Where to Plant a Church?
In 2006, my wife and I arrived in a new city in Northern Ireland and planted our first church. The city of Derry/Northern Ireland has 100,000 people, so choosing where to plant a church there was not excessively challenging. Basically, our choices were between one side of the river or the other.
In 2013, we arrived in London, England, and began to look for and pray about where to plant a church. This time, the decision was much more challenging because London has a population of at least 8.5 million people and covers an area of over 600 square miles.
London, England is 85 times the population of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and much, much more sprawling. The city covers an area over half the size of the State of Rhode Island. This picture shows the 285 Perimeter of Atlanta situated very easily inside the M25 ring road the runs around London.
So for about 6-8 months, we drove around, surveying the city and asking the following questions:
- In a city of 8.5 million, where should we plant a church?
- Where can we plant a church that will make the greatest difference in the city?
- Where is the most effective place to plant a church to help us reach the world with the gospel?
Can’t We Just Start Anywhere?
When I am asked to preach for someone, I often find myself spending as much time trying to figure out what to preach as I do in preparing the message to preach. Similarly, determining where to plant a church can often be just as daunting as actually planting the church.
The abundance of needy places can be overwhelming. On the one hand, we could just start anywhere. Though there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, we are commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. On the other hand, since our commission is to reach the world with the gospel (not just one area), then maybe we should give “the where” a bit more thought.
In this post, we will look at the following five factors that might help us as we determine where to plant a church. (To limit the length of the article, I am going to assume that we are daily reading God’s Word, praying, and surrendering our will to God, so that we are in a place where we are sensitive to His guidance.)
- Factor #1: Plant a church where you can train men.
- Factor #2: Plant a church in a strategic place.
- Factor #3: Plant a church in a needy place.
- Factor #4: Plant a church only after getting wise counsel.
- Factor #5: Plant a church in an area where God seems to be opening doors.
We came up with these factors as a result of what we believe is a Biblical philosophy of ministry, our own personal experience, and counsel from our pastor, Austin Gardner, and other missionary and church-planter friends.
Factor #1: Plant a church where you can train men.
As church-planters, our number one priority is to train men. Jesus focused his efforts not on building a crowd, preaching great sermons, building large buildings, or even planting a church. He focused on training twelve men.
Without trained shepherds, the sheep will scatter, and without trained men, the churches will never become indigenous and the work will never grow past what we personally can do.
To reach an entire country, to reach the world, we must multiply ourselves through discipling and training men to be leaders who can reach and train others.
This means finding a place where there are young men (preferably between the ages of 15-25) who are in the “aspiring class,” the “common people” of Mark 12:37. They are looking for something more. They are looking for a way out. They are more like the fishermen who will forsake all and follow Jesus when he calls, less like the rich young ruler who will go away sorrowful.
Factor #2: Plant a church in a strategic place.
Most church-planters put on their prayer card: “Churches Planters to Brazil” or some other country to which God has led them. The sad reality is that most of us never come close to doing anything more than impacting one city, or, most likely, one area of one city.
Most church-planters, however, earnestly desire to impact more than just one area, but maybe they have not thought through the best way to do that. It is so easy to allow the pressures of one church plant and the day-to-day responsibilities of the ministry to consume us so that we forget about the rest of the country and the rest of the world.
As we plant churches, we need to ask ourselves, “How does this church plant fit in with a strategy to reach (at minimum) an entire region of the country with the gospel?” We should not think about planting just one church but planting multiple churches.
For many, this will mean going to key cities where men can be trained and sent out, but sometimes there are strategic places that are not the largest cities in the country. Entire areas of some countries are neglected because none of the largest cities in the country are there.
Factor #3: Plant a church in a needy place.
When trying to assess the need of an area, we may find the following two things to be true:
- Everywhere is needier than we think.
- Nowhere is as needy as we think.
Those might seem to be opposing statements, so here is what they mean.
- It is almost impossible for us to find a place on this planet where people have heard nothing of Christ and where no evangelist has ever gone before.
- It is also true, however, that everywhere has a great need for the gospel. Even in the most “evangelized” places of the world, with many great churches, there will still be some people who are not being reached for Christ.
So as we seek to identify needy areas, we should consider both who is already there preaching the gospel and then remember that no matter how much work is being done more work needs to be done.
When assessing need, here are some things to consider:
- Where are there already like-minded Bible-believing churches?
- Are those churches actively involved in reaching their communities with the gospel?
- Where are there other churches with whom you might have some doctrinal disagreements but which are preaching the gospel?
- What areas have the least amount of gospel witness?
Sometimes church-planters choose a country to go to or an area to plant a church without doing much research to determine the neediest areas. Often where we go has more to do with feelings, emotions, and circumstances than good, hard facts.
Factor #4: Plant a church only after getting wise counsel.
All of us have our blind spots, and none of us see with perfectly clear vision. That is why we need to continually be in the Word so that God can search our hearts for sin and selfish intentions. That is also why we need to open up our lives to wise counselors who can help us see what we have missed.
Proverbs 15:22 tells us, “Without counsel purposes are disappointed: But in the multitude of counsellers they are established.”
As we seek to determine where to plant a church, it is very important to bring as many wise counselors into the decision as possible. This does not mean you follow the advice of everyone, but it would be foolish to not seek out or to ignore the advice of other church-planters who have experience and wisdom in church planting.
Factor #5: Plant a church in an area where God seems to be opening doors.
When the Apostle Paul was traveling on his missionary journeys, he continually looked for open doors. (Read 2 Cor. 2:12, Col. 4:3, Rev. 3:8.) He made use of synagogues, people’s homes, a place where prayers were said by the river, marketplaces, and any other opportunity he could find to preach the gospel.
This does not mean that there will be no challenges, adversaries, or obstacles, but somewhere along the line, God will begin to direct your steps, make you aware, impress upon your heart, and bring you back to an area that seems to meet all of the qualifications above (1 Cor. 16:9,Acts 16:6-10).
An open door could be a growing area of the community, an available building, some folks getting saved, or something else. We need to use wisdom in this area, because not every opportunity is an open door. It could be a distraction.
But we should pray for open doors, look for open doors, and ask God to open doors for us.
That being said, we need to realize that doors seem to open more often for those who are doing their part to be obedient, to work hard, to pray, to survey, to witness, and to learn all they can. As we “are in the way” (Gen. 24:27), taking the next step, God will lead us.
What do you think?
We certainly do not have all the answers, so we look forward to hearing from you about other things to consider when trying to decide where to plant a church. Let us know what questions you might have.