Sunday, June 21, 2009

my trepidation about short-cycle church planting.


I grew up in missions and now I watch the trends and patterns of Christian missions with interest.

One thing I see these days that worries me is the push for short-cycle church planting. Essentially it's a reaction against sending people overseas and ending up with people that are doing nothing but puttering around enjoying the honor that comes in the evangelical community with being on the front-lines as a missionary. You see some places that have had a rather large missions presence for generations but see virtually no church or spiritual growth. Everyone is just stuck.

So - the winds of change are blowing through, and now to avoid the aforementioned extreme, missions and churches are pushing a missions model that sends individuals or teams (of nationals or foreign missionaries) into an area to preach and start new small churches of new believers. These new believers are immediately encouraged to go out into their circle of influence and tell the story of their hope. The idea is that instead of just forming a church that will remain a church for forever, a movement is started as each new believer goes OUT with the intent to grow.

With the evangelistic fervor of new believers constantly reproduced, you end up with a church that multiples into more churches, each of which multiply into more churches. If the Spirit leads and the harvest is ready, soon you have a church planting movement. 

The ideas are good, in that they encourage individual responsibility of new believers, evangelism, and church growth.


China is a STUNNING example of church growth that makes all short-cycle folks turn green with envy. There's a Chicago Trib article about it here. When the communists took over China there had been decades of missions work in the country but the Christian church made up less than one percent of the population. The Communists kicked out all of the missionaries and for a good number of years the outside world thought that Christianity had disappeared from China. Despite government bans, persecution, and a total lack of foreign missions presence, when the country began to open up to the outside world again we discovered that somehow Christianity had exploded and spread through half the country in hidden house churches, and now numbers somewhere around 70 MILLION members (larger than the Communist party itself).

That's fantastic, and what I love most about it is that it's so inexplicable that most of us can only throw up our hands in amazement and conclude that when the Holy Spirit moves, He moves, and apparently no missionaries or great theories or sums of money are needed.

So - if China is a great example of how a church planting movement works, I think we can also follow their example to see the other side of the coin. As stories have begun to emerge from China about the days of explosive growth, we hear repeated tales of entire churches without a Bible or an experienced Christian. God's faithfulness despite this difficulty is awesome, but because of the extreme lack of training in Bible, theology, and church history and access to discipleship and guidance from older believers, a number of house church denominations have ventured into heresy. Even now, when the church is large and the network of underground churches is less hidden and has developed its own underground seminaries and routes to gain print resources from the outside world, the percentage of trained leaders is still super low. Cults have swept in since there are so few trained leaders that can identify falsehood. The church may be huge, but it is deeply vulnerable. They are desperate for training.

I think what happened in China shows the good and the bad of short-cycle church growth. The awesome thing is that the fast growth reaches a lot of people with a beautifully simple gospel. The down side is the lack of training and discipleship that ultimately leaves the church weak and vulnerable to cults and heresy.

I don't like it when missiologists or Westerners tout short-cycle church planting as the best way to do church growth and missions. It seems to me that SOME of the principles are good, but that too often churches are planted and then basically abandoned. To me, this can be "planting a church", but isn't really "making disciples". The model we see in Acts is small house churches planted, but then set up with leaders and discipleship and an intent educate the Church about truth, not just convert people.

I cut China slack because the church there grew so explosively despite extreme persecution and a government ban on all things Christian. There was no possible way to do more training and discipleship than they did, and they had little access to Bibles and resources from the church worldwide. What I find inconceivable is when  implement short-cycle church planting movements in countries that DO allow for open training, discipleship, theological education... etc, without also pushing for discipleship and trained leaders. Trained leaders ARE necessarily. Disparaging long-term theological education is a very bad idea because it will ultimately harm the sustainability of Christianity within the culture.

Now we see a similar sort of growth to what happened in China happening in India. Christianity is multiplying - house churches are multiplying - and it is just mind-blowing for Western Christians to watch. In India, though, missionaries are involved and the short-cycle missions theory is being put intentionally into practice, whereas in China it just happened. I think this is where we need to take a look at China and learn from them. India seems to be the quintessential "field ripe for harvest", and the stories I've heard from Indian evangelists are stunning. For whatever part the Western church is playing in this movement, I think we need to take care not to forget the need to help care for these young believers, to raise up leaders and teach them orthodoxy and theology, and to provide a backbone of truth that can stand when falsehood comes calling.


Kaycee said...

Kacie, this is awesome and I couldn't agree more. I've actually been reading about this a bit. It seems to me that people eventually gravitate to churches with good leaders and good people with a firm foundation in the truth. This takes a bit longer, but produces followers who have a good grasp of Christianity and better equipped to evangelize. These churches will experience growth and, even better, their people are more likely to stick with the church.

The short cycle model sounds a bit like a pyramid scheme to me.

Melissa said...

i definitely agree with this.
and i think there is a great need for discipleship in China.

Sturgmom said...

I agree that there needs to be some sort of "middle ground." One trend I've notice in the past decade or so is that fewer Westerners are going into countries strictly as "missionaries." Rather, they are going as people with "real" jobs such as teaching, coaching, engineering, etc. and using those as platforms from which they can be used to build a body of believers. I think this alleviates some of the problem of life missionaries getting "stuck" "puttering around" and instead there is community, with leadership, but also with training so that the local people still have ownership. Does that make sense?

Matt said...

I wonder if there is a way to couple the short cycle approach with other aspects of training as follow up?

I sympathize with your concerns about sustainability. Too often the argument is that the Holy Spirit will simply take the seeds sown and grow them, without the help of the catholic (small c) Body of Christ. There is this notion that what happened in the early days of the church can simply be repeated. However, (1) the early church grew very slowly compared to the unprecedented growth happening today in the two-thirds world, and which is being touted as a wake-up call to the global North, and (2) experience proves that movements that are not rooted eventually wither. Eventually people look at what is being left behind and see that it's not viable. But again, the aggressive church planting approach could be very effective if coupled with additional, ongoing training and certain kinds of support.

Anonymous said...

As a missionary for Christ, I am about to go on a "Short cycle mission" to "plant a church" in Portugal, where the people are less than 2% Evangelical. I just want to tell you my understanding of SHORT cycle missions...
For example with "Traditional" missions, they would have a person or a couple who was called to missions, they would go to the field and first learn the language, then get to know the culture, then build relationships with the people, ect. This could take 10-15 years. Then they start a church which they are everything to the church then when they go Home they have not raised up leaders to carry on without them!? With short cycle, they build teams that go through extensive training and building trust before they even enter the field. Then when they get to the field they will Simultaniously learn language, start witnessing, and studying culture. They place a High trust on God, His Spirit, the Bible and on their team. They start Overtly witnessing early, often and directly. Being very bold in sharing the gospel. With a ristricted scope on getting a church planted and running right out of the gate. That way they can start discipling early on in the mission. Also finding a Tactical advantage and watching for devine opportunity. Service is the main focus. If that takes only 3 years great, if it takes 6 great. They will not leave until there are local leaders raised up that are equiped, spiritually and academically. Then when they do leave they still have a connection to that community, they have built real relationships with these people. There will still be contact with the people to make sure they are still following Christ, and help them with any resources they may need. I don't know if this helps any on your view of short cycle missions but I hope so.
Love and blessings!
P.S. I did not proof read either!

Kacie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheCarneyClan said...

Your premise is faulty in that you assume that those who are hosting the "short-cycle" banner do so by proclaiming that it is the only viable model. It is not and the church at Antioch is an example of the mother church model. However, one cannot study the Pauline principles of church planting without arriving to the conclusion that his methodology was flexible, did not come with a high $ price tag, and was carried out in a small time frame. I am finding that when I talk about short-cycle with others, that a common response is for them to get defensive. A question: Why wouldn't God want churches to be planted at a faster rate today?

Kacie said...

Carney Clan,
Well, I don't assume that all short-cycle folks only advocate for short-cycle work. I do, however, assume that some do, because I know people who do and I have read people who do!

A flexible approach is great.
Anonymous, the short-cycle vision that you describe is something that I am more comfortable with, and that is the type of church planting that my in-laws have done with their lives. They are about to "graduate" their third church plant.

What concerns me is when short-cycle missions becomes so focused on the "short" part of the equation, and when the need for growth and numbers pushes people to skimp on the discipleship and training side of things. I know this happens because I saw it happening in a mission organization that I worked for, it concerns me, and so I wrote about it.

I sat in a meeting with a very wealthy Chinese man and two of the leaders of the mission. He expressed his openness to missions but his concern that when he works with Christian missions, they will, "Go in and spend a few weeks with these people, and afterwards the people take these new beliefs and go crazy with them, just as they have with other religions for 5,000 years."

He has a very valid point - I think that without proper discipleship and training, we leave sycretism and heresy instead of true churches... and it is up to the missions to be careful to avoid this.

So - I am not steadfastly against short-cycle church plantings, I just think that we have to be careful, teach well, and set up leaders. That is a theme throughout church history and the New Testament.