Paul Harrington and CS Tang have both been planting churches (in Adelaide and Sydney, respectively) since 1994. We spoke to them together and asked them to tell us what they had learned from that combined half-century of ministry.
TGCA: Could you begin by giving us a brief overview of your ministry history and the current state of your network?
PH: I joined the team at Holy Trinity Adelaide in 1988 and became the senior minister in ’93. It was a church in the middle of the CBD and was largely full so we had to decide whether to build or plant a new church. In ’94, we decided to try church planting and six years later, in 2001, took around eighty people (out of 800) and set them up about twenty-five minutes to the south-east of the mother church.
The new church doubled in size and the mother church refilled … We planted another church.
That went well. The new church doubled in size and the mother church refilled. In 2006 we planted another church to the south-west and then in 2010 we planted two in one week. All these were within a twenty-minute radius of the mother church—with the intention that these could then go and plant further churches.
That is what has happened: the network now has eleven centres with around 2300 people attending each Sunday.
CST: I really started when I was a university student. We had a Bible-study group based in the art deco residence that I rented with 4 other Christians. It grew to about 60 in one year so we split it—and then the same thing kept happening for the next 3 years.
After finishing at Moore and Christ College, I helped plant two churches amongst refugees in the West of Sydney and, in 1994, planted Cornerstone with a group of about 30 people in a public school building.
Since that time we’ve been continually looking for opportunities to plant and the Lord has enabled us to establish six churches, with a seventh presently under prayerful consideration. Each has its own local minister/leadership team. The Lord has added to our number with more than 800 currently making Cornerstone their home church.
TGCA: How do you keep your network together?
CST: Although the different plants in the network are free to develop their own distinct personalities, we make sure that everyone is on the same page doctrinally and maintain the same vision and core values.
In terms of leadership, I must emphasise that I am surrounded by godly and capable elders and leaders whose gifts in many areas far exceed mine. I am the senior pastor. But every minister at each site drives and shapes the ministry with a team of elders, including the teaching program. I likewise, drive the ministry at the site where I preach regularly and also visit the other sites occasionally. I chair the session (the combined board of ministers and elders) that meets every two months.
The pastoral staff set aside time weekly to train, pray and encourage one another at the office we share, and read books together.
The other thing that keeps us together is our commitment to church planting. Every new plant is supported by the collective resources of all the preceding ones. The Lord has graciously enabled us to grow, and as we have, so also has the momentum for further church planting. At 4 of our present sites, I led the seeding teams—each of about 20 to 30 people. But I am happy to increasingly share this coal face work with the other pastors in the future.
PH: We began with a mother church/branch church approach but became worried that this model would strangle longer-term growth. Now all the churches function as peers in the network with a board of oversight that helps us direct energy and resources to the coalface and maintain our common commitment to the preaching of the Word and sharing the gospel.
We maintain a collegiality amongst our staff through regular get-togethers and I now work to coach the senior pastors of each church.
TGCA: What have been some highlights and low points during your ministries.
CST: It is always a highlight when people come to faith in Christ. One of the things that has happened over recent years is that many people who have been brought up in the church and known the gospel—maybe a third of my current congregation—have come to know God in a new way. It’s a strange thing—they come to me in tears and say “it’s like I heard John 3:16 for the first time.”
It’s a strange thing—they come to me in tears and say ‘it’s like I heard John 3:16 for the first time.’
There have been times when the work has been very fruitful; and there have been other times when we’ve needed to be patient and keep on working, trusting that God would do his work in due time.
Of course, there have also been the problems all church planters face: good people leaving unexpectedly; problems finding a place to meet; exhausting pastoral issues.
But really, what made them low points was my own ungodly responses to those situations. I professed to seek the glory of God when I was driven by self-interest; or I’ve allowed problems to make me insecure—causing me to pretend to be better than I really am, or to become overly critical of others. But God has been really kind to me and held on to me patiently through my ups and downs.
PH: Seeing new people come to realise God’s great kindness to them in Christ is a highlight. When you see that happening in multiple churches—people responding to the gospel and hearing their stories—that’s where it’s at.
Church planting stretches people and creates new openings for ministry: I see people doing things that I had no idea they could do.
God has also been very kind toward our church planting. When we began in 2001 we didn’t have much idea what we were doing—and we probably wouldn’t have done it again if it hadn’t worked.
But over time, people have become more convinced, not just about church planting, but about God’s plan for evangelising his world.
Church planting stretches people and creates new openings for ministry: I’ll visit a church and see people doing things that I had no idea they could do.
Low points have mostly had to do with relationships. Often church plants can attract people who have their own agendas or a particular theological bent they want to push. It means church planting can put pastors under a lot of pressure. On a couple of occasions, I have been in tears speaking to congregations and pastors going through high-level conflict.
TGCA: What are the strengths of church planting (vs other models such as parish rejuvenation)?
PH: Church planting is a good catalyst for growth and vision. You get to start from scratch. You are spending time with people starting something new, and you get to decide what that is going to look like. It stretches people in their ministries and also spurs them on evangelistically.
Repotting or rejuvenating existing churches is valuable, but is much more difficult and complicated because you are dealing with an existing situation and church traditions. You have to take something that’s on a decline and try to get it onto an incline—often with people who don’t understand why it has been declining. That process requires a lot more patience and time.
Not having to worry about ownership of buildings when you’re church planting helps too—you’re not attached to a space; you hire spaces according to their functionality. It means you have flexibility as churches grow.
CST: Sometimes there are good reasons to work with existing churches, but we find that starting new provides greater freedom and a greater sense of ownership and passion.
It’s like getting to design a new house instead of renovating. Of course, you still end up with a roof and kitchen and so on—something that looks like other houses. But it is a good exercise to think through what you are trying to do and why you are doing it.
TGCA: What have you learned about preparing for a church plant? What resources have been helpful?
CST: First, it is very important to be already doing evangelism. If you aren’t doing evangelism, church planting won’t help. When we do church planting it is because we are doing evangelism, not the other way round.
Second, it’s not enough to train church planters. We must train the church to do church planting.
Third, be good learners but don’t fall for the fads. In more than thirty years as a church planter, I have seen at least 3 cycles of the same ministry fads in different clothing.
With materials, we distil good parts out of a wide range of materials—but it is more important to understand yourself, your own situation, and the people God has given you. Frank Retief once told me that it was important for church planters to be street smart, and that’s what I have learned too.
PH: Back in the 90s there weren’t a lot of resources around and we knew we wanted to plant a church, but also knew we didn’t know anything. So the leaders of my church sent me overseas for a couple of months to find out more.
There were significant differences that we had to filter out, but there were lots of practical things we could learn too. For example in the US, where they were about 15 years ahead of us, they were trying to work out why there was such a high failure rate—and the lesson was to plan and prepare better.
So we took our time. From inception to launch we took 12 months getting a team together; praying together; looking at the Bible together; to be encouraged in evangelism together; to think about different ministries and who would lead them. We recruited pastors to plant but planned for them to join existing churches for 2-3 years to build teams and get clarity on planting plans before they launched out.
That preparation meant we were able to devote more energy to reaching new people, as opposed to caring for those already in the planting congregations. It was like the old carpenter’s proverb about measuring twice and cutting once.
TGCA: What’s your assessment of how the church planting movement is going in Australia.
CST: I hear good things. There is also a measure of despondence from some leaders who thought better methods of assessment of planting candidates would mean a much lower failure rate.
Our tendency is always to look for the magic bullet. If assessment doesn’t deliver, we pin our hopes on intensive leadership training. When that doesn’t live up to our expectations we add coaching to the mix; all of them promising to provide the missing key to unlock greater church planting success.
The only thing in church planting I’m not skeptical about is the gospel. Everything else is up for discussion.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for rigorous assessment, better training and good coaching. I am involved in them as much as the next planter. But, looking at a few of the studies that underpin some of them over the years, I must question whether we are putting too much faith in such statistics. My background is in statistics and I tend to have a skeptical bent about such things. The only thing in church planting I’m not skeptical about is the gospel. Learning how to apply the gospel in your own life and the lives of the people you want to reach is the first thing I want to teach a church planter. Everything else is up for discussion.
PH: When we first started planting churches here in Adelaide, it was mostly charismatics who had been doing it—evangelicals were more cautious about stepping into this space. Today there’s a lot more going on. There are multiple organisations providing helpful services—including church planter assessments which take us beyond the intuitions of the senior pastor.
Assessment is helpful because, in my experience, pastors who thrive are the ones who understand themselves. If you know how you’re wired and what your strengths are, you can build teams with strengths where you aren’t gifted.
But I also agree with CS. We humans all tend toward Arminianism—we want to focus on what we can do to ensure success. If that becomes a substitute for trusting in God and the gospel of his grace and mercy it will be a disaster.
So I am keen on church planting and being wise about it, but what I really want is for people to be fired up about the gospel. Our networks work best when they help us encourage each other in that humility and trust.
TGCA: Do you see any ongoing, or future challenges for church planting ministries?
CST: It worries me that we appear to have lost our sense of urgency and passion for evangelism, or that we think we are doing it simply because we are doing a lot of church planting.
Evangelism itself needs to be recovered and rethought. In the general Christian population—especially amongst younger Christians—evangelism has almost become a no-go zone In our culture. That’s a big challenge.
But really, I am very upbeat about church planting. I see wonderful, godly people in leadership roles driving it and urging us forward. We saw catalytic and almost euphoric moments a few years ago in church planting for various reasons, but it will settle like a good marriage into something deeper and more mature.
PH: If we make church planting the solution it will be just another fad. Back when I was at college, the emphasis was on personal evangelism. Then the key to evangelizing Australia was ministry to university students. Then in the 90’s it was seeker services and purpose driven ministry. In Australia church planting became popular at the start of this century. But as CS said, the danger is that we’ll find this isn’t as successful as we hoped, and go on to look for the next thing.
Perhaps that has already begun a bit. As I talk to people who are thinking about vocational ministry, it seems harder to find people putting up their hands for church planting. Bible colleges seem to be graduating students who are keener to take up established church ministries rather than entrepreneurs and frontiers-people—so we, as a network, are thinking hard about how we can encourage and train more people to go into that ministry.
Overall, however, I am optimistic. As a Network we are thinking about how we can double our rate of planting in the next decade; what we can do, under God, to reach new people who haven’t heard the gospel.
But we mustn’t lose sight of that gospel or we’ll come adrift.