(Photo: Dan Delzell)
Many Americans clamor for celebrities....not only in Hollywood, but even in churches. This creates both a challenge and an opportunity for churches today. The challenge in our "celebrity pastor" culture is to joyfully embrace the need to send out more and more disciples to plant new churches. The opportunity is actually identical to the challenge. It is the incredible privilege to turn attenders and members into church planters.
Why church planting? Because it is God's method for reaching the lost and making disciples....and it is God's method for taking your discipleship to the next level. There is a tremendous amount of spiritual warfare that goes on with church planting. Satan hates to see Spirit-filled believers plant new congregations, and so he works very hard to discourage, distract, and divide any group of disciples who pursue this task to the glory of God.
All Christians encounter some spiritual resistance when attending worship services and participating in a small group....but when a group of believers are sent out to start a new church, watch out! They better be "prayed up," and geared up for the long haul. It will be unlike anything they have encountered in their Christian life, and it will stretch their faith like never before.
It is one thing to go on a week-long mission trip to another country. That will certainly test your faith a bit. But if you step out as part of a church plant, it is a whole new dimension of spiritual activity. It's like the difference between babysitting a child for a day....as compared to adopting a child for a lifetime. One is good....the other is "off the charts" good. Church planting is the most vital work in God's kingdom, and it is straight out of the New Testament. But it is not for the faint of heart....and not for anyone who feels like he must attend a megachurch in order to have his needs met....or a church of any particular size for that matter.
A church plant is not driven by a consumer mentality of "what's in it for me and my family?" It is about frontline mission work for Christ....and that is in direct opposition to the spiritual forces of darkness in our world. There will be little applause....and plenty of trials....but boy can it accomplish God's purposes on earth if the Holy Spirit sends you and a group of believers to do it.
There are quite a few lay elders in churches today who are capable of planting a new church. Some of them have pastoral gifts of preaching and teaching which are rarely used in their "big church." These guys need to spread their wings and fly. Church planting provides a much broader focus than attending elders' meetings to make decisions for hundreds or thousands of people. Church planting is not really about who gets to make the decisions....but more about New Testament pastoral ministry with the believers. It is significantly different from the role that many lay elders seem to have today. Church planting is mainly about prayer and the ministry of the Word....and personal relationships between the shepherds and the sheep.
In our country, "success" in ministry is often associated with bigger buildings and larger crowds. One of the consequences of such growth is that you are tempted to take on so much debt....and then you are not in a strong position financially to send out groups of 100 or 200 people to plant new churches. You become beholden to the lender, and possibly even to an American definition of "success." In the meantime, lay elders and plenty of disciples who could be out planting churches in your city are still just attending large gatherings and decision-making meetings in your megachurch. It is a model which is lacking in many ways.
Imagine a church where 2500 disciples gather each weekend. What if 400 of the believers were strong enough in the Lord to be sent out to plant 2 or 3 new churches? Can you imagine the level of faith that would take? And can you imagine the impact it would have in all of those lives, not to mention the souls which these churches would reach for generations to come? While a short-term mission trip will get your feet wet, a permanent church plant moves you into something radically deeper. Most biblically-based churches with 1000 attenders probably have at least 100-150 disciples who are ready and eager to be sent out to the frontline of church planting. (with just a little nudge and a lot of encouragement) There is no time like the present....especially since none of us are getting any younger!
Instead of planting new congregations, there is a temptation in large churches today to simply start new "campuses" and broadcast the celebrity pastor's messages on screens at various locations. That approach will attract a certain crowd....and it will increase his "celebrity status"....but it won't take the disciples to the next level....to the level of church planting....until they are sent out with their own pastor (who they get to know personally)....and actually get to manage the many facets of planting and developing a new church.
As believers grow stronger in faith and in their understanding of God's Word, they become mature enough to step out of their comfort zone. You know....like children who become teenagers....and then teens who become mature enough to leave the comforts and convenience of home. When it comes to getting New Testament churches off the ground, all disciples can benefit when they are allowed to own it, and feed it, and lead it, and serve it....and "raise a new church" from infancy with tender loving care....and not merely attend large group gatherings, small group Bible studies, decision-making meetings, age-segregated programming, and big-screen viewings of their senior pastor.
Why should the senior pastor and lay elders become a "bottleneck" of sorts for many other potential leaders in their church who also have gifts to serve, lead, preach, teach, plant churches, and make decisions in a new church? It is similar to what happens to congregations where the disciples of a church are serving "under" the authority of out-of-town denominational officials. That system often becomes a crutch which prevents the gifts of God's people from flourishing because "someone else will take care of it for us....and they can worry about church planting." (Almost like those who become overly dependent upon the government to take care of them and meet their needs.)
The government doesn't give birth to children and raise them....parents do. Likewise, you can rely upon some distant denominational officials to begin new churches....or you and your congregation can give birth from your congregational "family setting." Mothers give birth to children....and churches give birth to churches.
Consider all the teenagers in your congregation who need the faith-building experience of planting a church with their parents and other families....rather than merely gathering with a large group of their peers at the entertaining "big church" events. If we don't teach Christian teenagers how to plant churches, when will they ever learn how to do it? If we don't send out lay elders to plant churches, how will they ever learn it themselves? Elders' meetings and youth events in medium-sized to large-sized churches are fine....but church planting is ultimately where much of the frontline action is taking place. God can use you and your church in His magnificent mission and great commission to plant more churches in your community.
Jesus gave His disciples authority to exercise in the local church....and God can raise up leaders for a new church if you ask Him....especially when you have hundreds or thousands of Christians who are all jammed into one church and all listening to one pastor. If 2000 people were listening to seven pastors in seven churches....rather than one pastor in one church....just think how many disciples would advance to the frontline of New Testament church planting.
The Holy Spirit gives wisdom to those disciples who step out in faith and plant a new church. They need the support, prayers, and encouragement of the sending church. One day, the new church will have grown spiritually to the point where they can reproduce their efforts by sending out disciples to plant even more churches. And the gift goes on....every time churches send out disciples to plant a new congregation of believers.
When it becomes all about making one congregation larger, God's people miss out on the joys, struggles, faith, ministry, discipleship, growth, and personal relationship with their pastor that comes with church planting. Jesus taught in Luke 12:48 that to whom much is given, much is expected. Medium-sized church pastors and megachurch pastors have been given many souls to disciple....and they are in a unique position to plant new churches....that is, if they and their congregation can resist the urge to go into too much debt. The spending and debt problem, among other things, tends to stifle any vision to send out disciples to the frontline of church planting.
There is something missing when a senior pastor who started a church is not providing a growing number of Christians the opportunity to do the same thing on the frontline of church planting. Surely he has plenty of disciples within that church who are more than ready to take on such a task. It will only happen if the senior pastor is purpose-driven in that direction. Whether he realizes it or not, both he and the congregation need him to get excited about this vision....and not simply excited about a bigger building....a larger budget....more debt....and some lay elders who are making most of the major decisions, but are not yet out planting new churches.
Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the Gospel and plant churches. This is the model which all of us who are Christian pastors and lay elders can seek to follow....not just making one congregation larger....but strengthening the faith of the believers to the point where a good number of them will "step outside the boat" and do what people chose to do when their own church was started. The consumer mentality is felt by churches of all sizes, and it leads people to see "church" as a place that "meets my needs first and foremost"....rather than a place that equips me to go to the frontline with shepherds and other friends in Christ as we are sent forth to plant a new church.
Who knows? The more disciples that are sent out, the more new people God may send to the "big church" to be saved and discipled. It is all about His kingdom growing....and not just this church, or that church....or this pastor, or that pastor. When our focus is primarily on one man or one church, we are likely being distracted from the main thing.
Rather than one celebrity pastor, what if your megachurch developed and sent out 20 shepherds to plant 8-10 new churches? OK....so maybe you only have a few guys who are ready to go....so start there....with one or two new churches. Forget about trying to become bigger and bigger. Instead, become broader and broader. Focus on church planting, and just watch what the Holy Spirit will accomplish through your prayers, your vision, and your efforts. This will require your current leaders to slow down on their "huge vision" for a larger building and a bigger budget. That vision can actually prevent congregations from being able to plant churches. If you are too deep in debt, you will likely become too dependent upon the idea that "success equals more people in one place watching one pastor."
How many sermons from one man do you need to hear before you are ready to actually plant a church yourself? OK....so maybe your current senior pastor had the privilege to do that years ago in the church you attend....but what about you? And what about some of the lay elders in your church who are gifted to preach and teach every week in a group that starts out with 75 or 125 Christians? Is your mind open to that possibility....and to that opportunity for New Testament church planting?
Are you ready to think outside the box? Are you ready to plant a new church with purpose? Is your senior pastor ready to lead the charge, and are the lay elders in your church open to having God send them to actually shepherd a new congregation of believers....rather than oversee thousands in a megachurch? Some of them have no idea how difficult that would be....but also how rewarding it would be to care for people on that level. It will be a necessary stretch for them to see that this is actually a "promotion." It would move them to the frontline of church planting....which is where the group of Christians were at when your current church was planted years ago.
Think about how much glory will go to Christ by "spreading out the ministry." Instead of having so many hundreds or thousands being taught the Word primarily by one pastor, think about utilizing the preaching and teaching gifts of those who are in your church right now. Some of them might have even stronger gifts in teaching the Bible than your current senior pastor. God is not looking for more "empire building" in the ministry. The only "empire" is Christ's church....made up of believers around the world who are growing in faith and gathering in groups of all sizes, shapes, and colors for fellowship, preaching, teaching, baptizing, celebrating the Lord's Supper, praying, singing, serving, equipping, caring, and sending.
The American version of "success" in ministry tends to be warped....and it tends to lead future pastors and other disciples to think that bigger buildings and huge gatherings are signs of success. What most of us need as disciples is a much more humble setting where people don't think of anyone in the church as a celebrity except Jesus. Now that is an exciting vision....where every believer in a church of any size is getting closer to the point where he or she will be strong enough to be part of a church plant. Jesus has called His church to "go and make disciples." (Matthew 28:19) You notice that Christ said nothing about the size of the building or the size of the group as signs of "success." In fact, He said, "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:20)
Sometimes you need to get smaller in number in order to get stronger in faith and to a humble place where you can experience more of God's supernatural miracles. If you want to see proof for that statement, just read what the Lord said to Gideon when he had thousands of men who were available for service. "You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, 'My own strength has saved me.'" (Judges 7:2) It was only when they got down to 300 men that they were where God wanted them to be for His glory.
The emphasis must always be on God's Word....and His glory....and on the Gospel message....and on serving one another in meaningful relationships....and on reaching the lost for Christ. That is far superior to any particular messenger, even if that guy is a "celebrity" of sorts. Americans clamor for celebrities....but the Holy Spirit is all about lifting up Jesus....and planting new churches....and developing the gifts which He gives to all Christians, and not just to pastors. As John the Baptist beautifully stated about Christ, "He must become greater; I must become less." (John 3:30)
There are a good number of "celebrity pastors" in America who don't want the fame or the attention. They just want to be faithful to Christ. Praise the Lord for their attitude. They are serving Him right where He wants them to be in ministry. In their church, a number of congregational leaders and other believers are strong enough in faith to plant a new church....and equipped to handle the spiritual warfare which which comes with that mission. A challenge for some of them would be to change their mindset concerning "success" in ministry....by studying how much time Jesus spent with only 12 disciples. It could completely transform the rest of their earthly ministry.
When pastors and elders purposefully plant new churches, everyone grows....and the church of Jesus Christ advances into new territory. Rather than "restocking" megachurches with a new celebrity pastor every time the well-known pastor dies or moves on, it seems to make more sense for senior pastors to help "distribute" the disciples and their gifts through church planting. It is best to do it while there is the opportunity to send out so many who love the Lord and want to serve. Why wait if they are strong enough now to be sent out? By not sending them out, you may be accidentally stunting their spiritual growth....and accidentally shortchanging Christ's kingdom.
In fact, some churches won't have space for more people until they first send out some of those the Lord brought in to be discipled. We must not be afraid of "losing" people to such efforts. God's kingdom expands when churches are planted, and His kingdom must always be the focus....not our kingdom. As our Lord taught us, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done." (Matthew 6:10) If Jesus can multiply loaves and fish which were given for His purposes, He can certainly do the same with souls which are far more important. (see John 6:1-15) By the way, church planting is a great idea even if your current congregation has closer to 400 believers than 2000.
The vision for church planting won't resonate with every pastor and every lay elder....but it might make sense to you. If so, you may at some point be led to share your thoughts with your pastor and with the team of people who lead your congregation "in prayer and the ministry of the Word." (Acts 6:4) It won't hurt to ask....and it doesn't hurt to prayerfully dream outside the box....especially when it comes to something as critical as churches giving birth to new churches.