13 years ago, I made my first trip to Sydney. I came at the invitation of John Chapman and David Mansfield to spend a month working with the Dept. of Evangelism in the Sydney Diocese. It was a real eye-opener for me. Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were doing evangelism. Guest events in church. Dialogue dinners, evangelistic barbecues, men’s events, women’s events. You name it, it was happening. Everyone was learning Two Ways to Live, and new courses were coming out regularly. I went back to Dublin humbled, challenged and refocused on getting the gospel out more courageously and effectively. But 13 years on?
It could just be me, but I’m pretty sure that evangelism has slipped down our agenda. Church planting has, it seems, taken up the headspace that was once occupied by evangelism. And much as I love church planting (it’s what we did in Ireland), it does provide more places for people to hide who don’t want to talk about Jesus to their friends. Similarly, I don’t hear of many churches who are doing evangelism training these days. So what are we to do? We need to get evangelism right back on the agenda. We really do.
Of course, church planting and evangelism aren’t opposites – or at least they shouldn’t be. Any church planting worth its salt is based on getting the gospel out to new people in new areas or new demographics. The church planting we all long to see is about seeing new people added to the kingdom, not transfer growth. But I wonder if there is something we need to face up to here?
We all know that transfer growth is something we should be seen to be against (even if we quietly say ‘But you know what? They’ll be much better off in our church anyway!’). But our real attitude to transfer growth is seen in the priority and energy and focused prayer we give to evangelism. If we aren’t pouring ourselves into the work of evangelism, then by default, we are just doing church in the hope that people show up. If we are honest, we’ll know in our heart of hearts that the people most likely to show up aren’t real outsiders, but those who have moved to the area, or who are on the lookout (for all kinds of admirable and not so admirable reasons) for a new church home. This is the default setting of most established churches – if we don’t make evangelism a priority, we will slowly but surely revert to the easier position of adopting a silent strategy of relying on transfer growth. That in itself is a massive issue – albeit hardly a new one. But when this mindset creeps into church planting networks, it is even more toxic.
One doesn’t to have read hundreds of books on church planting to know that in a church plant, the pressure is on from day one to grow. The key question, of course, is how are we going to grow? And this is where it gets really tricky. None of us wants to steal people from other churches (although a little bit of recruiting key people from other ministries is almost always necessary in the start-up phase). But on the other hand, for the church planter, numbers are (very nearly) everything.
It’s hard for those of us who aren’t church planting to appreciate just how big an issue ‘numbers’ is for those who are. Let’s face it – when you meet someone who is in a recently launched church plant, what’s the first question you want to ask? How about when you meet the same person three months later? Six months later? A year later…? I could go on, but you get the point. Even though I try to stop myself, if I’m not very careful, I do it myself to QTC graduates who are planting in Brisbane. And if we create an atmosphere where numbers are everything, should it really be a surprise that even for church planters, transfer growth becomes not only acceptable, but the default strategy?
This is not helped by the impact of great church planting initiatives and movements elsewhere. On the TGC website we read about and listen to great guys who have planted churches and networks, and we start to think that ‘If only I started a church like … and if I preached like…. then more people would come…!’ And before we even start, we have ensured that a transfer growth mindset is in our DNA. But there is something that we need to be aware of before we go down this track – church planting like this will ultimately kill the church. Church planting without evangelism at best is far too passive. At worst, it is parasitic, and will ultimately damage the work of the gospel. It will do nothing more than rearrange our church demographics, replacing old churches that don’t reach out with new ones.
Do we need to plant churches? Of course we do. The task of taking the gospel to Australia is massive. We need more vibrant, gospel-centred churches. We need to plant, and revitalize, and build and restore and strengthen all kinds of churches across every part of our vast nation. The work done by The Geneva Push, Acts 29 and City to City, alongside the ongoing commitment of many denominations to plant and establish churches is a great thing for the gospel, and provides us with unprecedented opportunities to work together for the sake of Jesus Christ in our land. But we do need to be a little bit careful – because church planting in itself is no panacea.
Biblical church planting flows from evangelism, as the message of the gospel is clearly proclaimed in every possible context. Some of this proclamation may be cutting edge, but some of it may look extremely mundane—teaching Scripture in inner city schools, building intentional relationships with baristas and road-sweepers, inviting the faceless residents of the other units into our block for dinner, eating at the same time every week in the RSL, going to the annual show just to be there… And doing it all to make the most of every opportunity to speak the gospel to a world which desperately needs to hear it.
We need to plant churches for the sake of our nation. And we need to do it by proclaiming the gospel. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and offers people like you and me life and forgiveness, and we need to make sure that every person in Australia – whether they live in the cities, or regional towns, or in the outback, whether they were born here or have recently arrived – has the opportunity to hear the gospel. So yes, let’s throw ourselves into the task of church planting, and let’s redouble our efforts to make sure that at the heart of all our endeavours is the longing to take the gospel to our nation.