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Authors present divergent models for church planting

Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas. Launch: Starting a New Church from Scratch. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-8307-4310-0; 223 pages; $12.99. Neil Cole. Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2005. ISBN: 978-0-7879-8129-7; 237 pages; $23.95.
The centerpiece of Searcy’s method for starting a church is the Sunday worship service. Searcy recommends that church planters begin by focusing all their efforts into beginning a Sunday service. A foundational principle for their approach is “launching large” — starting a worship service that will gather as many people as possible in a short amount of time.
The strategy for launching large begins with three to six monthly “preview services” leading up to the launch date. Preview services are open to the community and look as much like the intended future weekly services as possible. They serve to build momentum as the opening day approaches. The Journey Church had 110 people in attendance on its launch day. Searcy and Thomas have worked with other church planters using this method who have drawn more than 300 people on opening day.
“Launch” puts forth a provocative suggestion related to the launch of the Sunday service: The church planter primarily should recruit non-Christians, not mature Christians, as launch team members. Because the purpose of starting a church is to reach the lost, recruiting unchurched teammates insures that the church will have a constant focus on the unchurched. Unbelievers are recruited as they visit preview services and are asked to help with future services.
As a church planter, I’ve been challenged by the recommendations in “Launch” to build a team that consists predominantly of unchurched people. My team will likely use an altered version of Searcy’s preview services as one way of teaming up with unbelievers. Rather than following the “Launch” model completely, a second book has affirmed us in pondering a broader focus.
Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens,” outlines a distinctly different approach to church planting — one that highlights weaknesses inherent to Searcy’s method.
Rather than launching large, Neil Cole suggests starting small, and staying small. Rather than expecting people to come to centralized location for church, church should organically extend to the places where people gather naturally — coffee shops, restaurants, parking lots and apartment homes.
Cole offers his perspective as an experienced practitioner. He started 10 churches in his first year as a church planter. By 2005, Church Multiplication Associates, an organization founded and directed by Cole, helped the movement grow exponentially to nearly 800 churches in 32 states and 23 nations in six years.
“Organic Church” essentially is a critique of “church as usual” in North America. Evangelism and discipleship are lacking in the traditional church, Cole argues, because church has become a Sunday worship service. “We have made church nothing more than a religious show that takes place on Sunday, and after it’s done we all go home, until church starts again next week, same time, same place. Is this what the bride of Christ is?” Cole thereby rightly calls into question the dominant assumption undergirding “Launch.”
Cole’s theological reflection on the nature of the church is one of the book’s strengths. Relying heavily on the kingdom parables of Jesus, Cole seeks to establish that the church is not a static institution, a building, a single location or a one-hour service held one day a week. The church, according to Cole, is “the presence of Jesus among his people called out as a spiritual family to pursue his mission on this planet.”
On a practical level, Cole’s churches start when unbelievers are converted and gather all their non-Christian family and friends together. That group of people often becomes a new church. Organic churches are highly relational and thus usually remain small (less than 20 members).
“Organic Church” is an extremely helpful book for those seeking ways of being the church that connects to the unbelievers of the next generation. Motivated by a view of church similar to Cole’s, my church planting team intends to spend the first six to eight months developing organic communities of faith that will serve as a foundation for the church’s public launch.
“Organic Church” is not without its limitations, however. Cole’s rhetoric is sometimes too cynical and dismissive of the established church. Inevitably, traditional forms of church will continue into the future. The fruitfulness of the church’s ministry will depend on traditional and non-traditional churches working as partners and learning from each other. Cole fails to elucidate how organic churches function in relation to traditional, established churches.
Further, one wonders about the sustainability of such a movement. What is the lifespan of the average organic church? Who provides deeper theological education for newly converted church planters? What are the sources of accountability for theological reflection and leadership? These are not insurmountable issues, and perhaps organic structures are presently being formed to address issues like these.
For those interested in a more comprehensive introduction to the field of church planting, consult “Church Planting from the Ground Up,” (College Press, 2004) edited by Tom Jones. Christian Church leaders contribute articles on every conceivable issue in church planting. As with any multi-author book, some chapters are better than others. Churches considering multi-site services will find a helpful orientation here.
Another helpful introduction is Ed Stetzer’s “Planting Missional Churches,” (Broadman & Holman, 2006) a revised and updated version of “Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age” (2003). Stetzer directs the domestic missions agency for the Southern Baptist Convention. His approach reflects assumptions similar to those found in Searcy’s “Launch.” Particularly helpful are Stetzer’s reflections on spiritual formation in the new church.
For those of us planning to start a new church, the diversity of church planting literature encourages us to be theologically reflective and intentional in our methodology. For leaders of established churches, the continued growth of such literature is a reminder that church planting is one of the most fruitful forms of service in God’s kingdom.

CHARLES KISER, a church planter in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, earned a Master of Divinity from Harding Graduate School of Religion. Reach him at [email protected].

Oct. 1, 2007

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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