Discipling Church Planters

Here at Planting the Gospel we are committed to discipling church planters!  I often get the question, “How do you disciple church planters?”  In other words, what’s the difference between the training and discipling of church planters?  It’s really very basic.  Most training models are strictly about the acquisition of knowledge.  We assume the more we know, the more success we will have.  However, this is simply not true.

I planted my first church coming out of seminary in 1988.  At that time, I was aware of one book on church planting, Planting New Churches by Jack Redford.  For me, it was the Holy Grail of church planting simply because it was the only book on planting I was exposed to.  In addition to this book, Peter Wagner did a set of audiotapes on How to Plant a Church and Bob Logan created a self-bound version of Church Planter’s Toolkit called Church Planter’s Checklist.  That was it.  Since then, there has been a proliferation of church planting resources with similar nominal results.  Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird suggest in Viral Church, the average church plant after four years runs 87 people in weekend attendance.

I think it is fair to say that doing the same old thing, the same old way, produces the same old results.  However, today things are changing.  I recently did a study of the major church planting networks in the US.  Most networks employ a relational approach to developing church planters.  They often offer some kind of residency, apprenticeship, or internship.  These networks have seen phenomenal results.  The average network church plant after five years runs approximately 300 people in weekend attendance.  This is nearly four times the result of the non-networked church mentioned earlier.

Why?  I believe the key is relationships.  In order for leadership transformation to take place, training has to run congruent with intentional relationships.  That’s why we don’t talk about training church planters or simply running church planters through a curriculum.  It is our core conviction that planters must be discipled in the context of a healthy church planting environment.  Our formula is simple; relationship plus training in the context of an effective church or church plant equals the discipling of church planters.

This is why every church planter should speed up their effectiveness in planting by slowing down and spending a year in the right residency.  That’s why we don’t train church planters, we disciple them.

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The Gospel and Disciples

I am the guy who gets asked to talk about Jesus.  I think I get tagged because I wrote this book called Detox for the Overly Religious, which is all about losing our religion and rediscovering the simplicity and centrality of Jesus and his ways.  I am convinced that we as individuals and we as a church have lost our ways.  In John 10:10 Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” I think this is spot on for the condition we find ourselves in.  The thief has stolen from us that which Jesus came to give us.  This happens really subtly.

One of the stories I often tell is the story of a church planter I coached a couple of years back.   One of the things I had him do was visit church plants in the area.  One particular day he came to our meeting most enthused.  As I listen to him he told me how wonderful the experience was.  He went through the entire experience describing how they did parking, greeting, hosting, singing, preaching, and caring perfectly.  He was so excited.  As he paused, I asked him, “What about Jesus?”  He looked puzzled, “What do you mean?”  I went on, “What about the role that Jesus played in the whole experience?  How was he lifted up?  How was the Gospel clearly communicated?”  Once again he paused.  Finally, he looked up with tears in his eyes and said, “There was no Jesus.”

“The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The thief is often so subtle.  There is a passage of scripture in Rev. 3:20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

Here Jesus is outside the church.  Here Jesus is outside our lives.  This is the condition we find ourselves in.  “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.” I’m convinced that the church is need of rescuing.  I’m convinced that we are in need of rescuing.  I’m convinced that I am in need rescuing.

As a disciple, our lifeline is the gospel.  Everything flows out of the gospel.  Yet I’m not even sure we can articulate what the gospel is.  Disciples are people of the Gospel and when we get this, it changes everything.  Recently, I was at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis speaking on discipleship.  There were some antagonist among the crowd and at the end I had the blessing of a question and answer time.

I was asked by one student, “What is the gospel?” I responded, “The gospel is the kingdom of heaven at hand.”  Historically, it is an announcement of good news.  Something has changed.  The king has come and the battle is over.  The kingdom is at peace, and because the kingdom is at peace, I can now be at peace.  Something radically has come and changed my pitiful condition.  Another way to look at it, a new king has come.  The old dictator (sin) of my life is no more.  This new king is a kind and benevolent king.  He has shown his grace toward me.  He is renewing his kingdom.  Old laws and regimes are being toppled.  All things are becoming new.  The old is going, going, gone.  The new is arriving, arriving, arrived.

This past year I have focused on following.  I was teaching a sermon when I made a statement, “We believe, but are we willing to follow!”  I know God spoke to me and said, “What about you?”  For the last year, I have been following.  Here is one thing I have learned, what we believe is crucial to how we follow, specifically what we believe about the gospel.  However, following is essential to apprehending the truth behind our belief.   You can believe and not follow.  This often happens.  You can follow and not believe, but in reality the two are intertwined and together they perform a sacred dance.

What you believe about the Gospel is going to determine how you follow as a disciple.  The gospel is good news for all.

First, it is good news for all in that we are redeemed.  Jesus redeemed my life with his death.  He redeemed my despair by giving me his hope.  The King has come.  The kingdom is here.  He fought my enemy, and won my battle independent of my participation.  We call it grace.  Jesus did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.  In doing so he extended a great invitation of grace to me.  Come as you are.  He knew my condition.  He knew my worth.  He saw me as someone worthy of redeeming.  He purchased my redemption by paying the price for all of my sins.  The penalty for my sins has now been paid in full, never to be paid again.  This includes all of my past, present, and future sins.  Nothing I do can separate me from the love of God.  It is impossible.  “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death-even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8)”.

Religion requires for me to earn God’s approval.  Therefore, I obey or do good in order to get his approval.  The gospel is about receiving his approval as a gift.  I recognize that I am approved.  I have been redeemed.  Therefore because I am approved, I obey or do.  This is the great reversal.  The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. The thief has been defeated.  I have been redeemed, never to be lost again.  I have been redeemed with a great price.  I am of great value.  In Matthew 13: 45, Jesus is speaking in parables about the kingdom when he says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for a fine pearl.  When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” We are the fine pearl.  Jesus left Heaven selling everything he had to redeem us.  We are bought with a great price.  This changes everything and motivates me to love and serve the king.

Second, it is good news in that the gospel doesn’t only redeem us, but it renews us. Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.  The old is gone and new has come.” This is the great reversal.  He brings life to the dead.  The thief comes only to kill, steal, and destroy.  I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.

Jesus began his ministry with this same proclamation.  A new king has arrived.  The old order is gone; the new has come and is coming.  God is renewing all things.

This renewal begins with a single seed.  Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 13:31, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in a field.  Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” You see that?  It begins as a seed and grows beyond its’ own capacity, even to the point of renewing creation.  What begins as a seed becomes a tree.  What begins with a spark becomes a fire.  What begins with a drop becomes a flood.  What begins with a single volt lights an entire city.  What begins as an idea cures HIV!  What begins as a meal feeds five thousand others.

The gospel finds its’ beginning in renewing us, and without the renewing of us there is no making of all things new.

The gospel changes us from within through the renewing of our mind.  He gives us his Spirit.  Like a seed it grows, and grows, and grows.  “The thief only comes to kill, steal, and destroy.  But I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”

I’m not the man I use to be.  I have changed from within.  The Spirit has worked out this truth in my life.  As I become more and more aware that Jesus is my provider, I have less and less need to seek after materials things.  As I experience more and more of his forgiveness, I find it easier and easier to forgive, even forgive my enemies.  As I become more and more aware of my position in Christ, I have less need for status and recognition.   As I become more and more aware of how blessed I am, I am more apt to bless others. As I become more and more aware that God is in control, I have less and less need to be controlling.  As I become more and more aware that God is to be trusted, I have less and less need to not trust him or others.  I am not there.  I am in process, but I am being renewed.  “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.  But I have come that they may experience life and experience it to the full.” There is this fountain flowing up within me.

Finally, It is good news in that we are part of God’s restoration planWe are restorers. The plotline is simple:

  • God created the world,
  • Sin entered and the world falling into sin and decay,
  • Jesus came to redeem us from our sins creating a new people, and now a new kingdom is being formed.
  • We are a kingdom of priest with the responsibility of redeeming, renewing, and restoring.

He is setting all things right.  We are now active participants in the incredible story.  We are part of the gospel narrative. The things that Jesus began doing he continues to do through us.  We are the ones who do greater works then even he has done.  We are the ones that God makes his very appeal through.  When Jesus prayed, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:9-10).” He was praying for you and me.  Jesus is coming, but he’s coming right now through you and me. When he redeems us, then he renews us, he restores everything around us.

This indeed is the great reversal.  When I was a child my dad abused alcohol.  When evening came, if he wasn’t home by a certain time my mother would gather us up and take us to a hotel.  The next day she would take us to her in-laws where she would call my dad.  My dad would come over, have to face his parents, and then we would go home.   By the time I was a young teenager, we were hanging on by a thread.  That’s when the Gospel showed up in our house.  Thirty-five years later my mom is 71 years old and has leukemia.  She is not doing so well.  She’s a fighter, so she continues to fight the good fight.  My dad spends his every waking moment caring for his beautiful bride.  He is a caring father, a devoted husband, and a passionate follower of Jesus. He’s the dad every son longs for.   Why? It’s because that’s the power of the gospel.  It restores.  “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”

The gospel is indeed good news.