What is a Church Planter?

You will not find the title “church planter” in your Bible. You will find no job description, no qualifications, and no instructions attributed to the title. Does that mean that the concept is not Biblical? Not necessarily, but it does mean we need to be careful that the title is tied to Biblical teaching so that the term does not develop a modern identity of its own. The terminology has been coined to summarize what we see occurring in the book of Acts.

Paul and Barnabas

In Acts 11:25-26, Paul has been discipling and teaching and meeting with the church for a whole year doing the work of pastoral ministry. He and Barnabas have been raising up other leaders to do the same. By Acts 13, Antioch has a plurality of leadership in Barnabas, Paul, Simeon, Lucius, and others. As they gathered together with the whole church, the Holy Spirit makes clear to everyone in the gathering that Paul and Barnabas are supposed to go preach the gospel to the Gentiles. They fast, pray, agree, and symbolize their corporate agreement by laying hands upon Paul and Barnabas. They send them off to do the work, but you don’t see the word missionary or church planter. Those are the words we have used to describe what we are seeing.

We are seeing two individuals with the church’s authority and blessing, being sent out with the goal of establishing new churches in places where there are no churches. They are going to unreached places with the aim of leading people to Christ and establishing them as communities of faith. Based off of this example, when we describe a church planter, we have in mind a kind of missionary who moves into a place of lostness with the express purpose of establishing a new church in that place.

So what is a church planter?

#1 A Church Planter is a Missionary

The work of a church planter is not exactly the same as that of an established church pastor. The church planter is pioneering into lostness and starting a church. He is a missionary. He crosses cultural, social, and geographical boundaries to start a church in a place where a church is needed. As a missionary, the church planter will lead people to Christ and he will lead them to join together as a church. Not every man called to ministry is called to plant a church. Some men will make great pastors, but not great church planters. At the same time, however, you will not be a great church planter if you are not also a good pastor. A church planter is a pioneer who leads a new effort in a new place, but that is not all that he does. The church planter is not only interested in evangelism. His aim is to establish a new covenant community of faith complete with members who model mutual commitment to one another and submission to particular qualified leaders. This was Paul’s pattern.

“When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

Acts 14:21-23

Paul did not consider the job of church planting complete until the church had elders/ overseers/ pastors who could carry on the work enough for him to go and plant another church. We see a similar emphasis in Titus 1:5.

The work was not done in Crete until elders were in place to oversee and shepherd the new churches. Until then, it was the job of Titus and/or Paul to do the shepherding work. A church planter is not only a missionary who evangelizes. If the church planter does not already have a team of laborers that he is pastoring, the moment that one person comes to faith in Jesus, the church planter missionary becomes a shepherd of a flock. He becomes a pastor.

#2 A Church Planter is a Pastor/ Elder/ Overseer

We don’t have an office for church planter in the Bible, but what we do have are three interchangeable terms for one office, the pastor/ elder/ overseer. When Paul sends his co-laborers to establish churches in Ephesus and in Crete, he makes it a priority that they install particular kind of men who will lead those new churches. These men are called elders or overseers and they do the hard work of shepherding (pastoring). Church planters must, therefore, be pastors themselves in the Biblical sense of the word because a church is not fully formed until it is shepherded by an elder/ overseer. For us to rightly call anyone a church planter, what we mean is elder-qualified man who sets out to establish and oversee a new congregation. He is a missionary and he is a pastor.

Clint Clifton says as much in his book Church Planting Thresholds,

Most jobs have a static job description; the job is the same in the first year as it is in the fifth year. Church planting is not one of these jobs! When you start planting a church, you are a missionary, or at least you should be. Missionaries baptize, teach, and make disciples. Pastors, on the other hand, work to equip Christians for the day-to-day work of the ministry.… In the early stages of a new church, missionary engagement is essential. As you win people to Christ, the church’s pastoral needs will require more of your attention.

(Church Planting Thresholds, Clint Clifton, p 7-8)

As church planting increases in popularity we have to be careful not to drift away from the Biblical categories that inform what a church planter is. A church planter is planting a church. A church is a group of born again people who will immediately need shepherding. In today’s church planting culture, a church planter may be tempted to dream of church planting in a way that only considers half the picture. The dream may include the evangelism, the baptisms, and the entrepreneurial creativity needed to support themselves while reaching a particular community. But the church planter may find themselves surprised when they are almost immediately having to offer pastoral counseling and discipleship to the grieving, the broken marriage, and the unrepentant sinner. They may have chosen the path of church planting because of their disillusionment with established church ministry, but if they succeed in planting a church, they will find themselves doing established church ministry pretty quickly. And that is a good thing. It is what it means to be a pastor of a church. That is a biblical category and it is a biblical ministry. Don’t become a church planter unless your ready to be a church pastor.

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