This article is written in two parts, both of which are supported by a PowerPoint presentation with notes that can be downloaded here.
What do CPMs, Church Planting Movements, look like up close? What would we see if we went right down into the living room of a house church that was in the middle of a rapidly multiplying movement of new churches?
There are a wide range of church types found within the world’s many different Church Planting Movements, and they are not all of the same quality. We have little to gain from imitating the least exemplary churches in these movements. Let us look instead to some of the best practices in Church Planting Movement churches.
What is a church?
First things first: what are we calling a church? We could fill dozens of volumes responding to this question. With more than 40,000 Christian denominations in our world today, you can bet that there are many forms of church in existence.
Though a church may develop many expressions, it is, at its core…
a community of believers seeking to obediently follow Jesus Christ. Viewed from God’s perspective, the church is the continuation on earth of what his Son began 2,000 years ago. We see the biblical foundation for this in the book of Acts and the writings of Paul where the church is referred to as “the body of Christ.”
In this sense, when Luke writes in Acts chapter 1 verse 1: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach,” the implication is that the book of Acts, the second in Luke’s two-volume work, will describe all that Jesus will continue to do and teach through his body the church. Consequently, when Saul, the persecutor of the early church, is struck down on the road to Damascus, the voice of Christ speaks to him saying: “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me (Acts 9:4).” This makes it clear that it is not Luke or Paul or the early church that has chosen to identify itself so intimately with the risen Christ, it is Christ himself.
Having laid this foundational understanding, let’s now move onto the topic of what makes Church Planting Movement churches so special.
What are CPM churches like? Surely they are different from the traditional churches that many of us grew up in. But how different are they? How different can they be, and still be churches in any meaningful sense of the word?
What kind of churches?
What kind of churches reproduce rapidly, sweeping millions of new believers into the kingdom? This is the quantitative question regarding CPM churches. How is it that they can so rapidly reproduce and assimilate the tens of thousands of new believers that we find within these movements? An equally important question, though, is the qualitative question. How can these churches actually grow in their Christlikeness and doctrinal faithfulness over time?
Answering one question without addressing the other will fail to capture the full picture of how God is at work in these CPM churches.
As we examine churches in CPMs around the world we see how they have adapted themselves to their local context. The have taken different names for their churches, or no names at all.
They are different
It should not surprise us that they have also taken different names for their leaders. Just as the New Testament churches adopted names from its social context, so too these CPM churches call their leaders names that make sense within their own context: elder, pastor, guru, bishop, imam, etc. One church network that I visited in Cambodia some years ago, organized their village churches around a seven-member central committee. As I began to ask questions, it became clear that they had chosen seven members in response to the early church’s Acts 6 naming of seven deacons. The term ‘central committee’ was something they learned during the days of the Communist Khmer Rouge; every functioning community was structured around a central committee, what we in the West might call a ‘leadership team’ or ‘church council.’
Though CPM churches tend to be smaller than traditional churches, this is not always the case. One of the Church Planting Movements in Madya Pradesh, India aims for an optimal church size of 10 baptized adult believers. The average church size among the Muslim-background believers in Bangladesh, though, was 35 members, while the average church size among the Bhojpuri believers was 85 believers, and among one people group in southeast Asia, the average church had 100 members. Across China, the average church in the work that we surveyed was 19 baptized believers.
They are the same
Despite their differing cultural expressions, CPM churches like all true churches share the same desire and commitment to follow the teachings of Christ for his followers. For this reason, when an outsider visits a CPM church, he or she immediately senses a common Spirit and quality to that church. The forms may vary, but the Spirit of Christ remains the guiding impulse. As such, there are unmistakable ways that these churches are alike, wherever they are found. They all conduct some form of worship, engage in fellowship, do ministry, disciple new believers in the ways of Christ, and reach out to the lost with the gospel of salvation. In this way, all of these churches glorify God by revealing the life, work and teachings of Christ, in whom the fullness of the glory of God is revealed.
Facing a common challenge
Like all churches, CPM churches face the challenge of quality and quantity. How do you multiply exponentially without losing your commitment to grow in Christlikeness? As one critic of CPMs stated: “A heretical movement is still heretical.”
The remarkable thing about CPMs is that we have not found these movements to be rife with heresy. How is it that these rapidly reproducing churches manage to keep themselves free of heresy?
In truth, there are errors in CPM churches; sins of heresy and immorality do threaten these churches just as they do traditional churches. It is also true that some CPM churches are more effective than others at instilling Christlike obedience within their membership. Let’s take a moment to examine the challenge of reproducing both quality and quantity in these movements.
Only by keeping both quantitative and qualitative considerations in mind can we truly answer the question, “What are CPM churches?”
Extremes to avoid
While there are many types of churches in CPMs, there are perils that all churches face as they seek to obey the twin commands of Christ to a) make disciples, and b) of all nations. This is the challenge of quality and quantity. In Church Planting Movements, the challenge expresses itself in the form of extremes that can stop a CPM.
Some churches may be very reproducible, and even multiplying rapidly, but if they are not exhibiting the qualities of a church in faithfully reproducing the life, work, ministry and teachings of Christ, then they have fallen away from a healthy Church Panting Movement.
On the side of the road, are churches that exhibit all the qualities that we associate with church except that they are not only not reproducing rapidly, they are not capable of reproducing rapidly. They may look good and healthy to us, but their sterility reveals that there is something wrong with them.
Church Planting Movement churches, at their very best are churches in every sense of the word, and yet they are able to reproduce rapidly. How do they do this?
The pages that follow will unpack that question and offer some insights from a CPM best practice in Bangalore, India.
We started a church
In July 2002, in Bangalore India, we started a little church in our home. It grew over the next twelve months, but in fact we didn’t really get organized until around July 2003. For a year we had been playing church. Once we got organized, though, things began to change. Not only did we start functioning as a community living out the commands and example of Christ, we began to see our church model reproduced in a growing number of other churches throughout the city and neighboring states.
In the 14 months following our organization of Rajaghatta Baptist Church, the church’s members trained others and multiplied itself into 15 newly organized churches and 24 emerging churches. These churches spread through five different streams in six different languages that penetrated five different unreached people groups.
A multiplying movement
In July 2005, just before our family returned to the U.S. for a year of furlough, I did a quick audit of how the movement was going. As they learned to organize their own churches into self-governing, self-supporting, self-reproducing, and self-feeding and correcting communities, their numbers multiplied. The nine Kamma churches became 23 churches. The network of churches begun by our church member Paulson grew from four churches to 15 with 500 new believers and 50 baptisms. The work among Urdu-speaking Muslims swelled from 10 Isa Jamaats to 30. Among the unreached Vanniyar, the number of church starts increased from five to 27.
Not every church network reproduced in the same way. There were many dead ends and restarts. Some didn’t reproduce at all. One brother named Nagaraj quickly started 10 churches, which lost one church during the first 14 months of existence. Then Nagaraj got married and was understandably distracted from church planting. Over the next nine months the Telegu churches did not reproduce.
Several missionaries set out to start a storying church network to reach non-literates. Though they were able to form a group, it failed to reproduce in 22 months time.
In all, the multiplying movements that spread from the training and planting of Rajaghatta church members grew to 106 new churches planted over a 22 month period of time.
Multiplying leaders and churches
In addition to sharing the gospel with these men and women, we trained them how to plant churches, and how to organize those churches to become self-governing, self-supporting, self-reproducing, self-correcting and self-feeding churches. As these churches became organized, they began effective communities of faith that were growing weekly in Christlikeness while multiplying new life in Christ among the lost around them.
How were they organized? In truth, each one was distinct. But I can tell you what our church practiced, and what we taught the leaders of each of these reproducing church networks.
Our aim was to faithfully reproduce churches that were consistent with the New Testament ideal of following Christ and carrying forward his life, ministry and teachings. Because many of the people we were training were non-literate or marginally literate, we chose to use an easily remembered device, a hand, to communicate the kind of healthy church that is able to reproduce rapidly in any culture, while growing more and more Christlike with each passing week. We called this house church ecclesiology “A Handy Guide to Healthy Churches.”
Our challenge was to produce churches that could navigate the extremes of highly reproducible yet barely churches and highly developed churches that were incapable of reproducing. The human hand was chosen as a memory device because it was easy to find one, and easy to use it to trigger our memory of the key doctrines and precepts of a healthy reproducing church.