[Editor’s Note: This summer we are posting some old but good pieces from BtT. This post originally appeared on July 7, 2009.]
North American church planting and renewal is not for wimps, dummies, or dorks. In order to plant and revitalize churches in 21st century America, we need men who are strong in their walk with the Lord, strong as husbands and fathers, and strong in perseverance. Further, the church needs men whose mind is buttressed by sound theology and missiology. Third, we need men who are culturally savvy, having a ready gasp of their socio-cultural context and an ability to communicate the gospel and plant the church appropriately in that context.
Finally, North American missiology is for those who are seeking to minister in diverse and multicultural country. Why? Because we no longer need to cross the ocean in order to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. In our own country, and even in the South, we find a dizzying array of cultures and sub-cultures, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of these cultures and sub-cultures are non-Christian or post-Christian, in that they do not have even a basic understanding of a Christian worldview or Christian vocabulary. And because the SBC is a mostly middle class, mostly white network of mostly declining churches that are not yet reaching those cultures and subcultures.
For this reason, evangelicals in general (and Southern Baptists in particular) must begin to take their own cultural contexts as seriously as IMB missionaries take theirs. We must labor consciously and carefully to learn the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can communicate the gospel faithfully and meaningfully in those contexts.
Along the way, it is helpful to read widely on issues related to church planting. Toward that end, here is a list of books for prospective North American church planters and renewers. (Note: Also beneficial is Ed Stetzer’s annotated N. A. Church Planting Bibliography from April 2009.)
After having immersed ourselves in biblical and theological studies, which provide the matrix within which we think about church planting, the first order of business is to deepen our understanding of the church. Pick a couple of ecclesiologies and study them with a pen in hand, reflecting, critiquing, making application. I recommend John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches and Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. The former is probably the best one-stop doctrine of the church available, while the latter focuses on nine crucial aspects for building a healthy church. If you would like to go retro, J. L. Dagg‘s Manual of Church Order is an older ecclesiology text written by a pastorally-minded theologian.
Classic Church Planting Texts
The next order of business is to read at least one of the classic texts on church planting. I will mention several. First, John L. Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches is a slim little volume written by a 19th century Presbyterian missionary to China. In juxtaposition to most missionaries of his day, Nevius encouraged workers to plant churches that were contextual and self-supporting. Second, Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of The Church is another slender little book written by a turn-of-the-20th-century Anglican missionary to China. He urges church planters to start churches that will spontaneously grow, multiply, and overcome various difficulties that hinder the church from growing in this manner. Finally, David Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond, 2d ed., is written by the doyen of 20th century evangelical missiology. In this contemporary classic, the author provides a biblically and theologically driven model for church planting that is also informed by historical, sociological, anthropological insights.
Warning: The first two volumes were written in another era and are a little more difficult to read than books being published in the 21st century. (In bygone eras, theologians were audacious enough to assume literacy in the Western world.) But they are worth the read. In fact, I think I can say without too much exaggeration that all contemporary church planting theory is “footnotes to Roland Allen.” Even today, his work is salient and timely.
Five Streams of North American Missiology
After having beefed up on ecclesiology and church planting classics, you are ready to begin making theological and missiological assessment of contemporary trends in North American church planting and renewal. I have divided current literature into five categories.
1. Reformed & Contextual:
By far the most well-thought-out and influential book in this category is Tim Keller & Allen Thompson, Church Planting Manual, published and distributed by Redeemer Presbyterian’s Church Planting Center (New York). Keller and Allen’s book manages to be at once deeply theological and eminently practical. Also in this vein are Mark Driscoll‘s The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out and Confessions of a Reformission Rev: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church. In the first book, Driscoll argues that the American church must center itself on a proper understanding of gospel, church, and culture. In the second, he tells the story of Mars Hill Church, from the time he planted it until the present. Both books are full of funny stories, so much so that I almost fractured my diaphragm on several occasions reading them.
2. Purpose Driven:
Rick Warren‘s influence on the contemporary scene is mammoth. Ron Sylvia, Starting New Churches on Purpose, is a church planting text in the vein of Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. This text is, for the most part, a-theological.
The missiologists in this third category overlap at points with those in the first category, but are by no means synonymous. One foundational text to read is Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. A second significant book is Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, which is one of the most handy and helpful church planting texts on the market. Finally, Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways and Michael Frost, Exile are helpful treatments of a missional-incarnational model for church planting.
4. Organic/House Church:
Proponents of organic/house church overlap at points with the missional-incarnationals. The books to read here are Neil Cole, Organic Church: Growing Faith where Life Happens and Jonathan Campbell, The Way of Jesus. Another helpful but relatively obscure little book is Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement.
5. Miscellaneous Contemporary:
The fifth category is a catch-all. A few of the more significant texts are Steve Sjogren, Community of Kindness: A Refreshing New Approach to Planting and Growing a Church, Ralph Moore, Starting a New Church: The Church Planter’s Guide to Success, and Bob Roberts‘ trilogy of books, Glocalization, Transformation, and The Multiplying Church.
A Few More
In addition to the books listed above, here are a handful of other books beneficial for the aspiring church planter. Thom Rainer‘s books are well-worth the time spent reading them. I will limit myself to two. The Book of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles is the single best introduction to the church growth movement, including an almost-100 page section on theologically-driven missiology. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples, co-authored by Rainer and Eric Geiger, is a lucid and persuasive argument that churches need to return to the simple disciple-making process exemplified by Jesus.
In Comeback Churches, Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson report on more than 300 formerly declining congregations across multiple denominations, reporting on what it took to revitalize and renew those churches. Planting Churches in the Real World is the story of Joel Rainey’s first church plant and the numerous challenges and times of discouragement he faced. As Stetzer puts it in the blurb on the back of the book, “If you are a planter drunk with vision, this will sober you up.” Finally, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis‘ Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community is a helpful little book arguing that we must center all of the church’s life around gospel and community.
A Final Comment
In this installment, I have only mentioned a few of the books that will be helpful for aspiring church planters. Further, I have provided little or no critique of them. For that reason, I would like to invite our readership to comment on books that I have not included that you think are particularly helpful, or even to comment on or critique the books that I have included.
What new books (since 2009) can you add to this list?