Church Planting Movements: Viral or Bust

Viral or Bust

I’ve been thinking about starting a business. But here’s the thing. I don’t really want to start a small business. If I start a business, I’d like it to be, like, a massively successful online start-up. That way I can sell it to Facebook or Google or someone after a few years. Probably for more than 100 million. Or maybe a billion. And then I’ll be able to retire and live off that for, like, ever.

In case my ‘like’s didn’t give it away, I’m just kidding. But what would be so ridiculous about saying something like that? What would you say if some bright-eyed high-schooler shared something like this as his plan for the future? Probably something like this:

“Has any online start-up ever not wanted to be massively successful? Has any entrepreneur ever started a new business thinking that it would face plant? I have no doubt that you want to cash out for a billion dollars – and I hope you do! But only the tiniest sliver of start-ups have such a happy ending! You may feel like you have a great plan, but there are simply too many unforeseeable factors to have any kind of surety of such a fortuitous outcome! You should maybe consider what success might look like for you if the stars don’t align in this particular way. What will you have if you don’t make 100 million dollars?”

This is something like what I feel when I hear missions-loving people talk about church planting movements. For those of you who don’t know, ‘church planting movement’ is used to describe a rapid, exponential increase of indigenous churches, usually in a highly unevangelized region. Basically the ministry equivalent of a viral YouTube video! A missionary shares the Gospel with a person, who immediately shares it with some other people, who immediately share it with other people, etc.

Stories of church planting movements occurring in various parts of the world are entrancing to missionaries. After all, who wants to start one church when you could start a thousand? It’s not hard to sell a missionary on a strategy that seeks such exponential growth. But the question has to be asked, just like it does to the would-be entrepreneur above: ‘Do you think that other missionaries haven’t wanted to start many thousands of churches?’

CPM advocates have a tendency to lecture the skeptics on why 10,000 churches are better than ten. Thanks, but that’s never been a question. The questions, instead, are as follows:

How healthy are these churches that are popping into existence?

The greatest of credulity is needed to buy into the press releases of CPMs. First of all, you will be told that your prejudices about what the Bible teaches about new churches will stifle the movement. So, for example, any ideas you have about qualified leadership in churches will have to go. Even your ideas about how people hear and respond to the Gospel will require adjustment. You will also be asked to give credence to multiplied stories of miracles and visions without any substantiation. And the numerical reports simply beggar belief.

‘Behind the scenes’ looks at CPMs around the world have usually not been flattering. The CPM-seekers seem willing to pay any price for staggering statistics. This emphasis leads to the formation of strange partnerships, the overlooking of troubling theological trends, and an inability to detect hucksters and frauds. In defense of their churches’ obvious deficiencies, CPM strategists protest that we in the West have added far too much baggage to the simplest conception of the church. That may be so. But I have my doubts that the churches they describe will live longer than a couple years. If so, they may want to consider whether or not their conception is too simple. The person who eats fast food thrice daily is healthier than the guy who only eats health food… but only once a week. At least he’ll be alive longer! The longevity of churches is a criteria for which the CPM strategists show a striking lack of concern.

Does the New Testament lead us to expect CPMs?

If you’ve read a book on CPMs, then you know that they generally make a great deal of noise about ‘getting back to New Testament principles’ or ‘achieving book-of-Acts-type growth.’ But their ‘biblical principles’ amount to some of the most blatant eisegesis you can find in print! It is quite clear that they have experienced something unusual and thrilling on the mission field, then flipped Bible pages hurriedly to find justification for it. Their reading of the biblical accounts of the early church’s growth are cursory, selective, and flawed.

Contrary to their claims about exponential, explosive growth in the early church era, there is little evidence even in the book of Acts that people were responding to the Gospel in the droves envisioned by the CPM strategists. Rather, faithful men worked very hard until their deaths to personally train men, plant new congregations, and preach the Gospel to those who hadn’t heard it. If there was a movement going on that resembled the modern CPM reports, Luke for one was remarkably quiet about it (and he certainly had no aversion to reporting numbers!)!

What will you have if the CPM never takes off?

I’m all for seeking church-planting movements in the sense that I’d rather plant 1,000 churches than one. But I’d rather plant ten than zero! And that is where I part ways with my CPM-seeking friends. I hear stories from all over the world of missionaries who have planted ZERO churches, have made ZERO disciples, and trained ZERO pastors, but are waiting for the day when a CPM is going to strike like lightning. They are setting up the dominoes, so to speak, doing what they think is the first step of igniting a movement (usually teaching the same lesson to several people). I wouldn’t hold my breath.

For the most part, the CPM-seekers that I’ve met couldn’t be bothered to plant a church. That would be a distraction from their real goal! Whereas it has traditionally been believed that the best way to plant ten churches is to start by planting one, they think the best way to plant ten churches is to tell ten people (who’ve never been to a church) to go start a church! Time will tell who’s more likely to start 100 churches. But here’s the question. If the traditional church-planter fails to plant 100 churches, what will he leave behind? More disciples and churches, I believe, than the hundreds of dudes walking the earth who waited for lightning to strike but never built anything!

Can good principles ensure the appearance of a movement?

Go back for a second to the YouTube comparison. Can you identify some of the characteristics that are common to viral videos? Sure! You could identify all kinds of principles for making a video become an online sensation. So go try it. Seriously. Go make a video that gets a hundred million views. The truth is, there’s something besides the principles at work! You can get all the principles right, and your video will still probably not go viral. Confidence that you can ignite a movement of any kind is simply naiveté.

Which leads us to the last and most important point of all. If you can’t even control whether or not people watch a video on YouTube, what are your chances of ensuring that millions of people respond to the Gospel? Zilch. This is the part of church-planting movement philosophy that borders on the presumptuous. Any ministry philosophy that does not allow for the possibility that God will not work in the way we hope is in the same danger. Missionaries would do well to frame their goals in terms of what God has given them an ability to do, and ask God to do what he only he can do in their field.

If CPMs are an unusual and miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, then why should missionaries make it their aim to create one? But if CPMs are a work of man, then away with them! By the way, I hope you start a CPM. And I hope your video goes viral. And I hope you sell your online startup for a billion dollars. But you might not want to define or demand success in those terms.

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2 Comments on “Church Planting Movements: Viral or Bust”

  1. theasianroughrider October 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    Jake, my man. Well said, summarized and digitized. I thoroughly enjoyed your critique.

    With that said, many critics look at CPMs from the outside in. The true pioneers of CPM’s are the individuals with no names or titrles or books. Just spirit filled individuals who are obedient to Jesus. These are the local workers who suffer for their Jesus and through changed the entire sopriritual landscape of communities and regions. We as the outsiders are simply trying to explain the phenomenon.

    You said it yourself, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. The truth is, this bandwagon/phenomenon has been around for well over 50 years. From Latin America, Africa to Asia. But only recently has been documented and give due attention to the missions community. I would also says that Acts is an accurate portrayal massive multiplication – 3,000 people coming to faith and baptized in one day? This is happening today.

    Finally, YouTube is a fad. And it will soon fade like any other social media outlet designed for exposure. What outsiders don’t recognize about CPM’s is that it is rooted in obedience and reliance on the Holy Spirit. Not strategies, programs or pastors. This makes it more relevant, deeper and stronger than our traditional churches today. Yes, reporting and accuracy and sustainability is an issue, but compared with traditional church growth methods- it’s like a banana verses a grove of banana trees

    Your bro,

  2. subahu March 31, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    We are the Church elected by or Chosen from the World, for HIs Kingdom. none one can destrory it but destory onlr worldly things…. Amen.

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