Toward a Clearer Understanding of Church Planting
By Nathan Olmstead
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
My belief is that we have been guilty of over-thinking “church planting.” We have made complex what was intended to be simple and, in the process, have formulated an unbiblical and unhealthy view of our God-given responsibility and mandate as Christians which is to “make disciples.” My heart is not necessarily that we would remove the phrase “church planting” from our vocabulary, but that we would have greater understanding of its biblical implication.
“As followers of Jesus, we have not been commanded to plant churches, but we have been commanded to make disciples.”To clarify, the phrase “church planting” is found nowhere in Scripture. As followers of Jesus, we have not been commanded to plant churches, but we have been commanded to make disciples. As I have talked about church planting with many people, I have come to the realization that the phrase invokes, for many, instantaneous pressure associated with words like: institution, numbers, membership, building, methodology, etc. To be of the persuasion that we are responsible to build/plant/form a church would be to strip Jesus of his authority to be the only one who will build his church: “I will build my church…” (Matt. 16:18); “…gave Him to be head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22). I have also found that for many people it is difficult to view church planting for what it really is: disciple making. Many times, this is because of the desire to be in control of what the church “should” look like. The pertinent question is: Do we really trust Jesus, through the power of the Spirit, to establish his church? Or are we going to rely on fallible man to dictate what church should look like?
Jesus is our best model of how to go about making disciples. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus’ model was one of high intentionality of dwelling with people, more specifically his disciples, and by so doing he revealed to them the Father. One could even argue that Jesus developed more intimacy and discipled more closely the threesome of Peter, James and John. I believe that in so doing, he is revealing to us that sometimes smaller is better. In order to become close to a person in a way that points him to the Father, we need to take time to walk with that person.
The Apostle Paul’s model was one and the same as that of Jesus’. Paul focused on the gospel and on making followers of the way of Christ; he didn’t seem to have an institutional church model that he was attempting to establish. The disciples naturally banded together into communities.
With the understanding that all believers are called to make disciples, what are some of the ways that I, as a disciple of Jesus, could “dwell among people” and reveal his glory to them? I believe that the answer is simply to follow the command of Jesus to baptize, and teach all his ways. Water baptism, which identifies the new disciple with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, also establishes the supremacy of Christ in the heart of the individual and points the disciple to Jesus continually. This “pointing to Jesus as Truth” is also the activity of the disciple maker as he or she walks alongside the individual. The intentional work of making disciples eliminates the pressures of “planting or building a church” and emphasizes the heart of the prospective disciple to know Jesus and to walk in obedience to him.
Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 37 has been instrumental in my understanding of evangelism leading to biblical discipleship. How we view the spiritual condition of those around us will greatly influence our desire to present Jesus to them. Taking note of the progression from verse 1, “the Spirit of the Lord set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones,” onto verse 2, “Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry.” God revealed to Ezekiel the need of the people by putting him in the place of need, and it was through active movement among the bones that he received the prophetic word that brought life to the dead. There is a difference between sitting down among people who are dry and actually moving around among the people and rubbing shoulders with them, recognizing their dead condition before God. Are we willing to be placed where there is great need and be moved by God’s Spirit to be Jesus to those people? The place of greatest need may be in our own communities, in a neighboring community, or across the oceans. This is what I see in Jesus “dwelling among men.” He walked with them, talked with them, rubbed shoulders with them, and then he called them to follow him. This is, at the core, evangelism leading to discipleship. It was only through connecting at a heart level that Ezekiel could effectively prophesy life into the dryness.
With the heart of the Great Commission being “make disciples” through baptism and teaching obedience, what is the ongoing effect of this type of a focus? I believe that the effect is continual “going/disciple making,” and our “going” should take us to “all the nations.” In so doing, we are not alone. Jesus’ promise to us still stands: “I am with you always (all the days), even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:20).
As RMM’s Church Planting Team Coordinator and team, we have been given the charge to assist 10% of Conservative Mennonite Churches to initiate church plants within a three-year period that began February 2013. We exist to assist the churches of CMC develop a strategy for multiplication and, in so doing, desire to put before the churches an applicable model that will allow for more natural and organic church plants to occur. Currently, we are a three-member team: Larry Kaufman, Dion Peachey and me. We desire to work closely with any church or individual that has an interest in seeing the kingdom of God extended in their respective region. We are currently in conversation with several churches and individuals, exploring with them what living out Jesus would look like among a different demographic in their area.
Disciple making and discipleship are not easy and no two locations are the same. There are many challenges in taking on our God-given responsibility, but the blessing of seeing a life transformed by the power of the Spirit is the most wonderful miracle in life. Would you be a part of this amazing work of seeing lives transformed right where you’re at?
We are in the process of planting a Spanish speaking church in the town of Lowville, New York. Although we would thoroughly enjoy seeing a stable plant come out of this, our ultimate goal is to send many of the people that we are blessed to work with back to their respective homes and countries as disciple makers/church planters. We have seen this happen in the mountains of central Mexico where three young men, upon returning to their homes with the vision to teach their community, have established a church plant and are currently working toward planting a church in every community in their demographic. We believe that God desires to reproduce this in many more locations and countries. With this understanding, the focus of our work Stateside is disciple making and discipleship that is easily reproducible in any context.
Nathan and Denise and children (Abigail, Isaiah, Clay, Cassia, Trenton, and Jeremiah) live in Croghan, New York. Nathan was a missionary intern with RMM in Cuenca Ecuador from 2000-2003. Nathan and Denise are involved in a Spanish-speaking church plant in their area. Nathan also currently works part time with RMM as Church Planting Team Coordinator and part time in agricultural sales. If you have interest in disciple making or have a question for Nate, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.