There is no more vital question for church planting. It will be raised in peculiar ways in the planning stage, but it will never go away. It should keep motivating and restraining our ministries.
Basics of church
The church is Christ's people: 'the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof' (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.1). This is the teaching of passages such as Mat 16 or Eph 1: the universal church.
Some great thinking about church from Sydney Anglicans has benfitted many other networks around the world. This view of church gives us a biblical-theological way of thinking about the church: it is not merely a collective noun for believers, but the gathering (the Greek for 'church' is 'gathering') of believers around the saviour God as he speaks to his people. As Israel gathered around the Lord at Sinai, so now the church gathers around Christ (eg Hebrews 12).
Any local gathering of Christians is an expression of this universal gathering. It does not get legitimacy from institution, leadership or ceremony, but from Christ and his salvation. Whenever and wherever Christ's people gather around his word, we have the church.
This view builds our view of church on the gospel. Christ's death and resurrection makes and moulds the church. But as a complete definition of church, it's not without some tricky practicalities. Let me share with you two that relate to church planting.
If the church is found wherever two or three gather around Christ, why not call growth group church? Why not call family devotion church? Why not call the AFES ministry church?
Some people might quite like the idea of that. But it has some grave problems:
Are Christians members of multiple churches all at once? Do you appoint elders to each of these groups? Do restrictions about gender roles apply to each gathering equally? What about 1 Corinthians 14:35 that creates a distinction between speaking in church and at home? Besides, in practice even the radicals have a defined group of people they consider to be a distinct church.
What is the solution? I suggest that although 'gathering around Christ' is a necessary definition of church and even a sufficient definition, it is not an exhaustive definition. There are other things that can contribute to our understanding of church such as ordained leadership and formal structure.
A new church plant has everything it needs to be a church before it has a public service, a paid pastor, a building or a budget. But it is right to want this church, as missionaries say, to have the 'three selfs': self-sustaining, self-governing, self-propogating.
The church is a spiritual reality, but it is also a human institution. There are some parallels with marriage. You don't need a marriage certificate to be married. And yet marriage is a social institution too. When are you married? On one level, when you make the promise to one another and consummate those promises. On another level, when the celebrant says so.
In same way, when does a growth group become a church? On one level, when people gather around Christ in worshipping faith. On another level, when we say so! That is, when that church is recognised by its members, or its mother church as a distinct local church.
Just as we can declare a couple husband and wife or ordain some as an elder, so also we can declare a gathering to be a distinct church. This is part of the institutional nature of human existence.
2. Multi-service? Multi-site?
Can you have one church that meets in multiple Sunday services, even at multiple sites? Is it fair to call this 'church'? Is it ok to simply 'declare' this to be a church, even though there are really a network of gatherings?
Some have thought this through and say it is absolutely fine and indeed practically necessary in order to enable further growth. But seems to me that many adopt this approach, to not disturb a traditional service or to mobilise a new demographic, without even thinking about it – which is a problem in itself.
Others say there is a significant problem. Recently, 9 Marks Journal devoted an entire issue to exploring multi-service, multi-site church. It argues that it is inaccurate to describe such multi-service networks as 'church', for they do not actually gather. In fact, it claims that it is inappropriate for a senior pastor to exercise executive leadership over what is in reality a group of churches.
How would I respond? I think the 9 Marks crew have a point and I think, for the sake of consistency and faithfulness, pastors of multi-service, multi-site churches need to think carefully about conceiving their church as a network of churches or else find meaningful ways to gather together.
If a multi-service church thinks of itself as a network of churches, this might well change the way they badges themselves (St Mikey's Baptist ChuchES) and place some restrictions on how leadership is exercised across the churches.
If a multi-service church wishes to remain a single church, they would do well, I believe, to find meaningful ways to gather together, if not weekly, then several times a year in conferences, congregational meetings, combined celebration services and so on.
Whichever approach is taken, it must be shaped by the biblical teaching about the church and not merely practical issues.
There is plenty more that could be explored, objections to be answered and applications to be discovered. This article is first of all, an encouragement to let theology drive our approach to church.