“We need more planters.”
I hear it more than in the past. I can remember, only a few years ago, speaking with representatives at some of our national church planting agencies (and even some of the smaller church planting networks) and hearing they were at capacity. At the time, the conversation was centered on increased efficiency in equipping. Processes needed to be streamlined in order to run through more planters. Capacity was the issue back then.
Today, the conversations I have with other network leaders are taking a different tone: scarcity. Now, to be sure, many networks are planting more than they ever have. Church planting is definitely on the mind of many. But now that pipelines are more efficient than ever, the hopper for some is looking less full.
Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, tweeted the following:
And he’s right. We do need more planters. I’m thankful for NAMB and other organizations that take seriously the need to equip planters for the work. However, this general acknowledgement of a shrinking pool of planters now that pipelines are happening all over the place raises some important questions about how we view the task of church planting (or sending for the Great Commission in general).
Regardless of how much time we spend talking about multiplication, it is merely rhetoric unless our systems provide appropriate sending pathways. A recent study by the Send Institute backs up this reality. It appears a lot of churches, networks, and denominational agencies speak regularly about multiplication but still enlist models of sending that are primarily additional. Perhaps we need to change our paradigm.
What exactly is a “sending church” anyway?
Sending language is now the lingua franca for many of our churches and agencies. As Baptists, we have the Send Network, that facilitates our church planting efforts in Send Cities, and we are constantly calling our churches to be “sending churches.” Alongside the prevalence of missional language, it is becoming a well-known fact that good churches are missional churches, and that means being a sending church.
To be clear, this was a needed shift. While this language is a major step forward from the days when churches didn’t think they should be involved in planting at all, I’m afraid the language is largely aspirational. In other words, we talk about the importance of being a sending church, and many churches even don the title without a significant shift in practices. Too often, I’m afraid our current understanding of the “sending church” falls short of where we must be to hit multiplication.
Take, as an example, a conversation I have more times than I can count. I have served in a number of roles where church planting sending and equipping are a large piece of what I do. I have worked at one of our SBC seminaries, in the missions department no less. I have worked as a missionary for one of our national agencies. Currently, I serve the Union Baptist Association in Houston, one of the larger regional church networks in the country. In all of these roles, I have been deeply involved in the church planting conversation, and in each of these roles I regularly field the following phone call:
“Hello, we are XYZ church and we want to be a ‘sending church.’ Now, do you happen to have a church planter equipped that we can send to plant in XYZ city?”
Again, I am thankful for churches understanding the importance of sending. Even more, I appreciate a church that is willing to extend resources to a church planter. However, the church that calls an agency, a network, or a state convention and asks for a planter is not actually a sending church. It is, at best, a supporting church.
We need supporting churches, but we must not confuse those with the church that actually produces their own sent out ones. Sending church language must mean more than recruiting a planter if we ever want a shot at approaching real multiplication.
Sending church language is helpful with one very important caveat. If we’re going to use “sending church” in this way, it must mean “sending from within.” It cannot mean, “sending someone else’s planters.” In fact, NAMB has started using the term multiplying church in order to try and make this distinction.
Regardless of the term, sending must be about not only deploying people (providing the resources to go), but also developing people from within our own congregations. In this way, a sending church rightly understood develops from within and deploys out. These two main phases of church sending rest on four primary responsibilities of the sending church.
In order to truly be a sending church, a congregation must: identify, equip, send, and support those from within the congregation. Sending is about more than supporting. Specifically, without the process of identification inside the local congregation, multiplicative sending cannot occur. Our best pipelines can only produce addition unless sending churches begin to grow their own sent out ones.
Ironically, we have talked about leadership development in the local church for a long time now. It usually goes hand-in-hand with the discipleship conversation. Unfortunately, the assumption is often that these developed leaders are being developed to scale up the ministry of the local congregation. Leaders to lead small groups and potentially serve in ministry roles in a congregation are important; but we must also consider how we are identifying and developing those leaders that a church will send out from the congregation for the work of the ministry. This goal is the true heart of a sending church. As J.D. Greear so eloquently puts it, it is gaining by losing.
Recruitment vs. Development
For too long now, our sending paradigm has been one of recruitment. And, our churches, our networks, our conventions, and associations have all played a part in doing it this way. Our organizations tasked with planting simply become recruiters. Churches that want to take part in sending often do the same. In this way, the sending church is involved in identification, but it is identification from outside. Everyone wants an equipping pipeline these days, but after it is set up, they begin looking outside of themselves for the people to fill it.
Recruitment is zero-sum. In other words, recruitment alone can never be multiplicative. A church that recruits their next planter from outside did not add another planter to the pool, they merely moved one discovered by another church. For every planter recruited and gained from the outside, another equipping system loses a planter. Cooperative equipping strategies with national sending agencies (like the Send Network), through state conventions and associations, and even boutique networks are good and needed, but we must address a root problem: a waning supply of people to fill them.
Multiplicative sending will only occur when identifying planters inside the local church becomes the norm and not the exception. As these sent out ones are identified, then agencies, seminaries, pipelines, etc. all serve a vital function. Instead of churches calling conventions or seminaries asking for planters, we need churches that know how to grow their own and send them through these cooperative equipping processes. A rising tide lifts all boats.
If sending by recruiting is a zero-sum game, then we must change our sending paradigm to adjust for multiplication. We must move past recruitment to development at the local church level. If we attempt to outsource the development of leaders to networks and agencies, then we all suffer. Again, these agencies have a crucial place in the process of sending, but the process must begin and end with the local church finding its own people from within its ranks.
Changing paradigms is no small feat. A paradigm is a fundamental outlook, and most often people do not even realize they operate in one. Shifting from a recruitment paradigm to a development paradigm in sending requires a complete shift in church culture. While there is much that needs to adjust, I believe we can all start with the work of identification. Simply put, your church has members God would send out. Do you know who they are? Are you willing to let them go? To help them go?
In our North American church circles, we speak often about leadership development, but how often do we speak to our congregation about the development of sent out ones? Even more, how often do we set that expectation for the individuals in our church?
Do our sermons make this kind of sending a practical application point? Do we challenge the people in our own pews to consider being a missionary, a church planter, or a replanter? As Danny Akin likes to say, “The question is not why should I go but why should I stay?” How often is that the tone of the teaching in your church? I long for a day when it is normative in our North American churches for every member to be confronted with that question through the practice and teaching of their church.
That kind of culture leads to multiplicative sending, because it constantly calls members from within the body to consider being equipped as sent out ones.
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.