Tag Archives: evangelicalism

Problems with church planting: A saturated market

One of the saddest things to watch is when a business fails by refusing to recognize the reality of their market. What’s even sadder is when these businesses decide that the solution is not to invest in learning, but rather to spend more time and energy in establishing a plethora of new establishments in hopes that a few will find purchase and become productive. The problem with this approach, however, is that by ignoring market conditions, they are just as likely to accelerate their own demise as they are to facilitate growth.1

The market condition in which church businesses2 find themselves is not very good. In fact, according to the statistics which are coming out year after year, they are downright dismal. Baptisms are down, the membership is growing older, giving is down, and if something is not done soon, thousands of church businesses are faced with the real prospect of closing up shop. In fact, many already have.

So what do the Southern Baptists plan to do about this? Well the buzz in the past few years has been church planting. In fact, the North American Mission Board has recently announced it’s intention to direct the majority of it’s efforts towards planting new churches in North America, specifically in the north and Canada. I suppose the hope here is the akin to throwing a bunch of mud at a wall and hoping some of it sticks.

But what about the practical implications of encouraging and funding many new start-up businesses in an already saturated market?

In economics 101 we learn that every market contains a saturation limit. This fact is readily obvious here in the Bible-belt where a church can be found on almost every corner and mega-churches are a dime a dozen.

From a business analysis perspective it is hard to see how the approach of starting new businesses in a saturated market makes much sense at all, especially since donations are a finite resource. In my next post, I will address the market conditions in areas which do not have an abundance of buildings to service an underdeveloped market.

  1. For a good example of this market phenomenon, think about the recent mortgage crisis and how banks decided to employ a staggering amount of leverage to squeeze more profit out of a saturated financial market. Sure, the fact that the lending practices were flawed to the core didn’t help either, but that could have been easily corrected for if they had taken the time to grow slowly and deliberately. []
  2. If you wonder why I use this particular phrase, I invite you to visit my previous post in this series where I define terms such as “church”. []
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Problems with church planting: Defining terms

Church planting has been a hot topic (quickly becoming an obsession) in the Souther Baptist Convention for the last few years. And after examining the issue, I plan on writing a series of 6 posts intended to outline what I believe are the pitfalls inherent in the modern church planting movement. But first, I believe a helpful foundation for any fruitful discussion on the subject will be to define a few key terms.

Church

Even though they are loathe to admit it, 501c3 non-profit orginizations with property and staff are, at the end of the day, businesses. True, they are not like traditional businesses. These masquarade under the otherwise organic term “church”, they enjoy special spiritual prominence, and through that they are able to solicit and extract large sums of money through what amounts to sanctified begging (or extortion, take your pick) rather than the production of a good or the performance of a service.

As Alan Knox rightly and frequently points out, there is only one Church, the body of Christ, and even though that body finds a tangible expression in the form of local group of believers, the only valid reason for drawing a difference between groups of believers is by their location. For example, the letters in the New Testament were addressed to “the church in..” rather than “the First Baptist Church of..”

Church planting

When one speaks out against church planting the common retort is that it is through the planting of new churches that the church of Christ has spread throughout the world. There are two distinct senses in which the phrase “church planting” is used. The first sense is more rightly understood as evangelism, the “making disciples” we are commanded to do in Matthew 28. The second sense, and the one I will be argueing against, is the establishment of new non-profit orginizations complete with staff, buildings (or other arrangements for a regular meeting place) and a clear affiliation with a larger denominational orginization.

In this sense, another name for “church planting” can easily be “denominational colonialism” since the criteria for establishing new churches in this second sense is not whether a body of local believers already exists but wether a body of local believer who are members of our denomination exists or not.

In the next 4 posts, I will be outlining the problems with church planting where the goal extends above and beyond the basic biblical mandate of evangelizing and making disciples.

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Short-term mission trips: Sanctified vacations?

One of the biggest elephants in the evangelical, missiological, soul-winning room is the lingering question of just how much good short-term mission trips1 are and whether or not they merely amount to sanctified vacations taken at the expense of others.

Now, to be fair, I’m not claiming that either the missionaries or those who fund them are intentionally nefarious. On the contrary; I believe that for the most part, those who go on short term mission trips and those who support them financially have honest evangelistic intentions. I am simply wondering whether we’ve fostered this “super spiritual” mindset around something we call “the mission field” and, as a result, neglect to ask the burdensome and unpopular questions of stewardship and effectiveness.

How did we get here?

Before we continue, however, I think it would be helpful to stop and examine the origins and history of the short-term mission trips.

Modern technology has recently made travel possible in ways that have not been heard of before. Where it used to take a month or more to cross seas, let alone oceans, now only takes a matter of hours. Where it took a significant investment of funds, logistics, and time, we are now endowed with the ability to decide to travel half way around the world on a whim provided you have your passport and appropriate shots.

While rapid travel is excellent for taking vacations in exciting new foreign locales, it was only widely incorporated into the evangelical arsenal within the last 100 years. By many accounts, YWAM pioneered this phenomenon less than 50 years ago.

A closer look at the problem

For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. -Paul in 1 Cor 16:11

Discipleship requires more than a passing visit. Sure, it’s great to visit with people and make new connections, but when we talk about missions we need to step back and examine what our goals are in order to evaluate how we are going about them.

With that in mind, let’s look at “the great commission” which is often used as a foundation for missionary endeavors.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28:19-20

This text is often exegeted to make “Go” the focus of this passage so that the imperative is for us to go out into “the mission field” and proselytize new converts. However, a more accurate exegesis would be “as you are going” since, in the Greek, the emphasis is on the making of disciples as you are going (i.e. wherever you go).

Unfortunately, if we place the emphasis on the going we end up thinking that we are lessened as followers of Christ if we don’t physically go on “mission trips”. This often leads to a false sense of super spirituality among those who do go whom we, in turn, call “missionaries”.

I need to point out here that not all missionaries have this tendency and that I am not claiming that those who do go are wholly unnecessary, on the contrary, we are each called to different work. I am merely pointing out that every follower of Christ is both called to be a missionary and is, in fact, “on a mission” wherever they are and that wherever our mission field is, we are called to make disciples2.

So whats wrong with short term mission trips?

So what’s wrong with taking a week out of your busy week and traveling overseas to make disciples? Well, nothing per se, but the problem comes in with how these short term mission trips are both seen; as an imperative of the great commission and a spiritual measuring stick, as well as how they are carried out; in many cases, without much thought to stewardship or logistics.

We’ve already seen how the great commission does not imply a need to go to foreign lands in order to be obedient to Christ’s command to make disciples, but because this is the prevalent view, we often see a person’s willingness to go as well as their having been as badges of honor to show others how spiritual we are.  This is, of course, wholly unbiblical, but when teachers of the Word give the impression that “go” is the emphasis of the great commission, how can we blame them?

Have we really counted the cost?

Because of this misunderstanding of the great commission and what it truly means to make disciples of those around us, we tend to overlook questions of stewardship and logistics. In fact, since we think the imperative is to go we tend to start to think that any cost is acceptable and questions of logistics are a mere nuisance.

How much does a round-trip plane ticket usually cost to travel overseas? $1,000, $2,000? More? Once you count the cost of food, lodging, transportation, etc. you can often approach figures well over $3,000 just to send a single person overseas. Is this really the best way to reach the lost?

What about the logistics? Have we thought about the continued training of the people we minister to? How much good are we doing if we merely succeed in piquing a person’s interest and do not arrange for the perpetual spiritual nourishment that comes from sound teaching and training? Worse yet; How much more of a child of hell do we make those whom we merely seek to have “make a decision” just so that we can add another notch in our spiritual belt?

I am not advocating that we abandon our brothers and sisters in need who live across the ocean, but the biggest question here is one of efficiency and what would be the best way to accomplish what we seek.

What is it we really want to accomplish?

So now we come to the elephant, the sticky question of why we go on short term mission trips that cost inordinate amounts of money and whose impact for the kingdom is often left unquestioned.

Why do we go? Why do we really go? If our real aim is to make disciples as we are commanded to, then we will gladly step back and examine the questions raised above (and many will come to the conclusion that short-term, long-distance mission trips are simply not a good idea) but I believe the main reason most Christians go is to satisfy a desire for an emotional experience which they equate with “being close to God”. And therein lies the heart of our dilemma.

In the end, what’s the difference?

When we take vacations, we are expecting experiential reward. We don’t expect to leave a lasting impact on the lands we travel to, and we expect to receive a euphoric high from our experiences. Sadly, most testimonies I hear from short-term missionaries are wholly self-centered (though they are couched in  a plethora of “Jesus speak”) with the focus being on the person as opposed to the message and often with little thought as to the lasting impact and cost vs. benefit to the congregation that helped send them.

In closing, I’m sure some short-term trips are worthwhile, that is certainly a matter for individual mission councils. I simply wish the Body of Christ would stop pretending that short-term mission trips are commanded or are anything like what we read about in the New Testament and start putting serious thought into the resources we are spending and the attitudes we are fostering and promoting.

It’s great to say we are “missional people”, but that becomes a completely nonsensical term if we fail to step back and carefully and Biblically define it.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
Mat 28:20  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
  1. My scope here is limited to trips that are also known commonly as “summer missions” which typically last between 1 to 3 weeks. []
  2. Also translated “to teach” and “instruct”. []
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