Is Church Planting Really the Answer?

My good friend Josh Dinale has written a blog entitled Is Church Planting Really the Answer which either excited or infuriated people based on what they think of church planting, Mark Driscoll and hipster pastors. If you don’t like the current crop of church plants around the shop, you like Phillip Jensen or John MacArthur more than Mark Driscoll and you think that all pastors have hips and therefore you think all hipster pastors need a good wash and shave you probably applauded the fact that a former skater punk like Josh has settled down, grown up, showers regularly and become a suburban Anglican minister[1]  who now rants against the evils of the current crop of faddish church planting with the zeal of a young church planter ranting against established churches. But if you are passionate about church planting, you want to start or have started a church a “theologically conservative culturally liberal” church and you have grown a beard, wear skinny jeans and only use Apple computer products you probably hated Josh’s rant and you might have thought “Typical old man Anglican!”

The first thing to say is that Josh is a provocateur like Phillip Jensen, Mark Driscoll, Rob Bell, John Macarthur, Michael Jensen, John Dickson and myself. This is his personality. Josh has always had a habit of putting provocative words out there just to rattle cages and so it came with no surprise when  I read his blog and it was deliberately provocative and hyperbolic. This is what Josh and others (including myself) do and that is why I love Josh!

Josh mentions that there are a lot of “pastors wanting to be the next Mark Driscoll”. While I think this was more true 5 years ago there is still some truth to it now. There always has been and there always will be heroes that people look up to. If you are a guitarist who likes good music your heroes will be Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn or Robben Ford and you will try to be like them in the way you play and you will probably cop some of their mannerisms.. If you are a young girl and you have no taste in music your heroes will be Katy Perry or Mis Direction (I think that is what they are called) and your habits, mannerisms and likes will be, to a certain extent, dictated by your heroes. This is human nature. So I am not surprised when young men who are young pastors or who desire to be pastors want to be like Mark Driscoll (or for that matter Piper, Chandler, Chan, Jensen, Chong, Macarthur, Washer, etc.). If you are a young reformed guy you may want to be like Driscoll, if you are someone who went to UNSW in the 80s and 90s you will probably gush about Phillip Jensen and if you want to destroy your church you will probably idolize Rob Bell or Karl Barth. God has created the world in such a way that people would have heroes. That being said, I agree with Josh that if you are trying to be like Driscoll, Piper, Jensen or whoever you should be yourself. Be inspired by the great men and women of the faith but part of real maturity is building your identity on Jesus and who he has made you to be.

The second point in Josh’s critique is aimed at “pastors moving into areas where there are already good evangelical ministries and rather than working together  targeting the same group” Josh outlines two concerns; firstly, that logically it is better to get critical mass in one place than have two churches struggling to get to critical mass. Secondly, there is the issue of resources. Josh, quite rightly, points out that a church takes a lot of resources to run and you would think it would be better to pool resources and have one church rather than two. On the surface these critiques seem valid but when you dig deeper they are found to be left wanting. Firstly, it would be stupid if two Evangelical churches from the same denomination existed in the same suburb. Yes in that instance it would make more sense two have one church rather than two. But what if you have two churches that are Evangelical churches who disagree on major issues i.e. baptism, church government or ministry philosophy. Imagine I move to Brisbane in the nice suburb of Cooparoo. I am quickly convinced that Cooparoo is a godless suburb that makes Newtown look like the Christian version of Disneyland and that Cooparoo needs the gospel of Jesus more than any other place in the world. If I were to take Josh’s advice the best plan would be to throw my lot in with him and work alongside him at his church. But here is the problem, in my opinion, because he is an Anglican, Josh doesn’t believe the Bible[2] on a bunch of issues like baptism, church government, church membership etc. So really our partnership in the gospel will only work if we don’t baptise anyone, never have a church meeting or we never practice church discipline. The only way two pastors can work together in the same church is if they either agree on the gospel and secondary issues like gender, church government, baptism etc or they don’t care about these issues. On the surface this critique from Josh looks plausible but when you dig deeper it is really a naive utopian fantasy.

Next Josh says “often whilst on the surface evangelism is said to be at the core, rather what I have found is that being cool and hipster is more important.” but then he goes on to defend denominational churches and say they are culturally relevant and they are reaching people. I am not sure how Josh knows that churches and pastors of said churches want to be more hipster than evangelistically minded. If Josh came to my church Resolved he would see a small band of Christians many of whom have brought their friends to an evangelistic course we are currently running or they are inviting their friends to church and talking with them about Jesus. I am convinced that this the case at other church plants in Sydney and also denominational churches. On the hipster thing, being hipster is not a sin I am tempted by[3] I do think there is a pressure to be hip or cool with culture. But that can happen whether you are a church planter in Newtown or a Sydney Anglican minister. All I can say is that I know guys from the Geneva Push and Acts 29 churches and it seems like their greatest desire is for people to come to know Jesus. I can’t judge a pastors heart based on their church meeting or their evangelistic track record and I don’t know how Josh can know either.

Josh then shares his concern “about the shuffeling the deck and really not reaching new people and burning people out” and in this I’m in full agreement. There is usually a hip church plant which blows up with people leaving their church. This is not the pastors fault at all as long as they don’t encourage this church shopping mentality. I also agree that some church plants don’t reach anyone and they just burn people out. But is this last critique only found in church plants? Can’t denominational churches be evangelistically dead and burn people out? Of course they can. For various reasons Resolved hasn’t always been as evangelistically hot as we should have been and we have burnt our fair share of people out. But I know friends that are going to denominational churches that are evangelistically dead and these churches are burning them out. The common denominator in both an ineffective church plant which burns out people and an ineffective denominational church that burns people out is the leadership. Either the leadership if the church needs to grow or change.

The final critique josh has is that “many leaders seem to be developing a level of arrogance and snobbery towards those who work within denominations.” He continues:”  I personally am sick of church planters or church plat (sic) organisations telling me that I and other young denominational guys should leave denominational churches and plant something.” Now I planted Resolved almost five years ago and in that time I have been to a bunch of planting conferences. Also, before that I listened to every church plant talk I could listen to. In all this time I have never heard of one planting leader tell someone not to plant a denominational church or leave their denomination. Not once. I’m not sure who Josh is hanging out with but I would suggest that Josh get new friends if they are telling him to leave his denomination. In fact Josh why don’t you come to the Multiply a conference put on by the Geneva Push. I promise you no one will ask you to leave the Anglican Church and that you will be encouraged to be more effective in your ministry.

Josh’s title of his blog was “Is church planting really the answer?” And the obvious answer is no. The answer is churches that are radically shaped by the gospel whose evangelistic fire is at boiling point. We need denominational churches to be like this and if we are to reach Australia and the world with the gospel we need church plants planted all the time with this evangelistic edge. No church planting is not the answer but it will be an outcome if churches  are gospel centered and on fire.


[1] By the way I love suburban Anglican ministers

[2] I know Josh is a brother in Christ who is a reformed evangelical and who does uphold the authority of the Bible. I am being hyperbolic to make a point…… And have some fun. See my above comments about Josh and I being provocateurs.

[3] This is because, I like to shower and shave, I hate coffee, I like to work out and play sport and I like my music electric and loud

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