by Andy Parker
New growth is a principle we see everywhere in nature. A tree will only ever grow so large and for so long, before its size and age will begin to become detrimental to its existence. A forest will eventually die and decay if it doesn’t experience constant propagation and new growth.
When Jesus told us in Matthew 28, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” I believe He was saying, Go propagate new believers, and grow them into disciples – Go plant!
Timothy Keller writes, “A vigorous and continuous approach to church planting is the only way to guarantee an increase in the number of believers, and is one of the best ways to renew the whole body of Christ.’
Go propagate, nurture and plant
This can be a frightening thought for church leaders because often those sent out are mature contributing members of the church. The very thought of losing key members can be enough to quench any action towards stepping out, not to mention the possible instability that this can create. Make no mistake, church planting can be difficult, and sometimes things may not go as planned, but this is no reason to stop doing it.
Archbishop Cottrell recently stated that the only thing new about church planting, is that ‘we have stopped doing it.’ The Anglican Church is among many established denominations that are waking up to this same realisation. The Archbishops of Canterbury and of York have recently put forward what they call a ‘rather ambitious project’: the planting of 10,000 new churches in the next ten years.
Newer denominations seem to have much more of a heart for planting new churches, even developing specialist church planting teams and educational centres to help with preparation and propagation.
There are now some great tools and courses out there to help and guide those churches sensing the call. It’s wonderful that there seems to be a growing heart to plant new churches within the denominations, and especially within larger church congregations.
But what about smaller fellowships, those with much less people and far fewer resources to draw from? Having read much of the advice, we found little that related to fellowships as small as ours, especially those of us in isolated geographic areas.
Which left us with a serious question.
Could a small fellowship with limited resources ever find itself in a position to propagate and plant out? We were feeling a call to plant out. But was this possible for a church of our size?
From the advice given out there, I would have to conclude, probably not.
But from our personal experience, we would have to say yes.
A few years ago, we planted out from our parent, Skye Bible Church, into a small village on the west coast of the Isle of Skye. Although residents in the village are few, we have grown in numbers over the years, primarily through new believers and people moving into the area. Very few have come from transfer growth.
From the initial six people set aside for the church plant, we see a regular congregation in the high twenties/low thirties, although this number does little to reflect the number of people who have been saved and discipled since we began, and have since moved away from the island to fresh pastures.
Besides numerical growth, we have witnessed a wonderful spiritual maturity that has emerged; a real hunger and desire to embrace the things of God, and such a sense of unity and joy – it is immediately tangible.
We currently lease a shop unit, in the centre of the village, that we converted for use as a church building and community centre. However, we are now discovering this is becoming too small. As the building next door is empty, we are now looking to expand into this and take on the lease to give us more space, and greater opportunity for additional community ministry in the future.
Even though it’s only 8 years ago when we first began work to plant out, we are now ourselves in the midst of repeating the process, planting out into another small village, 16 miles away.
We have been asked a number of times how we decided to initially plant out, and why we are planting out again; what strategy we used for such a small location; and how we decided the timing.
The problem is, I can’t say that we followed this or that strategy plan, or that our position is reflected by any great pastoral or leadership skills. Instead, I have to be honest, and say, “Because God told us to.”
Doesn’t that sound so trite?!
In a general sense, God tells everyone to go and plant out, as in Matthew 28, “Go into all the world!”
But for us, His word to go was very specific and a part of a much bigger picture. We had no strategic plan of our own making. No resource assessment, or launch teams. Planting out was just a part of what He was doing at the time.
We are where we are now, not through human wisdom, but because we were led here. We were planted out, and are planting out again, because this is just part of a journey that began many years ago whilst we were still a part of Skye Bible Church.
One evening God clearly spoke into our study group as we read John 10:27; “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” He said, “Teach the people to hear my voice.”
Little did we know at that time how this would change our lives so dramatically!
We put together a ‘Hearing God’s Voice’ course, and we began to study and teach. Over the weeks, people who had never heard God speak to them before began to discover that this almighty God, was interested in spending time and communicating with them.
This began to change everything.
We took time out in fasting and prayer as a Bible study group, to see what God would say to us. And God began to speak. Not just to the leaders, but to everyone.
Consistent vision, wisdom, and guidance spread throughout the fellowship. Whilst as a leader I guided and corrected where necessary, the body of believers became ignited with common purpose and direction.
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”
What an incredible Scripture, with truth on so many levels. An absolute foundation for any disciple to learn how to build a living relationship with Jesus; how to hear and to follow. So we began to listen and follow.
The dot to dot
One of the nuggets of wisdom that came out during our prayer times was the concept of the dot to dot picture. God explained that we needed to trust Him, one small step at a time, and slowly He would lead us forward, and the bigger picture would be revealed.
He also gave us another clear word: “Stop looking for an obvious way forward, there is no map, the way ahead is rarely trodden, you need a compass not a map.”
For us, there would be no big picture, no strategy or great vision, but He would lead the whole fellowship forward, one dot at a time, in His timing.
Some of the steps have been harder choices than others. Some have been more difficult to navigate or understand. Timing in all these things has been critical, and some of the steps required great patience as we enthusiastically wanted to rush ahead. But step by step we have moved forward, until we arrived at the place we now find ourselves.
All glory to God for what He has done in His wisdom, and for bringing us here.
In some ways, we are like a small bonsai, planted in a place with seemingly limited resources for growth. But God, in His wisdom, can grow and propagate the smallest sapling in the most trying circumstances.
There are many encouraging stories out there regarding church planting and church growth, and they can make for good examples, but I don’t believe we are called so much to emulate them, as to be inspired by them.
Your journey is your own.
Your journey will be tailored entirely to your circumstances. But if you choose to take up this journey to follow Him, He will no doubt lead you in previously unknown ways. During these times, learn to listen carefully as you press forward.
Don’t lag behind, but don’t rush ahead either. Don’t be constrained by what has worked for others, or worked for you in the past. Take the journey with an open heart and mind to be led. Remember: we are followers.
There will no doubt be difficult and challenging times, but if the gathered believers are hearing the same thing, and are already engaged with the journey themselves, I have discovered, these times can become times of great unity, purpose, and an opening of the floodgates of heaven for miracle after miracle.
To God be the glory
We can take no credit for where we are as a fellowship, whether you deem what has been achieved here a success or not. All the glory and honour must go to God for what He has done. All we have done is walk with Jesus, step by step, dot by dot, listen out for His voice, and allow our relationship to grow, as we follow His promptings.
Learning to hear His voice as a body has been the catalyst for our fellowship to step out and be planted, and now to be planting out again.
Our way may not be yours, but don’t be afraid to step out however large or small your fellowship may be, discovering a journey that could take you places where you least expected to go.
Is church planting something your church have stopped doing, or even considering?
Step out and follow Him on the journey He has planned for you. It’s not about whether you feel you may succeed or fail; it’s a journey of relationship and obedience.
It’s not about how large your fellowship should become, or about losing some of your most valuable people. It’s about creating pockets of new life in Him, learning to nurture and bringing believers into maturity so that, in time, they too will one day plant out.
In the beginning, God spoke creation and life into existence, and He is still in the business of creating new life. It doesn’t matter if your church is a great old tree, small sapling or a bonsai, the call is still the same: “Go into all the world!”
Go propagate, grow, nurture and plant.
So, listen! …
What are you hearing?