To the Ends of the Earth: Convictions to Stand Upon

by Nathan White, WSC alum

It is well known that church planting is an arduous task. The months of preparation, long hours, and immense stress drive many church planters to the brink of burnout. Recognizing this reality, there is a mountain of books, seminars, and other resources being produced to try and help prepare men for this common church planting experience.

But while there is certainly ample wisdom to be found in much of mainstream publishing here, I’m troubled by the widespread lack of emphasis on the theological preparation of the church planter. For amidst all the difficulties and stressors of planting a church, few things can drive a man to burnout like being pulled in different directions because of a shaky theological foundation. Thus, in my experience, nothing is quite as important to the life –and sanity– of a church planter as a sound theological education.

Although this generation seems to be aggressively planting churches at an unprecedented rate, much of the philosophy and strategy of popular church planting methodology is derived from the arena of small business entrepreneurship. In this, pragmatism and consumerism often rule the day. What works is given precedence over what is right. And meeting the needs and preferences of the local demographic is seen as the ultimate key to long-term success. Even among the more theologically conservative circles of church planting, these pitfalls are easy to fall prey to.  

As a young church planter just recently out of seminary, I found the siren song of pragmatism and consumerism to be stronger than anticipated. It wasn’t the books and church planting philosophies that proved to be so tempting, but it was rather the people I encountered when I first hit the ground. There is within the heart of a church planter an intense desire to see a congregation firmly planted and a long-term ministry established. And there is also a great love for people —the people of that particular community— that coincides with this as well. So in the early days, I bonded greatly with people in the community, and I longed to see believers in the area come together and blossom into an established congregation.

“There is within the heart of a church planter an intense desire to see a congregation firmly planted and a long-term ministry established.”

But before long, some of the people initially attracted to the church began to try and subtly change certain things to fit their own preferences. If only we would hire a band to play their preferred style of music, or drop a particular liturgical element, or compromise on a seemingly insignificant emphasis in our Confession of Faith, then the church would really begin to grow, they argued. And although I’m convinced that most of these people were sincere at heart, it became increasingly difficult to navigate being pulled in these different directions by people In a community I had begun to love.

So looking back, I believe there is nothing that prepared me for church planting quite like my theological education in seminary. I was well prepared to deal with these people and issues because of the rigor of my seminary experience, and so they did not end up being matters of great stress or importance.

Theology thus underlies everything involved in planting a church, even the matters that haven’t made it into the Confession of Faith. And while it can be easy to resist the ever-prevalent pragmatic and consumeristic philosophies going into a church plant, dealing with sincere people who approach you in those early days can be quite another thing altogether. Being theologically shaky or unsure in some areas of faith or practice can easily spell disaster: disaster for the church, and disaster for the church planter as well.

Thus, I am convinced that it is imperative that church planters have clear and settled theological convictions going in, or the stress that will undoubtedly come from people trying to form the church into their own image will prove to be overwhelming. Of all the legitimate difficulties and struggles of planting a church, a proper methodology flowing from settled theological convictions should not be one of them. So if we’re to see the faithful success of the next generation of church plants in our land, we must recognize the critical role that theological preparedness plays in the life of the church and the church planter himself.