Church-planting is more than a fad

Fresh off the plane from the US, Bishop Al Stewart answered's questions on why church-planting is more than a fad and his vision for church-planting in Australia.

Can you give a brief explanation as to what motivated the conference you held here in Sydney in February, and what your plans are for a church-planting network in Sydney?

We have seen the need for some time to have a national network that aims to pull together the great work that is happening around the country at present and also to encourage further church-planting around the country. There are many networks currently working but no one network or denomination covers the nation.

We (myself, Andrew Heard, Steve Chong, Mikey Lynch and Guy Mason) had planned to go to Seattle to the Acts 29 boot camp in March for some time.
We decided that it would be good to have some momentum before we went to the USA, and also to gauge the level of support for such a network.

We held a one-day conference on Feb 19th at the Wesley Centre in Pitt St. We didn't advertise it heavily. It really just relied on a few contacts we had and on word of mouth.

We would have been happy with 40 people: we had approximately 160 turn up to hear about the idea of a church-planting network. This included people from different denominations, but also men from Brisbane, Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide.

The vast majority of these people said they were very positive about the idea of a church-planting network.
How has what you learnt in Seattle changed your vision of what a national church-planting network in Australia should look like?

What I found in Seattle is that there aren't any magic answers. The Acts 29 network is well organised; they put a lot of work into the assessment of planters, and are prepared to tell guys who aren't gifted in this way that they shouldn't precede.

Seattle Boot Camp was like the MTS Challenge (formerly Club 5) conferences, on steroids; focused on church planting, talks more about gospel motivation rather than on planting methodology (and a bit of testosterone that didn't go astray, young men fired up about the gospel, it warmed this middle-aged man's heart).

However it all comes down to people stepping out, taking some risks and engaging with non-Christian people so they can tell them the gospel of Jesus. In other words, the message from over here is 'get out there, connect with unbelievers, engage with them, love them and tell them about Jesus. Just do it!'

And yes this is hard work; one of the most useful sessions at the boot camp was about the need for endurance this ministry.

In your first ‘Letter from Seattle’, you said, “I think this is the thing we can most learn from our American brothers and sisters: they are big-hearted and understand gospel generosity, and they feel a sense of urgency about getting things done”. Do you have any more thoughts on how this might be played out here?

I feel like we often lack a sense of urgency in getting things done. We need a culture that is prepared to take a few more risks in trying new things. We so often use our resources in maintenance mode. After the Global Financial Crisis, there will be temptation to spend more and more time examining how to divide up a smaller and smaller cake.

There have been questions asked on as to how this network would sit alongside denominations… Can you throw any light on this at this stage?
Our aim is to set up a national network that will include individuals, churches, existing networks, and denominations. This is only of course if these people and groups find it useful, it will be a volunteer society. So for denominations for example, we could direct potential planters to partner denominations that were able to provide opportunities and resources for planting churches.

Before you left, you said using technology well and assessing church-planters were the two strategies in particular that you would be paying attention to. What did you take away from the conference in these two areas?
The church-planter assessment was really useful, I did the whole process. The initial stages are all online, questionaires, references, a Bible talk to be submitted, theological questions, a planting timeline etc. Once this is submitted at the boot camp, there's a two-hour interview.

I was interviewed by three pastors/church-planters and one of their wives. (I didn't have Kathy with me, but interviews are done with the applicant's wife present). In the interview there are 60 questions on 10 different areas of church-planting that can be followed up. The panel knew my situation was a bit unusual, and they were aware that they were helping me understand the process. It was still very useful to me, and highlighted some weaknesses I have that are blind spots to me, although no doubt obvious to everyone else.

At the end of the interviews people are accepted, or accepted with conditions or told they aren't suited to church-planting. People can re-apply at a later date. The issue isn't 'are people suitable for ministry?' per se. The interviews are focused specifically on whether you have the gifts, the psychological make-up to be a church-planter.

Church-planting has been called a ‘fad’. What is your response to this and why do you think church-planting is what we need to invest in long-term?
I know the criticisms: this is new and fashionable, and these young guys think they'll be rock stars if they plant a church.  Reality will sort out the “would-be rock stars” from the real church-planters. But reality also needs to give a wake-up call to the critics - we are slowly dying. Protestant Christianity around the country is 'bleeding out' - slowly, but the bleeding is real.

Here's a couple of troubling statistics:

Between 1991-2001 (even with the growth in the AOG churches)
Protestant churches in Australia declined by 6%
Australian church attendance declined, by 3%
NCLS figures

In 1991 - one church for every 1561 people in Australia
In 2006 (estimated) - one church for ever 2054 people,
NCLS figures - from Steve Addison - Church Resources.

During this 15-year period, the population increased and the number of churches decreased. We desperately need more churches across the nation to reverse this trend. In fact we need new churches that will plant other new churches.

Steve Addison from Church Resources has pointed out how the Baptist denomination dramatically increased their attendance and the health of their denomination in NSW from approx 1900 to 1930 under the leadership of AJ Waldock. How? An intentional strategy of church-planting.

The Assemblies of God churches saw dramatic growth through the 1970's under the leadership of Andrew Evans, once again through church-planting.

Of course we also need to revitalise and renew our existing churches, it's ‘both and’, not ‘either or’.
But make no mistake we need to ask the Lord to raise up a generation of church-planters, with the courage and vision to make things happen, and then be prepared to take risks ourselves as we help them start new ventures. These guys will not fit neatly into our existing structures. We can welcome them or they will go elsewhere.

Comments (17)

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  • Craig Schwarze
    March 19, 09 - 5:29am
    Those stats are really disturbing. We are slowly losing the war. I hope people will really get behind this movement.

    I'd be curious to hear from the critics themselves, though. Anyone willing to explain why they *don't* support this initiative?
  • Pete Wood
    March 19, 09 - 7:58am
    Craig, I think of it this way, we just have taken up the battle yet. If the Baptists and the AOG network could do it with such success in the past, there is no reason why we, with much more resources can't do it now.

    Jesus said in Matt 28, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,". I can't see why that doesn't extend to us too. Maybe we just need to trust him more.
  • Tim Canterbury
    March 19, 09 - 8:08am
    Craig, What does getting behind this movement or supporting it actually involve?
  • Craig Schwarze
    March 19, 09 - 9:14am
    Good question Tim. Here are some thoughts based on the CMS Pray-Care-Share-Go model -

    1. Praying for the success of the network

    2. Being positive about it in online forums, blogs etc

    3. Donating financially (when that becomes possible)

    4. Getting personally involved in a church plant
  • Al Stewart
    March 19, 09 - 9:25am
    Thanks for the support Craig.
    we want to get this right, so we'll working on the details until mid year, and then going public after that.
    yes, Prayer is the all important one,
    cheers Al
  • David Palmer
    March 19, 09 - 11:52am
    I believe care is required with a statement like this:

    Steve Addison from Church Resources has pointed out how the Baptist denomination dramatically increased their attendance and the health of their denomination in NSW from approx 1900 to 1930 under the leadership of AJ Waldock. How? An intentional strategy of church-planting

    Its the same issue - growth thro' church transference - as the growth in the Pentecostals from the 1970's on (though the Pentecostals also attracted significant numbers of disaffected catholics).

    The question I would like answered is to what extent was Baptist church growth in this period fueled by the fallout of the growing ascendancy of liberal theology in the Presbyterian Methodist Congregational denominations through this period?
  • David Palmer
    March 19, 09 - 11:54am

    My last two paragraphs somehow got reversed in order - bit like the first shall be last and the last first.
  • Brian Tung
    March 19, 09 - 12:56pm
    Will there be any doctrinal statement? Who will draft this? And how inclusive would this statement be?
    BTW a study was done in similar period for Chinese churches in Sydney. They were growing at an average of 20 to 30 percent.
  • Pete Wood
    March 19, 09 - 10:19pm
    I'm not sure why, but when I read words like "doctrinal statement" and "draft" it makes me flinch...No offence intended Brian. I think part of the issue might be we spend so much time on big structural things like that, that there is less time left to jump in and DO church planting. The other thing is, it doesn't matter WHO drafts what, the people IN the church plants will figure out what they believe and live by it. I realise this is for better and for worse. That is why we need to pray for good leadership that has thought out and lead people in the right direction from day one.

    BTW, the great attraction to church planting for me is the opportunity to start from the beginning without 50 years of dross to shake out.
  • Al Stewart
    March 19, 09 - 10:21pm
    Dear David, on comment 6 above,
    Good question - however - I'm not sure anyone can answer that now. I agree that we want more than just transfer growth from other denominations. The point with the Baptists in the early C20th was that they were deliberate about planting new churches, backed their gifted leaders, and were strategic in where they put the money they did have, i.e. the backed growth rather than maintenance. The result was a revitalised denomination. ( I can't tell you direct conversion figures) - however I can tell you a dying denomination wasn't going to do be much use to anyone re conversion.
    for posting 8. above. Brian, the five of us, mentioned in the article above will be working carefully on a doctrinal statement, and we will be seeking wisdom from others as well.
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    March 19, 09 - 10:33pm
    Very, very good question David.

    Its not as if Sydney Anglicans haven't been planting 'churches' in the last decade. They have. Lots of them.

    The reason we haven't seen growth is that they have merely replicated the existing congregations.

    There has not been enough missionary/missional (choose your preferred term) to the lost tribes whether Anglo or non-Anglo.

    Al, to what extent will the new network address this most critical issue?
  • Brian Tung
    March 19, 09 - 11:01pm
    @Peter - no offence taken. There could be so much that could be said from the Scriptures, theology and church history and experience about what you've said.
    But I'll just choose logic. Why then a church planting network? Asuch a network is superstrcuture if there is ever one. And why a conference in Seattle? If there is ever a talkfest...
    Also just on trusting leaders. Hmmmm. I guess the network can in that case, leave out the doctrines of the total deprevity. if I were to trust anything or anyone, I'd choose the Word of God over even the preacher of that Word. No offence to those faithful men.
  • Craig Schwarze
    March 19, 09 - 11:03pm
    Brian, I'm not sure where you are coming from. Are you saying the network is a poor idea?
  • Pete Wood
    March 20, 09 - 2:28am
    Also just on trusting leaders. Hmmmm. I guess the network can in that case, leave out the doctrines of the total deprevity. if I were to trust anything or anyone, I'd choose the Word of God over even the preacher of that Word.

    I've suffered terrible hurts at the hands of sinful leaders, so I resonate with you Brian. However, I also know God appoints leaders (and judges them more severely) for the good of his people. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.
  • Brian Tung
    March 20, 09 - 2:28am
    Hey Craig,
    Not against networks per se or this particular one. Sorry it I gave that impression.
    I am against the tail wagging the dog.
    I am also against simplistic notions of 'just do it'.
    It's easy to say let's church plant. But do we agree on what 'church' is, and would God agree with what we think 'church' is?
    A statement of faith is not everything but it would push us having our disagreements early so that we can work out what we are actually doing and who we are doing it with.
  • Brian Tung
    March 20, 09 - 2:39am
    Hey Pete,
    Sorry to hear about your experience.
    I'm a church leader. Knowing myself as I do, I definitely wouldn't trust myself.
    There's a very subtle shift in evangleical circles that I detect, with increasing focus on the person, people and away from the Word. Big and separate topic. Won't go into it now. BAck to church planting and the new network...
  • Chris Pettett
    March 23, 09 - 12:59pm
    Just a couple of thoughts:

    On the statistics Al quoted about church attendance: Do the figures of increased population and declining churches corrolate with migration to Australia by peoples from non-Christian nations? or has it nothing to do with that? or is it more complex? Knowing more on this may help better know the demographic of the nation, and therefore who can be reached.

    With churches, the question has to be what is a church? Is it the building, is it a structure, is it God's people, or is it His presense? Having a good idea of what a church is, grounded in a thorough Biblical knowledge, it might better help focus a more successful plant.

    I hope these thoughts are challenging rather than confronting.