Outside the office I once occupied in the International Mission Board’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia hung a beautiful posterized photograph of a group of Maasai warriors clustered beneath an acacia tree on the savannahs of East Africa. It was not until I visited the Maasai plains in 1999 that I returned to my office to immediately see that the photograph was a picture of a Maasai church. The Maasai conduct all of their important business beneath the shade of an acacia tree, so it was only natural that their scores of newly planted churches would meet beneath the same.

How can you recognize CPM churches when you see them? This is a good question, and one that does not have a simple answer.

One thing is for certain,

if you’re thinking cross-crowned steeples, then you’re probably not thinking Church Planting Movements. But if you’re thinking two guys in a room studying the Bible, you’ve also missed it.

Jesus made it clear that the church is a new covenant community. Recalling the twelve tribes of Israel, he chose twelve disciples to signify the creation of a ‘new Israel.’ Then Jesus placed himself in the center of that community with the words, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Paul seized on this truth when he referred to the church as the body of Christ. The body of Christ is alive and well in today’s Church Planting Movements.

Just as all churches around the world are unique, so it is with Church Planting Movement churches. As we have observed churches in Church Planting Movements around the world, here are some basic elements that we find in every one of them.

Common to all CPM Churches

  • All observe baptism and the Lord’s supper (though the frequency ranges from weekly to quarterly to annually)
  •  All meet regularly (though some on Sunday, some on Friday and some every night of the week) All have some kind of organization (though it varies, see below). All exhibit the five purposes of a church (evangelism, ministry, fellowship, discipleship and worship)

Differences in each CPM church

Even with these shared characteristics, it is remarkable how unique and distinct each of these churches are.
  • Types of leadership organization vary (e.g. Cambodia’s seven-member central committee;   China’s multiple leaders; Jedidistan’s Imams; Latin America’s pastors)
  • Average church size varies (Bhojpuri’s 85 members; Bangladesh’s 30 members; Cambodia’s 45 members; Madhya Pradesh’s 10 adults)

While central elements of baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the five purposes are found in each of the churches, other elements have been contextualized, informed by Scripture, and then adapted to each unique environment.

This is what we saw as Cambodian churches blended the seven deacons of Acts 6:5 with the Communist notion of a “Central Committee” to produce a pastoral leadership team called the “Seven-Member Central Committee.”

In the same manner, the Muslim background believers in Bangladesh met on Friday mornings seated in a circle under the leadership of a pastor whom they called their Imam.

Meeting in homes, the church size typically remains small and intimate, but ranges widely from the average 85 members in the Bhojpuri movement to 30 in Bangladesh to the 40-50 that we observed in Cambodia.

Don’t be afraid to see the church adapt itself to its environment. Size and shape are not the issue. What does matter is that these churches continue the work begun by Jesus two thousand years ago, even if they commence that work from beneath the shade of an acacia tree.

Adapted from David Garrison’s, Church Planting Movements, How God Is Redeeming a Lost World (Midlothian: WIGTake Resources, 2004), pp. 268-269.