Below is a chapter out of our Perspectives text book that really meant a lot to Carrie and me. GEM is seeking the Lord for ways to replicate the work being done in India as described here. Let this serve as an example of how God can use us in miraculously huge ways.
Look to the nations, watch and be utterly amazed for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told. —Habakkuk 1:5
Several years ago this verse came to life in ways I never dreamed possible. It was the time of year when missionaries send in their annual reports to agency headquarters. Missionaries are busy people and rarely enthusiastic about stopping long enough to tell how many new believers were baptized, how many new churches were started or how many unreached people groups they had introduced to the gospel. Each year these reports typically show modest growth in each of these key areas.
But this year was different. David and Jan Watson, serving in India, made an incredible claim. Their report listed nearly a hundred cities, towns, and villages with new churches and thousands of new believers.
Headquarters was skeptical. “This can’t be,” they said. “Either you’ve misunderstood the question or you’re not telling us the truth.”
The words stung, but David held his tongue. “Come and see,” he said.
Later that year, a survey team headed by Watson’s supervisor arrived in India to investigate. They visited Lucknow, Patna, Delhi, Varanasi, and numerous towns and villages listed in David’s report. The supervisor later commented, “I went in very doubtful, but we were wrong. Everywhere we went it was exactly as Watson had reported. God was doing something amazing there.”
Amazing…difficult to believe. Those are the very words of Habakkuk. They took on a surprising new relevance. “Look to the nations, watch and be utterly amazed for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told.”
Amazing Reports of Movements
A year later, another report from Southeast Asia described a similar eruption of new churches. The following year, missionaries serving in Latin America witnessed the same sort of spontaneous multiplication of hundreds of new churches. Two more similar reports came in from China. We began to refer to these amazing phenomena as church planting movements.
The reports haven’t stopped coming. As He promised, God is doing something extraordinary in our day. As He draws a lost world to himself, church planting movements appear to be a large part of how He’s doing it.
In East Asia, a missionary reported: “I launched my three-year plan in November, 2000. My vision was to see 200 new churches started among my people group over the next three years. But four months later, we had already reached that goal. After only six months, we had already seen 360 churches planted and more than 10,000 new believers baptized! Now I’m asking God to enlarge my vision.”
Chinese Christians in Qing’an County of Heilongjiang Province planted 236 new churches in a single month. In 2002, one church planting movement in China brought about 15,000 new churches and baptized 160,000 new believers in a single year.
During the decade of the 1990s, Christians in a Latin American country overcame relentless government persecution to grow from 235 churches to more than 4,000 churches with more than 30,000 converts awaiting baptism.
A pastor in Western Europe wrote: “Last year my wife and I started 15 new house churches. As we left for a six-month stateside assignment, we wondered what we’d find when we returned. It’s wild! We can verify at least 30 churches now, but I believe that it could be two or even three times that many.”
After centuries of hostility to Christianity, many Central Asian Muslims are now embracing the gospel. In Kazakhstan, the past decade has seen more than 13,000 Kazakhs come to faith, worshiping in more than 300 new Kazakh churches. A missionary in Africa reported: “It took us 30 years to plant four churches in this country. We’ve started 65 new churches in the last nine months.”
In the heart of India, in the state Madhya Pradesh, one church planting movement produced 4,000 new churches in less than seven years. Elsewhere in India, the Kui people of Orissa started nearly 1,000 new churches during the 1990s. In 1999, they baptized more than 8,000 new believers. By 2001 they were starting a new church every 24 hours. In Outer Mongolia, a church planting movement saw more than 10,000 new followers. Another movement in Inner Mongolia counted more than 50,000 new believers—all during the decade of the 1990s.
Over the past two decades, many millions of new believers have entered Christ’s Kingdom through church planting movements. We’ve seen them in every part of the world.
What are Church Planting Movements?
A concise definition of church planting movements is a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment. The definition above attempts to describe what is happening in church planting movements rather than trying to prescribe what could or should happen. After studying scores of these movements, we’ve come to identify four characteristics: rapid multiplication, the planting of churches, indigeneity, and occurring within a people group or its equivalent.
1. Multiplies Rapidly
A church planting movement multiplies rapidly. Within a very short time, newly planted churches are already starting new churches. The next generation of churches usually follow the same pattern of rapid reproduction. “How rapid is rapid?” you may ask. Perhaps the best answer is, “Faster than most would think possible.” Though the rate varies from place to place, church planting movements always outstrip the population growth rate as they race toward reaching the entire people group.
Church planting movements do not simply add new churches. Instead, they multiply. Surveys of church planting movements indicate that virtually every church is engaged in starting multiple new churches. Perhaps this is why church planting movements rarely aim to start handfuls of additional churches in a particular area. Instead, these churches are satisfied with nothing less than a vision to reach their entire people group or city.
A church planting movement is indigenous. Indigenous literally means generated from within, as opposed to started by outsiders. In church planting movements, the first church or churches may be started by outsiders, but very quickly the momentum shifts from the outsiders to the insiders. Consequently, within a short time, the new believers coming to Christ in church planting movements may not even know that a foreigner was ever involved in the work. In their eyes the movement looks, acts, and feels homegrown.
3. Churches Planting Churches
Church planting movements are characterized by churches planting churches. Though church planters typically start the first churches, at some point the churches themselves get into the act. When churches continue to plant new churches, which in turnplant even more churches, something changes in the character of the incipient movement. No longer does the mother church control what takes place amidst the greatgrandchild churches.
When new churches begin to surge with exponential multiplication, a certain critical point is reached. Some have likened that critical moment to a “tipping point,” or to dominoes falling, or to a dam breaking that releases cascading rivers as flowing movements.
Every genuine church planting movement is in some respect an out-of-control movement, which mushrooms with multiplying life from church to church to church. Many near-church planting movements fall short at this critical point, as church planters struggle to control the reproducing churches. But when the momentum of reproducing churches outstrips the ability of the planters to control it, a movement is underway.
4. Within People Groups
Finally, church planting movements occur within people groups or interrelated population segments. Because church planting movements involve the communication of the gospel message, they naturally occur within shared language and ethnic boundaries. However, they rarely stop there. As the gospel works its changing power in the lives of these new believers, they take the message of hope to other people groups.
God’s Work and the Vital Role of Christians
In church planting movements, the role of the missionary or outsider is heaviest at the beginning. Once the people group begins responding, it is vitally important for outsiders to become less and less dominant while the new believers themselves become the primary harvesters and leaders of the movement.
Church planting movement practitioners have been quick to give the glory for the movement to God, so much so, in fact, that some have described the movements as purely an act of God. “We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to,” one fellow remarked. His humility was admirable, but misleading. Reducing a church planting movement to a purely divine miracle has the effect of dismissing the role of human responsibility. If God alone is producing church planting movements, then God alone is to blame when there are no church planting movements.
The truth is God has given Christians vital roles to play in the success or failure of these movements. Over the past few years, we’ve learned that there are many ways to obstruct and even stop church planting movements. In many instances, well-intentioned activities that are out of step with the ways of God have served to slow or even kill a movement.
Church planting movements are miraculous in the way they transform lives, but they are also quite vulnerable to human tampering. That is why we must become students of the ways God is at work in these movements. We need to learn how God is using church planters, missionaries, insiders and outsiders to bring about these movements.
We must also learn what factors can slow, cripple, or even halt church multiplication. To study such factors does not indicate a lack of faith in God’s lordship over salvation history. To study and actively pursue church planting movements demonstrates that we really do believe Christ’s commission to “Go and make disciples of all nations….”
As one missionary so aptly put it: “We know the outcome of the story. We know that God will be glorified among all nations. But how this will come to pass? That’s the unknown; that’s the mystery; that’s the adventure.”