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Jim Memory

Church planting and the missio Dei

Do we demonstrate in our thinking, our words, and our actions that the formation of new communities of Jesus fol­lowers is God’s business in which we are privileged to participate, rather than something that we do on his behalf?

bridge, beautiful, build Photo: Ian Mustafa (Flickr, CC)

Read the first part of this article here: “How can we measure the effectiveness of church planting?



Thinking on church and mission has been transformed over the last few decades by the concept of missio Dei—the realization that mission is not merely an activity of the church, but rather the result of God’s initiative. Bosch summed up this new missional paradigm in the following way:

Mission (is) understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It (is) thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trin­ity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine of the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit (is) expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: Father, Son and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world[1].

Jesus’s words, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21) are a call to his disciples in every age to participate in this Trinitar­ian missional “movement” from God to the world, with the Spirit of God, rather than the church, as the chief protagonist. Through participating in what God is doing through his Spirit, the church fulfils its purpose in God’s mission. Hence, the full breadth of mission may be understood as participation in the mission of God, or as Kim puts it, “joining in with the Spirit.”[2]

But have church planters really internalized this concept of missio Dei? Do we demonstrate in our thinking, our words, and our actions that the planting of churches, the formation of new communities of Jesus fol­lowers is God’s business in which we are privileged to participate, rather than something that we do on his behalf?

What follows here is a brief review of some of the key texts on church planting, church planting movements, and missional church viewed through the lens of missio Dei. It is by no means a thorough analy­sis, but rather an illustration of my core argument that church planters would benefit greatly from understanding their work more consciously as participation in the missio Dei. I am convinced that we must engage in a thorough critique of our church planting thinking if we are to break the “quantitative fallacy” which measures success by numbers rather than the transformative mission of God.


Traditional Church Planting Literature

Church planters tend to be activists and pragmatists. Consequently, they generally write “how to” manuals setting out the stages of the church planting process and the challenges that each phase presents. There are a few notable exceptions where theological considerations come to the fore,[3] but the vast majority of church planting books are analytical and practical.

Key considerations in the early stages tend to be the location of the church plant, the demographics of the community, and the meth­odology or model that is to be used. The authors typically then consider evangelism and the making of contacts, discipleship, developing leaders, the structure of the new congregation, and finally its reproduction. Even more recent treatments tend to follow this pattern.

In Global Church Planting,[4] the authors give a brief theological introduction and then quickly turn to strategic considerations and to a detailed treatment of the developmental phases, which takes up nearly half of the book. They are to be commended for the inclusion of many excellent global case studies, but the overall impression is of yet another “how to” manual. Is church planting, as the subtitle suggests, simply a matter of adopting “best practices for multiplication”? Or do we need a more radical re-appraisal of church and mission that relocates and rede­fines church planting as participating in a movement of the Spirit?

For many years, the Latin American theologian and missiologist, Samuel Escobar, has warned of the dangers of “managerial missiology.”

Missionary action is reduced to a linear task that is translated into logical steps to be followed in a process of management by objectives in the same way in which the evangelistic task is reduced to a process that can be carried on following marketing principles.[5]

Have the activist and pragmatist tendencies of church planters led to an unconscious assimilation of utilitarian business ideas that have little to do with missio Dei and much more to do with the idolatry of success that is the spirit of our age?


Church Planting Movements

Over the last twenty years, missiologists in the West have become in­creasingly aware of indigenous church planting movements that can be found in many countries of the world. A movement that began in one restricted access country in Asia in November 2000 has resulted in 1.7 million baptisms and the planting of over 150,000 churches.[6]

David Garrison, director of the Global Research Department of the International Mission Board, established three criteria to assess Church Planting Movements (CPMs). To be recognized as a CPM there must be:

- A 25 percent annual growth rate in total churches for the past two years

- A 50 percent annual growth rate in new churches for the past two years

- Field-based affirmation that a CPM is emerging

Despite these very challenging criteria, Garrison’s research had identified over 200 CPMs across the globe.[7]

It is, of course, hugely encouraging to read accounts of church plant­ing movements occurring in the toughest of contexts. Books like Miracu­lous Movements[8] tell inspiring stories of thousands of churches planted among Muslim people groups around the world. Trousdale encourages us to believe in the vital power of the gospel to see new communities of Jesus followers established, even in the most hostile of environments, and for that he is to be thanked. Yet, like the aforementioned traditional church planting books, he cannot resist the temptation to suggest that anyone can facilitate the emergence of a church planting movement by following a few simple biblical principles. “God is doing all these things wherever these simple biblical principles are implemented.”[9]

This reductionist thinking is even more evident in the case of Gar­rison, whose research led him to observe ten common features of CPMs which he suggested were ten universal elements:[10]

1. Prayer

2. Abundant gospel sowing

3. Intentional church planting

4. Scriptural authority

5. Local leadership

6. Lay leadership

7. Cell or house churches

8. Churches planting churches

9. Rapid reproduction

10. Healthy churches

Taken at face value, these common features of church planting movements are very instructive and there are echoes of the observations of previous generations of missiologists like Roland Allen.[11] Yet again, viewing this thinking through the lens of missio Dei causes us to ask a fundamental question: is it possible to reduce the work of God to a list of universal characteristics, much less a neat decimal formulation? Garrison clearly thought so, for he stated categorically, “Any missionary intent on seeing a Church Planting Movement should consider these 10 elements,”[12] adding later that the absence of some of these universal char­acteristics “may result in aborted movements.”[13] In a later work he went even further, suggesting that the application of these universal charac­teristics was essential because they “are invaluable to anyone wishing to align themselves with the way God is at work.”[14]

It is one thing to explore the phenomenon of CPMs to highlight the common features and suggest what we might learn from them, but it is quite another to suggest that church planting movements can be reduced down to ten universal characteristics, and that by intentionally facilitat­ing these ten elements we can jump-start a church planting movement. Carlton lays bare the implications of Garrison’s argument,

These ten universal characteristics describe fully how God is at work through these church-planting movements, and the way to align one’s life and ministry with God is through the applica­tion of these characteristics. To do otherwise is to be misaligned with the way God is working.[15]

Church planting movements are movements of God’s Spirit. We cannot reverse engineer what God is doing in one place so that we can bring it under our control and reproduce it elsewhere. It is God’s mission.


Missional Church Literature

Our language of church planting has been transformed over the past fif­teen years by the word “missional.” The book, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America,[16] not only popularized the word missional, but also the broader concept of missio Dei, as many other authors picked up on missional language and its missiological basis.

Space will not permit me to engage in a broader study of missional literature, but I do want to ask the same questions as I have done about traditional church planting and CPMs. Are we planting churches or mis­sional communities within a conscious framework of missio Dei? Or are we in danger of domesticating and reducing even the concept of missio Dei to manageable and reproducible principles?

For example, Alan Hirsch argues that the following six elements of missional DNA (mDNA) or Apostolic Genius are always present in Jesus movements.

1. Jesus is Lord

2. Disciple-making

3. Missional-incarnational impulse

4. Apostolic environment

5. Organic systems

6. Communitas, not community[17]

As with Garrison, the identification of common missional char­acteristics is helpful and instructive. However, Hirsch’s missional DNA also risks being misunderstood as, in essence, a new recipe for successful church growth; do this and you will have a missional church; do that and you will form an effective missional community; do all these and you will start a missional movement.

Given our tendency to measure effectiveness by counting heads, will we be able to resist the temptation to measure missional effectiveness in precisely the same way? If we do, then we are not truly operating in the light of missio Dei, but rather continuing to use a human metric to measure a divine reality.

The Mission of God cannot be domesticated. It cannot be classified and reduced to a set of principles, even missional ones. The movement of the Spirit cannot be bound—the wind blows where it wills (John 3:8).

Next article: “Towards some new measures of church planting effectiveness”


Jim Memory is church planter and lecturer.

Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.


[1] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 390.

[2] Kim, Joining in with the Spirit.

[3] For example Shenk and Stutzman, Creating Communities of the Kingdom; Murray, Church Planting.  

[4] Ott and Wilson, Global Church Planting.

[5] Escobar, Evangelical Missiology, 109.

[6] Garrison, “Church Planting Movement FAQs”, 10.

[7] Ibid

[8] Trousdale, Miraculous Movements.

[9] Ibid., 187.

[10] Garrison, Church Planting Movements, 33–36.

[11] Allen, Missionary Methods.

[12] Garrison, Church Planting Movements, 33.

[13] Ibid., 53.  

[14] Garrison, Church Planting Movements, 172.

[15] Carlton, Strategy Coordinator, 190.

[16] Guder and Barrett, Missional Church.

[17] Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways.




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