Truth often exists in tension. One example is which comes first in church planting: evangelism or the church. The answer is both.
Evangelism Precedes Church Planting
J.D. Payne writes: “Biblical church planting is evangelism that results in new churches. There are many ways to plant churches; however, the model in the Scriptures is one that begins with evangelism and ends with those new churches following the Lord in obedience.”
In other words, don’t start with a church. Start with evangelism. In Acts, Paul and others would move into an area, preach, and see people come to Christ. They would then form a church out of the new believers, rather than starting with a worship service and evangelism to flow out of that.
Church planters are often in a rush to create a brand, design a website, and launch a service. But that’s not the place to start. The place to start is with evangelism. Pray and work so that a church forms from the harvest, not from people who are already Christians.
Ideally, You Need a Church to Evangelize
At the same time, churches are signs and instruments of the kingdom. The best evangelistic strategy is the church living out what it means to be the church. Both Jesus (John 13:35) and Paul (1 Corinthians 14:22-25) spoke of the witness that flows from the love and worship of the church.
Lesslie Newbigin put it well:
The primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? . . . The only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.
The best demonstration of the gospel today is the church.
Living in the Tension
We’re not supposed to resolve this tension. I think we’re supposed to live in it.
Let’s not mistake the launch of new brands, websites, and worship services for church planting. Let’s do what Paul did: purposely move into new communities with others, make disciples, and work and pray to form a new church from the harvest. Let’s maintain the passion and focus of missionary work in church planting.
At the same time, let’s emphasize the role of the church in evangelism. Church planting works best when it’s not an individual endeavor, but a team effort. Perhaps the best church planting is when a church starts with a small team on mission, living according to the irreducible ecclesiological minimums, while praying and working for a church to start from the harvest.
Church planting is evangelism that results in new churches. And one of the best ways to do that is through a church on mission. Which comes first? Both. Live in that tension, and you’re on the way to planting a biblical church.