Church Planting Challenges

March 2004 – Vol.20 – No.2

“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man’s work shall be made manifest…because it shall be revealed by fire.”

Dear Friends:

The last Evangel chronicled how opposition in Nampula to church planting policies turned into calculated persecution by one of our leaders. A major theme in our trials, mentioned only in passing in the last report, was the application of Biblical principles to situations common in missionary churches. For those with a special interest in church planting in different cultures, I promised a detailed account of some challenges posed by the African situation.

Before describing cultural issues, however, one must note that difficulties on the field do not arise only from local customs. The missionary comes to the task with his own set of limitations and a potpourri of mistakes waiting to emerge. To understand the rough road we have traveled in its proper context, some facts about the missionary must first be mentioned.

From the outset, this ministry had to make do with less than ideal missionary conditions. First, I was not a veteran church planter. I was a medical doctor. I had not been trained in the pastorate nor was I an experienced elder. I did not possess the qualifications of an elder if one accepts that an elder must have children who believe. For those reasons I was commissioned merely to proclaim the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ, not to plant churches. With my full time hospital responsibilities, when a church was established it received only part time attention, and a mission church in a primitive culture requires much time and care.

Second, I was working alone, without a missionary colleague, contrary to the Biblical pattern we wanted to follow. Grace Missions anticipated that God would soon send a trained co-worker to join us, particularly if the door for church planting opened, but God did not raise up a second laborer until we had been on the field for ten years. Meanwhile, He clearly opened the way for me to go in 1990, albeit alone. Working without an associate was an imperfect circumstance we simply had to accept.

The occasion for planting a church came in 1993. Of the many people evangelized through the hospital, nine men had been discipled for one to two years. Following our example, they each had joined a local church. However, they began to note that what was taught and practiced in their churches often differed from what they were learning from Scripture. Eventually they requested to establish for their families a church that followed the doctrine and practice imparted through our Bible classes. After consultation with others and a three-month trial period of meeting for worship, we all thought this opportunity had come from the Lord. So we decided to start a church from those nine families and my own.

Biblical Leadership

The first problem was what to do for Biblical leadership. Applying literally the requirements of I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9, we had no qualified elders. All the Africans were new to the faith, and some still lacked clear signs of regeneration. The nearest scriptural elders were too distant to exercise meaningful leadership. We sought the advice of experienced church leaders on extra-Biblical options and finally followed the recommendation of making all the founding men provisional leaders and having them act by unanimous accord until God would raise up two Biblically qualified elders. However, some of the men simply could not maintain the moral example necessary of anyone leading a church even as a “provisional leader,” and in the first year three had to be removed. The scriptures say with good reason that new converts cannot be made leaders, “lest they become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.” For two of the three who had to be removed because of scandalous sin, the loss of face was too much to bear, and they left the church and the faith altogether.

All along, the founders were reminded that we were all only provisional leaders who would one day relinquish authority to true elders. No one was allowed to call himself an elder or a pastor. The man who eventually became our persecutor found that a chaffing restriction. He complained against the policy in his secret meetings, and as soon as he got rid of the other leaders assumed the title of pastor.

The paucity of elder-qualified nationals is a great difficulty for the African church. For reasons given later in the section on nominalism, raising up a group of Africans who will clump together as a church is not hard. Gaining genuine conversions is, however, more difficult. The incidence of spiritually qualified leaders in churches is also low, due in part to the large percentage of nominal adherents overall. To find one elder leading 20 or more congregations is not unusual. Yet the same church planters, knowing they are unable to tend the congregations already established, work industriously to raise up even more. Their concern is to reach the lost with the gospel; but when one evaluates the fruit of shallow evangelism and the reputation gained for Christ by carnal, leaderless churches, there is reason to doubt the usefulness and the validity of this approach.

My experience forces me to believe that while evangelism is important, one cannot run ahead of the Lord in church planting. We have never accepted the approach of making elders out of the best men available whether they are qualified or not. Making all the founding men “provisional leaders” did not work either. I appreciate the strategy of the great Puritan missionary to the American Indians, John Eliot. Though he could see the Lord applying his messages to the hearts of the Indians from his earliest endeavors, he waited many years for God to raise up two Biblical elders before organizing his converts into a church. He did not immediately rush about evangelizing everywhere he could, throwing up churches in every village. Nevertheless, his careful, methodical approach over a 25 year period, painstakingly slow at the outset yet keeping close to Scripture, resulted in thousands of Indian believers who faithfully followed their Lord. His experience confirms that moving at the Lord’s pace is the surest way to effectively reach the most people in mission work.

Arguing the issue from another perspective, we can reflect on Christ’s own example as described in John 5:1-9. Verse 3 says there was a multitude of diseased persons lying around the pool of Bethesda, yet Christ did not rush through the crowd feverishly healing them all. He chose one and healed him. The fact that people must be chosen by God to salvation before gospel preaching yields true conversions should not become a grounds for dilatoriness in evangelism. However, a proper dose of the doctrine of election would remedy the too frequent error of rushing ahead of the Lord in church planting. Moving at the Lord’s pace is the surest way of reaching all His elect without leaving a trail of stillborn churches and false believers in one’s wake.

Material Gain

A second problem plagued the new church from the very beginning, and that was concern for material gain. While some of the original nine sought to establish the church from pure motives, others also saw the prospect of much needed financial help from ties through the Mission to wealthy “sister churches” in the States. This hopeful expectation was only natural as other mission organizations sent their churches clothing, farm implements, bicycles, vehicles, construction supplies, and office equipment by the container-load and sent money to build fine churches. One of the founders soon began submitting for publication in the Evangel letters requesting material help from our donors. These were not printed. I told him we never campaigned for such help and encouraged him to simply tell the people what the church was doing and then pray to God for the finances. I also established the policy that Grace Missions would match the church’s own giving toward any project but would not contribute more than 50%. The church needed to be self-supporting and avoid the dangerous habit of looking to men rather than God for the help it needed. Further, we did not want to fill the congregation with people coming purely for a share in the spoils sent from the mission.

These policies frustrated many in the church. The leader who used to submit letters for financial assistance left after two years. Brother Arnaldo implored his fellows not to seek that which perishes, but to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then all these things would be added to them by the divine hand. That philosophy has worked wonderfully for him. However, because of his stand and the way God has blessed it in his case, he earned the disapproval and suspicion of many who felt a golden opportunity was being withheld from them. Eventually, our adversary found he could no longer endure Arnaldo’s and my position on the matter. Besides claiming in his secret meetings that the policy hurt the church participants financially, he announced it was only a cover allowing relief aid actually sent to the church to be diverted to Arnaldo and myself without arousing suspicion.

The issue of how best to help poor brethren is a thorny one. From the admonitions to wealthy Christians recorded in Scripture, poor Christians have every reason to hope for generous handouts from their affluent brothers and to wonder when such assistance is not forthcoming. We have had to wrestle with this matter on a personal level. Even when we lived as seven people in a one-bedroom apartment without running water and, in years past, no electricity for months at a time, we were fabulously wealthy in comparison to nearly everyone. We had a car, a computer, a telephone. Use of the latter alone cost a month’s wages for a Mozambican. Surrounded by 20 million poor people, if we were not obviously sharing our wealth, anyone could doubt whether we took the Bible seriously. But we did not want to turn all our acquaintances into opportunists ever angling for free handouts, particularly in the church. That tendency lies too near the surface in African culture already, where freeloading is accepted practice.

Christ taught that we should “give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). John the Baptist said that the one who had two tunics should share with him who had none, and he who had food should do likewise (Luke 3:11). Paul said in the church that, “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). Christians should develop a work ethic so they not only could provide for themselves but also supply the needs of others (Ephesians 4:28). We tried to honor all these principles by offering help to everyone who asked for it but in exchange for some effort on their part that did not directly benefit us. This allowed us to be generous and gave hope to those who really needed assistance, while culling out those who simply wanted something for nothing.

At first we arranged small jobs, but there were far too many supplicants for us to accommodate. So we had those who were literate read Scripture out loud, and we paid them by the hour. This approach gave birth to the idea of a catechism of Bible verse responses to questions about Christian faith and practice. When people requested money, we gave them a sheet with 20 questions and Bible verses and offered them a day’s wage for every four answers they memorized. We put no limit on how many verses they could learn; but each time they passed off on new verses, they had first to pass a spot review of verses already learned. If they had not kept those verses memorized, they could not receive credit for new ones.

This method pays as well as manual labor (two dollars a day). It encourages those who truly need the help while it weeds out those who merely want free handouts. By this means we have provided full support to a number of widows, orphans, and unmarried mothers. Our students pay all their school fees and purchase their school supplies entirely from money earned this way. One young man built a fine home entirely from money earned through the Scripture memory program. The catechism has grown to 44 pages with 320 Scripture passages, and we have many in the church who keep the entire book perpetually memorized. A side benefit is that those who are lazy or averse to Scripture weed themselves out, as they simply cannot endure spending time memorizing Bible verses even when they need the money.

This method is not the perfect solution. Though we have six volunteers who help with the quizzing, it requires hours of my time every week. I don’t begrudge the work, however, as I am glad for the material benefit it supplies to needy brothers and even more grateful for the impressive spiritual growth some have shown through the exercise. It also gives me a quick way of dealing with the unending succession of beggars here while maintaining a generous disposition toward them. The main disadvantage is that it has at times attracted clever fellows who attach themselves to our congregation for what is to them easy money. The program is available to believers and unbelievers alike, apart from participation in the spiritual ministry. However, some who are drawn by the catechism program connect with the congregation as well yet never manifest a genuine spiritual appetite. Their participation dilutes the congregation’s corporate witness and contributes to the ever-present threat of nominalism.

 

A large part of the catechism has been translated into English. A representative sample of questions can be found at the end of this Evangel.

Nominalism

The third problem we have had to face from the beginning was nominalism. One hears impressive statistics about tremendous church growth in Africa. From our “up close” perspective, we must say that most church growth is a social and anthropological phenomenon rather than spiritual. Africans are a highly gregarious people. The need to be part of a group runs deep in their nature. Rugged individualism, highly regarded in the States, is a serious character defect in their culture and is rewarded by various forms of sabotage and punishment. In earlier days, tribal organization assured that everyone was part of a structured group or herd. In modern Africa, where people have fled to cities for refuge from war and famine and to benefit from public services, the best way to become part of a herd again is to find a church.

There are practical necessities for the group structure as well. Social security, life insurance, health insurance, and fire insurance do not exist where we live. When any of life’s routine emergencies arise, the need is met by passing the hat through one’s network of friends. Their contributions are the premiums guaranteeing that when they need money for medicine or emergency house repairs or to cover funeral expenses, others will chip in for them. Again, the ideal service-minded group to belong to for such practical concerns is a church.

Another strong motive causing Africans to seek out a large group of friends is the need to have a well-attended funeral. Africans agree with Christians that this life is considerably less important than the life to come. For the Christian, this life chiefly affects the one to come in terms of how he responds to Christ. For the African, it seems the future life is mainly affected by this one in the number of friends he acquires throughout it who will come to his funeral. It is important to organize a large group of contacts to provide the proper send-off when entering the hereafter. Though I do not know the exact implications a large turnout has for the life to come, the fact that it is crucial to Africans is unmistakable.

Though I have observed this phenomenon consistently over the years, one incident illustrates it well. An elderly woman none of us knew before suddenly began attending our services once every four to six weeks, the usual pattern for folks who want to associate with a church but are not truly committed to the message or the people. After six months she died. She must have been expecting her departure, for when our church delegation, which was prepared to take responsibility for her burial, assembled at her hut, it found delegations from a mosque, a Catholic church, and one other Protestant group as well, each ready to preside over the ceremony. As they conferred, they discovered no one knew much about her except that she had joined their group in the previous six months. Her last minute efforts to prepare for the end backfired, however. After making this discovery, no one took responsibility for the ceremony, which had to be carried out by the family.

The danger of nominalism in our church was evident from the beginning. One month after we opened our worship meetings to the public, we held a special Easter service with a meal afterward, and 150 people participated. I wondered then whether a group of six or seven new Christians interspersed among 140 unbelievers could function as a church. Though the obvious need is for much teaching, what does one do if the majority ignores the spiritual message while they maintain their association with the church in order to satisfy social and financial needs?

For us, establishing church membership was the key to facing this challenge, up to a point. It enabled us to publicly distinguish between those who made up the “true church” and those who were our welcome visitors. To have the benefits of membership, one had to meet with the leaders and answer three questions. The first was, “Why do you want to be a member?” A suitable answer could not be one of the reasons described above. The second was, “How did God save you?” There we look for awareness on their part of a change in heart and mind and of God’s personal dealing in their affairs. The third is, “What are you doing to nurture the inner man besides attending church?” We hope for indications that they have a true spiritual hunger that must be satisfied throughout the week in some way such as worshipping God in private, reading His word, praying, or seeking out Christian fellowship.

By the time we got to this point in church planting, 65 adults were already participating regularly. However, from the interviews only 9 people gave credible evidence of regeneration. These numbers did not surprise us as we already knew fairly well who the Christians were. Their lights were shining without the interview, which mainly served to identify the dimly burning wicks not so obvious from a distance. But from that point forward we had a two-class congregation: those with rights of membership (taking communion, hosting church meetings in their homes, praying at public services, leading in the “open participation” time of worship) and those without such privileges.

As one would expect, this change in policy was disappointing for those who were denied privileges they once enjoyed. It was also difficult for them to comprehend. Having never known anything else, they were oblivious to their own spiritual disinterest and formalism. Even some who were accepted into membership could not understand why friends who came regularly to church and wanted to join the group should be excluded. These membership requirements drastically limited our growth relative to other churches, which in turn suggested inferiority and discouraged many. The discouraged brothers found the necessity for a supernatural work of regeneration unclear and harmful. Their fuzziness in this matter was itself worrisome, as it called into question their own accounts of such a transformation. When our adversary finally revealed his bitter opposition to regeneration as a requirement for membership, we were nonplussed. Did he not understand the fundamental change that takes place with the new birth described in passages such as II Corinthians 5:17 or I John 3:10? He seemed to view it as a theoretical notion with no palpable substance. Our amazement turned to understanding when the double life he was leading later came to light.

 

Church Discipline

The fourth problem that vexed us for a while was church discipline. Before church membership was established, anyone who claimed to be a Christian, took communion, and attended our services was accepted as a Christian brother and became the responsibility of the church leaders. However, this definition of “brother” took in many people who neither understood nor were capable of living the Christian life. When serious sin broke out in their personal affairs, we had to intervene. When their intention to continue in willful sin became evident, church discipline would result.

Church membership solved this problem, as the leaders became responsible only for those who were members. Though some members do stumble, encouragement and counseling is almost always sufficient in those cases, as one would expect for sincere believers. However, before establishing membership, we had removed eight people from church participation. Such action sows deep discontent among participants who are not spiritually mature. Disfellowshipping someone along the lines of Matthew 18:17 or II Thessalonians 3:14-15 is identical to the practice of shunning carried on in African culture. Shunning is an extreme measure. In gregarious cultures, the worst thing you can do to someone is to cut him off from the herd. Removal from the church is very serious as well, but not for social reasons. Rather, Christ says in Matthew 18:18, “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” These are the implications that make church expulsion truly grave.

Even without appreciating the dire spiritual ramifications, to those who are not bound by Scripture, exercising church discipline is almost always an offense more egregious than the transgression that brings it about. This perspective is especially predominant in African culture for two intertwined reasons. First, shunning is extreme punishment, like the death penalty, as described above. Second, serious Biblical transgressions that necessitate it are, in local culture, minor offenses comparable to sneezing without covering your mouth.

The latter fact should not surprise us. Western Christians live in a culture still steeped in the legacy of our believing ancestors. Though the vigorous attempt now underway to put God’s laws and His name out of our sight is alarming, our consciences are still fairly well informed of God’s standards. In pagan cultures that have nothing but centuries of moral darkness underlying them, polygamy, incest, wife beating, divorce, child marriage, fornication, ancestor worship, and witchcraft are still normal, accepted practice. In many circumstances, lying is more socially correct than truth telling. Theft is more the fault of the owner if he is so careless as to mislay something momentarily or if he entrusts some belonging to a friend in need of money.

With this light regard for what the Bible calls sin, it is not surprising that people whose eyes are focused more on cultural tradition than on the Scriptures are incredulous when church discipline is exercised. However, in Africa, unless the church is discerning about those it accepts as believers, a policy that itself spawns misunderstanding, it will find that church discipline plays a major role in its affairs. Thankfully, after instituting church membership, we have needed to discipline only one member, who turned out to be an accomplished deceiver.

What We Learned

As we have grappled with cultural issues, missionary mistakes, Biblical direction, and advice from counselors, the key conclusions we have reached can be summarized as follows:

  • The ideal missions approach in our type of setting is to send two experienced, Biblically qualified elders to establish churches on the mission field.
  • Local evangelism can move apace, as a Biblical church can at any time be planted with elder leadership provided by the missionaries. Evangelistic efforts should not be planned for far-flung areas where Biblical spiritual oversight cannot be provided, trusting God in those cases to move His elect to areas where they can hear the gospel and join legitimate churches. (See 6 th point below.)
  • Participants must be evaluated with careful discernment – far more than in typical American churches – before being granted the privileges of church membership, or there will be great problems with willful, scandalous sin by members who are false professors. Besides damaging the church’s testimony, these situations will eventually consume all the time of the leaders if they are properly dealt with through counseling and, where required, discipline.
  • In pagan cultures, only members and others who have passed the same careful evaluation should be regarded as brothers in Christ. A clear distinction in church privileges must be evident between members and visitors to preserve the church’s corporate testimony.
  • Church discipline must be exercised for willful sin. However, the more discernment God grants in screening participants for membership, the less often problems advance to this point.
  • Premature distant evangelism seems to precipitate circumstances that have no Biblical resolution. For this reason, evangelistic campaigns in areas far from home base appear unwise unless God clearly and remarkably leads that way, or it happens naturally through dispersion of Christians. Distant evangelism should be undertaken when God has raised up indigenous missionaries or experienced elders in the mother church who can give adequate oversight to the daughter churches that will of necessity be established. This conclusion may sound shocking, but its apparent harshness is mitigated by the assurance from Scripture that no elect soul will be lost because of it, and much confusion and damage to the church can be avoided. It gives added urgency to the task of raising up local missionaries and leaders who can evangelize their own land for Christ.
  • The Mission and “wealthy” missionaries must encourage the local church to look to God and give from their own resources to meet the material needs of the church. Allowing the Mission to provide 50% of funds for church projects encourages the believers that their wealthy sister churches overseas stand with them without fostering unwholesome dependence.
  • Missionaries must be wise in their giving so as to generously help needy brethren without creating mercenary converts, promoting sloth and dependence, or stirring up jealousy from apparent favoritism. Our catechism program has proven to be an imperfect but acceptable means of helping the brethren while avoiding these pitfalls.

I close with this caveat: no list of principles or do’s and don’ts contains the key to church growth, either on the mission field or at home.

Numerical success in the missionary enterprise is dependent first and foremost on whether or not God has “much people in this city” (Acts 18:10). If we use worldly techniques and disregard contrary Scriptures, we can perhaps establish a great church filled with many people even where God has no elect saints (not that such a place exists in this age of grace!), while a Biblical church would have a membership of one – the missionary. At the other extreme, even a poor, inexperienced church planter may have converts falling from the trees in a time of true spiritual revival.

Too often the perspective in church growth manuals seems to be that method is everything. Method may be the key in throwing up successful franchise, consumer-oriented, user-friendly churches-for-the-unchurched, designed with conformity to culture rather than to Scripture in view. However, when one finds a Biblical church full of growing saints, it will not be reproduced merely by copying the method. That church’s success is a gift of God’s grace, just as is salvation itself. As Christ taught Nicodemus in John 3, the Spirit moves where it will. We do not send it or direct it.

If there is something helpful we should seek to study and imitate about a successful church, it is not the method, but the heart of those whom God is using to build it – their devotion to Christ, their divine calling, their burden for people lost and saved, and their commitment to Scripture and to prayer.

The modern church is on a stretch looking for new ideas, philosophies, methods, and plans to advance the church. God is looking for men – because men are God’s method, men filled and overflowing with Christ.

Please continue to pray that God will make this earthen vessel such an instrument of grace and that He will raise up other such laborers for the harvest in Mozambique.

 

Finally, if you have read this far, and God has granted further insights from Scripture into the issues described in this Evangel, please share them with me! We appreciate the participation we receive from our supporters in prayers, gifts, and encouragement. May we prize wisdom as well!

By His grace:

Charles Woodrow

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