Last week I attended a four-day workshop about Church Planting Movements (CPMs) with David Watson of CityTeam Ministries. Missions Resource Network, a missions organization affiliated with Churches of Christ, hosted the event.
Watson is a former church planter in Northern India, where 40,000 churches have started in the past 15 years. He is now a strategist and trainer for an ever-growing network of approximately 200,000 churches throughout the world. These churches, according to Watson, average about 63 members per church – which amounts to 12.6 million new believers in the past 15-20 years. For the sake of comparison, Churches of Christ consists of 40,000 churches and 5 million believers worldwide.
Watson’s work was featured in a recent book by David Garrison called Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World.
The best overview of Watson’s perspective on church planting is what he calls the “21 Critical Elements” of CPMs. This may not be the exact list of the elements, but it gives the general ideas. CPMs center around:
- Group process over individual process
- Scripture, by way of an inductive Bible study process called “Discovery Bible Study”
- Households, or existing social units, rather than individuals
- Making disciples of Jesus not converts to a religion
- Obedience to commands of Jesus rather than doctrinal distinctives
- Access ministry – i.e., developing relationships with non-believers
- Ministry – meeting people’s needs leads to evangelism
- Timing – knowing when people are ready
- Intentionality and planning
- Person of peace – i.e., a receptive, influential person who is the gateway for a social unit coming to Christ
- Appropriate evangelism – i.e., communicating the good news in ways that make sense to people in their particular cultural context
- Starting churches, Watson’s definition of which is: “groups of baptized believers in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that gather to worship, fellowship and nurture one another, and, outside of gatherings, endeavor to obey all the commands of Christ in order to transform families and communities.”
- Reproduction at every level – disciples, leaders, and churches
- Indigenous leaders – i.e., cultural insiders are the best church planters
- The work of the Holy Spirit and the authority of Scripture
- Mentoring, which is the work of developing the whole person
- Self-support – in almost every case there are no paid ministers, no buildings to maintain
- Redeeming the culture
- Awareness of spiritual warfare
The basic process of starting CPM churches is: 1) church planter finds access to friendship with disconnected people; 2) church planter serves and loves disconnected friends; 3) church planter identifies a person of peace out of those friends; 4) church planter works with person of peace to invite his/her social unit (family or affinity group) into a 15-30 week inductive Bible study led by person of peace or someone else from social unit; 5) the group decides to follow Jesus and becomes a church; 6) new churches send out church planters to start the process again.
Here are five action items I took away from the workshop that I need to implement in my life and ministry:
- Prayer: David Watson mentioned that the common denominator among their most fruitful church planters was prayer. Some of them spend 3-4 concentrated hours/day in prayer. Remember, all of them have jobs outside of church planting and they still make time for this kind of prayer. I am not praying enough. I will, therefore, make a plan to pray more. And then pray more.
- Church planting as lifestyle: Watson says it’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle. People must be around you enough to see consistency between your private and public life. I find it easy to compartmentalize my role as a church planter, rather than to see it an extension of my lifestyle. Yet none of this is to say boundaries with family and solitude are not important — they are part of the lifestyle, too. I will, therefore, invite my friends into all parts of my life.
- People of peace: I’ve been tuned into the concept of people of peace but have not pursued it with the fervor that Watson and company have. I have yet to see a person of peace open a door in our context for an entire social group to encounter God. Watson had fantastic ideas about developing “peace statements” to ignite conversations with potential people of peace. I will, therefore, commit to pray, look for and draw out such people of peace God might be raising up in our midst.
- Obedience-oriented conversation about Scripture: This was a point of affirmation for me. The heart of Watson’s endeavor seems to be inductive study of Scripture that ends at discerning how one will be obedient to the word they are hearing from God. In other conversations I’ve mentioned how we value the movement from observation to interpretation to application in our Scripture conversations. I will, therefore, continue to facilitate these kinds of conversations and make the moves toward obedience even more explicit.
- Reproduction: Reproduction is a value of ours, but Watson pushed this value to the max, particularly with his comments about the nature of mentoring. His four step process for mentoring is: 1) model; 2) equip; 3) watch; 4) leave. Watson contends that this process can take as little as 3-4 months in a new church setting. Mentors model only once or twice before allowing others to take over. I will, therefore, model more briefly, equip and watch more quickly, and leave as soon as possible.
I didn’t leave the weekend without hesitations, however. Here are a few limitations I sensed from the presentations:
- View of Scripture: I was uncomfortable with Watson’s view of Scripture. He had an extended conversation about distinguishing between what is biblical and what is cultural without ever admitting that Scripture is itself a culturally conditioned document. Another session concerned separating “doctrine” from what the Bible teaches, yet Watson failed to mention the degree to which every individual brings lenses to the reading of Scripture (whether they like it or not) and necessarily picks and chooses what they should obey or not. For instance, are we disobedient to God for not having a ritual of washing feet (e.g., John 13)? It takes an interpretive approach to Scripture (i.e., a hermeneutic) to make such decisions. I would rather be aware of my lenses than unaware. Watson seems to think that everyone who reads the Scriptures will arrive at the same conclusion / hermeneutic by the power of the Holy Spirit. This approach didn’t seem to work in early church history (when the most notable heretics used the Bible to support their claims) or in Stone-Campbell history (when everyone read Scripture and came to decidedly different conclusions). Watson also seems to discount the role that church history / tradition / orthodoxy plays as a source of theology and knowledge of God.
- View of church: I was uncomfortable with Watson’s view of the church only to the extent he expressed that churches in his network are closed to unbelievers. If unbelievers want to be part of a church, they should join a Bible study and start a new one. They are discouraged from participating with an existing one. This decision seems to discount the way the church is the embodiment of the gospel as a community (as with the Mennonite tradition). It also seems to reverse the current trend in our context of allowing people to belong before they’re expected to believe. Watson seems adamant that people must believe before belonging to a church. Paul seems to assume in 1 Corinthians 14 that unbelievers participated in the life of the church and even encountered God as a result.
- View of teaching: Watson has a very low view of teaching, at least in the traditional sense. Churches that are dependent upon teachers with rich education and knowledge are not likely to reproduce rapidly or perhaps even at all. Watson also critiques the traditional paradigm of teaching because it often has little to do with obedience to God and life change. I’m with him all the way on this. Yet the teaching role is very apparent in Scripture, both in contexts with non-believers and believers. Paul mentions in Colossians 1:7-8, for instance, how the Colossian church was taught the gospel by Epaphras (not led through an inductive Bible study). Rather than reframe the role of teaching in a more dialogical, conversational light (as I think is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Scripture), Watson stretches the Scriptures to argue that teaching is reserved for believers / church in Scripture, not unbelievers. It seems better (and more biblical) to think of ways the teaching role could be made more obedience and reproduction-oriented rather than discount it totally for unbelievers.
- People of peace: I think the people of peace concept is a brilliant missionary concept but have wondered if it is a culturally-specific method rather than a universal principle. My own context leads me to think this way: urban Dallas, where social groups are fragmented and disconnected. There is no overarching, preexisting sense of community here. There are no extended family units. The dominant demographic is single professional. I asked Watson about this and he suggested looking for affinity groups that exist in the community (e.g. a fitness gym). Yet existing social groups I’ve been part of in our context (e.g., sports teams, civic groups) do not seem cohesive enough for a person of peace to open a door for an entire group to encounter God and the gospel. Perhaps we should hold alongside the person of peace approach a geographical approach, common in missional church plantings, that treats a neighborhood as a social unit. Maybe it’s both / and and not either / or.
- Rapid reproduction as the end goal: The undercurrent I sensed from missionaries at the workshop was, “Our mission efforts are slow and frustrating. We should listen to this guy because his churches are reproducing rapidly and reaching a lot of people.” In fact, when Watson was challenged by a workshop participant, he retorted by saying, “That’s fine if you disagree with me, but we’ve planted 200,000 churches doing it this way.” Granted, we should desire for people to connect to God, but growth as an end goal and justification seems misguided. Cancer grows and reproduces at a rapid rate, but that is not a good thing (as I’ve reflected on before). Rapid growth is not the end goal; the goal is rather faithful embodiment of the gospel. God is the one who grows the church, not a particular process. At times, Watson and company seem to stretch biblical texts concerning the church and missionary method (i.e., people of peace) to serve this end goal of rapid reproduction.
Despite my critique, I think David Watson is doing some very significant work. And none of this is to question his motives or dedication to the gospel. Much of his approach is worthy of emulation.
If you’re interested to see some of his material yourself, including video training sessions, you can visit www.cpmtr.org or www.davidlwatson.org. Registering at the website grants one access to curriculum download materials. You can also see the workshop I attended in its entirety at www.ustream.tv/mrnetwork.
I would love to have your feedback and dialogue about this CPM approach, especially from those of you who are currently involved in the work of church planting.