“So, how do you start a new church?”

It’s often the first question I get asked once I’ve mentioned in conversation that my job involves planting a new church. Especially if I’m talking to someone whose not a church-goer themselves. And then sometimes they closely follow that with, “So you’re a builder then?”

Erm, yeah, sort of… wanna be a brick?!

But actually that first question is one that gets to the heart of the planters’ task.

Over the past three years I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading and talking and mulling on the topic of church-planting, and it’s this kind of question that you inevitably come back to. And however you answer it, it takes us to the core of the task. How do you grow a new church?

Of course, change the wording slightly and you see that it’s not a question that’s particularly unique to planting. After all, where is the line between planting a church and pastoring a church? How do we grow any church, whether it’s new/existing/old/just-ticking-along-nicely-but-probably-time-for-a-change-of-personnel church?

A Question at the Heart of Ministry

In other words, it’s a question that takes us to the heart of Christian ministry.

And yes, in the planting context there are likely to be other questions that chronologically precede it, e.g.: Where is the gospel need? What is the nature of this place and who are these people? What might it look like to share the gospel and live out the Christian faith in this particular context?

But once those conversations have started, and once a need and vision have been discerned, then the question of how you’re actually going to go about growing – under God – a new church, inevitably comes to the fore.

Put it another way, what is essential and what is negotiable as we seek to grow a new church?

And at what point can you legitimately call something a ‘church’ anyway? 

By the way, although the language of church-planting is sometimes substituted for that of ‘fresh expressions’ (particularly in the Church of England since the publishing of the Mission-Shaped Church report back in 2004), all these questions still apply. We might be adamant that this new church isn’t going to be ‘traditional church’, but what is it that’s going to make it church?

Getting Practical Must Mean Getting Theological

Instinctively we can tend to begin with the practical. Who is part of the team? How do we raise the finances? Assuming we have a regular service/gathering, where would we meet?

(That said, as I’ve reflected on before, I’ve become convinced it’s really important that we’re aiming for icebergs, not just church services.)

But actually the practical should be shaped by the theological. In other words, our processes should flow from our convictions.

Why?

Because we care about being faithful to God – to what he has revealed about who he is and how he works.

Because we want our methods to mirror up with his God-given means of grace.

Because we care about growing genuine disciples of Christ, rather than just getting bums on seats or putting on a holy firework show.

That’s why I think the context of church-planting reveals what’s under-the-bonnet of the ministry, theologically-speaking, in a much more obvious way than with in the context of sustaining an existing church ministry. Why? Because with the latter there’s already something happening. Activity, structure and strategy are already in motion. It therefore takes time for any changes in the under-girding theology to become apparent.

But start something from scratch and you’ve immediately got to go face-to-face with the question, ‘what is church and how might it grow?’ Answer that question and, like it or not, your theology is instantly laid bare.

Learning from Luther

So here’s where one particular phrase continues to serve as something of a compass to guide my time and labours and prayers in Barrow – and I think it’s an absolute corker. The credit here goes to the German Reformer, Martin Luther, because it originates in his second major work, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, from way back in 1520.

He describes the true church simply as a “creatura verbi divini”.

And for those of us who aren’t fluent in Latin (yup, me too) that translates as ‘a creature of the word‘.

In other words, it is the Scriptures that give birth to the church, through the power of the Spirit, for it is they that make known God’s gospel promise about the Son.

Elsewhere Luther puts it like this,

For since the Church owes its birth to the Word, is nourished, aided and strengthened by it, it is obvious that it cannot be without the Word. If it is without the Word, it ceases to be a Church.” (LW, 40:37)

Words are powerful. We all know that. We know that positively in the well-timed word of affirmation or the stirring speech. We know that negatively because, hey, although we may say ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, that doesn’t actually stop the punch-in-the-gut feeling of a cruel word.

But God’s words are even more powerful. As the apostle Paul puts it in his famous ‘armour of God’ piece, the word of God is the ‘sword of the Spirit’.

As we communicate God’s word, God’s Spirit loves to get to work.

England’s Assumption

Interestingly, the theologian Christoph Schwöbel makes the point that all too often the insights of Luther and other Reformers concerning the nature of church have been missed. He argues they have been relegated, as if belonging to “purely academic theologising,” rather than being brought to bear on contemporary conversations about growing healthy churches.

The relevance of this to the British context is particular acute. Schwöbel points out that the political character of the English Reformation meant the Church of England has never fully taken on board Reformation insights about the nature of church.

Of course, in theory the Church of England recognises the authority of the Bible. Article 6 of the C of E’s Thirty-Nine Articles is titled ‘Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation’. It states:

Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation…

But there’s a difference between having God’s word as your car manual or your road-map, and having God’s word as your engine. One actually takes you places, whereas the others tend to stay in the glove compartment.

Just Another Ingredient?

Here’s another way of thinking about it. Often we think of the Bible as a part of a church. We almost approach it like a list: “what do we need to make a healthy church?” And then we make our shopping list: Worship, Prayer, Bible, Coffee…

The Bible becomes one element, one activity, whether it be in the form of sermons, Bible-study, teaching, etc. It is an activity that sits alongside other activities. It’s one ingredient in the recipe, but we need all the ingredients to make the cake.

But the point that Luther’s phrase captures is that God’s word forms God’s church. It converts and disciples and sanctifies and multiplies and sustains.

Sow, Sleep, Repeat

So for the church-planter, sowing this word becomes so critical, so central.

If the church is the creature, then the word is the seed. As one planter has put it, “we sow, sleep, repeat.”

Whether it’s in the weekly gathering, or over a beer with individuals, or in an evangelistic course.

Whether it’s the word read, sung, prayed, preached, or made visible in the sacraments.

After all, Paul tells the church in Colossae to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…”

It might not always feel spectacular, but if God’s word is how God grows his church, then what is all too often seen as ordinary is treasured as supernatural and what is sometimes assumed can be valued as life-giving.

Dig Deeper Questions

  • How does seeing the church as a ‘creature of the word’ change how you think about what is intrinsic to a church being church?
  • Are we ever tempted to see the Bible as merely one ingredient on the church shopping list? In what ways?
  • And in what ways might we assume a narrow view of what it means to ‘minister the word’?

I’ve written more on this topic over at the Church Society blog: Planting as Gospelling.