Church Planting – The latest Good Mission to Replace The Great Commission

25 03 2009

bait-and-switchFor years now I’ve read and enjoyed fellow Kentuckian Michael Spencer’s blog and I appreciate and agree with so much of what he wrote regarding The Coming Evangelical Collapse which rightfully spread like wild fire around the blogosphere.  He’s a prophetic voice in the post-evangelical wilderness.  But, like most prophets, he deconstructs flawed ideas far better than he constructs new ones.  He’s ten parts hammer to one part screwdriver and in his uncharacteristically brief post on his proposed solution to the Coming Evangelical Collapse, Spencer lends his voice the cacophony of innovative evangelicals who believe planting more churches is the way we fulfill the Great Commission.  And on this one point he is wrong.

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is where Jesus commands his disciples to go and make more disciples.  I’m going to say the most simple statement that may sound so obvious even writing it seems absurd.  But I can also say, that in all my life, I have almost never met a Christian leader, pastor, author, speaker, church planter or missionary who actually believes it.  And it is this:  there is only one way to fulfill the Great Commission and it is – to make disciples.

Our enemy will happily promote any idea, strategy, cause or movement that is not entirely focused on the intentional training of disciples.  He will be happy to see our Christian efforts achieve financial, numerical and even reproductive success as long as we’re not counting the completely transformed life of reproducing disciples.

You might be saying to yourself, “wait, isn’t that what we’re doing?  Even our mission statement as a church is ‘to make disciples’.  Doesn’t almost all Christian ministry result in making disciples?”  no, No, NO!  They do not.  Jesus said in Matthew 28:20 “teaching them to obey everything…” in other words – training.  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:25 that Olympic athletes go in to “strict training” to get a fading crown but we go into strict training to get a crown that will last forever.  I’ve asked several hundred Christians this question or a similar one that quickly exposes if you are making disciples or not.  On a scale of 1-10, “10” being Olympic training and “1” being training as a Barista at Starbucks, where would you plot the intentional discipleship training you regularly give or receive.  Guess what everyone says.  “I don’t give or receive hardly any training” or they simply say, “ah… negative 5”.  And here’s the dirty little secret: it doesn’t matter if they are in a main-line denomination or in the most innovative church plant to emerge from Acts 29, they are not making disciples.

So, no Michael Spencer, planting churches does not fulfill the Great Commission.  Church planting has been the latest in a long line of replacements for the Great Commission.  And all of these replacements have been good things – biblical preaching, church growth, church planting, small groups, missional communities anything please but NOT intentional discipleship training.

There are three simple reasons why church planting, as an activity, does not result in the intentional training of disciples and I’ll put it in a three point alliterative outline for my evangelical friends – church planting 1)divides, 2)demoralizes and 3)distracts.

Divides – The most common result of a church planting effort is the creation of a new worship service ministry.  In a city with 10,000 true Christians guess how many are currently involved in a worship service ministry – maybe 9,000+ and guess how many are involved in a weekly rhythm of discipleship training – maybe 50.  Huh…what if you had two choices when going into a town with 10,000 true Christians and 100 different styles of worship services with the goal of fulfilling the Great Commission.

Option #1 – Plant a new more innovative worship service
Option #2 – Start a discipleship training movement as a ministry to the 100 existing churches and the city as a whole.

Which is more likely to result in more trained disciples (i.e. help fulfill the Great Commission)?

We need 100% of the disciples in a city clearly connected to our mission of training disciples and if they coordinated with each other instead of building a new hipper wall against one another it would make the task far more effective.

Demoralizes – You would never think to build a ministry intended to reproduce disciples around a single person.  But we don’t hesitate to build churches around one man.  Why?  Because it reproduces churches.  Of course the byproduct of this activity is passive consumers, and then more churches and then more passive consumers.  How exactly does this fulfill the Great Commission?  Yah, I’ve read countless books of innovated dudes who are trying to find a new and creative way to take this existing hierarchical structure that hinges on one person and PRESTO morph it into a disciple-making machine but it doesn’t work.  Why make more of what isn’t working?  Why not do what Paul did in Acts 19 which was NOT to plant a new church but to start a city-wide disciple-making movement.  Disciple-making movements make more disciples than churches.  I wonder why?  “But in my church of 3000 I’ve seen several new Christians turn into disciples.”  Yes, and you can build an entire house with a edge of a dime instead of a screw driver and ya, a few boards are bound to hold together, but as your brother and friend I feel that maybe I should hand you a screw driver.  Church planting is like a caffeine high.  It works for short time but its biggest result is a head ache and the need for more caffeine.  When the church plant dust settles and the “new” and “exciting” gives way to the routine you still have a bunch of people sitting in chairs, not reproducing disciples.

Distracts – And of course the biggest problem with all this new fervor for church planting is that it is a distraction to a clear mission with a clear solution.  Yes, we can do both/and.  I’m sure the comments will light up with people telling me not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Can’t we do biblical preaching and discipleship, worship services and discipleship, small groups and discipleship, mega-church and discipleship, social justice and discipleship.  Don’t ask, yes you can, but you won’t.  Why?  Because institutional survival demands you do those other things first and they don’t lead to the training of disciples.  A typical church structure has the following priorities by design –

Priority #1 – The Worship Service – To be involved in that church typically means to regularly attend that worship service (Church member involvement 100%)

Priority #2 – Small Groups – Christian need community and the service doesn’t provide this (Church member involvement 50%)

Priority #3 – Serving in a Ministry (You NEED people to do this to pull of the worship service every week (Church member involvement 20%)

Priority #4, #5, #6, #7….is a list of things churches like to do and discipleship training gets lumped in here so we can get that old guy from the Navigators to shut-up about it. (Church member involvement, less than 5%)

Good discipleship training can and will lead to each of those other things naturally but none of those things will naturally lead to good discipleship training.  God made the chicken before the egg and you need to train disciples BEFORE you experience the fruit of trained disciples – the local church.  But you won’t because you don’t believe me.  As long as their is a glimmer of hope that current programs might some day produce new results without the need to change you’ll keep waiting.  And so on it goes.

Jesus said “go make disciples” and he said “I will build my church” but like Adam in the garden we would rather eat the fruit than work in the dirt.  Disciple-making can be tough, toilsome work but it’s what our Lord commanded us to do and no activity, no matter how seemingly good, should replace it.



27 responses

25 03 2009
Daniel & Heather

really resonate with your thoughts here, you capture a lot in this…

25 03 2009

I recently found your site…like this post, though it seems strange that we as the church have missed this so treeibly.

I am interested in how to correct this. Especially outside of any one church set of walls.

I’ll keep reading!

25 03 2009
Jonathan Brink

Much love brother. Nicely done.

26 03 2009
CD Web View: More Church Plants? Maybe Not « Stoke COG Blog

[…] CD Web View: More Church Plants? Maybe Not March 26, 2009 Posted by stokecoglife in CD Comment. Tags: church, discipleship trackback I love the opening paragraph of this blog – warmth, friendship and area of disagreement all in gracious manner.  Now enjoy reading more about what’s wrong with responding to the Great Commission with more church plants. […]

26 03 2009

Love the article, just wondering if you had any good examples of good discipleship training.

26 03 2009

clear and concise

26 03 2009

i love this: “so we can get that old guy from the Navigators to shut-up about it.”

It is so amazing how we get caught up in numbers and how distracting that can be from the actual goal. Yesterday we were talking about all of the warnings found in Matt 25 and 7 with sheep and the goats and wheat and the weeds. To date I have only seen application on this on a personal level but I think that your post really addresses the solution for this on a strategical and meta level. thanks.

26 03 2009

Yes! You are exactly right! And don’t fear, Jeremy. There truly are people out there that believe and are practicing just what you are saying.

As for the comment about someone looking for good discipleship training, we highly, highly, highly recommend Life Transformation Groups. These are detailed in Neil Cole’s book, Cultivating a Life for God, which can be bought at

26 03 2009
Jeff Vanderstelt


I appreciate your passion and I do believe you are right on some things – especially that we are not called to plant churches, but make disciples. AND that a new form of a Sunday services isn’t the goal nor the best means necessarily to make disciples.

With that said, I want to offer some thoughts…

1. Your statement about having almost never met a leader, pastor, etc…who believes the way to accomplish the GC is through making disciples is either based in arrogance, ignorance or isolation…Arrogance – if you are stating that you are the only one who has figured this out. Ignorance – if you actually aren’t aware of the 1000s of pastors or leaders around the world who are doing this far better than most of us. Or Isolation – because you are getting most of your information from blogs (Most of the people making disciples are too busy with the people their reaching and training to spend all of their time on blogs), or the small pockets of people you hang with (not being aware of others who are really doing this).

2. I do agree that there are many who don’t see Making Disciples as the means to accomplish the GC, but I have met many who get it and we need to humbly learn from them.

3. I often hear or read you and others talk about making disciples and the inference is that we need to train up those who are followers of Jesus (Which I believe is necessary). However, when I read Matthew’s account of Jesus Commission in chapter 28, I read it in the context of Jesus’ disciples being sent out to a world that didn’t know or believe the Gospel. They didn’t go into cities where there were a bunch of Jesus followers and then simply train them – these people needed to be saved – Jesus wasn’t sending them to other followers in a city – He was sending them to those who didn’t know the Gospel or believe in Jesus – and…according to Paul in Romans 10:14-16: “How are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” Making disciples must include preaching the gospel to those who don’t know (This is part of the teaching them to obey – it starts with hearing the Gospel), baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded or taught. The mission isn’t ONLY training disciples who are already convinced. It also includes sending them out to make disciples who don’t know Jesus. If a “disciple” is not equipped to “preach” the gospel to those who don’t know and believe and then train them to live out and in the Gospel, then they are not yet a disciple. Maybe you agree with this, but many of the people you are training (at least the ones I know) and others who are on the same band wagon seem to be mainly working with Christians (and often times those who are just dissatisfied with the Church as it is, but have little interest in making disciples in the form of reaching the lost) – How will they every hear if no one is sent? Whose going to “GO and make disciples?”

4. I agree that in the “Service Planting” or “Church Planting” methodology this often is not happening. However, I would also suggest that I don’t see it happening in the household training meetings either – many of these seem to have merely swapped one form for another while still holding onto the assumptions that more information and teaching will actually train people. If you want to train and equip disciples to make disciples you will have to engage in real life mission and ministry with them – NOT sitting around in a house, a training center or a building with a bunch of believers learning more theology.

5. Much of your ministry philosophy seems to be focused on training Christians who are involved in local churches and you state that you base this upon Paul’s methodology. However, Paul did not do what you are suggesting – He laid a foundation of the Gospel and others built upon it (1 Cor 3:10).

6. You critique the “Church Planting” approach for dividing and demoralizing, however, how many people have you or other like you led to leave their churches in order to be discipled by you and your training? Maybe you have not done this, but it seems that many have been led by this teaching to leave the covering of their local elders to go off and start their own “service” (Not altogether different than your critique of the Church Planters). I may be wrong in this observation – but in our neck of the woods it is happening.

Again, I do agree we are called to make disciples and Jesus builds his church…but we have to plant the Gospel into the soil of the hearts of those who don’t believe as well as equip those who do in order to faithfully fulfill the Great Commission.

26 03 2009
Scott M.

@Jeff zing!

Dear Mr. Author,

I didn’t read your article, but Jeff’s response was eloquent. I have nothing to say about the veracity of your own post, but you should definitely think about responding to Jeff.


26 03 2009
Nate Jones

“If a “disciple” is not equipped to “preach” the Gospel to those who don’t know and believe and then train them to live out and in the Gospel, then they are not yet a disciple.”

Jeff, I appreciate your response. I must admit in all the disciple-making talk I often lose sight of the essence of a disciple. Thanks for reminding me it’s the formation of the Gospel at the core of repentant sinners.

May the gospel be planted, ministered and cherished in and through us.

26 03 2009
Jeff Vanderstelt

One other thought…

I have asked many people if they believe they’ve been discipled or trained and almost everyone says “NO”. Then as I prodded more I’ve found that they are far better trained then they think.

It turns out that what most of them are saying is that they don’t feel confident or qualified to minister. Often times these statements are coming out of: 1) Their insecurity in the Gospel (fear of man, lack of confidence in the Word and Spirit; etc…); 2) A wrong perception of what it means to be equipped for ministry (most people believe they’ll never be ready because they think they have to know all the answers and be super-pastor – unfortunately, this idea has been fed to them too often); 3) An excuse to avoid any responsibility for the Gospel Mission (I have seen many people sit around for years “getting trained” but never entering into the mission field); or 4) A false belief that there is some other “Special” or “Higher” knowledge or training that will bring them to a new level of spiritual maturity (Our new version of Gnosticism).

I do believe there needs to be an even more intentional focus on making disciples – training and equipping, but most people are not lacking knowledge or information…they need some help getting out of the boat (Remember Jesus’ form of discipleship was in ministry with him; sending them out on mission; returning for ongoing training; and calling people to step out in faith into a hostile world).

So, let’s be careful not to affirm people’s lack of confidence in the Word of God and the Spirit of God by continually telling them they need more training from us – they don’t need just another replacement for God in us – let’s lead them to His Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ and into dependency on His Spirit.

26 03 2009

Jeff, I agree with many things you said, and heartily disagree with others…

Making disciples is certainly not about filling people with the right amount of information, that’s not what following Jesus is about, it’s about faith in Jesus…

But why DO so many of those who sincerely do belong to Christ, still feel inadequate to take part in “ministry”? Maybe it’s because the whole concept of what “minstry” is has gotten completely jacked up over the centuries, maybe that’s why people are leaving the institutions, because there simply isn’t enough room for everyone to actually serve Christ in them, in the way which Jesus actually calls us to….

26 03 2009
Jeff Vanderstelt


I think you’re right…the concept of what “ministry” is has gotten jacked up. Gospel ministry needs to be brought back to the normative stuff of living out the Gospel in the Everyday.

That is what we spend so much of our time equipping people for here in Tacoma, WA (with Soma Communities). We believe everyone is called to be a full-time Gospel minister in the everyday stuff of life.

27 03 2009

Hey Jeff,

Thanks for jumping in here. I know we’ve tried to connect 3-4 times but I’d love to get a chance to hang out with you and compare notes on this stuff and just get to know you. Until then here are a few thoughts I had about your points.

1. I’m genuinely surprised you would find that statement extreme. Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger in their book “Simple Church” make this point after 10+ years of research and George Barna has been saying this for at least 2 decades. I don’t particularly agree with everything these guys say but their job is to be neither ignorant nor isolated and their stats are consistent with my experience. On the possibility of my arrogance I think that’s a tough thing to read from a blog but once you’ve spent an hour with me I give you total permission to rebuke me for arrogance if you sense that’s what is motivating my spirit. On a side note I definitely want you to know that I’m teachable and have learned a ton from you about the necessity and practice of doing ministry in and through a deep faith in the Gospel.

If I could offer two other possibilities for our differing perspectives they would be D) You may move in a circle of particularly exceptional disciple-makers or E) we have different definitions on what it means to “make disciples” (which I’m sure we could cleared up in a 5 minute conversation).

2. I agree 100% wherever we find them we should learn from them (I’m spending the next 3 days at a training with a group that is making some progress that I’m hoping to learn from).

3. Yes, agreed that we need to be preaching and sharing the Gospel with the unchurched as part of the Great Commission and as a part of discipleship training. But you make my point when you said that Jesus sent out the original Apostles into a pre-Christian context and our context is quite a bit different. What exactly does fulfilling the Great Commission look like in a city with thousands of untrained professing Christians? I’m interjecting that question because it would seems strange that we would exclusively spread the Gospel to non-Christians when we are surrounded by Christians who have not been transformed by it and, further, are asking to be trained. My read on the Missional movement, especially guys like Michael Frost, lead me to believe every church should be exclusively centered around reaching the unchurched and that is what I’m questioning.

4. I agree with this point 100%. Most house churches are simply a smaller version of the bigger problem. I don’t identify myself with this movement. The mission to make disciples comes first and the church grows out of that. Thus, if a group of 20 people are on mission to make disciples as their primary activity it makes sense that they would do that together, look out for each other and live interdependently. It’s better for the mission – its not a replacement for it (which most house churches I’ve encountered have been).

5. The problem is that most Christians don’t have a foundation. That’s my main point. I’m sure you’ve seen this. What do you do when you go into a city and encounter thousands of Christians who haven’t been trained in the elementary elements of the faith and have no means of passing on what little they practice. Paul in Acts 19 started by going to the current Christians in that city and building on the foundation, then to the synagogue to build new foundations, then to the city to preach the Gospel. I encourage a similar approach.

6. Its important that you know I’ve never done a ministry trip to your neck of the woods until my trip next week and my first email and my first priority was to meet with you and Caeser. I encourage people in existing churches to stay there, make disciples and submit to leadership whenever possible. If you know of anywhere this is not being done where I may have some influence please let me know. I really hope we can spend time together and get on the same page. You and I have a ton in common not only theologically but also in ministry philosophy.

“Again, I do agree we are called to make disciples and Jesus builds his church…but we have to plant the Gospel into the soil of the hearts of those who don’t believe as well as equip those who do in order to faithfully fulfill the Great Commission.” – Totally Agree.

30 03 2009
Bob Kuhn

If I read you correctly, Jeremy, you’re not against new churches being formed (or planted), you’re just against the order in which it happens. In other words, making disciples will produce new churches, but making new churches will not necessarily produce disciples.

2 04 2009

Bob – Exactly. And when done in that order they grow more organically than are architected as part of overarching strategy. Keep that strategy for things that require a strategic process – making disciples.

9 04 2009

Making disciples requires a strategic process…?

9 04 2009
Jeremy Pryor

Yes, it does if the Great Commission in any way defines discipleship, “teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you.” Teaching that leads to specific actions that is comprehensive would require a strategic process (thus the word “make”). This is not ALL discipleship is, its a part of discipleship. But you can’t take responsibility to disciple someone without considering the outcome of your teaching into specific areas of their life or without considering whether your process has significant gaps thus neglecting to train them in “everything I’ve commanded you.”

21 04 2009

Language is so weak. Even when it’s in person.
On email?….wow. Know what I mean? maybe not.
Most of this string seems to be wrapped around what “training” or “training disciples” may or may not mean.

We can convince people to go out and love the world to teach them how to be intimate with Jesus, so everyone will have life and be disciples. But, if the people we’re sending aren’t sure that they’re loved, or that they are intimate with Jesus, or they don’t feel that they have life, or that they are even obedient disciples, then they’re really being sent out to preach “the pretty good news,” which is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it’s not embodied.

Sermons, mission trips to Mexico, ol’-time-gospel-hours on the radio, hugging each other, singing hymns… these all go towards training disciples. Jeremy’s points are about intentional training that goes beyond the dime in the screw. Most of my Christian life has been spent with dimes. (see above string. I’m not just crazy.) Twisting dimes, handing them out, crafting them. Jeff, when someone we don’t know points out that a dime is not even close to a screwdriver, we are quickly offended. I was.

For years, my uncle would say the same things to me that Jeremy is saying, and I thought he was just ignorant. I knew he wasn’t isolated, and like Jeremy he was pretty humble. He read a lot, but didn’t know the guys in ministry that I did. They were very innovative, and smart, and successful, and eloquent – authors, leaders, preachers, etc.

Jeff is so right in saying that we can’t just sit around and pour more information into people. (my paraphrase) And Daniel is right in saying that it’s not about info. but about *believing*. I don’t train my kids by just telling them what to do and telling them that I love them, but by showing them what to do and showing them that I love them within a close family context.

Jeff, you said to Jeremy that “…many of the people you are training (at least the ones I know) and others who are on the same band wagon seem to be mainly working with Christians (and often times those who are just dissatisfied with the Church as it is, but have little interest in making disciples in the form of reaching the lost)…”

Unless you’re leaving out the ones that I know too, I think you’re wrong about this. I believe that what is happening is that some folks on the bandwagon are trying to put obeying Jesus ahead of “reaching the lost”. And, put their hearts ahead of what they “know”.

*Jesus sent disciples*
We want to be disciples, and to be sent by Jesus, since the mission is His.

*Jesus said to love one another*
We want to hook arms with eachother and be a body (and function as a body where body parts need eachother) with Christ as the head, And let him lead. If our time together as Christians is just a means to the end of reaching the lost (or even looks that way), then we (independent, self-sufficient, reserved, judgmental, culdasac lovin’ Americans) won’t learn to love eachother (i.e. obey Jesus) and therefore not function as bodies, (obey Jesus) whilst not allowing our head to do the leading (obey Jesus).

*The holy Spirit reaches the lost*
We want to practice following the Spirit, in order to join in the work He’s doing, rather than go do a bunch of work, and then ask Him to bless it.

Jeff, (or anyone else I suppose) I’m sure I’m not saying anything that you don’t know, I’m just asking you to look at what we (you and I) know from a different angle. Ironically Jeff, I think you made a comparison that I think is the key to the discussion. You said:

“So, let’s be careful not to affirm people’s lack of confidence in the Word of God and the Spirit of God by continually telling them they need more training from us – they don’t need just another replacement for God in us – let’s lead them to His Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ and into dependency on His Spirit.”

The training is “leading…” everyone through training “…to His Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ and into dependency on His Spirit.” It’s not affirming a lack of confidence in the Word and Spirit of God while sending them out when they’re not functioning as an obedient body part.

This might be tough for you to experience Jeff, because I think you have an unusual gift as a 5-fold minister. You are built differently than the average Joe. (I think it’s also why you quickly refresh me when we’re around eachother.) Honestly, I think that is why most average people seem to understand Jeremy more readily than “church leaders”.

Anyway, my two dimes…
Here’s to Obeying all of the teachings of Jesus in unity!

21 04 2009
David Cooke

Thought-provoking and helpful. Thanks.

30 04 2009
Driscoll’s Great Commission Magic Act « From Eden to Zion

[…] 2009 I’ve recently written how so many current Christian leaders I highly respect seem to be replacing the Great Commission mandate to make disciples with church planting.  But why replace when you can just simply slip it […]

2 05 2009

I’m late on this comment thread but Jeremy, could you give me your working definition of a disciple. I’m sure “knowing and believing all of Jesus’ commands” would be on there from the GC. Do you have a definition of discipleship that you work from?

2 05 2009


16 05 2009
brad currah

Cool. Looks like we all understand and agree with each other.

10 09 2009
Ike Idegbema

I really appreciate your views. But would like to state that discipleship training alone is okay for Paul’s mission fields and Paul’s days, but with the populations of our cities today, church planting will compliment discipleship trainings to prevent the discipled returning to their old ways in the absence church

7 10 2010
Eric Foley

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Jeremy. It’s a peculiar phenomenon, really, and not in a good way. It seems we’ll do anything, climb any height, spend any amount, go any place, take any risk…so long as it doesn’t involve the arduous work of making disciples. I suppose part of the reason, in addition to what you’ve included here, is that so few of us have been discipled ourselves. We know that we need discipleship, we just don’t know where to start.

It is, truly, a new, yet very old, frontier.

And it requires far more time than most of our attention spans will allow for. Three years into the very intentional, life-on-life training that Jesus modeled, his own disciples abandoned him. The truth is, even Jesus doesn’t fit the mold for what we’ve come to understand is an effective leader with an effective ministry. Perhaps that’s even more reason to forsake labels like “effective” and run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus and him alone. As you say, it seems so elementary to even write such a thing and yet, we seem all but willing to do it.

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