At the end of my first year in ministry, my conference president looked at the vast geographic territory assigned to me and suggested I “start a new church in one of the unentered towns.” With the involvement of members from the two existing churches in my district, we planted another. Forty years later, having planted more than 20 Adventist churches and equipped hundreds of planting teams around the world, I have learned to follow a sixstep process for planting churches that multiply. This process is based on Jesus’ final commission (Matt. 28) and His kingdom parables (Mark 4) that provide models for equipping disciples (Luke 10), His injunction to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 1), and His humility and sacrifice as the Model for life and church (Phil. 2).
When Jesus commanded His disciples to “ ‘make disciples of all nations’ ” (Matt. 28:18–20, NIV), He was speaking not only of nations as we define them today, but also of the multiple relational streams found in every society. In today’s world, there are diverse relational streams, including work and social networks. While the parable of the four soils affirms that good soil produces a multiplying crop (Mark 4:8), the parable of the fields of growing seed suggests process (vv. 4:26–29).
The empty field becomes the seeded field; the growing field sprouts, the crop grows “all by itself,” until it becomes the harvest field. At harvest times, Middle Eastern farmers gathered the crop for food and market, but kept the best seeds to sow and multiply in the next season. Together with the principles enunciated in Luke 10:1–24, the fields suggest a sixstep process to plant new churches that multiply (figure 1).1
The sixstep process2 begins with entering an empty field, maybe a new community, a new neighborhood, an unentered city, family members not connected to God, or friends disconnected from church. In an Adventist context, the wise planter consults with the local conference president, outlining plans and seeking counsel.
Step 1: Pray for the harvest and workers
Jesus instructed disciples to work in teams. Teams provide encouragement, protect reputations, negate individualism, and represent our God whose fellowship we seek to introduce.
The first step includes learning to pray regularly and naturally, for focused and passionate prayer opens us to God’s intentions and activity in the harvest. While seeking the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, engaged in prayer, and walking and listening in the community (on the streets, in shopping centers and homes), we become aware of the potential harvest and the need for more harvesters. Reading through the book of Acts together will inspire the team and encourage them to invite unchurched friends to participate.
Step 2: Connect with key people in relational stream
The second step involves some preparation. How would you describe the empty field God has called you to work? Who are the people you wish to reach? Demographic census data, research, visitation, or interviews will identify community needs and key people receptive to the Holy Spirit. Jesus described these as persons of peace (Luke 10:5–7), hospitable and receptive people with reputation (good or bad), and influence.
Jesus said to connect to such people. “ ‘When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, “The kingdom of God is near you” ’ ” (Luke 10:8, 9, NIV). Jesus connected by relating to the wants and needs of people. Today this may involve community dinners, meals for dislocated people, safe homes for at-risk girls or women, children’s fun activities, health workshops, fitness activities, walking groups, drug or alcohol rehabilitation support programs, or Bible seminars—which will each appeal to some.
The wisdom of eating the food of others cannot be underestimated. Sharing food helps develop trust, explores varied cultures, forges new relationships, and discerns new experiences. Around food, the deepest hurts are disclosed, giving opportunities for healing through listening, appropriate touch and prayer, and using nonreligious, everyday language. At this point you are able to communicate with others, taking into account their worldview in terms of the reality of God. Jesus said, “ ‘And as you heal . . . tell them, “The kingdom of God is near you” ’ ” (Luke 10:9, NLT). In the language of His time, this was a call to repentance.
The choice of seed and how the sowing takes place is critical in the process of church planting. Of the four verses on the parable of growing seed, two deal with how the seed grows: “ ‘Night and day, whether he [the sower] sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head’ ” (Mark 4:27, 28, NIV).
How can the seed be sown to ensure that we do not interfere in the spiritual growth of those with whom we share the gospel? How can we share so that people do not become dependent upon us? The steps the church planting core team takes at this point will impact the type of harvest gathered as well as whether the new church multiplies or becomes a burden, demanding the resources of the denomination. The next three steps in planting relate to these sowing, growing, and harvesting fields.
Step 3: Sow to grow and multiply
If we act as expert teachers, the students may become dependent, waiting to be fed information. The perception is conveyed that years of instruction are needed before they can share their faith. However, if they experience how to read and discover God’s Word for themselves under the instruction of the Holy Spirit, they are equipped to share and multiply this good news into their relational streams, even before they make a full commitment as Christ’s followers!
Building relationships with persons of peace to the point where you can invite them to begin reading one of the Gospels may not take long. In fact, experience shows it is best to sow early in the relationship. Begin by doing the following:If the persons of peace already know about Jesus Christ and are ready to explore the basic beliefs of the Christian faith, reading the Gospel of John and using discussion questions is an excellent starting point. However, many today know little or nothing about Jesus, and in such cases, it has been found that the Gospel of Mark opens the way for them to learn of Jesus and share His story with their relational streams.
1. Showing the places or sites where they could buy or download a Bible.
2. Revealing the value of reading together with their friends or family.
3. Reading one story or chapter at a time.
4. Using simple discussion questions in a bookmark form or on their mobile devices.
Such group reading should lead to the discovery of the following:
- What is new to us?
- What do we not like?
- What do we not understand?
- What will we apply to our lives?
- Who will we share with, and what will we share?
Indicate that you will be in touch to find out what they are discovering and to read other stories about Jesus. You should recognize the importance of not imposing yourself or trying to control them. The seed is the story of Jesus, and you are following a process by which the Holy Spirit can cultivate growth “all by itself” whether you are awake or asleep!
Step 4: Grow people by entrusting them to the Holy Spirit
Unless in a country or place where it is extremely difficult to buy or download a Bible, give people the freedom and responsibility to do this themselves. Remember, persons of peace usually take the initiative and they could be key to reaching and planting a church within their relational streams. Mentor and encourage these key people, even before they come to Jesus. Call, visit, and spend time eating and sharing life with them. Learn of their progress and model Bible reading, spiritual discovery, and personal application but do not take over as the expert teacher, making them dependent.
Here is an approach that has proved effective. When you visit,
- Ask how their Bible reading of the Gospel of Mark is going. What have they discovered that they have applied to life or shared with another? How are those in their circle of influence reacting to their journey of spiritual discovery?
- Sow more gospel seed by reading another story about Jesus. Explain that the Bible says there are “elementary teachings about Christ” (Heb. 6:1–3)—repentance, faith, baptisms, “laying on of hands,” resurrection, and judgment; and you would like to read stories that explore these. For example, at your first visit, you could read the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10) or the woman of Samaria (John 4:1–42) to discuss repentance—the first elementary teaching.
Again follow a discovery rather than academic-study approach.
Invite one person to read the story or chapter. Then have another re-read the whole story, maybe from another translation if one is available. This can be followed by one of the group re-telling the story in his or her words and sharing what he or she has discovered. Finally, ask one question: What does this tell you about repentance (or the elementary teaching being explored in that visit)? Almost no comment is needed from you, and the visit can end with simple prayer in conversational language.
Week by week the group will read the Gospel and you will visit to explore stories from the life of Jesus and whole chapters as they relate to the elementary teachings of Jesus Christ. As they grow, you could suggest other chapters on prayer (Luke 11:1–13), receiving the Holy Spirit (John 14:1–23), the second coming of Jesus (Matt. 24), or His relationship to the Sabbath (John 5 or 9; 10). Be sure to inquire about their relationship to Jesus. Discuss regularly as to how the story of Jesus is impacting their lives and that of their friends. It may not take long for the Holy Spirit to convict them to follow Jesus—usually at about this stage in their journey people ask to be baptized.
When they are ready to explore the Bible doctrines of Adventism, suggest they read the Gospel of John since it covers all the fundamentals. Small group Bible classes or evangelistic seminars will assist new believers with answers to specific questions, clarifying concerns, and allaying fears. While all care must be taken to ensure that new believers are not made dependent, such programs of teaching have been found to help gather new believers into new churches, especially when scheduled for times when they plan for the new group of believers to gather as a church.
Step 5: Gather people within their relational streams
As disciples grow, they seek to gather. This is the meaning of the word church—gathering of disciples. Involve everyone (core team members, persons of peace, and unchurched friends) in discussing what this gathering may look like. Explore what Jesus said about giving “the keys of the kingdom” to His church (Matt.16:15–19). Discuss the Jerusalem church (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37), the beginnings of the Antioch church (Acts 11:19–26), and Paul’s desire for participatory worship in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:26).
Together, determine the place of food, fellowship, participation, conversation, encouragement, reading, and discussion of the Word of God, prayer, praise, care, healing, witness, and growth. These are key elements for a simple multiplying gathering or church. The place where people gather will also impact significantly who will be involved and whether a church multiplies. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of continuing to meet in one of the homes where groups have been forming up until now. What about other homes? What about outdoors? Are there other convenient community facilities that could be used for group meetings at little or no cost? Could a local café be used for prayer and planning meetings?
Determining functional structures together provides further opportunities for equipping. How will legal and ethical responsibilities for safe places, working with children, and insurance be processed? Who will take responsibility for funds, including tithes and offerings, being returned to the conference? Will conversational leadership continue to serve the gathering church well?
Of course, none of the journey in planting a new Adventist church takes place in isolation. Wise conference leaders and the pastor or key leaders from a supporting “grandparent” church take opportunities to be with the core team in connecting with persons of peace and those coming to faith. They will not come to casually look but, as Christian leaders, affirm the journey of spiritual growth and encourage a growing movement of new faith communities or church plants. The core team will also invite their friends to appropriate events sponsored by the local conference or union. Regional worships days, annual Bible conventions (like camp meetings), church planting summits, or equipping events provide particularly dynamic environments for networking with the wider church family and connecting with the “sisterhood” of Adventist churches.
All planters are encouraged to know how the local conference organizes new plants and churches. Because most church plants are not isolated believers, conferences may not use what is called company status; but at the appropriate time arrange for the plant to move direct to organized church status within the “sisterhood” of conference churches. However, this process differs according to the decisions of local conference leaders and executive committees.
Step 6: Multiply quickly through reproducible processes
Harvest leads to planting again, in order to reap an additional harvest. This is not a haphazard process. Healthy churches intentionally multiply. They identify and foster simple, organic, and reproducible processes. The new believers are connected with new relational streams into which the gospel can be sown.
New churches are tempted to want to grow larger, to become like other churches. However, getting bigger does not equate with being healthy. The time is ripe for this new gathering of believers to read the book of Acts again. Let the story of the Antioch church becoming a multiplying movement reveal God’s desire for all churches (Acts 13:1–4). Discuss how the apostle Paul planted two churches in Philippi within weeks (Acts 16:6–34) and multiple churches in Corinth (Acts 18:1–18; cf. Rom. 16:1). Consider how Paul multiplied leaders and faith communities right across the Roman province of Asia from the church in Ephesus (Acts 19:1–22), and apply these principles.
A picture of God
The church is the body of Christ. Church plants are to reflect His heart and attitude. Because Jesus was “in very nature God,” He chose a path of humiliation and death for He considered the interests of others above His own so that God would be exalted. Those “united with Christ” and in “fellowship with the Spirit” will share this same “attitude” (NIV) or “mind” (RSV) (see Phil. 2:1–11). This master story provides the ultimate frame for how new churches will relate, serve, organize, structure, worship, fellowship—and multiply.
1 For the concept of the Four Fields I am indebted to Nathan and Kari Shank, Reproducing Churches Using Simple Tools, 2007.
2 For a more detailed description of these steps, see Peter Roennfeldt, Planting Churches That Multiply, www.newchurchlife.com, 2011.