This interview first appeared in The Briefing and has been provided courtesy of Matthias Media

It is a little-known fact that Calvin and the Genevan Consistory sent hundreds of trained missionaries into France and the rest of the Europe to preach the gospel and plant new congregations of believers. In this interview, The Briefing talks to Al Stewart about the ongoing importance of church planting in light of Al’s work with Evangelism Ministries in Sydney and The Geneva Push, a new Australia wide church-planting network whose name is derived from the work of Calvin and his colleagues.

Paul Grimmond: Tell us a little bit about Geneva. What are its aims and goals? What is it trying to do?

Al Stewart: It’s officially called ‘The Geneva Push’. It will actually be like a network of networks. Our main aim is to get people who are Reformed, evangelical and keen for evangelism around Australia cooperating. So at the moment, there’s good work being done in every state, but in many ways, it’s independent. We’ve found people within the same state who are working away, but they don’t necessarily know each other. What we’d like to do is work out a way of cooperating—of sharing resources and of encouraging one another to get better at things like the assessment of potential church planters.

PG: Do you think there’s a particular need for The Geneva Push right now? The Geneva team includes Mikey Lynch, Andrew Heard and yourself, who are all already involved in the task of church planting. Given that all these groups are already up and running, why the need for a national organization?

AS: I think we can do more together than we can do separately. For example, one of our hopes is to develop a job network. Right now I am aware of church planting opportunities within Sydney, North Queensland and many other places. Sometimes the opportunities are there, but not the planters. In other places, we’ve got people keen to plant, but they have no opportunity. So one of the things we’ll be able to do is match up people, places and money, and so on. That’s just one thing.

But there are also some guys who have really got this worked out, and they’ll be able to share their expertise. So, for example, I think Andrew Heard is one of the key leaders of our generation, and God has done an amazing work through him on the Central Coast. I think Andrew has a lot to teach us. His help will be vital for young guys as they get started. So another feature of Geneva will be to provide a platform for that kind of training.

PG: So what will be Geneva’s relationship with other denominations? Historically, there have been tensions between denominational structures and parachurch organizations. Is Geneva something that people are going to be afraid of, or will they embrace it?

AS: Yes, it is a pity that we keep fighting with each other, isn’t it. At the moment in Australia, there’s, what, two per cent—maybe three per cent—who are evangelical Christians. And we fight with each other instead of worrying about how to reach the other 97 per cent with the gospel. So I hope that Geneva won’t cause problems and that people won’t be threatened. What we want to do is invite people from all sorts of different denominations and networks who share our theology and our passion. On that note, we’ve worked out quite a detailed theological statement that we’ll ask people to sign because we want to work together on a faithful biblical platform. But we want to welcome anyone who wants to join us and work together under this bigger umbrella.

At the end of September 2009, we got 20 people together from all around the country—the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. We’ve got Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, independents and Reformed church people who are all interested in being a part of this. We want to work together to promote, recruit, assess and help church planters all around the country.

PG: Here in Australia, we often feel like the US and perhaps the UK are ahead of us in the church planting game. How much do we need to learn from what’s being done overseas, and how much do you think the Australian context is genuinely unique?

AS: It’s probably both. There’s lots we can learn, but the Australian context is also unique. I think American culture and the place of Christianity within American culture is quite different to Australia. I mean, Homer Simpson still goes to church, but Crocodile Dundee never would. I’m not devaluing what our American brothers do because they’ve got their own fights over there. But it’s a different culture in terms of numbers, and so on. However, we can learn a lot from the Americans about being deliberate about how we do things. They really are fair dinkum about what they’re doing, and they make things happen. It’s just very impressive. And they’re generous, they’re prepared to take risks, they step out, they cooperate, they’re not parochial—all sorts of positive things. Just watching them leads you to say, “Oh yeah, I can see how to do that now!”

We can’t just transpose expectations about numbers and growth, but then I don’t hear any of our American brothers saying that we should. What can we learn from the Americans? At the very least, we can learn from their ‘can do’ attitude, their organizational wisdom and their single-mindedness about what they’re doing. They’ve also been incredibly generous: the Acts 29 network has given Geneva their church planter assessment documents and methods. They’ve just given it to us! We’ll adapt it to Australia. But how’s that for generous!

With the English scene, God-willing, I’ll spend a month in England in March 2010. I’m doing a mission with Richard Coekin and a bunch of other churches. While I’m over there, I’d like to see a whole lot of the church planting stuff they’re doing in England because I think that culturally and in terms of attitudes to church, England is much closer to Australia. So maybe in terms of ministry, we may have more to learn from England than America.

But we also need to learn from guys here who have done it. The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches now have between 16 and 20 churches. That’s about 4,000 people in church. Each church has just been a cold turkey start-up. We’ve got lots to learn from those working in our own backyard—lots to learn about how they’ve done what they’ve done.

I think we can learn from America and we can learn from England, but let’s not get stars in our eyes about overseas. We’ve got to work out how to do this here in Australia as well.

PG: I’ve heard these two terms—‘grounded’ and ‘growing’—being talked about in relation to Geneva. How are they key descriptions of what Geneva’s about?

AS: They’re Andrew Heard’s terms. One of Andrew’s great strengths is that he thinks theologically, and because he’s tough-minded, he’s working out what will give foundation for these churches so that in 50 years’ time, God-willing, this movement will still be going. We’ll be gone, but the movement will still be going—that’s what we hope. By ‘grounded’, Andrew means that they will be grounded theologically. They won’t be built on simple pragmatism; they will be Reformed and evangelical. They will have a solid doctrine of Scripture so that the ministry philosophy will be right. They’ll be about teaching the word to people.

And then ‘growing’: the idea is to build into the DNA of our churches a passion to reach the lost. Many of our existing churches are not growing, and are, I’ve got to say, not places that you’d bring your friends to. I know we all say, “Bring your friends to church”, but almost no-one does, and no-one ever admits the emperor has no clothes on. But the passion to reach the lost, and a willingness to change, to take risks and to engage appears to have been lost in so many of our churches. So, God-willing, we want to start churches that have the desire to reach people, to change, to take risks and to move forward built into their DNA.

We need new churches. But we also need to revitalize our existing churches. So many are doing a great good job, and we also need new churches. We will need church planting in every generation because the DNA begins to slip and we become comfortable and there’s less evangelism happening. That’s why we need to be planting more and more churches.

The Baptists did this with enormous success around 1900. AJ Waldock revolutionized the Baptist churches in New South Wales by deliberate and strategic church planting. That’s 100 years ago. God-willing, we’re going to do it again.

PG: You’ve talked about creating churches that have evangelism as part of their DNA. But some people wonder about the relationship between church planting and evangelism. Does church planting equal evangelism? How do those two things go together?

AS: Church planting doesn’t necessarily equal evangelism. If you start a new church plant and just strip mine keen Christians out of local churches, it’s a complete waste of time. In fact, it’s worse than a waste of time. We want to start churches that will reach non-Christians. We want to have guys who are frontline evangelists. That’s what we want church planters to be. So we are praying that God will call churches into being through seeing people converted and evangelized. Our aim isn’t to rearrange the deck chairs of Christians in a certain area.

Take me personally: I’ve noticed that over the last little while, I’ve dropped out of frontline personal evangelism. I’ve still been speaking—I’ve still being doing itinerant gospel speaking—but I’ve dropped out of frontline evangelism. So, God-willing, next year, I’m going back to City Bible Forum (which is a Sydney ministry to office workers in the central business district). I’ll speak there as often as I can, and just start meeting with people in the city—reading the Bible with people who aren’t Christian, doing dialogue meetings in boardrooms. I realized I’ve got to get back to the frontlines myself.

PG: It’s really hard to keep that continually boiling over and to keep that at the front of our agenda when so many other things take up the space. But it’s really vital, isn’t it.

AS: Yes, absolutely. The trouble is what takes up the space is good things. They’re just not the best thing.

PG: The strategy for Geneva involves raising up the next generation of church planters, and equipping and training them. What are going to be the chief ways in which Geneva sets out to achieve those goals?

AS: Almost every second day, I have a young man contact me about his desire to be a church planter. We’ve got a list of a couple hundred guys who are interested. The good thing is that people are keen, and I’m sure God’s hand is in this. The thing to be careful of is that church planting appears kind of glamorous and fun. But as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get hit”. So we want to make sure that people who line up to do this have been given the gifts to do it.

When we went to Seattle to visit the Acts 29 network, Andrew Heard and I did the Acts 29 church planter assessment, which involves six or seven different documents—from a CV and a theological statement, through to applying the gospel to particular situations and having a sermon reviewed. It’s quite thorough. Then there’s a two-hour interview with three pastors or church planters, with one of their wives sitting in as well. Ideally for Acts 29, they have the church planter and his wife there. Unfortunately my Kathy couldn’t be with me in Seattle, but it was interesting that, at the end of two hours, the guys over there said, “Yes, we think you could do it, Al, but we’d like to talk to your wife to just make sure that you’re not rushing off ahead and leaving her behind”. If you know me and you know Kathy, they said a very wise thing. Andrew Heard underwent the same process, and you’ll be pleased to know that Andrew Heard passed.

That’s the kind of process we’re looking to set up for Geneva church planters. We’ll ask people to do the documents online, and then at our ‘In the Chute’ conference, we’ll sit down with them—with both the husband and wife who want to be church planters—and with maybe three or four guys who have been in ministry for a long time, along with one of their wives, and take them through the process. We’re looking for entrepreneurial leadership and an ability to be an evangelist. We want people who are emotionally robust—people who are probably a little bit psycho in a way. I don’t know how to say that in a politically correct manner, but you need to be a bit crazy to want to do this. From what I see, this kind of analysis helps to dramatically reduce the burnout and the damage that comes when guys aren’t really suited for it.

PG: Is being a bit crazy something you can learn, or is it just something that’s hardwired into you?

AS: A bit of both. I think you can be ready for this, but also have the need to be trained and to learn more. However, there are some people who really shouldn’t be church planters. I know some people who just crumple when something goes wrong or when someone says a harsh word to them. To put it a better way, some of my mates who are pastors find that conflict almost kills them. Well, they’re probably not wired to be a start-up church planter. You need to be an optimist—an entrepreneur.

Now that’s not to say that these people are any better than anyone else. God’s just wired us all differently. It was interesting to observe the Acts 29 network: if they say at the end, “You’re not suited to do this”, they don’t say you’re not suited for ministry; they just say, “You need to find a ministry that God’s wired you for”.

It’s not 100 per cent certain that you will succeed. We’re not perfect. But we’ll do our best to give wise advice to young guys who are lining up for this.

PG: So we need to find church planters who are wired to do this. But surely they can’t do everything on their own. What does this church planting movement mean for the rest of us who are in churches around the country? How do we get involved? What does it mean to be part of a group of God’s people who are excited about and who are planning for this kind of thing?

AS: We don’t want to create two levels of ministry where if you’re involved in a church plant that’s new, sexy and exciting, that’s better than if you’re at St Yawn’s and are just kind of sitting on your hands, waiting for the Lord to return. We don’t want that. Those who are gifted and have a real heart for this will, in almost every case, we’ll be looking to draw together a core team of eight—ten—a dozen people who are committed enough to move to an area and organize their lives to reach either a geographic area or a particular network of people with the gospel. Not everyone on that team needs to be the hardcore evangelist; what you need is a group of people who are committed to doing this.

Wayne Pickford is a great evangelist who works for the church army. He’s been doing adopt-a-block at Berkeley.[1] Wayne started with a group of eight people who were mostly from Dapto Anglican, I think. These people committed themselves to knock on the same doors once a week for months—in fact, years. And that’s what they’ve done: they’ve gone and got to know people, and spoken about Jesus as they were able. It may have taken six months of doorknocking, but they kept coming back and coming back, and now there’s a great church that’s been started out of that. But that’s because some very ordinary people (like me; I think I’m very ordinary as well!) committed to continually coming back, getting to know people and plugging away. Wayne is out of the box, but the other members of his team are just ordinary people like you and me.

PG: So Al, what can we pray for as Geneva gets up and going?

AS: Would you pray for wisdom for Andrew Heard, Mikey Lynch and myself? We really are making this up as we go. What does it need to look like? How do we do it? The other thing is that there are so many things and so many hands up that we’ve got to choose who to work with and how to do that. Please ask God to provide the finances. We’ve had one generous donor make a substantial donation, but we need to find a few more significant donors over the next six months so that we can cover our initial expenses. We need to set up the online presence; we need someone who will put our coaching network together, and so on.

PG: And we need to pray for God’s great generosity towards us—that he’ll pour out his Spirit, and that we’ll see lots and lots of people coming to know Christ in the coming weeks, months and years through all this work. Al, thanks very much for your time!

AS: Thank you, Paul! Thanks a lot, mate!


[1] See Paul Grimmond, ‘Jars of clay: The reluctant doorknocker’, Briefing #374 November 2009, p. 14.