Planting the Church or Planting the Gospel?

This post originally appeared on The SendSFL Blog. Cross-posted here by permission.

We didn’t mean to plant a church. In 2008, when our family relocated to the suburbs of Raleigh-Durham, my concept of church planting was pretty conventional. It involved the need for funding, a core group, a place to meet, etc. My conversations with other planters and some experience with church planter assessments had convinced me that I wasn’t wired with the entrepreneurial skill set to be successful as a church planter. If this is where you have found yourself, keep reading.

Photo Credit: c_ambler via Compfight

As with all transitions, our move gave my wife and me an opportunity to reevaluate our values and behaviors. One of the things we wanted to do well in our current setting was to order our everyday lives around Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God with everything we were and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). We wanted to see a new culture emerge in our community—a disciple-making culture. We believed that the missionary pattern of the Apostle Paul was foundational to creating this culture. Particularly gripping was what we read of Paul’s life with the people of Thessalonica: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, ESV).

In our church experience we observed two extremes in the practice of disciple-making. The first includes models of evangelism in which the gospel is given with little relational investment on the part of the presenter. The second extreme involves a high relational investment that excludes a clear explanation of the gospel. Paul’s Thessalonian model gives us hope. He gave the gospel of God and his very life. He did not shrink from gospel witness, but gave a living apologetic of this gospel by investing relationally in the community. We resolved to do likewise.

As we lived among our neighbors, of whom the majority was unchurched or nominally Catholic, our love for them began to increase. We resolved to be faithfully present in the lives of our neighbors—devoting ourselves as an incarnational display of the gospel. As we prayed for them, God began to weave together a series of divine appointments with neighbors leading to an opportunity to begin a Bible study group, at the request of our neighbors, in our home.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that this group would be an extension of a local church and tied directly to its ministry. A typical model would include three or four couples from a church as a part of the group to ease the newcomers into church life. This was not our agenda. In fact, it was our impression that such a group would result in repelling them from the gospel. A church group, we reasoned (later confirmed by our neighbors), would be “owned” by the church and not by the community. Starting this kind of group could derail our efforts by making them feel more like “projects” and less like friends.

Our agenda was simple: we wanted to help our friends meet the Jesus of the Bible. But as our friends began to embrace Jesus we saw a community that sincerely desired to live out the values of the Kingdom of God. It is still early in our process, but as we grow in our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work among us, our group is beginning to self-identify as a church, in the most basic and simplest of terms. But we weren’t planting a church! To borrow a phrase from Alan Hirsch, we planted the gospel, but God was planting a church.[1]

There are many reasons I think a gospel planting mindset is preferable to a church planting mindset. First, the gospel-planted church takes the shape of the people in their own context as they conform to the image of Christ, not the image of an institution. Second, in terms of dollars, it has cost us nothing other than a few snack items every week. All funds we have collected have gone out from our group to support other missions (resembling 2 Corinthians 9). Third, it has liberated me to see the word “pastor” as a verb and not a title. I am not tempted to make leadership decisions based on job security. Finally, it is exhilarating to feel utterly dependent on God, not my strategy, to bring the increase as we focus all of our attention on giving the gospel and our lives away to our community.

So, what is God calling you to do in your context? What would it look like for you, in your neighborhood, school, or work place, to focus more on planting the gospel? Do you see your unreached friends as people or projects? Are you willing to give the gospel of God and your own life away so that others will see your love for God and love for them? Go ahead, plant the gospel and see what God grows!

[1] Ferguson, D. (Host). (2009, January 4) Exponential 2009 w/ Alan Hirsch. Podcast retrieved from iTunes.

  • Tom

    Great post Brian!!

    • BrianUpshaw

      Thank you, my friend!

  • Excellent thoughts! The history of the church seems to confirm that institutional dependencies can stifle the spontaneous expansion of the church. Plant the gospel. Amen!

    • Brian

      Thanks, John!

  • heath lloyd