Here’s an interview I conducted with a worker somewhere in the Middle East. We’ll call him “Tom”
. It’s a case study of a church planting movement among a minority that is culturally Christian but without a first hand faith of their own.
1. What’s your background in church planting?
Our first church plant was a house church in England that grew into a larger congregation. It was a time of getting back to the basics of how you do evangelism, how you do pastoring etc.
Then we connected with a movement in England and were sent out to Cyprus for training.
After a couple of years we arrived in a developing country and began by planting a house church and also getting to know existing churches. After 4 or 5 years God unexpectedly told to stop the ministry. We had no idea why.
Looking back this was a major turning point. As soon as we stopped opportunities opened up to connect with the national churches and their leaders.
We saw that we needed to build a partnership with the traditional church to plant churches among the many nominal or “cultural” Christians who did not have a real faith of their own.
2. How did you build the partnership with the traditional church?
It took quite a while. In the first few years we focused on about awareness-raising.
We built relationships with church leaders and the existing church structures and won their trust or at least made the idea of church planting more understood and acceptable.
We researched the need for new churches. Our findings shocked the leaders. We showed them that the country had far less churches than they thought and there was only 1 church for every 25,000 people.
There were literally thousands of villages where the majority were Christian, but had no church of any kind. Furthermore most Christians were locked in a ghetto mentality, isolated from the rest of the population so not reaching the majority.
So we helped them see the need and then cast a vision for communities of believers everywhere. To pull that off we had to help them see church differently.
3. Why did they need to see church differently?
Many saw church in institutional terms. So when we presented ‘church planting’ the immediate thoughts always involved, money, a building, a qualified pastor, and permission. All of these things stifled the birth of a church planting movement.
We opened the Scriptures and introduced them to “simple church.” We helped them to see the need to simplify how they do church-its structure, what it does, where it meets. The whole process of doing church had to be simple so it could be reproducible and reach the nation.
So we shared the need, we cast vision for multiplying churches, we showed them how it could be done.
All that took three years. At the end of that time many leaders of them were on board now, but they had grown up in a different paradigm of church. It was the new generation of younger leaders who were to implement church planting.
So with the existing leaders’ support we went after younger leaders. That’s when things really began to take off.
4. How did target the younger leaders?
We asked the older leaders to bring keen young people with them to training events. We shared the need, cast the vision and talked about how church could be different.
We gathered these young people for more training. Soon they began to start doing evangelism and gathering disciples into groups. We encouraged them to take risks and come up with new ideas.
On one retreat one of the church planting ministry leaders challenged the young people to dream of what God could do in just one village. They came up with the idea of holding a Christian festival in a nominal Christian village. Over the week over 5,000 people made commitments to Christ and were immediately gathered into groups.
In many areas we had the support of the established church leaders. Although we encouraged the churches to let the groups develop separate from them as most of the people were orthodox, sometimes the local church (and even Orthodox churches!) would grow as the groups grew and multiplied.
Occasionally there was trouble. One leader complained when there were about 100-200 groups that it was “out of control”. We were told that decisions had to go through him or we leave. We did not want to put out the Spirit’s fire so we left and established the ministry in a different way.
5. How did the groups work?
They met in homes during the week, not on Sundays. We didn’t want them to meet in competition with the traditional church. They didn’t do marriages, communion or baptisms. Their primary role was to disciple people.
Alongside of the groups we set up small businesses, literacy work and other practical projects to help lift the people out of poverty and sometimes provided basic medical help.
6. What did the movement look like?
As it developed we intentionally kept the structure “flat”. This was very important in a society that was very hierarchical.
We challenged the idea that only the educated could be leaders. Many of our leaders in the villages were oral people – they don’t read or write.
We set up teams everywhere but didn’t fund individual church planters. We funded “mobilizers” instead. The mobilizers were effective church planters who were now giving up their jobs to play a coordinating role as the movement expanded.
The main leader who gave national leadership to the movement had done the Southern Baptist strategy training for church planting movements and attended DAWN and other events. He is a visionary and has an analytical mind. He continually moves among the groups always asking, “Where are the bottlenecks? How can we remove them?” He asks this to avoid bottlenecks which would hinder God’s work.
My role was to support him and the team, especially with training.
7. How did you train workers?
We placed a big emphasis on training. Traditionally training in the region is in a lecture or preaching format. We made our training “hands on”, relevant, interactive and fun!
We put a lot of effort into training coordinators and they took the training into the villages.
We adapted material from the Alliance for Saturation Church Planting’s Omega course on CPMs. We taught our workers how to run inductive bible studies rather than just preach at people. We taught them how to use the Bible to help people learn to read and write.
8. What was the outcome of this church planting movement?
Our vision was to enable churches to plant churches in nearby areas, which would then reach areas and villages where there none, then to reach the whole nation and all the people groups within, and also spill across the whole region.
We’re seeing progress on each front.
There are 4600 groups that have been started and are still meeting. We have about a 15% drop out rate with new groups. Groups average about 10-15 people but can be as small as 3-4 or as large as 60. So we have about 50,000 people in groups.
There is also some progress among the non-Christian population. The movement has spread to other adjacent countries and is growing among both nominal Christians and non-Christians who are culturally very resistant to the Gospel.
For more, check out Tom’s 19 Lessons on Church Planting Movements (right below)
“Tom” helped fuel a church planting movement amongst fervent monotheists somewhere in the Middle East—until his cover was blown and he was deported. The great thing about movements is they don’t rely on foreigners for their continued success. Tom still resources the local workers from a distance as the movement continues to expand.
Tom and his team came up with these nineteen lessons they are learning about evangelism and church planting among fervent monotheists:
- God at work!! HE is building HIS church!
- Awareness raising over years. We spent a few years envisioning pastors and leaders and whilst they are not the people who did the work, they have released people
- Work of others. We feel we are building on the work that many other people and ministries have done. We are part of a jigsaw
- Being a catalyst. We do not aim to do all the work ourselves, but mobilise others to minister
- Strategic planning. This is not something that comes naturally in the culture, but we have trained people how to do it
- Mobilising the harvest force. As many as possible! We have helped other ministries focus on cp as well
- Local coordinators and volunteers. We fund coordinators who in turn mobilise thousands of volunteers
- Working with the local churches. As far as possible.
- Flat structures & local responsibility. So that is doesn’t become dependent on a few. The emphasis has been ‘release’ rather than ‘control’. We created local groups of leaders (mature people from existing churches) to serve the new groups.
- Creative ideas—”mulid”. We had a ‘mulid’ or festival and produced some creative materials and songs on cassettes, but have not gotten into the trap of patenting the idea and trying the same idea everywhere!
- Transform evangelism to church planting. A lot of evangelism was being done in Egypt, but not progressing into cp
- Appropriate materials and models. We have used very simple training materials and churches
- Partnership. With churches and ministries
- Training and mentoring. We have done a lot of training
- Simple concept of church. We have spent a lot of time in helping people change their paradigm to understand that the church is not a building plus an ordained pastor.
- Use of the home. Using the home and inductive Bible studies have been key
- Unity. In our own teams, and also in towns and villages
- Holistic ministry. We have helped with medical issues and literacy
- Prayer and action. We do not like separating prayer from action – prayer as we work!