Where should we plant a church?

“Where are you going to plant a church?” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked that question, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to give an answer. If you’d like to know that answer you can find out here.

WhereImage courtesy of Flickr

For years I just didn’t know where we should plant. I was convinced that planting a church was one of the most effective ways of reaching new people with the gospel, but I just didn’t know where we should do it. Or for that matter, how to figure it out! The options were paralyzing.

My poor wife used to joke that I would have a different idea every week. In the space of a month I once suggested four different locations. Perth, the Gold Coast, Campbeltown and Bondi Junction. Each place seemed to have it’s own list of pros and cons.

As time went on, I found myself having more and more clarity as to what really mattered. In the end, the ideal location would be the intersection of the answer to three different questions. And for what it’s worth, I think these probably apply to both church planters and those considering joining a launch team:

1. Where is there a need? The truth is, there’s a need everywhere. Less than 3% of Australian’s attend Bible believing churches, so you could literally plant next to a megachurch and still find a massive need. That being said, on a purely statistical level some places will have more people in church than others. So where is there a proportionately low number of people in solid churches? Alternatively, if you’re passionate about an unreached demographic, ethnicity or sub culture, where do they hang out and how can you start a church to reach them?

2. Where are we suited to? Historically, God tends to use specific kinds of people to reach certain people groups. For example, it doesn’t surprise me that God chose Paul to be his Apostle to the Gentiles. He was a Roman citizen, spoke fluent Greek and was highly educated. He knew the language, the culture and could hold his own in a debate. Now this was Spirit-empowered Paul to be sure, but you can be certain that God wired him that way for a reason. So how has God wired you and where might you be able to see some fruit?

3. Where (under God) might we be able to pull something off? You might have a heart for a certain people group, but if you can’t raise up a congregation within a few years then it’s going to be a hard place to plant a sustainable church. Either that or you’ll need to plant bi-vocationally (which to be frank is actually a more scalable model). Either way, it’s probably not healthy for churches to rely on external funding forever. So what doors is God opening and how can you make the most of those opportunities?

Now there’s plenty more to be said, and I’ve left out all sorts of qualifying statements (probably enough to get me in trouble)… but this is the guts of it. If you can find a place where the answer to all three of these questions intersect, you’ve found a great location for you to plant a church. Now you just gotta go out and do it.

Question: Go on… what did I leave out? What else should influence this decision? Leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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8 thoughts on “Where should we plant a church?

  1. Thanks Tim, I’ve been looking forward to this post. A few quick thoughts in response to your three points. These might seem harsh, but are genuinely said in love and out of a desire to see people saved.

    1. Where is there a need? This is a complex question, made even more complex by, ‘what is the need’? A statistical analysis of number of people in churches doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, is there a really good church down the road, doing good things, but in need of an influx of 30? vibrant, energetic young people on fire for mission? If so, why not join that church rather than plant one down the road? I’m less convinced as you that what is always NEEDED is another church plant.

    2. I’m interested in a bit more detail about that history. The God of the Bible historically uses people completely unsuited for the ministry to demonstrate His power and glory. As for Paul, wouldn’t he have been better suited in some sort of ‘Pharisee’ ministry, planting a church in Jerusalem and reaching out to Benjaminites? And didn’t Peter go to Rome, needing to use Mark as his translator?

    3. Where might we be able to pull something off? How can you know and by what wisdom do you make this decision? If this was the attitude of the disciples, I doubt they would have ever left that locked room. This seems more like a business decision than a gospel decision.

    I feel like these questions create a recipe for a middle-class, predominately white church for young adults and young families, planted amidst a throng of other good churches in need of the exact sort of people you are planting with.

    • Thanks for this Tom- great to engage and you ask some good probing questions. In many ways your questions probably fill out the “qualifying statements” I intentionally left out of my article. I try to keep posts under 600-700 words so as not to bore people, but inevitably that means I miss out on a whole bunch of important stuff (a curse of the medium). So thanks for forcing me to engage a little further… this should also help those who read the above and want more.

      1. What’s needed is not always a new church. In fact I have an unpublished article still to come called “5 reasons not to plant a church.” In that article I address what I call the “silver bullet fallacy” of church planting. At the moment many seem to think it’s the solution to every problem! I admit that doesn’t quite engage your specific question re: the 30 new people, it’s just to say that i don’t actually think “what is always needed” is another church.

      In reference to your specific scenario… my hunch is that the reality is probably going to be much harder than the theory. Furthermore, blanket “once size fits all” types of rules will just be unhelpful in this situation. The right way forward will have to take into consideration the history of the church, their willingness of the church to undergo significant change for the sake of mission, the gifting and temperament of the staff and potential planter etc. If any one of these factors aren’t right, you often end up in a disaster scenario. A fairly unfriendly phrase that get’s thrown around by people like Ed Stetzer is that “it’s easier to give birth to a baby than to raise the dead.” As I say, it’s not a particularly sensitive way of putting it, but phrases like that exist because of the challenges of coming on board an established church and seeking to turn it around.

      I may well have just answered a question that wasn’t your question there… if so, sorry about that. Short answer is that if you can find 30 fired up missionary minded people to join an existing church… wonderful! Go for it. Doing that in practice might be harder than it sounds though.

      2. One of the qualifying statements I left out (which you’ll hear me include if you ever hear me address this issue in person) is that “God uses certain types of people to reach other certain types of people” inevitably breaks down. Obviously you needed the first totally foreign missionaries to go to China, or Africa, or where ever you end up going. That being said, I’m pretty sure that all mission agencies will tell you that ultimately you want to be raising up native leaders… since these are the ones that will ultimately be the most effective missionaries.

      Does God work in spite of our weakness? Of course he does! Are all cultural barriers transcended by the gospel? Absolutely. That being said, surely it’s not controversial to say that we tend to reach people most similar to ourselves. For example, though we desire to reach all ages, the church we plant will inevitably have more traction with 25-35 year olds. Why? Cause I’m roughly in that age bracket. I’d love to see some retires come along to our church… but some how i doubt that I’m about to plant Sydney’s next pumping retires ministry. I’m just taking this principle and encouraging people to have it as one of at least three things they consider when deciding on where to plant a church.

      Tom I want to answer the third one but i have to go. I’ll come back and edit this reply later to give you an answer to the third.

  2. Continuing on…

    3. This one probably needs the most clarification, but I stand by it (for the moment at least). The short answer is that there is no knowledge or wisdom by which you can predict whether you can “pull something off”. Only God knows the future, so I’m not going to pretend otherwise. That being said, “sanctified common sense” (to quote Robert Doyle) might suggest that you reflect on whether or not your plan (under God) has at least got some chance of success.

    Take an example from another walk of life. Imagine I want to plant a tree. I can plant that tree anywhere I want. How do I decide where I want to plant the tree? Well if I want a big healthy tree, I’m probably not going to plant it in the shade, in a desert, in a place in which it hasn’t rained for 10 years. Rather, I might choose to plant it in a place where the soil looks fertile, it rains on occasion and it’s got plenty of access to sunlight. Now does that guarantee that my tree is going to be a big and healthy tree? Of course not, but at least from the information that you have available to you, the second option is probably a “wiser” place to plant your tree.

    Now the analogy is far from perfect, but do you get my point? If you’ve only got one seed, where are you going to plant it? Surely this type of thinking has to at least come into your plans somewhere along the way! Is it business thinking? Maybe… but even if it is… what’s wrong with that? Who’s to stay that lots of “business” thinking isn’t just general “wisdom”. Proverbs seems to suggest that God has created an ordered world in which certain things, actions, ways of life tend to result in certain outcomes (good and bad). These aren’t laws… which is why you have books like Ecclesiastes and Job, but that doesn’t invalidate the value of wisdom. You just hold it lightly recognising that God is sovereign and he’ll do what he wants. So as long as you fear the Lord (which is the beginning of wisdom) I see no harm in thinking strategically about what you’re going to do with the limited resources God has given you. Perhaps it’s even good stewardship.

    Now… an obvious issue with the analogy above is that you don’t ultimate know what circumstances resemble “fertile soil, sunlight and occasional rain.” After all, Jesus tells Nicodemus “the Spirit blows where it wills.” But… does that mean you take no other things into consideration? Surely not!

    If I’m going to convince a group of people to follow me, leave their happy lives in one place and move to another area to join us on mission then surely at least they are going to want me to have done my due diligence! Furthermore, if people are going to invest their hard earned dollars into supporting us, then surely they are going to want to know that their dollars are going to good use!

    So what’s your evangelistic strategy? What’s your discipleship plan? What’s your growth avenue? What property access do you have? What sort of finances do you have available? These are all questions that investors and launch team people should be asking! And if they don’t have answers, it might not be the best plant to get involved with! Sorry if that sounds unholy, but I just don’t buy the line that suggests that forward planning is somehow less spiritual than hanging around with my hands in my pockets waiting for God to do something.

    Everybody knows there are risks involved in church planting- social, emotional and financial- and everybody who is involved (from team members to supporters) should be willing to count that cost… but surely you want to minimise that risk as much as it is humanly possible! You obviously can’t rule it out with 100% certainty, but I think you’d be foolish and reckless not to at least consider whether your plans have a possibility of success before stepping out on the journey.

    Does that mean that I’m going to tell someone not to go somewhere that humanely speaking is unlikely to have any chance of becoming self sustainable any time soon? Of course not!!! But I’m going to tell them to think about doing it bi-vocationally! I even said that bi-vocational church planting is a far more scalable model! It’s certainly what Paul did! But the point is that’s it’s not the only option, nor is it necessarily the best option! The right option will depend on the circumstances, gifting, etc. of the planter and the team.

    So…. in conclusion… i think this is one of at least three valid questions that anyone needs to ask themselves before they plant a church. As I said in the post… a good place to plant will be the intersection of the answer to all three! As soon as you say that only one of these matter, I think you’re being reductionistic and you end up with a bunch of people going to China as missionaries cause they feel guilty. If that’s the place with the greatest need…. then that’s where they have to go. I say “no”. Maybe they should go to China, but maybe they should go across the street. Answering these three questions has been my way of trying to get clarity around these sorts of issues.

    Feel free to come back at me Tom. This is a blog. It’s not a PHD thesis, it’s an avenue for refining my thoughts and engaging others in discussion. If you genuinely disagree, keep challenging me. If i’m wrong I’d rather know so I can get it right next time!

    Bless you mate

  3. Great thoughts Tim – I have a similar 3 points – 1) need 2) strategy 3) fit

    Just wondering how important you think the ‘strategy’ is? i.e. should we plant in high development areas, migrant hubs, areas where a particular ethnic group is expected to settle, growth corridors, etc. Like looking long term to the future of an area. thoughts?

    • Hey Tim, thanks for the “Alley-Oop” haha. Yes, entirely agree with “strategic”. That would come under my third point (where can we pull something off).

      Actually… on second thoughts that might be a separate and fourth issue. Probably depends on what type of “strategy” you’re referring to.

      Strategy as it relates to my “Question 3” above would refer to planting in a growth area. It’s likely to be a little easier to grow in these areas, since church growth is often related to population growth in development areas (might still be a low percentage proportionate to the overall population of the area, but even the typical 3% evangelicals moving into the area will cause some growth). So the influx of Christians might help you grow and get things off the ground in the early stages. That will then serve you well to be able to reach out to the new people moving in.

      Strategy as it relates to a (new) “Question 4” might refer to a place that is likely to be harder to reach in the short term, but if “won” by the gospel could bare significant gospel fruit for generations to come. So under that heading you might put “migrant ministries” or (slightly more controversially) “people in cities”. Keller certainly makes a point that reaching those in the centres of influence is “strategic” on one level. For what it’s worth, i think his arguments on the city issue are great pragmatically, but not just as strong theologically. Still got epic respect for the guy though, he’s way smarter than me!

      Probably similar issues at work in both 3 and 4 here… but yes, in a world of limited resources I think strategy should play a significant role. Personally, I think denominations should be working hard to think strategically at that “question 4” level and resourcing plants in those areas as a top priority. You’re still going to get guys who want to plant elsewhere (and that’s fine), but I think they should be doing hard work recruiting and resourcing solid missionaries to plant in the potentially harder but strategic locations for the future.

      Thoughts?

  4. Thanks Tim for your reply. Keen to engage on this issue. Again, I want to re-iterate that I am actually very excited about your church-plant and hope to see many come to Christ through your endeavours. However, this is a good opportunity to discuss some crucial questions about the thinking and motivations behind planting in certain areas.

    Perhaps like Keller, I feel as though your thoughts sound great pragmatically but are half-baked theologically. Here are a few questions I would like theological answers to.

    1. Should our willingness for a particular gospel ministry be shaped by the likelihood of success?

    2. If God does work in spite (through?) our weaknesses, why should we assume that we are more likely to reach people similar to ourselves?

    3. If it is “easier to give birth to a baby than to raise the dead”, what will you be preaching this Easter?

    Here are some further thoughts behind these questions…

    1. Should our willingness for a particular gospel ministry be shaped by the likelihood of success?
    I’m not sure you got what I was saying concerning your third point. I’m not against sanctified common sense, nor wisdom, nor strategy. I certainly don’t think that planning is “un-spiritual”. All of these should be employed when seeking the lost, especially if you plant your church in a particularly difficult area with little-to-no likelihood of “success”. My initial concern was that by making decisions based on the likelihood of “success”, you are writing off whole regions before properly considering how, with all your sanctified common sense, and with the unrivaled power of God, you might reach them.

    If we really follow your logic, then church-plants aren’t a very effective way to reach the lost, because they can only thrive in areas where “success” is likely anyway. If the ground is so fertile, why not just leave it to the saints already there? Seems like loading the dice to me.

    2. If God does work in spite (through?) our weaknesses, why should we assume that we are more likely to reach people similar to ourselves?
    There is a popular mode of argument lately which concedes the theological point and then goes on ignoring it as an entirely contrary point is made.
    The reason that we reach people similar to ourselves is because these are the people we know, the people we interact with, the people we talk to. The reason that we rarely reach people different to us, is because we never interact with them nor share the gospel with them. All that is needed is for you to convert and disciple one person in a community unlike your own, and that one person can share the gospel with people that you do not have any contact with whatsoever. Again, it is important to note that the Apostle Paul did just this – he was not a Gentile, and therefore was not well suited to reach Gentiles. But he “became” like one not under the law in order to reach those who are not under the law. This doesn’t mean we should all don burqas, but it does mean that we shouldn’t let the burqa get in the way of telling a lost soul the gospel.

    3. If it is “easier to give birth to a baby than to raise the dead”, what will you be preaching this Easter?
    OK, the question is a bit cheeky. But where does your theology of the power of God, the same power which raised Christ from the dead, come into your decision making? I imagine a response like, “Yes God is powerful, but does that mean we shouldn’t think about what would most likely work?” But this misses the point. Consistently throughout the scriptures the power of God motivates saints to step out into the unlikely and unknown, not to take the more likely and known option. Strategy follows faith, not the other way around. In faith, David set out to take Jersualem, that even the blind and lame could defend. Then he worked out to enter through the water-shaft. Paul was told to go to the Gentiles, then he worked out that he should check out prayer-meetings down by the lake and hire out the hall next to the Synagogue.

    Again, I want to say how great it is that you are having a crack and planting a church! I also recognise that what you are doing is incredibly hard and costly – my questions are not a comment on you – I’m just seeking to think through theologically the guiding questions that led you to choose where to plant.

    • Oh snap. Great probing. Although as you admit, question 3 is a little unfair. I think that’s Tom “Moore Revue Facilitator” Habib coming through. Since you asked, I’ll be preaching at the youth section of Katoomba Easter Convention on Sunday morning- Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11). Again… a little unfair Tom!

      I don’t have time to respond to these now… or perhaps for a few days. But in the mean time, I’d be curious to put the spot light on you for a brief moment.

      What questions would you invite people thinking about church planting to consider? Rather than “stacking the dice”, would you just “roll the dice”? Perhaps if you give me a theological alternative to deciding where to plant I’ll have some more concrete thoughts to engage with.

      Looking forward to what you come up with,
      Thanks Tom.

  5. Sorry Tim, didn’t mean to be harsh (albeit cheeky). I really do value what you are doing. I don’t doubt your trust in a powerful God, I just doubt whether these questions are shaped by those beliefs.

    In many ways, it probably doesn’t matter where you end up doing ministry – there are good things to do everywhere. But it does matter if you have questions in place that will automatically close off certain areas.

    I think the sad thing that I see happening in Sydney is a whole bunch of incredibly talented ministers taking a whole bunch of incredibly talented, mission-minded people to start church plants in areas that already have really good churches and ministries going, while other areas continue to struggle. Why? Surely something has gone wrong in the process?

    I can’t begin to tell you the impact that you would have if you took those 30? people, your fundraising and prayer support, and went to a place like Greenacre Anglican or Fairfield Anglican or Merrylands Anglican (randomly chosen) and said, “We’re here – tell us where you want us.” The issue with these areas are not that they are hard ground (a thoroughly unbiblical concept that comes from poor exegesis and analogy), it is that Christians simply are not going there.

    So what are my questions. Well – if I can dodge your challenge – I might change the parameters to begin with. I don’t think I would start with the premise, “I’m going to plant a church”. This assumes a strategy before finding a place, and therefore significantly limits where you will go – as your questions and our discussion demonstrate. Why not start with the premise, “I am going to make disciples”. What that will look like will be significantly different depending on where you are going.

    As for where to go, I’m sorry, but I don’t have alternative questions for you. Knowing where to go is a complex mix of interest, opportunity, needs of family, calling and sending. I wonder if it is a relatively new thing for us to even work out ourselves where we go, rather than just being sent (an interesting CH4 project). But I don’t really mind where people go. I just mind if one’s reasoning means that people end up in the same areas.