October 14, 2011

Church Planters and Missionolatry

by Eric Davis

I heard a pastor say recently: “If you know Jesus, I am sorry to break it to you: this church is not for you.” He continued by addressing those who came to know Jesus the previous week at the church: “Last week was the last week that [this church] existed for you.” Though maybe not to this degree, I think many of us fledgling-planters have erred on the side of an “its-all-about-mission” philosophy of ministry.

Certainly it is exciting when droves of souls are genuinely converted to Jesus Christ. No doubt, the church always needs a zeal for evangelism and I frequently see a lack thereof in myself, rooted in pride and laziness. Repentance is needed. Insofar as doxological zeal exists in church-planters, we ought to praise God.

However, grave consequences result among young church-planters and pastors who—even unknowingly—embrace an “all-about-mission,” “this-church-is-no-longer-for-you,” and “the-gospel-causes-us-to-look-up…not-in-to-ourselves-and-how-we’re-doing,” philosophy of ministry.

The error is that sanctification gets sacrificed on the altar of mission. It is an error I have made in my ministry, being so fixated on getting people in, I have neglected those who are already there.

This is not a problem isolated to church-planting, but one that is also prevalent in the YRR culture at large (but that’s for another article). Though few likely make it their stated goal to de-emphasize personal holiness, it is happening, and it’s pervasiveness will have certain consequences in church-planting and ministry for our generation.

I offer eight cautions for us fledgling-planters to avoid de-emphasis of sanctification in our ministries.

First, if you seek to plant a church that is “not for believers,” you will not plant a church. Instead, you will plant something like an ongoing evangelistic-crusade-event. It may even be an impressive and exponentially growing event, but it will not be a church. A church that does not exist for believers is not a church. But the church exists for believers because the church is the primary context for using spiritual gifts for mutual edification (Rom 12:4-8, 1 Pet 4:10-11). The church exists for believers because other believers are to be the recipients of the forty, or so, different one-another commands given in the NT. The church exists for believers because it is the church’s responsibility to train up new converts in everything that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:20). Evangelism was one thing he commanded, but not the only. Much of Paul’s commands to the churches (many to young church-plants) center around heavy effort given to personal holiness. To “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2) requires more than ongoing evangelism. It requires deep commitment in relationship with other believers for the purpose of working out your salvation.

A church-plant is for believers, while calling unbelievers to join in on both a deep personal, and community, effort of realizing the grace by which we have been justified.

Second, if you plant a church with a gospel that does not drive us towards regular self-examination, you will steer people towards a social-gospel. There is a lot of talk about the gospel these days, which is great. But the gospel is being reduced to something I imitate, rather than something by which I am saved and sanctified. We are viewing it as something to “display,” instead of good news by which I am progressively transformed through moritification of sin. The shift is subtle, but unsafe. The purpose of the gospel is not only to launch people out for humanitarian works. It is true that the power of the gospel is not restricted to justification, and that justification empowers transformation; to become complete in Christ, progressive sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14), is necessary. So we want people to examine themselves, to see if they are in the faith. If we plant churches without a specific philosophy of ministry to help cultivate personal holiness in people, we are not helping them ensure that they will see the Lord, and veering towards a social-gospel.

Third, an all-about-mission philosophy of ministry in church-planting risks neglecting the focus on spiritual maturity of the saints. Souls are born again to grow. Sheep need shepherds, not just door-openers. We are to equip the saints so that they “are no longer tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” giving care so that they “grow up in all aspects in Him who is the head” (Ephesians 4:14-15). Paul labored to not only evangelize the lost, but move every convert towards completion in Christ (Col 1:28-29). Missionolatry will birth a culture of immature Christians who disdain correction from others, ride imbalanced doctrinal hobby horses, indulge the flesh, and are carried about by winds of crafty doctrine. Church-plants, therefore, ought to position themselves to present everyone complete in Christ from the get-go, or the church will never grow beyond an evangelistic crusade.

Fourth, a church that is all about mission will quickly grow irrelevant. The de-emphasis on sanctification is producing an immature over-emphasis of cultural freedom that is plaguing the church today, especially us YRR’s, to the point where we are quickly becoming silly and irrelevant. We are giving too much attention to our faux-hawks and less to repentance of heart idols. Too much time is spent thinking how to offend cultural conservatives and making You-Tubes, and less mourning and weeping over sin. A lack of holiness cripples evangelism. Christ was so relevant, not because he was methodologically trained in missional living, but because he was so holy. The most effective missional living is not crafting the most culturally-relevant outreach technique, but in transformed people who are actually salt and light. Spiritual maturity through sanctification best equips God’s people for evangelism over cultural methodology. The church may look good at first, but will not equip people to be salt and light, and so will at best risk superficial conversions.

Fifth, a church that does not exist for believers will fail to care for the hurting needs of the sheep. Shepherds have a mandate to care for those souls among them (1 Pet 5:2). Believing spouses in a marriage plagued by years of mistrust and bitterness will not be instantly cured by evangelism training. A young Christian man enslaved to pornography requires more feeding than being told to live missionally. Church-plants that do not prioritize long-haul, unglamorous shepherding, will not move from an evangelistic crusade and towards a place where the hurting can really get care from mature saints.

Sixth, a church that does not exist for believers will fail to raise up biblically-qualified leaders. One of the most important steps a fledgling-planter needs to take from the outset of his ministry is to equip leaders. Church-planting leadership can be a lonely, vulnerable place for any young man. Competent leadership that will last in the rigorous demands of shepherding involves more than evangelism training. Certainly that is critical, but it is not exclusive. Paul’s letters to Timothy are packed with God’s will for the fledgling pastor/church-planter. Paul certainly commanded Timothy towards missional living (1 Tim 2:1-8, 2 Tim 4:5), but the bulk of the inspired pastoral charge is: upholding sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:3-5, 18-19; 4:1-6), training up qualified leaders (1 Tim 3:1-13, 5:17-22, 2 Tim 2:2), rigorous devotion to personal holiness and endurance (1 Tim 1:18-19, 4:6-12, 15-16, 6:11-16, 2 Tim 1:6, 2:1, 3-13, 20-22, 4:5), caring for the flock (1 Tim 5:1-16), and hard work in faithfully teaching the Scripture (1 Tim 4:11, 13-14, 2 Tim 2:15, 24-26, 4:1-2). As a church-planter gives himself to this, not only will he will be more missional, but he will equip young men around him for the marathon-endurance that is non-negotiable for biblical leadership.

Seventh, a church that does not exist for believers will risk future instability. Shepherds have the mandate to “ensure” the salvation of the flock (1 Tim 4:16). The shepherd’s vigilant self-watch is one means of ensuring that the saved continue, and finish, in the faith. An excessive focus on getting people to make a decision will neglect seeing them through the testing of their faith. Saints certainly will persevere. However, if souls are not cared for beyond a profession, then there will be no one there to wisely shepherd those never really converted to see that. Fledgling-planters, therefore, will do better to put more effort into vigilant self-watch, over maintaining a weekly evangelistic event.

Eighth, excessive focus on mission risks unfaithful shepherding. Shepherds will give an account for the souls over whom they give care (Heb 13:17). We will not give account for how many decisions we failed to prompt. Though it may feel painful to fill 32 pews on Sunday, while other “evangelebrities” are doing 5000, that ought not drive us to soothe our egotistical instability by missionolatry, and in effect neglect the sheep. Faithful care must be thankfully given to all 32 of them. They are precious souls for whom Christ died. They must be shepherded with eagerness, and without whipping them to fill more pews, so that you may hear, “Well done, good and faithful slave.” Jesus purchased those souls with his own blood and the Father cares to prepare them for a great wedding some day (Rev 19:7). In the meantime, shepherds are entrusted with his precious possessions, for whom an accounting will be given one day. Our stewardship of the Groom’s possessions does not end at their conversion, it only begins there. Therefore, the fledgling-planters should hit the ground running with a ministry plan to prioritize sanctification in light of this future accounting.

Sanctification and missional-emphasis need not be an either/or scenario.

Many of these are mistakes that I have made. My zeal to get people in was a proud and untamed immaturity that lusted for self-admiration by increasingly filled pews. These errors were fueled by an immature disdain to buckle down and do the day-to-day ordinary work of shepherding the flock of God that was already among me. A missional zeal can, in reality, cloak an idolatrous missionolatry: a worship of more and more, booming numbers as my secret way of self-affirmation (which I will examine in a future post). But the Person and finished work of Christ is my self-affirmation. He is to be worshiped, even over being missional.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
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  • Jerryw

    Absolutely dead-on, Eric! Piercing…Excellent

  • Paul

    Personally, one of the best posts I have read in a long time. So valuable and much appreciated. Thank you.

  • Simply a great article! What an awesome Biblically rich argument for some key characteristics of church. While you might have written this to dispel a falsehood, your article also does a tremendous job of providing positive advice.

    I really liked what you said here, “Second, if you plant a church with a gospel that does not drive us towards regular self-examination, you will steer people towards a social-gospel.” I think one of the huge takeaways of this post as a whole is that our relationship with Christ is vertical and horizontal. Vertically, we should be striving to be more like Christ, increasing in knowledge of Him through His Word, in communion with Him through prayer, and submitting to the inner sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Horizontally, as we’re being transformed in that way, we should be both evangelizing and making disciples. The second component – making disciples – again places the emphasis on that vertical relationship all believers should be having with Christ. It speaks to your words, “But the Person and finished work of Christ is my self-affirmation.”

    Thanks for the post!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Eric. I really appreciate how you navigate the waters of the church’s mission in this article. In one sense you have to be thankful for those that emphasis the mission of presenting of the gospel, but too often pastors have forgotten that we are also commanded to make disciples and shepherd the flock. I think you have asked the bigger question, “What exactly is the mission of the church?” I appreciate your thoughts.

  • Christ was so relevant, not because he was methodologically trained in missional living, but because he was so holy.

    Loved that quote. Reminded me of this gem from Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

    The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first. That is how revival comes. That must also be true of us as individuals. It should not be our ambition to be as much like everybody else as we can, though we happen to be Christian, but rather to be as different from everybody who is not a Christian as we can possibly be. Our ambition should be to be like Christ, the more like Him the better, and the more like Him we become, the more we shall be unlike everybody who is not a Christian.

    • Eric Davis

      Mike, that’s a great gem from the DLM. Thanks for that. -Eric

  • Karl Heitman

    Thanks for sharing lessons learned.

    Just curious: being a TMS grad, who or what primarily infuenced your thinking to become so consumed with merely “filling the pews?”

    • Daroncroberts

      “A missional zeal can, in reality, cloak an idolatrous missionolatry: a worship of more and more, booming numbers as my secret way of self-affirmation (which I will examine in a future post). But the Person and finished work of Christ is my self-affirmation.”

      As a pastor in training i found this quote above a precise and an accurate assessment of my own hearts temptation.

      Then I found this quote below to be describing why I want to worship myself in the areas above because doing this quote below is just too hard on my flesh. But this quote below describes real shepherding. John 10

      “These errors were fueled by an immature disdain to buckle down and do the day-to-day ordinary work of shepherding the flock of God that was already among me.”

      • Eric Davis


        It’s something we all struggle w/ in different ways, brother. You are not alone in the battle. Keep up the fight, though,


    • Eric Davis


      Thanks for stopping by the blog. I’m not sure I understand your question. Would you mind rephrasing it for me? Thanks,


      • Karl Heitman

        Sure. Please let me clarify: I know that TMS (I’m a current student) does not teach or in any way imply a philosophy of ministry that sums up to “get as many people in the pews as you can” which was part of the problem for you and is for many in the “missional” camp all over the US. I ask because I assume since you did not learn that from TMS/GCC (if that’s where you went to church in seminary), therefore, you must have had some outside influence coming out of TMS with that mindset, right? How did you come to a point where you became solely concerned with filling the pews (i.e. “being so fixated on getting people in”) and neglected “shepherding the flock of God that was already among” you? Does that make any sense?

        • Eric Davis


          Thanks for the clarification, brother. Here’s how I would answer that: Those struggles I mentioned were not specific points in my philosophy of ministry at any time, nor were they picked up elsewhere after I finished seminary. They were simply various manifestations of my sinful nature. Unfortunately, attending a certain seminary does not exempt us from subtle ministry pride. Some of those struggles I mentioned were just previously unseen manifestations of my pride. Our hearts are a factory of idols, as Calvin said. And in God’s good grace, he used church-planting in my life to show me previously unrealized depths of my sin; namely, a blind craving of more filled pews. Its a good desire to want conversions and growth, but when it becomes a ruling desire, it can blind you and wreak ecclesiological havoc in its wake, as I’ve described in the post.

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  • Matt

    Good stuff. I am thankful that you are my pastor and that I have the privilege of serving with you.

  • Len Hjalmarson

    There is a rhythm to the inward and outward life because the Church should mirror the life of the Trinity. Inward in love, outward in mission. Rhythms that are broken always create trouble.

    I picture discipleship as a bicycle. The front wheel provides direction (following Jesus and growing in His image) and the rear wheel provides traction (mission). The bicycle works when both wheels are turning. Try reversing the wheels – trouble. Lose the rhythm of up and down, up and down – trouble.

    Great commandment and great commission. Whenever we go either/or we are in for trouble.

  • Alan Briggs

    Great thoughts Eric. That are many dangers here and I appreciate you putting your finger on one of them. Keep writing and thinking critically! http://www.frontlinechurchplanting.com

  • Anonymous

    Wow! Bingo. Thanks for speaking to the issues of our day with wisdom and clarity. “Stay the course.” 🙂

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