  • Build a relationship with the planter.
  • Look for ways to bless him and his family (consider budgeting to bless him and his family monthly in some way).
  • Allow the church planter to preach a couple of times per year.
  • Keep the church plant in front of your congregation as a part of your missions commitment.

Intentionally build a church-planting ethos in your church.

If your church has not been involved in church planting in the past, it is difficult to become a church-planting church in a year. Many members have no previous exposure to church planting. It takes time to build or change culture. Give your church and people time to make this transition.

  • Be consistent in your financial commitment.
  • Be consistent in your communication about church planting.

If you follow these first few steps over a five-year period, your church will have included church planting in you overall missions strategy, supported church planters, learned about church planting, and helped launch one or more new churches. The congregation has seen your commitment to church planting for several years. Now you are ready to move into years six and beyond.

Years 6 and Beyond

Do a church-planting residency with a future church planter. 

  • Devote 12 to 18 months to preparing a planter and then send him out.
  • This person may come from inside the church, or you may bring him in from outside.

Hire staff with the aim of sending them out to plant after 3 to 5 years.

  • Build a culture as a sending church.
  • Recruit staff with this incentive.
  • Work with the support of a good association for assessment, training, and coaching.

Confessions of a Church Planting Pastor

What should I do differently on Muslim soil? Biblical fidelity demands that I preach Christ and him crucified. But Muslims have no category for a crucified Savior. Then again, neither did the Jews, even Christ’s own disciples. The Greeks thought that a crucified God was lunacy, yet apostolic gospel proclamation was resolutely and stubbornly cross-shaped. The apostle Paul writes,

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Co 1:21-25)

SharjahAs I think ahead to pastoring an evangelical church in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, hailed as the capital of Islamic culture in the Arab world, I must admit my flesh is pulled in many different directions. I am tempted to think that my temptations are special. I am tempted to think that this context is special and that my task is unique, possibly revolutionary. The battle rages within my mind. So I draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, that I may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

I pray that I would trust in the foolishness of the cross and the power of gospel to open blind eyes and not give in to the temptation of removing the biblical offense of the cross.

I pray that I would rejoice in the conversion of any soul and not be tempted to glamorize the conversions of certain ethnicities or religious backgrounds.

I pray that I would strive to communicate truth clearly and not strive to impress men with lofty speech and worldly wisdom.

I pray that I would rightly divide the word of truth and strive to be faithful and not be tempted to develop a worldly vision.

I pray that I would be able to declare what a sovereign God has done in human history in Jesus Christ to save sinners from every tribe, tongue, and nation by his substitutionary atonement for his own glory and not be tempted to develop my own little theological niche.

I pray that I would preach, baptize, make disciples and teach them to obey everything that Jesus commanded in the context of this local church and not be tempted to adopt novel church planting strategies.

I pray that I would be able to shepherd the flock with care and compassion and not be tempted to manage an organization from an ivory tower.

I pray that I would rejoice in God’s wisdom in ordaining a plurality of elders and resist the temptation to control everything.

I pray that I would not shy away from teaching biblical church membership and discipline and resist the temptation to succumb to opinion polls and cultural pressures.

I pray that I would be able to passionately teach about the glory of God and his grace in the local church and not be tempted to proclaim a church-less Christianity.

I pray that I would be able to tell sinners saved by grace to boldly confess Christ before men and resist the hesitation to call saints to suffer for the name.

So help me God. Abide with me.

Church Planting as Spiritual Warfare

I’ve never fought in a war, but I’ve read my share of war stories, watched my share of war documentaries, and visited my share of war memorials. Every war had some objective, some overriding purpose that drove men to sacrifice their lives.

Spiritual warfare is no different. What is the overriding goal of spiritual warfare? To plunder the enemy. Spiritual warfare is about rescuing sinners enslaved to Satan and his kingdom. It’s about conversion—the transfer of precious souls from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13-15).

Plundering Satan’s kingdom is the mission of the church and of the church planter. When Jesus charged the apostles to “make disciples of all the nations,” they responded by preaching the gospel and planting churches, plundering the enemy’s kingdom one soul (or 3,000) at a time (Acts 2:40-47). And we’ll be plundering our enemy until Christ returns, when converts from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will worship the Lamb forever and ever.

Church Planting and False Conversions

If church planting is to be ultimately about conversion, church planters must be more than good neighbors. We must be faithful gospel heralds and competent soul physicians.

Most of you reading this article have already embraced the need for gospel clarity. But why all this talk about conversion? Isn’t conversion a matter between the individual and God? Don’t we believe that, once saved, always saved? Will not God save his elect?

Yes, yes, and of course, yes. And yet, Jesus and the apostles spoke often about true conversion. They knew what was at stake, and they wanted their listeners to be clear. They warned the people against false faith—unfruitful faith (Mark 4:1-20), spurious faith (John 8:30-58), vain faith (1 Cor. 15:1-4), devil faith (James 2:14-26). They warned them not to be deceived—about themselves, or about anyone else (see Gal. 5:19-24, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 1 John 3:4-10). And then there’s that most haunting warning, in Matthew 7:21-23:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness.”

Church Planters as Soul Physicians

Church planters must be clear on the nature of conversion because false conversions abound, and precious, eternal souls are at stake. Jonathan Edwards was right when he said there is no question of greater importance to mankind. And, for pastors and church planters, the question takes on particular importance, as they will one day give an account for the souls in their flock (Heb. 13:17).

That’s why The Gospel Coalition, 9Marks, Sovereign Grace Ministries, and The NETS Institute for Church Planting are joining forces in Boston this fall for a TGC regional conference called Plant New England. On October 14 and 15, churches, church planters, pastors, and lay people from throughout New England will gather to become better plunderers, better soul physicians. We’ll be learning from men like Mark Dever, Stephen Um, Jim Hamilton, Collin Hansen, and Owen Strachan. And our theme? True Conversion: Church Planters as Soul Physicians.

The battle rages on, but the objective remains unchanged: rescuing precious souls from the kingdom of darkness. Will you pray for us as we become better warriors for the soul? And won’t you join us for Plant New England?

Register online at plantnewengland.org.

The Greatest Challenge Facing Churches in the South

Next week, hundreds of current and aspiring church leaders will assemble in Birmingham, Alabama, for an exciting new event. Sponsored by Acts 29 in partnership with Beeson Divinity School and The Gospel Coalition, Engage the South is a one-day gathering that advocates for the kind of churches we need in today’s American South.

Matt Chandler, David Platt, Ray Ortlund, Kevin Smith, and Bryan Loritts will lead us in a series of sessions designed to teach, inspire, and train. There’s still time for you to register.

We asked Loritts, who will deliver a message titled “Churches That Plant Churches,” about the greatest challenge facing churches in the American South today.


You’ll understand if I’m initially hesitant to answer questions laced with superlatives like “greatest.” I’m no expert. However, I’ve grown up in the South and had the joy of serving as lead pastor of Fellowship Memphis since its inception 10 years ago. So I have a few ideas on the challenges facing the church in the South.

Not all Southern cities have been created equally. There are actually two types of Southern cities: (1) Old South, where most of the people who live in the city are natives (Memphis is still an Old South city, but that’s slowly changing in part to FedEx being a hub here); and (2) New South, where most of the people are immigrants. Cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte come to mind when talking about New South cities.

One of the major differences between Old and New South cities is that one has a higher concentration of “older brother” religious people while the other is increasingly growing in their “younger brother” secular population (though still for the most part considered to be the Bible Belt). If you pastor in the South—especially an Old South city like Memphis—you have to be able to preach the gospel to the older brother of Luke 15. You’re not in New York where you must contextualize the gospel primarily to the skeptic. You’re in the South where churches are still welcomed in public schools and praying before games isn’t a big deal in many contexts. Thanks to flannel boards, Awana programs, and sword-drill competitions, knowledgeable heads high in Bible IQ fill our seats, inches removed from cold and (in many cases) unregenerate hearts. If you don’t know how to preach to the older brother, you won’t be effective below the Mason-Dixon.

I know you asked me for “the greatest challenge,” but as a preacher I have the right to add just one more point. I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to reverse the trajectory of the church backward to her first-century, multi-ethnic roots. I continue to remain indebted to Dr. King and to all who marched and endured persecution so that I can sit anywhere I’d like on the bus. But the civil-rights movement was limited in that while it changed laws, it could never change hearts. The legacy of racism that has become so entrenched in our country over the past centuries, particularly in the South, wasn’t eradicated with the stroke of a pen when the Civil Rights Act was signed. In place of long marches and monumental speeches we need sanctuaries and dinner tables filled with the sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers embracing and doing life with the descendants of slaves.

The Trayvon Martin case reminded me of this need. What if George Zimmerman and Martin had attended the same multi-ethnic church, having sat around dinner tables and done life with one another? Martin would still be alive, because instead of seeing a suspicious young black man, Zimmerman would’ve had a relational context to guide his actions that evening.

Church Planting in the Desert: Relatively Safe and Immediately Strategic

Tucked away in the desert of the Middle East is a land known for its lavish buildings, bustling economy, and international culture. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), located along the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, borders Saudi Arabia and Oman. In a day you can reach Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran—some of the most war-torn countries in modern history. Some may be surprised, then, to learn the UAE is relatively safe and definitely peaceful. What may be more surprising, evangelicals have enjoyed a public presence here since the early 1960s.

One such church, started in 1962, is the United Christian Church of Dubai. UCCD, the longest-tenured evangelical church in the country, hired as pastor John Folmar of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in 2005.

Sharing about the decision to uproot his family and move a 20-hour plane ride from everything they had ever known, Folmar told me:

God says, “My name will be made great from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets” (Mal. 1:11), but there are many people groups who have not yet acknowledged Jesus as Lord. The UAE borders Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, 70 miles from Iran—one of the last bastions of resistance to the gospel. When the pastoral position at UCCD opened up in 2005, I jumped at the chance to live and minister here, so that we might help reach the unreached with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Folmar served as a pastor for Capitol Hill Baptist from 2003 to 2005 before moving to UCCD. His church now welcomes more than 600 people from about 60 different countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America, Europe, and Australia.

Folmar is joined in ministering in Dubai with his wife, Keri, and their three children.

But they are not alone.

They have been joined by Dave Furman and his wife, Gloria, who on February 12, 2010, planted Redeemer Church of Dubai, one of the newest churches since the 1960s.

“The Lord is doing incredible things in places we would least expect,” Dave Furman said. “The rulers in our country are very generous, and we’re thankful for the opportunity we have to worship freely here.”

The UAE, unlike neighboring countries, enjoys a relatively safe environment and stable political climate.

“While no place is ultimately safe, and there is a lot of conflict in our region, by God’s grace there is great political stability in this country,” he explained. “Again, we’re grateful to the Lord and to the rulers of this country for this blessing.”

Moment of Opportunity

The churches led by Folmar and Furman aren’t formally linked. Each is governed independently. But they share a common vision to spread the gospel in their region. In February 2013, Folmar called Josh Manley, an elder of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, to inform him that the ruler of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), an emirate of the UAE, was prepared to grant land for a new evangelical church. Folmar asked if Manley would be interested in moving to the UAE to plant and pastor this church.

This was an obvious open door the Manley’s knew they must step through.

“I’d always thought of a church in this setting as particularly strategic,” Manley said. “One has the opportunity to pastor and preach while in the heart of the unreached world. Presently, there are only seven evangelical church buildings on the entire Arabian Peninsula, and land hasn’t been given for this purpose in 15 years. All of these factors weighed heavily on me.”

Not much in their lives could have pointed to a future in the Middle East. Manley and his wife, Jenny, were aides in the U.S. Senate when they met and eventually married. He served as an aide on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Jenny was the Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi. While in Washington, D.C., they met Folmar at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

“The Lord allowed me to work out my calling to ministry within the context of that particular local church where I had opportunities to teach and preach, disciple younger men, and be discipled by more mature men in the faith,” he told me. “Over time, my heart moved more and more to the ministry of the Word in the local church. We’ve known much joy since embarking on this path.”

From budgets to management, the gifted couple dropped their political careers for Louisville, where Manley attended The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 2009 to 2012 while serving at Third Avenue Baptist. Now in the UAE, the Manley’s have launched Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) Church. They began regular services in March.

Eternally Secure Truth

Uprooting their family, Manley explains, doesn’t look much different for them compared to other church planters—except for the laws. He explains:

I’ve done a great deal of meeting believers, talking with people about the plant, and seeking to raise awareness about this work. Yet one has to be careful here to appropriately honor the laws. . . . I’ve had to navigate where we’ll meet until the building is complete and ensure that wherever we do meet is legal. I cannot take the right to free assembly here for granted like I’d be able to in the States. And since the government has invited me here, it’s important the church meet in a government-approved venue.

Though many associate hostility with the Arabian Peninsula, Manley says his new neighbors show more interest in Christianity than some in the West.

“I anticipate the plant here will be a slow work in which believers learn what it means to be committed to the local church under the preached Word and are equipped for the many opportunities around them,” he said. “And there are many opportunities.”

Though they’ve been granted land, RAK Church is currently meeting in a convention center until they can raise enough funds for their own building.

“A building in one sense is priceless since the land itself has to be given by the government,” Manley said. “You can’t buy land for this purpose in this part of the world. Obviously, a building facilitates much ministry. In this part of the world, it affords stability, recognition, and even legitimacy in the eyes of the local people. It also provides a valuable center for resources and training. Thinking long-term about this region, opportunities like this one should be seized upon and stewarded with great care.”

25 Things I’ve Learned from Church Planting

In 2008, God called my husband, Kyle, and me to plant a church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Though we had eight years of ministry experience under our belts at an established church, we didn’t yet know all that we didn’t know. We had much to learn and, more importantly, God had much sifting and pruning to do in our hearts.

God has shown me that, more than anything, he wants my heart. He wants a tender, moldable heart willing to obey more than he wants any obligatory service I can give him. As I write in my new book, The Church Planting Wife: Help and Hope for Her Heart (Moody, 2013), I’ve learned a thing or two in this crazy adventure called church planting—and I trust I’ll learn more as we move forward. Here are 25 things I’ve discovered so far.

1. Hospitality is essential.

2. Church planting teaches two things more than any other: that God is faithful and that we must learn how to depend on that faithful God.

3. Programs matter a lot to some people, especially families with small children. It takes special families who can grasp the vision of church planting to invest in a church plant on the ground level.

4. On the other hand, some people love the early stages of church planting but become uncomfortable when the church grows to a size where they can no longer know everyone.

5. Church planting happens one relationship at a time.

6. Sometimes church planting feels like you’re pretending to be a church. And then one day (after backbreaking work and lots of prayer) you realize God has built an honest-to-goodness church right before your eyes.

7. You cannot church plant apart from the support and encouragement of others.

8. The Word is living and active. When we let God speak through his Word, he changes people. Every church plant must gather earnestly around the Word and the Christ to which it points.

9. The church plant often takes on the personality and passions of the church planter and his wife. This is why it’s important to cling to Christ with biblical vision.

10. Most people, especially outsiders, don’t know what it means when you say you’re church planting. And they think you’re a little crazy.

11. One of the church planter’s greatest resources is other church planters and pastors in the same city. These relationships should be cultivated.

12. Some of the hardest relationships a church planter may have are with other church planters and pastors in the same city. Sadly.

13. The calling to church plant must be sure since you’ll need to return to it again and again in the face of discouragement, defeat, and uncertainty.

14. The gospel is everything: it sustains when discouragement comes (and it always does), it keeps a church planter and his wife in their city (because there will be times when they want to give up and leave), it compels its ministers forward (and sometimes it’s the only motivation left), and it changes lives (which makes it all worth it).

15. A church planter cannot drive by an established church without appreciating what it took to make it that way. And he will first think about the secretaries, the nursery workers, the janitors, and the seats permanently bolted to the ground.

16. As much as possible, a church plant should be structured according to how leaders want it to look a year in the future.

17. It’s unhealthy for the church planter, the church, and especially the church planting wife if she’s doing childcare during church each week.

18. A failed church plant is not failure. Lack of faith is failure. Service in God’s name with a heart far away from him is failure.

19. Slow and steady growth is healthy growth. Explosive growth can be fragile growth.

20. A good worship leader is important and hard to find.

21. Spiritual warfare is real.

22. Church plants should never be started by someone disgruntled or unable to sit under authority at his former church. Church plants cannot be rebuttals to another pastor’s methods and ideas. They must be built on a clear call from God.

23. A church planter and his wife must pray for and develop a love for their city—and not just the city but for its people.

24. The church planting wife’s main role in helping her husband is, like Aaron holding up Moses’ arms in battle, praying for and encouraging him to press on.

25. There is unimaginable joy and reward in sacrifice and service.

Solidly Reformed, Strikingly Small

Here in Brazil the majority of Reformed and conservative pastors have small congregations, from 80 to 120 members. This fact is well known and has often been leveraged as criticism against Reformed doctrine. If Reformed theology is so biblical and good, the thinking goes, why can’t its preachers and defenders convince people? Why do so few attend their churches? And why can’t these churches grow or get many young people to attend their services?

I know Reformed churches in Brazil that are dynamic, growing, evangelistic, missions-minded, and relatively large. But they are exceptions. By “small churches” I’m referring not only to size but also to vision and involvement in evangelism and missions. I have in mind churches that have stayed small for a long time. In some cases, they’re even losing members. This bothers me because it’s happening in a country where millions are becoming “evangelicals,” where there’s significant freedom of speech and religion, and where the soil is fertile and the doors open for gospel proclamation.

Though I am myself a Reformed pastor, I’d like to make six brief observations on this worrisome trend.

1. By rejecting the idea that, in terms of church growth, the numbers don’t say everything, many of us forget they say something. Can we really say it’s okay for a Reformed congregation to grow 1 percent in the last 20 years—a much lower growth rate than the population in Brazil and even its evangelical churches? In a country where evangelicals aren’t persecuted by the state and the opportunities are wide open before us?

2. Equally unfortunate is the attitude that justifies the tiny size with the argument of God’s sovereignty. Clearly, as a Reformed believer I understand it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). But I also believe that before we place any “respectful blame” on him, we should ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Is our church well located? 
  • Is the service warm and inviting? 
  • Has the church developed frequent and consistent efforts to gain new members? 
  • Is preaching aimed directly to convert sinners? 
  • Is it intelligible to any unbeliever who happens to be there? 
  • Are church members aware and ready to use all opportunities—and even create them—to witness to unbelievers? 
  • Is there spirited prayer for the conversion of sinners and church growth? 

I fear many Reformed pastors blame God’s sovereignty before doing their homework.

Why would God want Reformed congregations to be uniquely small, to fail to thrive in a free country where other evangelical churches are growing dramatically? Did God predestine such churches to be doctrinally correct but tiny in size, and the others to grow despite unfaithful theology and methodology? Has he not predestined Reformed pastors to be soul winners, evangelists, church planters, and heralds of the kingdom?

3. Perhaps the problem with many of us conservative pastors is that we aren’t open to changes in our services, attitudes, and postures—however small—in order to show a more friendly face to people. Being warm, inviting, attractive, and interesting isn’t a sin and doesn’t contradict Reformed confessions. Reformed pastors need to think of ways to make their church grow rather than simply rationalizing that “small is beautiful.”

It’s true many evangelical churches grow through the use of questionable strategies and methodologies that attract people with promises of material blessings and healings that cannot be fulfilled. To criticize these churches’ size and point out their theological and methodological errors, however, don’t justify our tiny Reformed churches. What prevents us from laboring with faithful methods to be large churches?

4. What scares me most is the proud way some small-congregation pastors quote Jesus’ teaching that “many are called but few are chosen.” “True believers are few,” they say. “I’d rather have a small church with solid members than a huge, crowded, superficial, and self-serving congregation.” Well, if I had to choose between the two I’d prefer the little one as well. But why must there be a choice between the two? Is it possible to have Reformed churches brimming with people who are there for the right reasons?

5. Reformed pastors generally tend to consider sound doctrine the most important aspect of church life. But in our quest to reinforce certain truths, I fear we give undue attention to others such as biblical spirituality, prayer, and planned evangelism. I believe doctrine should always be evangelistic, and evangelism should always be doctrinal. “Preaching,” as Charles Spurgeon put it, “is theology coming out of lips on fire.”

Some Reformed pastors feel so hamstrung by the doctrine of total depravity that they don’t know how to invite sinners to trust Christ. The ghost of Charles Finney, popularizer of the altar call, haunts and torments them; they reach the end of their message without a clue how to apply it to the lost—lest they give the impression they’re making an altar call. They also fear being too animated lest they look like Pentecostals. However, I believe if Reformed preachers looked more human, natural, and comfortable in the pulpit, they’d elicit greater interest.

6. I think, finally, that in reacting against the excesses of Pentecostalism, many Reformed pastors are fearful of praying too much and seeking great spiritual revival in their churches.

I have no easy solutions for the ecclesiastical dwarfism of Reformed congregations. However, I do believe we need genuine spiritual brokenness among pastors—to humble ourselves before God, to probe our lives and ministries, to seek the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and to desire God’s glory above all else.

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Editors’ Note: Lopes will be leading a workshop on “Why the World Needs the Gospel” at The Gospel Coalition 2013 Missions Conference on Sunday, April 7. Additionally, there will be a special gathering of leaders and workers from Brazil on Monday, April 8, at the National Conference. This event will be hosted by Bill Walsh, TGC director of international outreach, and Rick Denham, executive director of Editora FIEL. If you’re from Brazil or engaged in ministry there, we invite you to join us for an informal time of encouragement and networking. We will meet at 9 p.m. in Suwannee Rooms 18-21. You can still register for this rapidly approaching five-day event. All main sessions will be translated into Portuguese. We’ll see you in Orlando!


Five Church-Planting Dangers

I remember my first experience of church planting. We met in the village hall on Sunday mornings for a 45-minute sermon and in the evenings in a home to pray together and encourage one another. And then the “plant” became a “church,” and that meant two “services” in the hall. Out went the corporate prayer and mutual encouragement. In came another 45-minute sermon. Everyone said how they missed the evening meeting in a home, but no one thought that it might be possible to continue it. A church—a proper church—has two services on a Sunday, right?

Though we want to plant biblically rooted churches, several dangers lie close at hand as our challenges and opportunities evolve. Here are five of them.

1. Planting a replica church

This church plant is a clone of your sending church or your experience. This tends to be what happens if you don’t think much about the culture and values of the new church. You default to your experience. This, of course, may not be an altogether bad thing. But it is a missed opportunity. Church planting allows you to rethink church, creating patterns of church life more faithful to Scripture and more relevant to the culture. The other danger is that you try to be a large church with a small church planting team instead of seizing the advantages of being a small church.

2. Planting a reactionary church

This, in some ways, is the opposite of a replica church. This is what happens when people have endured a bad experience of church. Church planting for some people is a way of running away for church rather than resolving issues or reconciling broken relationships. For other people the church plant is defined primarily in terms of what it’s not. People know exactly what they don’t want church to be like. But without a positive vision, the resulting church tends to have a negative culture or a culture that’s suspicious of other churches, feeling superior to them.

3. Planting a romantic church

Remember all those conversations over a drink on a Sunday evening as you dreamed with your friends of your ideal church? Perhaps you dreamed of meeting in a coffee shop with some mellow jazz music in the background while you discussed faith with your friends over a latte. Perhaps you dreamed of rocking out to the Christian classics you grew up with. Perhaps you dreamed of hour-long sermons rich with theology. And now your church plant is a chance to create this dream church. Problem is, while you might create a church ideally suited to you, chances are it will not be missional. Your personal set of favorite features won’t necessarily create an ideal context to invite unbelievers (which means it won’t be an ideal church for Christians, either, for healthy Christian living must be missional).

4. Planting a restorationist church

This church plant is an attempt accurately to recreate what the church was like in the first century, to restore apostolic Christianity. Churches like this tend to spend a lot of time trying to identify precisely the patterns of New Testament practice. Of course it’s vital to be biblical. But replicating apostolic norms can be a futile exercise, not least because there seems to have been quite of bit of diversity within the New Testament. And that diversity existed because apostolic churches were adapting to their contexts, both to the people within the church and also to the people they were trying to reach.

The real danger with the restorationist mindset is that you become inward-looking. You end up having long debates over how exactly the New Testament churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper rather than throwing yourself into evangelism. You become like the people described in 1 Timothy 1 who are more interested in winning converts from within the church than winning converts to Christ.

5. Planting a reductionist church

In some ways this is the opposite of a restorationist church. Here the desire is to plant a church that is “incarnational” or “missional” or “contextualized” (or whatever is your favored buzz word). But you understand these terms to mean creating a church that closely resembles the surrounding culture. This concern can too easily lead to attempts to minimize the differences and therefore to minimize the confrontation the gospel brings. True contextualization includes identifying what repentance means in a culture. So it’s not about reducing the challenge of the gospel but understanding the culture well enough so that we heighten or focus the challenge of the gospel.

The danger facing such churches is that they reduce the gospel and assimilate to the wider culture. In the end they have nothing to offer. If we’re so like the culture that the differences are marginal, why should the culture bother with us? We will have nothing to add to what they already believe. Beside which, it’s a fool’s errand: we will never be as “cool” as MTV. What will be attractive to a lost world is the gospel we proclaim and the distinctive community life it creates (remembering that “distinctive” is another word for “holy”).

We need what John Stott called “double listening”—listening to the world and listening to the Word. We need to understand the world we’re trying to reach, and we need to understand the Word we proclaim so that we bring them together. And by understanding the world I mean the specific context in which you’re working.

Contextualization is not simply about adapting to the culture. More importantly, it is about understanding the culture so that you can identify the “bite point”—the moments where the gospel challenges the culture, offering good news and calling for repentance. Contextualization is not just about how we can be like the culture. It is also about identifying where the gospel is different from the culture.


This article expands on a list first posted at Tim Chester’s blog.

Why We Need More Churches in Small Towns

Do we really need more churches in rural America? When I first moved to the States from the UK, I remember being struck by the number of church buildings scattered across rural highways. The saying “church on every street corner” is not far from the truth in some towns.

Few people question the legitimacy of church planting in major cities. Yet more than 62 million people live in rural America. Pockets of the unchurched and dechurched are scattered throughout rural communities and small towns. And the most effective means of reaching them is church planting. We must plant churches, then, both in metropolitan America and in small-town America.

Small-town churches need a vision for planting churches. Let me share two different examples of small-town church planting that I’ve experienced.

1. An Unengaged Community

New Hope is a small community in the heart of Kentucky. It is the home of the Abbey of Gethsemane, an active monastic community. New Hope celebrates its rich Catholic heritage and natural beauty, but it is also blighted by rural poverty, drug use, and alcoholism. It has been a community without gospel witness.

Rolling Fork Baptist Church is a healthy and growing church of around 100 that gathers just 12 miles down the road in Boston, Kentucky. It is one of the oldest Baptist churches in the United States, dating back to the 1780s. A rural congregation of 100 worshipers with more than 200 years of history isn’t typically the kind of church about whose church planting efforts we hear. Rolling Fork had a vision and a heart for reaching out to New Hope. So, in partnership with other neighboring churches, Rolling Fork concluded that the most effective means of reaching New Hope would be through starting a church.

Collaborating with other Baptist churches in the county, Rolling Fork began evangelistic work in the community and, in January 2012, launched New Hope Baptist Mission. An average of 30 people now regularly attend the Sunday night worship gatherings in a place where they previously did not hear the gospel. The people of Rolling Fork have been re-energized through this faithfulness to watch the gospel advance into a dark corner of Kentucky.

2. Two Churches in One Location

The early years of Bardstown Christian Fellowship, a new church south of Louisville, were difficult. Evangelism proved an uphill struggle in an area where only one in ten people are active in church, and half are Roman Catholic. But with a persistent commitment to expositional preaching, radical ministry to one another, and bold outreach through missional community groups, the church began to gain momentum. In 2011 we grew from a small core to close to 130 in worship. As elders, we saw we’d soon outgrow our meeting space. There was no enthusiasm about pouring more money into facilities. Neither did we desire a second service. So, committed to reaching the lost through church planting, the elders were led to start a second church. What we did next is unusual. We planted a second church in the same building!

We launched Grace Fellowship Church in August of this year. We commissioned three of our elders and a number of families to start this new work on Sunday nights. Two churches, one location. We co-own the property and everything in it. This is our long-term strategy, to make the facility available as a public space in which churches can gather for worship. In God’s kindness, Grace Fellowship has already celebrated its first baptism and is connecting with people we did not reach. We’re convinced that we don’t need more church buildings, just more healthy churches. Churches in small-town America already own enough properties; we just need to be more strategic in how we’re using them.

As long as there are people in rural communities not being reached by the gospel, we need to revitalize and plant healthy gospel-centered churches there. It takes gospel partnerships and some bold new thinking to do it well.