As we Methodists march together toward a brighter day for the church of Jesus Christ in general, and for the Wesleyan movement in particular, the importance of effective, sustainable church-planting systems cannot be overstated. According to Len Wilson’s annual report of vital United Methodist congregations in America, twenty of the UMC’s twenty-five fastest growing large churches are either new churches (planted after 1990) or existing congregations that have launched new campuses.1 Imagine the possibilities if the Holy Spirit set our hearts on fire to reach the lost in Jesus’ name by planting churches that reflect both John Wesley’s “more vile” methods to reach the lost and his orthodox theology to teach the truth of Jesus Christ.
To that end, I will now offer a list of five commonsense principles we must hold dear if we hope to return to our biblical, Wesleyan roots of church planting. This list is not exhaustive, nor is it intended to be a prescriptive how-to guide for creating the next church-planting juggernaut. Instead, these principles offer a descriptive illustration of what a vibrant and holy church-planting movement might look like within twenty-first-century Methodism. By God’s grace, I pray that in the coming years we will unleash thousands of new Methodist church plants across the world that:
Value Character over Charisma
In the words of church-planting expert Ed Stetzer: “Character catches up.”2 Among the many mistakes that denominations, churches, and pastors make when planting new churches, the one that does the most harm is handing leadership authority to leaders who aren’t ready or worthy. Sadly, it’s also one of the most common mistakes in the church-planting world. We’ve all heard some version of the tragic-but-familiar tale of the bursting-at-the-seams new church in town with the cool-guy pastor who, though plainly skilled at public speaking, also has a knack for adultery, embezzlement, or bullying his staff and volunteers.
As we prepare to plant churches in Jesus’ name, let it be known that killer tattoos, flawless hair, a great style, sizable biceps, and a commanding stage presence do not make someone a church planter. Only the Holy Ghost does that, so when we are doing the important work of discerning who should lead the new churches we hope to plant, may we always remember that biceps and rhetoric come and go, but a heart that loves the Lord can change the world.
John Wesley famously said, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.” Only preachers who fear sin and desire God should ever be trusted with the holy and eternally consequential task of church planting.
Replace Missions with the Mission
For a long time in the West, missions were done overseas, far from home, but in the twenty-first century, your mission field is wherever you are. As Winfield Bevins writes:
Many Christians and churches teach that missions are something we support or do, such as supporting missionaries in other countries . . . but in the twenty-first century, the mission field has come to us. We live in a post-Christian world where people simply don’t know the gospel anymore. Therefore, we are all called to be missional and share in the mission of God.3
In the United States, more than half of the population (more than 180 million people) has no meaningful connection to any church.4 It used to be the case that Christians were outnumbered, unwelcome, and even unsafe in faraway, foreign lands, but now the same can be said of many cities and regions throughout America and the Western world—a trend which is likely to continue well into the future. There is no longer any distinction between the world of Christendom, and the wild, outer regions where Christians once traveled to do missions. People the world over need Jesus, perhaps more than ever, so may we seek to plant churches in our backyards and beyond with Bibles in our hands, the Spirit in our hearts, and in our minds, the Christian mission that was succinctly articulated by John Wesley many years ago: “You have one business on earth—to save souls.”
The new churches we plant should be encouraged to shun the outdated habit of isolating missions as over-yonder works of mercy in favor of a more apostolic—and locally urgent—understanding of the church’s soul-saving mission.
Never Apologize for the Bible or the Historic, Apostolic Faith
In her book, Another Gospel, Christian apologist Alisa Childers outlines four absolute convictions the earliest Christians held without compromise: they believed (1) that Jesus died for their sins, (2) that Jesus was buried and raised from the dead, (3) that Jesus’ atoning death, burial, and resurrection were inseparable from the Scriptures, and (4) that their core belief in the resurrection could be verified by evidence.5 We cannot deny that the Methodist movement has suffered in recent decades due to its tolerance of openly rebellious clergy, laity, and Methodist-affiliated institutions of higher learning that publicly (and in many cases, proudly) deny these fundamental, apostolic creeds.
As we set out to plant new churches, may we keep our eyes fixed on the foundational, historic tenets of the Christian faith. May we avoid the tempting traps of so-called progressive Christianity that tends to reject the lordship of Jesus and the authority of Scripture. The influential liberal Christian author John Pavlovitz defined his brand of Christianity this way:
Progressive Christianity is about not apologizing for what we become as we live this life and openly engage the faith we grew up with. There are no sacred cows, only the relentless, sacred search for truth. Tradition, dogma, and doctrine are all fair game, because all pass through the hands of flawed humanity, and as such are all equally vulnerable to the prejudices, fears, and biases of those it touched.6
Having spent thirteen years deep in the deception Pavlovitz describes so well, I can personally attest to the dangers of compromising Christianity’s core convictions. As we prepare to invest God-given time, talent, and treasure to plant churches in this new movement, is it really too much to expect the leaders of new churches to be professing Christians in the apostolic tradition? I think not, and I’m just one concerned Christian in a long line of others who have sounded a similar alarm, including John Wesley himself, who is quoted as saying, “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.”
And today in London, Wesley’s body peacefully awaits the coming resurrection beneath a tombstone that reads: “This great light arose (by the singular providence of God) to enlighten these nations, and to revive, enforce, and defend, the pure apostolic doctrines and practices of the primitive church” (emphasis in original).
Clearly Explain the Gospel
For years, we in the West have been hearing about how our societies are becoming less religious, as if our neighbors are all becoming atheists in droves. Planting churches in such irreligious contexts would be as simple as demonstrating how life with faith, hope, and love is better than life without those things. That would be an easy sell in a truly irreligious society, but how would our evangelistic approach have to change if our neighbors who no longer go to church are actually becoming more religious, but in some dark and dangerous ways?
In her fascinating book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Tara Isabella Burton suggests that rising numbers of Americans “aren’t rejecting religion, but rather remixing it . . . more and more Americans . . . envision themselves as creators of their own bespoke religions, mixing and matching spiritual and aesthetic and experiential and philosophical traditions.”7 Seventy-two percent of religious “Nones” say they believe in some kind of God or gods, 47 percent believe that physical objects can hold spiritual energies, 40 percent believe in psychics, 38 percent believe in reincarnation, and 32 percent believe in astrology. Surprisingly, almost half of so-called nonreligious people pray every day and claim to experience a sense of “spiritual peace and well-being.”8
Far from becoming cold, naturalistic atheists, Millennials and Gen-Zers may represent the most spiritual generations in American history. In numbers that many older folks may not believe, young adults are finding religious meaning and supernatural purpose in everything from political movements like Trumpism and Woke-ism to self-care trends like Soul Cycle and essential oils. More extreme examples of these new religions include fandom (of any particular show, movie, band, or books, etc.), sexual identities and lifestyles, and New Age rituals such as crystals, tarot readings, and cleansing sage.
Even witchcraft is on the rise. “As a spiritual practice,” Burton writes, “witchcraft may be the biggest thing since yoga . . . around one million Americans actively identify their primary religious affiliation as New Age, Neo-Pagan, or Wiccan. . . . In other words, there are more witches in the United States than Jehovah’s Witnesses.”9
In the marketplace of worldviews, the church’s competition is not irreligion, but new religions that promise more immediate, and more customized, deliverables to young, religious consumers. The good news for us is that, in every time and place, the empty tomb of the risen Jesus is far more compelling than the empty idols of this fallen world. Still, if we are going to plant churches that thrive in our increasingly pagan mission fields, we will need leaders who clearly and unabashedly communicate the saving grace of Jesus Christ to a world in need.
People need to know that Jesus was perfect, so they don’t have to be! Jesus is different from every religious leader, and his movement is remarkably distinct among all other religious movements. The difference Jesus makes is that, while religious high priests—no matter whether they’re Jewish, Hindu, or Wiccan—will always require more from you—more devotion, more works, more money, etc. But Jesus doesn’t need more from you; he only wants more of you—your heart, your trust, your love. Priests hope you fear them enough to stay loyal. Jesus hopes you love him enough to stay true, and even when you fall short, he’s right there to pick you up again. This is the heart of the gospel, and the world needs to hear it.
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect . . . (1 Peter 3:15)
There was a time when denominations understood the goal of church planting to be the founding of a financially viable local congregation that would, in turn, pay back the investment (and then some) through apportionments, but this vision of church planting is far more institutional than it is biblical. In the New Testament, as the gospel movement began to take three continents by storm, the new churches being planted were clearly expected to support, if not directly plant, the next generation of new churches. Consider Paul’s clear expectation that the Christians in Rome’s new church—whom he had never met—would fund his next mission to Spain: “But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain” (Rom. 15:23–24).
Tim Keller, who in 1989 founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, wrote this in reference to the early church’s strategy:
The greatest missionary in history, St. Paul, had a rather simple, two-fold strategy. First, he went into the largest city of the region (Acts 16:9, 12), and second, he planted churches in each city (Titus 1:5). He knew that . . . the vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for 1) the numerical growth of the Body of Christ in any city, and 2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else—not crusades, outreach programs, para-church ministries, growing mega-churches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes—will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting.10
Even if we put aside the apostolic tradition, common sense would lead us to assume that our movement will reach its maximum impact by encouraging our healthiest churches to reproduce. When strong, Jesus-centered churches choose to mother a new congregation, or even to expand into multisite ministry, demons tremble. New churches and campuses draw exponentially more younger adults, new residents in a community, and more varied socio-cultural groups than existing churches do. As Keller explains, the logic is simple:
Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60–80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshipping body, while churches over 10–15 years of age gain 80–90% of new members by transfer from other congregations.11
Instead of relying on conference committees—most of which will be detached from the daily grind of discipleship ministries in the local church—to plant new churches for us, may we look to our strongest, disciple-making churches with the expectant hope of Paul writing to the Romans. Our best strategy for church planting is to invest more faithfully in leaders, churches, and methods that have already been proven effective.
The good news is that the world is ready for a new Jesus revolution. People everywhere are starving for something that only the grace of God can satisfy. If we walk faithfully in step with the Holy Spirit, careful to avoid the pitfalls of our past, God will show up in a mighty way, and many of our neighbors will lift their hands in sweet surrender to his name.
And who knows? Maybe in a few years we’ll dust off that old jingle, and together we’ll sing as the Methodists once did:
All hail the power of Jesus’ name,
We’re building two a day!
May it be so.
This is an excerpt from The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed 2022). This book invites readers on a journey to discover the vitality, richness, and sheer goodness of the broader Wesleyan tradition. Get your copy from our store here.
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1. Len Wilson, “Top 25 Fastest Growing Large United Methodist Churches,” 2019 Edition. https://lenwilson.us/top-25-fastest-growing-large-umc-2019/.
2. Ed Stetzer, from a tweet dated January 13, 2021, https://twitter.com/edstetzer.
3. Winfield Bevins, Church-Planting Revolution: A Guidebook for Explorers, Planters, and Their Teams (Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2017), 28.
4. Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” October 17, 2019. https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
5. Alisa Childers, Another Gospel: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2020), 59–61.
6. John Pavlovitz, “Progressive Christianity Is Christianity,” on his blog, JohnPavlovitz.com. https://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/10/05/explaining-progressive-christianity-otherwise-known-as-christianity/.
7. Tara Isabella Burton, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (New York: Hachete Book Group, 2020), 9–10.
8. Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz, “More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual but Not Religious,” Fact Tank (blog), Pew Research Center, September 6, 2017, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/.
9. Burton, Strange Rites, 117.
10. Tim Keller, “Why Church Planting?” Acts 29 Network blog, https://www.acts29.com/why-church-planting/.