Church Planting Movements Reviewed

Hi everyone. It has been a long time since I’ve posted a book review. Our move to Nashville has sidetracked a lot of how I’ve spent my time previously but I’m hoping to get into a little groove and get some posts out here.

This review is on Church Planting Movements by David Garrison, a 15-year old book that describes several explosive (in a good way) waves of missionary activity where hundreds of churches were planted among some of the least reached people in the world. The book has its rabid advocates and cautious detractors so I felt like taking my own walk through its pages made a lot of sense.

I’ll just say up front that I liked the book and am glad I read it. That isn’t to say that I found everything in the book compelling or motivating, but it is a book that should be read by more people from the more conservative evangelical circles. A review by someone smarter and much better known can be found here. The book is divided into two basic sections: a descriptions of these incredible movements of people turning to Jesus Christ in various regions and then a discussion about the conditions present in each of those locations. Garrison calls these situations “church planting movements” “rapid and multiplicative increases of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment.”

There are lots of wonderful quotes from world (non-American) church leaders that alone make the book worth reading. Some of the direct and indirect quotes I found most compelling:

  • By contrast, our descriptive analysis reveals that God has chosen to launch most Church Planting Movements among the least likely candidates – unreached people groups, which have often been dismissed by those looking for responsive harvest fields. (loc 315)
  • Conventional wisdom in the West has often taught a reasonable yet much less effective pattern of gospel transmission. “You must first earn the right to share your faith,” goes the traditional model. “Once you have developed a friendship and demonstrated that you are really different, your lost friend will ask you what is special about your life. Then, you can tell them about Jesus.” A passionate purveyor of Church Planting Movements denounced this Western model. “We teach that it’s not about you or earning the right to share your faith. Jesus earned that right when He died on the cross for us. Then he commanded us to tell others!” (loc 2701)
  • “Pol Pot nearly destroyed the church,” she said. “All the while he was ruining the country, though, Christians were ministering to Cambodian refugees in camps along the Thai border. I do believe that the Christian ministry during that time helped prepare their hearts for what is happening now.’ (loc 969)
  • In speaking of how displaced and outcast peoples respond to the gospel, “Unfortunately the opposite is also true. Great social stability tends to lull people into a false sense of security. They forget that life is short and that one must prepare for eternity. This creates an obstacle for affluent Western Europe, Japan, and the United States where unparalleled economic health has fostered unparalleled spiritual malaise.” (loc 3563)

The book begs traditional western Christians to think of missionary activity differently. Rather than thinking of setting up churches that look a lot like they do in culturally Christian contexts, Garrison advocates using house churches of 10 – 20 new believers led by lay leaders. The shift in the goal has massive implications on church leader training, expectations of members, and exponential reach of a network of 20 churches of 10 people in different locations rather than one 200 person church led by a paid pastor. I will do a separate blog post on the practical ramifications of this approach as I see them based on our ministry experience.

I think my biggest takeaway from the book is that God has done some pretty amazing things with the expansion of his kingdom in the last 20 years or so. Almost none of them have been inside North America, so unless you’re reading books like this you would never know about them. It’s easy to look at the collapse of cultural Christianity around us and feel like maybe God is on vacation, but the many accounts (verified by independent sources) covered in this book put that idea to bed quickly. We just need to open our eyes beyond the Americas to see it.

Another key takeaway from the book is the way it documents what is common, or tends to be common, among all these totally unrelated movements. This is at one time a core strength of the book and one of its weaknesses. While Garrison does caveat his “findings” somewhat, much of what is presented in the book is more sociology than theology. It describes things that occurred in a 15 year period and looked for commonalities. It did not primarily look to the Scriptures to evaluate what was going on theologically. That’s fine provided we all recognize that. Unfortunately, the successes seen in these movements have been interpreted by some as evidence that the common elements active there are universally true of all peoples and all times and I don’t think we can take things that far.

Then there are some pretty goofy things in the book as well but these are easy to overlook. It’s obvious that 2 Tim 3:5 is not a licence to ignore existing local churches that have a different missiology as Garrison tries to claim (Loc 3990). According to Romans 8:1-8, it is not theologically possible for people in a church planting movement to “often begin serving Christ even before they become his follower.” (loc 3700) It is borderline ridiculous to claim that the caution used by traditional churches in assigning leadership roles to newer believers makes them bored enough to leave the faith (loc 3693). Most of these real problems are confined to one section of the book and were easy to overlook for me.

Overall I think it is a book worth reading. Feel free to question the valuing of rapidity over stability, how theologically astute church leaders can become under these conditions, or whether error will easily creep into this kind of movement. But please do it from a position that honors the ways these brothers are more theologically correct than many traditional churches. Sentimental pats on the head while arguing they have nothing right and are all headed to ruin is not loving but also not right. Those like Garrison arguing for rapid multiplication of churches have more theologically correct views on the urgency of the missionary task, the priesthood of believers, the power of God, and in many cases the way the gospel is supposed to triumph over culture (especially American academic loving culture).

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