What sets apart successful church planters from
the rest of the crowd? That's what many
missionaries and mission boards would like to know. Do they use
different methods? Are their personal lives different? Are they limited
to certain parts of the world, to certain agencies?
To find out, a survey was sent to 100 missionaries chosen as successful
by their boards. It was returned by 85 church planters from all
geographic areas. From their responses we developed seven strategy
principles that successful church planters follow, whether they work in
responsive or resistant places.
1. More effective church planters spend more time in prayer. The
more time spent in prayer, the more effective the church planter.
Regardless of field difficulties, those who prayed more tended to be
more effective. The most effective church planters average four hours
and 15 minutes more in prayer per week than their less effective
2. More effective church planters use more broadly based evangelistic
efforts. The most effective church planters had a greater tendency
to use outreach methods that provide a large number of contacts in a
given community. Those who enter a new cross-cultural situation, and
devise a method for sharing the gospel with a large number of people,
may then identify from this large group those who appear to be
spiritually hungry. They invest productive time in discipling those who
are more interested.
Starting the process, finding spiritually interested people, is best
accomplished by some form of community-wide evangelistic campaign, with
lots of noise, excitement, and activity, using many people.
Traditionally, this meant nightly meetings with a well-known speaker.
But successful church planters are not limited to that method.
They often use a variety of tools, including films, video, door-to-door
witnessing, surveys, public meetings, book tables, singing groups,
drama, media campaigns, parades, special services, extended prayer
meetings, and so on.
Evangelistic methods aimed at a narrow range of people become wider if
carried out by a sufficient number of people. For instance, a home Bible
study group is not a broad-based method. But if multiple Bible study
groups are started in a target community, then the outreach is extended,
leading to greater overall results.
This principle supports the current use of church-planting teams. More
people together in ministry are better able to carry out broad-based
3. More effective church planters are more flexible in their methods.
The most effective church planters demonstrate a high degree of
creativity in their outreaches. They identify and use culturally
relevant ways to communicate.
Each method has a target audience. Some methods hit one class,
educational level, or even sex or age group better than others. Using a
variety of methods extends the range of potential successes. The broader
pool makes it more likely that people in families, clans, and groups
will respond individually and simultaneously to the gospel. This
increases the chances for a people movement.
More successful church planters combine flexibility with broadbased
efforts. They coordinate multiple, broad-based methods. Evangelizing in
multiple ways simultaneously compounds their effectiveness. Each method
appeals to and attracts a different cross-section of the population,
building up the effort to find those who are interested.
These church planters seek to use numbers of people for bursts of
intensive outreach. Nearby church people, fellow missionaries, distant
national Christians, international teams, and short-term workers make
the contacts for later follow-up.
4. More effective church planters are more committed to a doctrinal
position. While creativity and flexibility are beneficial in
evangelism, rigidity in doctrinal position, at least initially, produces
better results. The most effective church planters appear to be very
tight in their theology. The specific position itself is not as
important as strict adherence to it.
It seems that in establishing new believers it is best not to get into
doctrinal controversies, but better to transmit core beliefs. Possibly
by focusing on the major point of reaching additional people, rather
than taking the time and energy to thrash out all the pros and cons of
various theological debates, churches grow faster.
A "this is what we believe, take it or leave it" attitude, while not the
best for developing theological creativity, does allow for concentration
on the basics. Greater theological diversity, especially at the
beginning, can delay expansion. Energy expended in defining and learning
the finer points of theology, and then choosing a doctrinal position, is
better used in reproduction.
5. More effective church planters establish greater credibility.
There is a high degree of correlation between missionaries who emphasize
activities to increase credibility and who plant more churches.
Credibility is established in two ways, but meeting social needs and by
building relationships with community leaders. These steps of themselves
do not make church planters more effective. But as church planters
incorporate social work and building relationships into their total
ministries, people respond.
Social work is not the primary focus of effective church planters, but
one of many activities done by the more effective ones. They do not say,
"First we will fill your stomach and then you will be willing to hear
our message." Rather, they say, "We will proclaim our message. If you
want to have your stomach filled, that is possible, too."
Social activity and gospel witness go on simultaneously. One does not
depend on the other. Often national Christians do the social work while
others witness. Local people participate as they will. Social
ministries, of course, produce additional contacts. Non-Christians get
to know Christians and the church building in non-threatening,
need-based encounters. They see the church as credible, as part of the
community, not an outside agency. They become more open to the gospel.
Building relationships means getting to know the political, religious,
government, military, and other community leaders. After getting to know
as many of them as possible, effective church planters develop a few
deeper friendships. This reduces suspicions and helps alleviate future
For example, new Christians were having a Christmas celebration in a
moderately hostile Muslim area of Indonesia. A low-level official came
to shut it down. But the national church planter had developed a close
relationship with this official's supervisor. He arrived and asked if
there were any problems. The lower-ranking man bowed out and the
Christians said everything was fine. What could have been a disaster was
avoided because of the care taken to establish a friendship.
6. More effective church planters have a greater ability to identify
and then work with people who have a loosely structured religion.
Where the religious structure is fairly loose, church planting tends to
be more successful. This finding corresponds to the principle that says
church planters ought to work among more open people first. As they
respond, church planters can build on multiplied contacts provided by
new Christians among more resistant people.
Successful church planters in the survey were either finding sectors of
society more open to change, or they were using evangelism and making
converts in ways that allowed people to become Christians and retain the
essence of their culture, while putting a Christian stamp on it. This
confirms what Donald McGavran has taught, the "resistance arises
primarily from fear that 'becoming a Christian will separate me from my
people.'" (Understanding Church Growth, p. 191).
For example, more people tend to respond to the gospel when they have
recently moved. Some of the more effective church planters worked with
people who had just migrated into land areas recently opened by the
government for settlement.
Other successful church planters find large new housing projects more
open to the gospel for the first five years. Once people had settled in
and developed new habits, they were no longer as open. They had built a
new web of social contacts, so they had more to lose by joining a
Christian group than when they first arrived.
7. More effective church planters have a greater ability to
incorporate new converts into evangelistic outreach. Consistently,
the more effective ones quickly involved new believers in ministry and
evangelism, even though they had minimal training. The survey uncovered
three positive results from this practice.
First, new convert evangelism takes advantage of natural bridges for
sharing the gospel while the new convert still has the greatest number
of non-Christian friends. The longer people are Christians, the fewer
non-Christian friends they tend to have.
Second, as new believers do evangelism, they develop a stronger
commitment to the gospel. They become insiders, part of a new family.
Even if forced to cut the ties with their old relationships, they can
see new friendships developing.
Third, as they share their faith, new believers immediately are hit with
questions about what they believe. Rather than destroying their faith,
this forces them to study and learn more about it. As they study the
Bible and learn from more experienced Christians, their faith and
knowledge grow. Their quest for maturity is need driven.
To show how these principles work, we selected the story of church
planting by the Association of Baptist Churches of Rwanda (AEBR), where
Glenn Kendall worked with the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission
Society for 13 years. During his time there the association grew from
1,100 members to over 17,000 baptized adult believers.
1. Prayer. The AEBR outreach emphasized prayer, not just daily prayer,
but four weeks a year of special prayer: between Palm Sunday and Easter,
the week before Pentecost, during a week of special summer meetings, and
the week before Christmas. Almost all churches observed these weeks.
Most groups met early in the morning; some met throughout the day; some
in late afternoon.
Sending churches mobilized prayer, especially in early days when larger
churches sent their pastor or church leader to participate in evangelism
and church planting in new areas. They prayed before and ruing the
campaign. Participants prayed together each morning; those doing
house-to-house evangelism prayed before and often during those visits.
The eight missionaries were prayer warriors. They enlisted prayer from
their sending churches. At semiannual missionary meetings, the first day
was devoted exclusively to prayer.
2. Broad-based evangelism. Even though door-to-door evangelism was the
heart of the campaign, it became a broad-based outreach because so many
people did it. Our goal was to have everyone on the community know we
were there. Those who were spiritually hungry often sought out
Christians to hear the gospel. When campaigners went to homes, they were
often told, "We were waiting for you to come."
3. Flexible methods. As campaigns progressed, workers found additional
ways to present the gospel to different segments of the population. In
each of the later campaigns they gave out 10,000 gospel tracts and sold
books, Bibles, and Scripture portions. This appealed to more educated
people in a media-poor society.
For the first campaign in Uganda, a choir from Zaire ministered.
Musically and rhythmically gifted African young people flocked to hear
the choir and followed them around. Music was like a magnet.
During a campaign in Zaire, workers conducted their first parade.
Townspeople flowed behind the sound system and campaign people. Many
stayed to hear the gospel.
Possibly the most effective method was the Jesus film. Translated into
the local language, it drew thousands to nightly showings, each in a
different place. People even stood through the rain to watch it.
Showings were advertised ahead of time. This medium attracted a majority
Each method added to the cumulative impact of the campaign. Methods that
worked best were discovered by trying ideas often generated by people
beyond the immediate leaders.
4. Doctrinal rigidity. The AEBR is very rigid in doctrine. The church
often has one position on each issue and that's it. The association has
one church constitution and one church covenant. This helped in church
planting. People accepted the church's beliefs. Later, those who were
interested went on to learn about various other positions. Theological
debate did not slow AEBR's expansion, which was unhampered by doctrinal
5. Credibility. Like stubborn customs officials, missionaries at first
resisted all the social programs the church leaders wanted them to do.
After persistent pressure from both the church and the government,
missionaries agreed to go ahead, provided that expansion be the primary
mission of the churches.
The AEBR launched a literacy campaign; at its peak, 13,500 people were
learning to read. It started a school system (20,000 in primary and
1,000 in post-primary education), health centers, clean water projects,
and enterprises like brick making. The projects consumed much energy and
resources, but the gain was worth it.
People coming to the reading classes were not afraid to enter the
churches. New water sources not only saved church families hours of
water hauling every day, but made the churches the center of community
activity. The schools are training a future generation of leaders.
These programs gave points of contact for people, drew them in, and
integrated the churches naturally into the community. Being part of the
church became a normal, expected part of life.
6. Loosely structured religious base. The first cluster of churches
started by the AEBR was in a new migration area, land recently opened
for settlement. Land was easy to get, there was little competition form
other churches, and people were quite responsive.
The second cluster was in another place where some previously started
churches had died out because of legal complications. The AEBR made the
required legal changes and saw about 3,000 ready people added to the
The third cluster area was picked because of its strategic location on a
ridge about half way between the first and second clusters. The ridge
was a traditional trade route. People had settled there years ago and
were better off economically. They were much less open to the gospel.
This area still lags behind other, even newer clusters. It was chosen
for geographical reasons, not because of receptivity of the people. They
were well established in their social and religious structures.
Campaigners knew this, but ignored it as a criterion.
7. Using new converts in evangelism. By using new believers in ministry,
the cluster church-planting model generates many new believers. Early in
the campaign, leaders looked for new converts willing to take leadership
training. At the end of the 10-day campaign, and with only a week of
training, new Christians were given leadership in the new groups of
believers. They were supervised and spent one day a week in training.
Contrary to some views, this early, supervised training and ministry
produced quality leaders. Many dropped out, of course, but with four or
five from each group in training, there were enough.
It was also discovered that waiting to baptize people until after they
are thoroughly trained does not help to keep them in church. In fact, a
long training process before baptism tends to discourage them. People
seemed much more open to training once they were on the inside. Church
growth was aided by both quick acceptance into membership and
Because the mission boards were asked to select effective church
planters to participate in the survey, returns were heavily weighted
toward those who work among animistic people. These missionaries see a
greater ingathering, so that's why they were chosen by their boards. The
survey sample thus has a higher percentage of these missionaries.
Armed with the seven principles discovered in his survey, Dick Grady set
off to work with resistant people, the Sundanese of Indonesia. Did the
principles apply there as well?
Yes, except for one. Working with Muslims, it was not wise to use
methods designed to hit the masses and draw in many people in an open
way, lest the wrath of Muslim religious leaders be incurred and the
chances for church planting threatened. Even so, it is possible to use
broad-based methods by mobilizing national Christians to share their
faith in more low-key ways.
Above all, he found that prayer is the most important principle.
DICK GRADY has worked in Indonesia since 1985 with OC International,
Colorado Springs, Colo. GLENN KENDALL, formerly a church planter in
Rwanda, is now personnel director with CBInternational, Colorado
Copyright © 1992, Evangelism and Missions Information
Service. This article originally appeared in the October, 1992 issue of
Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ). All rights reserved.