An excellent question! Basically the idea at back of this is that if you plant a house church which then plants another one really quickly, and then that new house church, along with the one that originally planted it, does the same thing all over again, and then the ones they plant do likewise, then you have what’s called exponential growth, and inside a few months there’s hardly an unbeliever in sight because everyone’s gone and gotten themselves saved and you have literally thousands of little house churches all over the place. Think of rabbits breeding and you’ve got the general idea. And I must say it sounds great! Imagine; whole cities and nations coming to the Lord because of rapid church planting. Wonderful! Except; well….em….em…well, except that it doesn’t actually work and no one, including those who keep going on about it, and writing about it, and having house church conferences about it, have ever been able to actually do it. And of course the reason it doesn’t work is because it’s based on a complete and utter misconception; that is, that if you work a particular spiritual formula then certain predicted results can virtually be assured!
What tends to happen is that the people who are teaching this visit places where the Holy Spirit is moving in such a way that you only have to smile at someone and they repent of their sins and turn to Jesus (and it is indeed wonderful beyond words when the Lord does so move in a place), and then return home imagining that if only they do this, that or the other, then the Holy Spirit will do the same thing for them where they are. It is really an example of inverted logic and is pretty much devoid of biblical understanding. A sort of spiritual pragmatism, if you will, that sees the Lord a bit like a chocolate vending machine: you put your money in the slot – that is, you implement the appropriate plan of action in faith – and out comes the Snickers bars – that is, mass conversions, miracles, healings or whatever it is you are believing for. In other words, it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the Lord’s ways of doing things as revealed in the pages of scripture, and is actually the result of wrong teachings getting into house churches from the charismatic movement.
Various things happening today in places like India, China and some parts of South America, where people are coming to the Lord at a phenomenal rate, are just marvelous beyond words. But rather like what happened in the New Testament at Pentecost and the years following, it is hardly the norm. If only it was! Further, we must be realistic and not even try to read the Pentecost experience of mass conversions as reported in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles into its later chapters.
Pentecost, as I just said, was quite exceptional and not the norm, and the closer we get to the end of the time frame in which the New Testament was written, the further the churches appear to be from their earlier experience of numerical growth. Think of the early years following the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the booster rockets that get the Space Shuttle lifted off the ground and out of the earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull and into orbit, but which then falls away having done it’s job of creating the necessary initial thrust. Paul the apostle didn’t experience much of what the other apostles saw at Pentecost, and neither did they experience a great deal of it again afterwards. So we must conclude that the norm for churches is to see people being converted at a much slower rate, and with the emphasis being upon making disciples of those who do come to know the Lord and establishing mature and biblical churches.
What we must be wary of, and this is the basic error not just of the ‘rapid church planting’ movement but also of much charismatic belief and practice, is people in what one might term a revival situation thinking that every believer ought to be seeing the same thing in their situations too. It is the mistake of assuming that what God is doing in situation A is by necessity what He intends to do in situation B, and that all we need is to use our faith in order to make it happen. We must again remind ourselves that even the early church didn’t see continuous and ongoing mass conversions as its normative experience, and we must be clear too that only what the Lord Himself does through His people, as opposed to man-made techniques and practices, is of eternal value. Such moves of God’s Spirit are based purely on His Sovereign will, and whereas we must be faithful in evangelism, though obviously according to personal gifting, we must never get hung up about results. They are purely the Lord’s department! However, neither should we do anything to call such revival situations into question. We just need to realize that you can’t be part of, or co-operate with, something the Lord isn’t actually doing. After all, His Sovereignty means that you can’t make Him do anything at all, and we should never complain or feel hard done by just because He isn’t doing something we would like Him to.
The amazing thing about this ‘rapid church planting’ stuff though is the complete disparity between those who go on and on about it, and about church growth and planting new churches and seeing converts all the time, and what we actually read in scripture. After all, we have in the New Testament quite a few letters written to various churches which together make up really everything we need to know pertaining to God’s will for us. And what stands out, whether you read the letters of James, or Paul, or Peter or John, or anyone else for that matter, isn’t the way they in which they challenge their readers in the churches to evangelism and church planting and multiplication, but rather the simple fact that they actually deliver no such challenges at all. The cry that constantly goes out to churches in such circles today is, “What are you doing about church planting?” “What’s your evangelistic strategy for next year?” “How many new churches are you exercising faith for in the next 5 years?”
And of course what stands out in such sharp relief to this is not merely that the writers of the inspired letters to churches didn’t say very much along such lines; it’s that they say absolutely nothing along such lines at all. If Paul (or Peter or James or John et al) were concerned about whether or not the churches they planted and helped were growing numerically and multiplying, or that the believers who comprised them ought be have been greatly and corporately concerned with evangelistic schemes and strategies and the like, then all we can say is that they sure had a strange way of showing it. What stands out is rather their complete lack of concern over such issues, concentrating instead on the importance of individual believers growing in the Lord and leading holy lives. We are, of course, exhorted to be ready to give a defense for the hope we have, but this is what we might think of as responsive evangelism as opposed to anything strategic or proactive. Evangelists and apostles and the like are commanded to get on with the aggressive and proactive evangelism they are gifted to function in, but never do we see such being required of others in scripture, or the idea of evangelistic schemes and strategies being laid out before churches with the expectation that they participate in them.
So does this mean that in contrast to the ‘rapid church planting’ concept we are somehow against evangelism? And of course the answer is that we most certainly are not. What we are for, though, is engaging in and conducting evangelism in the same way it was done in the New Testament. That is, evangelists and apostles (those gifted with proactive evangelistic ability and know-how) should get out there and just get on with it, leaving the rest of us free to do what the Lord has called us to, whatever it might be. It is vital that we remain uncontaminated by the completely unbiblical notion that the only reason a church exists is for the purpose of ultimately planting another church. Not one New Testament writer says anything to churches that comes within a million miles of such a ridiculous and damaging assertion. Show me a family (because that is what a church is, an extended family of God) that thinks it exists merely to bring babies into the world and I will show you a dysfunctional family in which those children who have already come into the world are likely as not without the love, nurture and maturity they ought to be getting in truck loads. I encourage you to read afresh every letter written to churches in the New Testament and to ask yourself what the main concern of the writers is. And you will find that, far from teaching about, and challenging the churches to, intensive evangelism and church planting, their concern is rather that they are loving each other and growing together into maturity in the Lord as His extended family, thereby increasing the experience of personal holiness in the life of each believer. Personal, and not numerical, growth is the concern and challenge behind the apostles’ teaching to churches.
I will end with this. An evangelist I have met told an elder of a biblical church I know well that because the church he was part of hadn’t multiplied and planted out other churches, it was therefore spiritually sick. And what needs to be realized is that it is what the evangelist said that is at complete variance with the teaching of scripture and not the fact that the church in question had not at the time multiplied, though as it happens it subsequently has. Further, the very fact that such a mature and godly man could say such a thing at all reveals the dangers and problems that arise when biblical thinking is overridden by mere pragmatism. To brand a church as being sick just because it hasn’t planted out other churches is to judge the Lord’s people by mere human reasoning rather than by God’s Word, and leads to the acceptance of ideas and actions that have nothing to do with it. Should churches exist, and I include house churches, which don’t want to see people come to the Lord, and where believers refuse to respond even to the biblically based evangelistic opportunities put before them by the Spirit, then I would agree that in such an instance something is very wrong. But where there is faithfulness in these things, even though people aren’t being converted, then I say, “So what?” Unless you subscribe to the completely unbiblical, to say nothing of just plain daft, idea that you can somehow make people become believers, and that it just depends on doing the right kind of evangelism, all that any of us can do is to be faithful to the Lord and His Word and just leave such outcomes and results in the His hands.
So we must be somewhat wary of all this ‘rapid church planting’ stuff, however spiritual and Spirit-led it undoubtedly sounds. By calling and gifting I am personally a pastor/teacher, but wouldn’t it be ridiculous if I went around saying that churches should just be, in effect, Bible schools and pastoral care centers? But that’s what a lot of evangelists and church planters seem to be doing regarding their gifting. They are, in effect, taking believers in actual churches and turning them into mere evangelistic cell groups. It’s daft and completely unbiblical, yes, but precisely because it is so at variance with the Lord’s intention it is spiritually damaging too!