Church Planting Movement

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Methodists and Baptists
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Church planting dates back to the Apostle Paul in the first century, but church planting in the United States often fueled church growth among early religious movements. In the 18th century, Methodist leaders, like John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield, helped spread the movement through planting Methodist societies and spreading Methodist ideas across the "New World." Similarly, American Baptists saw a great expansion in church planting in the 1700s-1800s by taking advantage of western expansion, the First Great Awakening, and an emphasis on missions. Church planting was largely successful in early America due to the pioneering efforts that targeted large number of "unchurched" people present in the new nation.

The modern church-planting movement has evolved since then. Contemporary church planting often multiplies pre-existing denominations or develops new congregations with distinct congregational expressions (see Emergent Church Movement). Nonetheless, church planting remains a vibrant part of the changing religious landscape.
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Biblical foundations for the church-planting movement can be readily identified in the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, and his subsequent correspondence with locally planted Christian communities as recorded in the text of the New Testament. As apostle to the gentiles, Paul dedicated his life to the advancement of the gospel into the Greco-Roman world and culture, while never abandoning his desire for reaching his Jewish countrymen. His evangelistic approach was focused, straight forward, and predictable: He would first speak in the local synagogue, employing historical narratives, theological concepts, and examples drawn from the text of the Old Testament, while mindful of communicating effectively to a Jewish worldview and culture (Acts 14:1; 17:1-4; 17:10-12; 18:4). This would be followed by moving into the common market place, presenting contextualized messages shaped to the Gentile audience employing an integration of Greco-Roman ideology, narratives, and paradigms (Acts 17:16-34). His mission was clear and unambiguous, and he sought to make his message likewise clear and unambiguous, regardless of the cultural context (1 Cor. 9:20-22). At the heart of the church-planting movement is the motivation to extend the gospel to new people groups and form new communities of followers of Jesus, while intentionally engaging the cultural context.

Historical Perspectives

Understanding the church-planting movement in United States Christianity also requires gaining a historical perspective. The roots of the church planting movement in American Christianity grow deep into the missionary priority and activity of the early Moravians. The Moravians, based at the Saxony estate known as Herrnhut (translated the "Lord’s Watch") under the leadership of Count Zinzendorf in the early 18th century, became an epicenter for global missionary work. Zinzendorf, a well-educated and effective organizer, was strongly influenced by the Pietism of Philip Jakob Spener (1635-1705), providing a very simple yet profoundly passionate focus and motivation for missionary work. This passion became most evident in a tireless burden for a global church-planting vision. The Moravians developed a team approach traveling to areas of need, focusing on areas were people were most receptive. They maintained a long-term commitment to the community, emphasizing cultural contextualization and Bible translation.

Along this historic trajectory, comes the significant work of the Methodist movement into the North American frontier. The Methodist movement, with leaders such as John and Charles Wesley (d. 1791) and George Whitefield (d. 1770), demonstrated a similar passion for renewal and the advancement of the church. Church planting advanced rapidly with circuit riders spreading into ever-increasing preaching circuits, camp meetings establishing centers of renewal, and the establishing of local class meetings providing ongoing instruction and pastoral care.

The 1700s and 1800s saw a great expansion in church planting across the western American frontier through the Baptist movement. Becoming the largest protestant denomination at that time, Baptist church planting took advantage of several key factors: the economic prospects of western expansion, the wave of the First Great Awakening, a strong theology of church growth and missions support, utilizing established churches to multiply new congregations, and missional church planters who would serve as the local pastor of the newly formed congregation.

Modern Church Planting Movement

Since the 20th century, the modern church-planting movement, particularly in its most contemporary forms, has emerged with a more narrowly defined focus. Closely related to the North American Church Growth Movement, the church planting movement seeks to encourage the expansion, planting, multiplication, and effectiveness of local Christian communities by employing theological principles, biblical modalities, and contemporary sociological factors. While early historic examples of church planting in the United States focused primarily on pioneer activities, bringing the Christian faith initially into new geographical and cultural contexts, the contemporary emphasis in church planting tends to flow along two primary streams: (1) the extension and proliferation of existing congregations or denominations into multiple sites or centers within a local region (multiplication model), or (2) establishing new independent centers of distinctive Christian congregational expressions (entrepreneurial model).

The multiplication model provides a more formal, organized and coordinated approach, involving various levels of systematic training and oversight, offering both financial and relational support for church planters. This model is evident in both denominationally supported church-planting programs as well as the strategically planned church-planting efforts implemented by well-established and well-funded local church communities seeking to reproduce multiple sites or campuses. The entrepreneurial model tends to be more organic, spontaneous, self-directed, and entrepreneurial both in nature and in function. This church-planting model is often based on the personal sense of calling and ministry vision of a catalytic church planter, with a desire to establish a uniquely defined community of believers with core distinctions that differentiate from other local congregations. While remaining primarily independent, church-planting associations exist to offer less formal support and training. Both the multiplication and entrepreneurial models of church planting include the coordinated efforts of other like-minded believers who together seek to expand the church to reach specifically targeted people groups and demographics. The issue remains as to what positive or detrimental impact the church-planting movement has on current strategies regarding struggling existing churches in need of revitalization.

Congregation at the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church- Wikimedia Commons- photo from Florida Photographic Collection (CC BY-SA 1.0)

Camp meeting in a western forest- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-119893

Methodist circuit rider- Internet Archive- from The Illustrated History of Methodism by James W. Lee, Naphtali Luccock, and James Main Dixon

Map of frontier Methodist church growth- Hathi Trust- from Christian Democracy for America by David D. Forsyth and Ralph Welles Keeler

George Whitefield field preaching- Internet Archive- from Life of George Whitefield by A. S. Billingsley
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Gino Pasquariello

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