Principles for Urban Church Planting

As part of my research for a recent series of lectures on church planting I came across this article by Tim Keller. Keller is the Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York. You can find the article here.

In the article he identifies five principles for initiating a church plant in an urban context. I’ve reworked and commented on them but essentially they’re his observations.

1. We need to live in the community
We need to live near or close by the community of people that we’re trying to reach. That’s especially true if we’re a ‘neighbourhood’ rather than a ‘network’ church plant. [Network church plants are non-geographical specific churches constituted of an eclectic gathering of commuting individuals, like TBT or St Helen’s]. But the point is that if we don’t live in the neighbourhood then we we’re unlikely to know the community or their issues. And so we won’t know the people and we won’t know how to help them. This will have a massive impact on our missional effectiveness. Keller uses the incarnation as theological justification for our responsibility to live in the neighbourhood. Whilst it’s undoubtedly true that Jesus did not commute from heaven to earth to bring us the news of salvation, I’m uncomfortable of trying to locate a binding church planting principle on such unique grounds. I’m more comfortable saying that I think it makes sense to live in the community!

2. We need to learn the community
If we’re going to serve the community in which God has placed us then we’ll really need to understand the issues that people face. We can approach this in one of two ways. The informal way is to ‘hang out’ with the people who live there and listen to what they have to say. The formal way is to plunder the demographic information, study statistics and read the last census. Something like a community survey project is a hybrid of the two and a very attractive option. But when carrying out this research, we’re simply trying to find out what makes people ‘tick’. We want to know what type of people live in the neighbourhood in terms of their racial affiliation, their socio-economic background and so on. We want to know what their aspirations are so that we can identify and critique the idols that have captured their affections. We want to know with what set of assumptions they approach life since that will govern their decision making and their prejudices. And we want to know what they feel about religion. If we get this right we’ll have a better chance of engaging them and not simply missing them with the gospel.

3. We need to link gospel ministry to the community
We need to create a contextualised ministry model that takes account of who we are and where we’re church planting. Whilst the principles of word ministry driven church planting are unchanging, the patterns we employ can be flexible. Therefore we would not expect word ministry on an urban priority area in Peckham and a lunchtime city based meeting to look the same. We need to be wary of slavishly following the ministry patterns of the sending church without paying sufficient attention to the contextual situation in which we’ve been planted. That’s a massive temptation because those patterns are familiar and presumably we’ve seen them work! But we need to give thought to the ways in which the gospel will best be presented to the people in our context.

4. We need to love the community
We need to recognise that God has placed us in a local community to love and serve the people of that neighbourhood. The conviction that we’re there for others and not for the church, that it’s all about Jesus and not about me is fundamental. Unless these convictions are deeply held those who lead church plants will question their competence and their worth. We don’t church plant simply because we want to do something meaningful with our lives. We do it for others. If the church plant doesn’t take off as we’d like it to then it can lead to bad patterns of ministry. Keller says that, ‘In your own personal ministry you will tend to over work, deal poorly with criticism, worry too much about attendance, giving, and signs of success, and be less than a good and gracious model of a gospel-changed life‘. I’d say he’s right.

5. We need to launch in the community
There are two main ways of launching a church plant in the community, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The first is the ‘top down’ approach, where the sending church launches with a large group of people in a new location. This is the default planting strategy for our theological constituency. This church plant works best where the leaders have good preaching gifts. The advantage of this way of planting is that a sizeable church will ‘make a noise’ and ‘a crowd attracts a crowd’. Therefore, it may gather new attendees quite quickly. The weakness of this type of plant is that there’s a great tendency to simply replicate the mother church, paying insufficient attention to the geographical locality in which its situated. The second way of planting is the ‘bottom up’ approach where the sending church puts a leader and a much smaller contingent into the new area. This type of plant works best with leaders who have strong evangelistic gifts. The advantage is that much of the growth will tend to be evangelistic rather than transfer growth. The weakness of this approach is that it will fail to attract Christians moving into the area who want to see something happening. It may also put an unbearable burden on the church planter who feels under pressure to balance the finances. There are, of course, other approaches to church planting including a hybrid of the above but these two delineate the two most common approaches.

5 thoughts on “Principles for Urban Church Planting

  1. Phil Green July 19, 2011 / 7:13 pm

    Richard I reaslly like this…it is good stuff….who knows…maybe after the “parking of tanks on the lawn” impasse, we may get talking again.

    There is only one thing I would add to and that is the point about the need to learn the community. I would either expand this point a bit further, or include a separate point “we need to learn from and recive from the community in which we are planting”

    A short while back I was asked to speak one Sunday morning on the encounter Jesus had with the Samaritan women at the well in John 4. It is usually treated as a classic “evangelistic encounter” passage but as I prepared I sensed God lead me to take a different approach.

    At the very start of John 4, it was Jesus who had the need. He was tired from ministry and he was thirsty…the first thing he did was ask her for a drink. Yes it was a way in to a powerful theological discourse which changed her life,but there is no getting the away from the fact that he, a Jewish man needed to receive from her a Samaritan woman. This was the precursor to her life changinng encounter with Jesus.

    One of the points I tried to bring out was that we are so often in “donor mode”, especially in a church planting situation. But what can we receive from and learn from the community we are wanting to plant in before we give out and share the gospel? Yes we have a gospel to share and yes the community needs to receive it. This is undoubtedly true but what does God want us to receive from the community we are wanting to plant into, and what can we receive from them, maybe even before we start to share the gospel…yes even from the equivalent of our “Samaritan women” the Muslim community maybe or..dare I say it an actively gay person…which may be the nearest thing to the Samaritan woman that we may encounter today…after all she was living a sexually immoral, sinful life.

    However, I pointed out that it was at the very end of the encounter that Jesus told her to “Neither do I condemn you…go and sin no more”, way after he had requested a drink from her to quench his thirst in the searing heat of the day. She had something he needed. What do the communities we seek to plant into have that may meet our needs I wonder? And are we willing to go there?

    The response to the sermon afterwards was fascinating. It sort of divided into those who were really challenged by it but responded positively, to those, including our Senior Vicar at the time who was not as impressed. His reaction was very difficult to take but I honestly believed, and still do, that it was what God wanted me to share.

    As we plant missionally, maybe we need to include what can we receive and learn from our community, even before we begin to share the fantastic news of the gospel.

  2. mezmcconnell July 22, 2011 / 7:50 pm

    Thanks for this. I hope you don’t mind me re-posting from your blog and linking your site.

  3. Genovevo Lubaton March 26, 2012 / 12:39 pm

    Biblical ‘Church planting’ if such a term exists in the N.T. at all is a result of worldwide evangelism, one city at a time. Christians shares or preaches Christ, and those who believe are baptized, then a church is formed of the people who follow Christ. There is no pre qualification of a community nor preparation of the community. Bearers of the gospel goes everywhere preaching Christ. Whether churches are established or not is not the issue. the question is, ‘ has everyone heard the gospel, so everyone is given a chance to respond’? We are not sent to plant churches. We are sent to preach the gospel.

    • theurbanpastor March 30, 2012 / 8:23 am

      Genovevo
      I don’t think I disagree with you. What you’ve outlined is the apostolic practice in Acts, as I’m sure you’re aware. Again, you;re right that Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations. I guess the issue is how is it sensible to do that. And, if you’ll forgive an English colloquialism, there are many ways to skin a cat! I want to suggest that it would be foolish to dismiss church planting as an effective way of reaching people (or communities) for Christ as it would be to say that this is the only way to reach people with the gospel. In my opinion, we both need to send sole missionaries into unreached ares but we also need to establish churches that can gather, train and send out Christians equipped to reach the community for Christ. But the end result of missionary activity should always be the establishment of a local church.
      Tim Keller’s brief article is helpful in identifying that if we want to reach people with the gospel then we need to identify the barriers that prevent them from engaging with it. That’s what he has in mind when he talks about ‘preparing’, I think.
      Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood the point you were making in your comment.
      Richard

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