Last month, NPR’s podcast This American Life released an episode titled “If You Build It, Will They Come?.” The prologue to this episode features reporter Eric Mennel explaining the idea of church planting to Ira Glass as “a group of evangelical Christians who apply the lessons of Silicon Valley to their goals of building new churches and growing their flock.” The observation (critique?) is poignant, and not entirely without merit.
Are Silicon Valley startup tactics the right–or only–way to plant a church? Are conferences and assessment seminars the proper way to get equipped, trained, and assessed? What are the options for hopeful church planters? I’m not offering a “right answer” here; I suspect there is not one right way. But, if Tim Keller’s Center Church or Jeff Vanderstelt’s Soma methodology don’t seem to be the right path for you (again, I’m not saying they’re bad paths or methodologies), you do have options.
There are many church planting models, and someone with a heart for planting will benefit from a careful study of them. But there’s far more that goes into preparing to plant than knowing and choosing a model. Church planters must have a plan, a vision, a timeline, a theology of planting, a cultural and contextual grasp of the need and the people, and a team of good people. Many of those aspects of the church plant process are organic and relative to a planter’s context. The question, however, remains: where do we go to walk through and be equipped for this demanding and challenging process?
Sending Churches, Planting Networks, and Seminaries
Of course most paths to church planting utilize a sending church to authorize and train the planter in some sense, and often to help send a small planting “core team” along. Church planters-to-be are increasingly going through planting networks and organizations such as Acts29, which now has 550 members (and hundreds more candidates and applicants), but many of them are not seminary-trained, and perhaps never will be. While a seminary is not a prerequisite to church planting necessarily, there are doubtless many future ministers and planters who deem that the wisest path for them to be well-equipped is through the path of a traditional seminary education.
Seminaries have always trained and equipped pastors for the work of ministry. As the perceived ontological difference between a “church planter” and a “pastor” grows culturally, some seminaries are finding it beneficial to go beyond training ministers, and train church planters specifically (synecdochally). Church planting degrees, programs, and certificates at the seminary level will offer more training on leadership, strategy, and even management–but do expect an appropriate and heavy emphasis on the robust theology and rich history that lies behind the concept of church planting. After all, it’s a two thousand year-old idea; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, only to adapt it to our modern roads.
Seminaries with A Church Planting Focus
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has launched a Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program with a Church Planting track. It is a three year post-graduate degree, and you can expect all the rigor and excellence that has become synonymous with the institution. “For the servants of Christ to keep pace by planting new churches in ways that will respond to the complexities of our times, they must be more theologically and culturally informed. Church planters need to be spiritual entrepreneurs, yet they also need to be far more: prayerful spiritual leaders, discerning cultural critics, and relevant Biblical preachers and teachers.” The program consists of one two-week residency each year for three years, a large book list (see a sample of the first residency’s list here), and a major-thesis project to polish it all off.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary offers a residential Master of Divinity (MDiv) with a concentration in Church Planting. (SBTS offers an online MDiv as well, but it doesn’t appear to support this concentration). This degree consists of the standard MDiv core requirements, plus 18 credits of courses specific to the church planting concentration:
- Field Seminar in Church Planting
- Missions in North America
- Introduction to Church Planting
- Intercultural Church Planting
- Models of Church Planting
- Church Multiplication Strategies
Reformed Theological Seminary’s campus in Charlotte, NC, is home to the RTS-Charlotte Center for Church Planting. There are several ways to be involved, but perhaps the most standard and robust way is the MDiv Church Planting Degree Emphasis. Students will take Principles of Church Planting, Church Planting Leadership, Evangelism in a Church Planting Context, Ministry in a Postmodern Context, and Christ, Culture, and Contextualization. Through these courses, additional seminars, and more the center strives to engrain these values into their ministers (as quoted from their website):
- Reformed Theology – we integrate the doctrines of grace and reformed ecclesiology into the design of new churches, which will emphasize the ordinary means of grace.
- Holiness of the Planter – we challenge future planters toward character as an essential piece of the church planter’s life and leadership.
- A Missions Mindset – we equip students for contextual, effective and multiplying ministry in the community.
- A Heart for International and Ethnic Church Planting – we develop a vision for church multiplication among the nations over here and over there.
- Shepherding – we call planters to care for the sheep while gathering lost sheep.
- Leadership Development – we challenge planters to lead and reproduce leaders for the kingdom.
- Church Health – we call future planters to spiritual depth and health in their new churches.
- A Winsome Spirit – we urge church planting pastors to win people to Christ and his church with a Gospel message of hope.
We are exploring more seminaries with a focus on church planting, as well as a special project in the North East US. Stay tuned for Part II!