Global Mission has captured the imagination of thousands of Adventists across North America and around the world. Hundreds of new churches have been established in hitherto unentered people groups throughout the world. Millions have heard the good news for the first time. The Great Commission mandates that we make disciples of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people (Matt. 28:18-20).
The making of disciples demands the formation of communities of faith. John declared that Christians were not only to proclaim the truth, but to create communities of faith that could foster fellowship among believers. "What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us" (1 John 1:3, NASB).
Proclamation is not an end in itself. We proclaim Christ in order to create a new community where fellowship occurs. Disciples do not live in isolation. They live in community. The Great Commission expects us to plant these communities of faith. We Seventh-day Adventists have done a fairly good job of establishing communities in every nation and tongue, but the command of Jesus pushes us even farther: the planting of faith communities among every people group on Planet Earth. The enormity of this task should overwhelm us and humble us.
A mission field in North America
While we in North America have been excited about Global Mission, we have seen our role as providers of resources---human and financial---to accomplish this task in the rest of the world. That is certainly a vital function, but Global Mission must also be seen as a mission to the unreached people groups of North America. Many of us have made the fatal assumption that North America is a Christianized country, and therefore failed to recognize one of the greatest missionary fields at our doorsteps.
Consider the United States. Out of its population of 260 million, only about 60 million attend church regularly. This means that there are approximately 200 million unchurched people in the United States. The tragedy of this challenge is that most of us are not even aware of it.
For example, I live in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Adventists who live here tend to think of this town as Adventist territory. However, facts speak otherwise. Berrien County has a population of 160,000. Seventh-day Adventists make up the third-largest denomination, with a little more than 6,000 members. Yet 120,000 people in this county do not attend any church. Thus even Berrien County is a mission field in view of the harvest that Christ has commanded us to reap.
The unreached people groups in North America include 1.5 million Hindus, 3.3 million Muslims, 8 million French-speaking people, and 35 million people with disabilities. The diversity of ethnic America demands major missionary investment in order to plant communities of faith among the unreached. This attention to ethnic groups, however, must not lead us to assume that Anglo-America has been evangelized.
Reaching Anglo-Americans may call for different approaches. In the past, churches were planted primarily on the basis of geography. We studied a neighborhood, town, or city that did not have an Adventist church, and then proceeded to plant a church in that place. However, America has become more urbanized; 80 percent of the population now lives in urban areas. Church planting, therefore, can no longer be on the basis of geography alone.
Then there is the generational problem. Research indicates that if we are serious about planting new churches, we must think generationally. Our ministry should not aim at one generation. We must think and work cross-generationally. According to researcher George Barna, young people increasingly show little or no interest in the church. Many traditional churches, unable to retain a majority of their young people, are experiencing a decline in attendance.
Thinking cross-generationally means that we tailor our church programs to meet the needs of all people young and old, families, single parents, children, etc. Our ministry needs to be inclusive enough so that each member feels a sense of belonging within the church. We cannot afford to take care of one group at the risk of alienating another.
Why plant new churches?
Some may say we have plenty of room in our existing churches. Why do we need to start new churches? The point is simple: when different people groups don't come to church, the church must go to them with a program designed to meet their needs. That is the example Jesus left for us to follow. Jesus did not simply ask for humanity to come to Him. He came to them. He took human flesh and became one with us so that He might reach us. Following this incarnational model, we need to incarnate the gospel in every cultural group in order that they might be won to Christ. The apostle Paul grasped this model when he declared that he became a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, in order that he might win them for Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23). The evangelization of lost people is the reason for planting churches in all cultural groups. The church cannot be content with what it has accomplished; it must push forward to reach the unreached.
Many of our existing churches have been unable to reach the community where they minister. We have urban churches that have not grown significantly in the past 10 years. These churches barely maintain their existing membership, occasionally taking in replacement members, but fail to reap the harvest that is out there. This may be a good reason to plant a new church, for research suggests that the best way to spur an old church into a mission mind-set is by starting a new church. A nonmissionary church cannot accomplish the mission of Christ. Church planting must be concerned not only with reaching new people groups, but also with expanding into existing people groups.
Ellen White's concern should be our challenge. She states: "The people who bear His sign are to establish churches and institutions as memorials to Him."1 "I saw jets of light shining from cities and villages, and from the high places and the low places of the earth. God's word was obeyed, and as a result there were memorials for Him in every city and village. His truth was proclaimed throughout the world."2 "The establishment of churches, the erection of meeting-houses and school-buildings, was extended from city to city, and the tithe was increasing to carry forward the work. Plants were made not only in one place, but in many places, and the Lord was working to increase His forces."3
Some may feel we cannot afford to plant a church in every city and village. Certainly not the way we currently plant churches. It costs too much to erect a building and pay a pastor. Perhaps it's time to explore new and inexpensive ways of planting churches and maintaining them. Lay leadership is the key. An awakened, trained, and involved laity can care for church growth.
Some people are fearful of church planting because they worry they will lose members to the new church. A genuine concern indeed! New churches must not be raised merely to scatter existing saints, but to reach new saints. Churches don't complain when members transfer to another church, and so why shouldn't a congregation commission some of its members to help reach new people groups through new church planting? A church that loses its sense of mission and outreach needs to get down on its knees and repent of its selfishness.
If Seventh-day Adventists in North America take church planting seriously, we could double the number of churches we currently have and still not have completed the task assigned to us by Christ. Global Mission isn't just overseas, it is here; and the time to accomplish it is now. We cannot afford to wait any longer.
Why plant apple trees?
The title of this article asks, "Why plant apple trees?" Obviously to get the fruit---apples. But there is more to it. Bob Logan, a church planting authority, explains: "The apple is merely a package of seeds intended to produce the ultimate fruit---more apples. The body of Christ is like the apple tree---producing individual disciples and more congregations."4
Is your church bearing fruits, and more fruits? Are you prepared for the challenge of planting new churches?
To help you meet this challenge, the North American Division, the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and the North American Division Evangelism Institute have banded together to conduct a church planting summit, Seeds '96, to be held June 12- 15, 1996, on the campus of Andrews University. It is our hope that this will launch a major church planting strategy throughout North America, resulting in a multitude of new churches, as well as an opportunity for laypeople and pastors to be trained in planting new churches. For further information about the summit, call 1-800-ALL-PLNT.
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 7, p. 105.
2. Ibid., vol. 9, pp. 28, 29.
3. ____, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), p. 435.
4. Robert E. Logan, Beyond the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, seventh printing March 1994), p. 193.