I see it regularly: young church planters who want to move to some other city and plant an exact copy of their sending church. Both in my role at the seminary and as a pastor of a church that sends a number of planting teams, it is not uncommon for me to hear future planters verbalize this desire. It is always well-intentioned. After all, these planters were trained and equipped in those churches. Often, it was their love for this church and its mission that compelled them to plant in the first place. If only others could experience what they have in their sending church, then they would understand real Christian community. At least, that is how the reasoning goes. But there are some really important reasons why attempting to plant an exact copy of your sending church is bad idea.
Church planting is not church franchising.
A franchise is an agreement where a partner is allowed to open up a new store using the brand, model, and methods of the parent company. Think of fast food chains here. Many are franchises, The result, if done well, is an exact Xerox copy of the original. It is the same thing, just in a different place. Many planters think this is how they should plant. Unfortunately they are wrong for at least two reasons.
Context Must Direct the Model
For a church to be healthy (or make sense at all to those around it), it must grow out of the soil in which it is planted. It is called church planting for a reason. A church plant needs the freedom to look different from its parent church, because the context where it resides is different. Different contexts dictate different models. Cities are not all the same. In fact, American cities are now so diverse and culturally complex that two contexts in the same city will require radically different models of church.
What works in one place may not work in another. What is more, pragmatism should not drive our church models, good theology and proper contextualization should. One of the most important roles of the planter is that of exegete. Good church planting requires both sound biblical exegesis and sound cultural and contextual exegesis. The church planter must be a student of their new context, just as they are a student of the Bible. They must learn to examine culture, ask the right questions, and develop a culturally appropriate expression of the church. Simply reproducing a copy of the sending church rarely meets this need, and at best, this new Xerox church will merely attract the kinds of people who recognize that church model. It may grow, but it will most likely grow through transferring Christians.
Planters should see this as a freedom to plant the church that is needed in their new context, not duplicate the old structures of their sending church. Ed Stetzer and Daniel Im put it this way, “New churches have an opportunity that established churches often do not. They have the opportunity to contextualize the unchanging message of the gospel without any preexisting patterns to copy” (source).
Maturity Fosters Complexity
JD Payne makes another subtle, but very profound point, concerning church franchising. He claims, “Many church planters want to clone or reproduce their home churches — or some other well-established church that is a manifestation of sanctification over a long period of time. They want to plant something trendy. They end up starting instant churches that are very difficult to reproduce or sustain, with a complex organization and structure” (source). Simply put, maturity fosters complexity in church structures and models. The more established a church, the more complex its systems tend to be. Attempting to duplicate an established sending church forces planters to use methods that will replicate complex systems, large group meetings, and typically spend a lot of money.
Personally, I think this issue is even more pronounced when the sending church is also still young. It is tempting to perpetually see your church as a plant, even after you have reached a stable and established place in your growth. New churches that are only a few years old but now have budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are established and quickly developing structures to support the large number of people, the growing need for leadership, and the process necessary to facilitate all that they do. If planters being sent out of this church are encouraged to go and duplicate those results, they will be trying to plant a mature church from day one. To use another analogy, this would be like giving birth to an adult and not a baby.
Instead of trying to duplicate those efforts, planters should aim for planting young, simple churches. The methods are very different. Planting simple will most likely focus on heavy evangelism and creating small groups of people, while attempting to duplicate an established church will most likely result in lots of advertising and attempts at creating a large gathering in the beginning. I am not claiming advertising or large group gatherings are bad, just that it is a level of complexity that comes from attempting to Xerox the sending church.
What is “church DNA?”
Finally, there is a lot of talk nowadays about reproducing healthy church DNA. Sending churches are encouraged to equip their planters with “good DNA.” I think this language is fine, but perhaps we need to be a little more clear when throwing it around. Planters should definitely be equipped with solid doctrine, good ecclesiology, and an understanding of appropriate methods. If that is what we mean by DNA, then I am all for it. However, we run aground with the idea if we narrowly define this DNA as resulting in a church that looks just like the sending church. Certainly, some characteristics will rub off on these planters, and things like church belief statements may even be copied along the way. Nevertheless, the kind of DNA planters need is the kind that allows them rightly divide the Word and examine their context well enough that they can teach it to others in a way that results in churches.