Would Jesus Plant a Church?

Don’t you like dealing in hypotheticals? Those sometimes frustrating “what if” questions? 

Recently, Mike Frost posed such a question, “If Jesus planted a church, what would it look like?” At first, I thought it was a brilliant question. However, the more I considered it, the more his question provoked a reaction. I began to ask, “Would Jesus ever actually plant a church?” 

He’ll certainly build the church. That was his promise to the disciples (Matt 16:18). He’ll be present in moments of discipline (Matt 18:17-20). He’s given her leadership (Eph 4:11). He even stipulated a set of expectations for her with clear warnings (Rev 2-3). Indeed, the entirety of the book of Revelation is Jesus’ message to the church. In essence, the 22 chapters of John’s vision uncovers the church Jesus is building.

But, would Jesus plant a church?

The troubling issue for me about this question is how we so often assume that the ministries we are doing are the ministries Jesus would approve of us doing. Especially if we are super spiritual about it, even to the point of reifying church planting. 

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So, in 1990 when C. Peter Wagner declared church planting to be “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven” (1990:11) we all jumped on board. After all, when we observed the phenomenal growth of Saddleback Church and Willow Creek Community Church we were sold. We reasoned that if church planting is producing those kinds of mega-churches, Jesus must have approved. Convinced by Wagner, Warren, and Hybels, our mission shifted from making disciples to planting more churches. 

And today, we love to talk about church planting movements and the phenomenal spread of the gospel among the unreached of the world only to realize that twice as many nascent movements flounder, fail or fall into heresy (a few actually become cults).

So, where has church planting taken us?

In spite of the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention is reporting growing numbers of new church plants, their membership numbers continue to decline. More churches are closing in the United States than ever before. In fact, for the first time in living memory, we have seen a net loss of churches and that is before any of the mass closures predicted as a result of COVID-19! 

Information from the North American Mission Board: https://www.namb.net/send-network/

Then, how do we account for so many different churches. Just within Protestantism, there are more than 8,000 denominations—some say 24,000—who all seem to offer some unique theological or ecclesiological identity undoubtedly approved of by Jesus.

Here’s the thing. I wonder whether Jesus would have been a part of church planting. Instead, isn’t He expecting the Bride He has already created, the one who will join Him at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-10), to be the church, literally His body (1 Cor 12:27)? Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums it up fittingly:

“The space of the church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory, but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely, the world that is loved and reconciled by God. It is not true that the church intends to or must spread its space out over the space of the world. It desires no more space than it needs to serve the world with its witness to Jesus Christ and to the world’s reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ. The church can only defend its own space by fighting, not for space, but for the salvation of the world. Otherwise the church becomes a “religious society” that fights in its own interest and thus has ceased to be the church of God in the world. So the first task given to those who belong to the church of God is not to be something for themselves, for example, by creating a religious organization or leading a pious life, but to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world.” (Ethics, loc 457)

Those who make up that gathering of Christ followers, the called-out ones (ekklesia), the church, have a singular mission, not 330,000 (the approximate number of churches in the US). Bonhoeffer merits repeating:

“So the first task given to those who belong to the church of God is not to be something for themselves, for example, by creating a religious organization or leading a pious life, but to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world.” (Ethics, loc 457)

By the end of his article, what I discovered is that I agree with Frost. The church, Jesus’ Bride, the one He is building “is the gathering of those who have joined together to bend their knee before Christ their king and who are being shaped into citizens of his realm.” 

How that manifests in culture today shouldn’t be difficult. Rather than asking the question about what the church planted by Jesus would look like or would Jesus plant a church at all, we might frame the question this way, “What would the church look like if it lived like Jesus?” That is the question church planters should ask. And I think Frost brilliantly answers this question even if he didn’t ask it.

So, we must reDisciple our church, reChurch our ecclesiology, and reJesus our theology. It sort of sounds like Frost’s (and Hirsch’s) book.

“So the first task given to those who belong to the church of God is not to be something for themselves, for example, by creating a religious organization or leading a pious life, but to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world." – Dietrich… Click To Tweet

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