Planting churches is a little like hunting elk, says Jim Tillotson, president of Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. In both cases, lots of potential strategies are available for achieving the goal. At the end of the day, however, success is more important than methodologies. One elk hunter may prefer a bow while another prefers a gun, and either approach is fine as long as the hunter is successful in the hunt. Similarly, there is quite a range of preferred tactics and strategies among church planters. At times, church planting theoreticians can become animated as they debate which methods work the best. Tillotson dislikes this; arguments over methodology should always be secondary to the issue of whether or not churches are actually being planted. As long as that goal is being realized, methodological arguments are largely unfruitful.
There are, however, unchanging Biblical principles that inform and undergird the task of church planting. Drawing on his many years of experience as a church planter and opening the pages of Scriptures, Tillotson expounded on those principles during the Thursday evening session of the 2017 GARBC Conference.
The duties of church planting are plainly prescribed in the New Testament text. They include the following:
Prayer. The Lord Jesus urged His disciples, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:38). Divine enabling for evangelism and church planting is absolutely essential, in part because human effort is insufficient to achieve success. “I think we all understand tonight, we can’t plant the church,” Tillotson explained. “Only God can.”
Godly leaders. It is imperative that church planters—and, indeed, all ministry leaders—make godliness a priority. It’s often said that godliness is more important than giftedness in the ministry. Those who labor to produce results but neglect their own personal godliness will invariably experience frustration and ministry failure. “Talent is a gift, but character is a choice,” Tillotson said.
Godly commitments. Church planters must be absolutely committed to the task at hand. Ministry is hard, Tillotson said, and church planting is doubly so, since resources are usually quite scarce. Those lacking the requisite commitment will most likely burn out or wash out before long.
Godly passion. “It’s a lot easier to split a dry piece of wood than a wet one,” Tillotson observed. “Did you ever take a maul or an axe and try to sink it into something that’s wet? It just gets stuck in there. That’s how it is when we’re alive, when we’re fresh.” But when church planters allow themselves to “dry out” spiritually, they open themselves up to being chopped and splintered like so much dry firewood by the Devil’s attacks and the exigencies of life. So church planters should endeavor to cultivate their spiritual lives by spending regular devotional time in God’s Word, praying, and paying careful attention to their marriages.
If these four duties are neglected, it becomes much easier for church planters to stray into dangerous territory. The specific dangers Tillotson had in mind are losing patience with people or the process, taking undue credit for church growth, and becoming unbalanced in family and ministry. When these ministry failures occur, God is dishonored and the mission is compromised.
On the other hand, when the best church planting practices are faithfully observed, the results can be positively delightful. Seeing what God can do firsthand and being used by God are the delights of church planting, and they render the (sometimes arduous) task of ministry infinitely worthwhile. “What an amazing thing God does,” Tillotson said, “when He takes someone who’s absolutely lost and brings them into the light.”