Church Planting: Focus on the Forest Instead of the Trees

All analogies break down, so bear with me here. But I want to share this one with you, because I think it does a good job of answering why your area (and mine) needs new churches. A church is, in some ways, like a tree.

Churches have a life cycle.

All churches have a life cycle. Do not believe me? Where are all the churches that Paul planted in Acts? Every church is born, grows, matures, and eventually dies. That is not a bad thing, it is a real thing. It is the nature of churches.

However, for good, healthy churches we hope this life cycle is more like a tree than a person. Nevertheless, it is the way of the world that local churches will eventually run their race to the end. Instead of pretending this reality does not exist, we should appreciate the ministry of churches while they do the vital Great Commission work that all local churches are called to and then celebrate the legacy of their impact as their time comes to a close.

We should fight for their health.

Let me be clear though, just because churches eventually die does not mean we should hasten that end. Just like I do not think we should dismiss our grandparents when they start slowing down, I fully believe we should do all we can to rehabilitate churches that are in decline. We should fight for the health of existing churches as long as we have them. And perhaps unlike grandparents, old churches can take on a completely new life through the revival of a gospel-centered mindset and have new, fruitful ministry for another generation. Perhaps that “dying” church simply slowed down for a lap and is primed to catch its second wind.

Revitalization will be an increasingly important ministry for local churches in North America in the coming decade. We need more people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and nurse dying churches back to health. We also need churches humble enough to admit that they need corrective action.

We should always be planting new ones.

Imagine with me a forest full of trees. A mature forest fills an area with life. Great big, old trees tower over saplings and undergrowth. The beauty of a forest comes when all the trees are taken in as a whole.

In many ways, this is what we should aspire to in any community when it comes to local church presence. Three times in the book of Acts, Luke provides this beautiful little summary statement concerning the spread of the gospel across the known world. He says the word of God grew and multiplied. The word for grow is the same one used by Paul in Corinthians when he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). In fact, that word is used a lot, and it is regularly an agricultural term. The gospel spread and grew like a forest across the Mediterranean. We want to see the growth of the gospel.

A mature forest will not last if new trees are not planted before the old ones die. For a forest to have continued growth, the new trees need to be planted alongside the old, so that the cycle continues. In fact, in nature the old trees provide the seed for the new, replacing themselves so the area always has shade.

I believe there are areas across North America where we see this exact reality, only with churches. Cities that were once covered with churches now have only a few hanging on. Grand church sanctuaries of yesteryear are being turned into chic coffee shops and shopping centers. When we lose sight of planting new churches, the overall gospel witness in the city will diminish over time. And let us be clear, the book of Acts concerned itself with the growth of the gospel, not the growth of one specific, local church. After all, Luke recorded the growth and multiplication of the word of God. That was his focus, and it should ultimately be ours.

Let us do all we can for the health of our mature churches. However, may our perspective be on saturating our cities with the gospel, and that happens when old churches and young churches and small churches and big churches do everything they can to multiply themselves across a city. May we not be caught so concerned about the growth of our own church that we neglected to replace ourselves. Otherwise our forests will eventually become empty fields.

 

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