This article is an excerpt from a forthcoming resource I’m working on titled “Why Church Planting?” Stay tuned for more as this resource develops!
The present task of church planting is fraught with challenges on all sides. From within the organized church itself, many leaders, networks, and denominations have caused significant harm in the name of Jesus and for the work of church planting. With the continued trends of people leaving the church in staggering numbers, many Christians have turned inward, trusting in strategies like Christian Nationalism to protect those who remain in the pews rather than engaging in outward, Kingdom-oriented ministries. As Christians leave churches deeply wounded, and our culture becomes progressively less Christian, the soil for new churches to grow becomes increasingly difficult to cultivate. New strategies for church planting will require longer support and more creativity from churches and Christians than any previous generation in the modern era.
Yet, despite these challenges, the work of church planting is not only essential for the faithfulness of God’s people and the multiplication of Christian witness, but also central to Jesus’ plan for social justice that orients this world toward the kingdom of God. In this article I’ll briefly respond to failures of the Evangelical church to live into the gospel of the kingdom. I will also suggest four ways we see in the Scriptures that church planting, when it is robust and healthy, advances social justice in our communities.
Responding to Failures of the Church
Critics of the institutional church are quick to point out how different the forms and models of today’s churches are from those we see in the New Testament. In nearly every case, these critics are correct in the gross sin and error they uncover. Often, tradition and form have been chosen over kingdom mission and purpose. Rather than prioritizing ministry to the poor, most resources have been stewarded toward building larger, prosperous, middle-class, and predominantly White churches. Order, tradition, and preservation of the status quo have been preferred over addressing misogyny, racism, or classism in our churches.
As I have written elsewhere, there have always been those who “[teach] that order is always better than justice; that the status quo is worth protecting at the expense of God’s image bearers; that the rights of those in power must be centered at all times; that my neighbor who is “other” is less human than I and is not worth all my support and love.” I am in agreement with those who would call to account those forms and patterns within the institutional church, whether church planting or otherwise, which choose preservation over kingdom values.
And yet, despite her failures, Jesus has promised to build his church (Matt. 16:18). The church is the fullness of Christ in the world (Eph. 1:22-23). The apostolic understanding of Christ’s promise fulfilled was in the establishment of churches throughout each and every city until the gospel reached the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
These churches were regularly established in three stages, clearly seen in Acts 14. First, the gospel was proclaimed to a people and place (Acts 14:21). Second, new believers were organized into a community in which they could be strengthened and encouraged (Acts 14:22). Finally, elders and pastors were appointed to take on the work of teaching and shepherding people in the faith (Acts 14:23; cf. 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11-12; Titus 1:5). This pattern led to the establishment of new churches across the Roman Empire; in Corinth (Rom. 16:5), Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19), and Colossae (Col. 4:15). These churches were also clustered into larger groups, such as “the Galatian churches” (1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2), “the churches in the province of Asia” (1 Cor. 16:19), and “the Macedonian churches” (2 Cor. 8:1).
In these churches, the gospel of the kingdom was proclaimed (Acts 28:31; cf. Matt 4:23). The free offer of salvation in Jesus Christ was declared and the arrangement of a new social order was set in motion. No doubt the Evangelical church of the West has failed in its faithfulness to this gospel message.
And yet, Jesus’ promise remains – He will build his church! Through the work of church planting, the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed, advancing social justice as embassies for a kingdom that is not of this world.
Four Ways Church Planting Advances Social Justice
Theologians have been advancing a positive vision for Christian social justice throughout church history. Every Christian is called to a live of moral and social ethics which advance justice in our communities. Church planting, however, is a unique and important means which disciples Christians toward just ends while confronting sin in a given social context. While much could be said here, I want to suggest four key ways we see church planting intersecting with the work of social justice in the New Testament witness.
The Prioritization of the Poor – Galatians 2:1-10
When Paul visited the Apostles in Jerusalem to submit himself to their leadership, they commissioned him for a very particular mission: he was to go to the Gentiles and proclaim the gospel (Gal. 2:7). In this regard, the Apostles added nothing to his message – his theology was fine, his methods were sound.
There was, however, one matter that was a priority for the Apostles to give special weight to. Paul had to give special attention to the poor. This was the very thing that was closest to his heart, Paul said. It was what he was most eager to do (Gal. 2:10).
One of the most common debates in the Western church today is that of the relationship between the mission of the church and social justice. On one side, there are those who emphasize that the mission of the church should focus on verbal gospel proclamation rather than centering the work of mercy and social justice. On another side, what has been commonly called the “social gospel” has advocated a church mission which is far more centered on physical need and social transformation.
Unfortunately, both sides tend to agree more in their end result than either would want to admit. That is, both sides can get stuck debating mission as much, if not more, as actually engaging in mission (however they choose to define it). Often, this is due in part to having become removed from the needs of real people, focusing instead on theories, conferences, and position papers that call “the other side” to task.
Church plants do not have the luxury of engaging in debates and theories. There is a gospel to be proclaimed and needs that must be met – and this must happen now. Church plants, rightly conceived, are strong in gospel proclamation and their remembrance of the poor. In this way, they demonstrate that Jesus’ kingdom is especially for the weak, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the poor (Luke 4:18-21; cf. Luke 7:21-23).
Shaming the Strong – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Paul discovered that such a ministry was foolishness to Jews and a barrier to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:21). Nevertheless, God intentionally chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise and the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth (which he planted – Acts 18), he reminded them of who they were according to worldly measures. They were not wise, educated, influential, or powerful (1 Cor. 1:26). But God sets his love on the weak and despised (1 Cor. 1:28) in order to shame the strong and show the magnificence of his love in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
When Mary sang of the birth of her son, the Messiah, she praised God for bringing the powerful to a low estate, and for lifting up the poor and hungry alike (Luke 1:52-53). The high and lofty places are not the safest places in the kingdom of God. Nearly a half century later, Paul’s ministry demonstrated that Mary’s prophetic song was bearing witness in the life of the church.
If denominational statistics are to be trusted, too often the resources of the Evangelical church drift toward the rich, educated, and influential. In so doing, the Evangelical church has given witness to a ministry that prioritizes the powerful and respected things of this world while shaming the poor and despised; a total reversal of the intended purposes Jesus has for the church in the world.
A new movement of church planting is needed, one which is strong in gospel proclamation and bears witness to the upside-down nature of Christ’s kingdom. Such a movement would redirect funding from its storehouses in middle- and upper-class churches and ministries toward churches for the poor, wounded, weak, and oppressed.
Accountability for Leadership – Acts 8:9-24
Jesus rightly diagnosed the way power works in this world: the powerful lord over the weak (Matt. 20:25). The church, however, is to follow in the way of their Master: service and sacrifice are the way that power is to be stewarded in the kingdom of God (Matt. 20:28).
Religion has always been an appealing source of power. The testimony of history bears this out – as do the Scriptures. One of the earliest New Testament examples of someone using Christianity for selfish gain is Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8. By his own words, he boasted in his greatness (Acts 8:9). The people of Samaria were amazed by him and clung to his every word.
But when Philip proclaimed the gospel in Samaria, many of the people repented and turned from Simon and to Jesus. Simon, having followed Philip, Peter, and John began to see dollar signs. He wanted to use the Holy Spirit for personal power and profit. He intended to buy blessing from the Apostles in order to use the power of God for himself (Acts 8:19). He was quickly rebuked by the Apostles for his wicked, selfish, greedy, bitter heart (Acts 8:20-23).
In her life and ministry, the church not only bears witness to a new kind of power structure, but it also calls the power structures of this world to account. Selfish, wicked persons like Simon are called to repentance. The rich are called to generous stewardship (Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-11; cf. Luke 18:24-25, 1 Tim. 1:17-19). Domineering employers are summoned to obey a new standard based on compassion and care for employees rather than the bottom line (Col. 4:1; cf. Philemon 21). Abusive religious leaders are held to account and are either brought to repentance or excommunicated (1 Tim. 1:20, 5:20-21; cf. James 3:1-2).
As new churches are established, they do not only proclaim a new way of power and leadership. They also provide the structures within communities to hold those with influence and power accountable when they act out of accord with the kingdom of God.
Our inability to hold the rich and powerful to account may be the single greatest failure of the Evangelical church in the last century. Too often we have favored and protected the powerful; we have shamed victims and exonerated abusers. Healthy church plants, if they are to follow the biblical model, carry a double burden in this regard. They must not only establish structures which call the powers and rules of this world to account; they must also rebuke the failures of the churches and call existing leadership to repentance and change.
Confronting Social Structures – Acts 16:11-40
Several of these themes come together in Paul’s ministry in Philippi. Often cited as an example of reconciliation in the church, Acts 16:11-40 is also a demonstration of how church planting advances social justice in local communities. Through the very ordinary ministry and discipleship of a new church, wealth is redirected, exploitation is confronted, and power structures are subverted.
With Lydia’s conversion, we see how quickly her heart is attuned to generosity and stewardship for the sake of the church. Lydia immediately redirects her wealth to the establishment of a church in Philippi – potentially the first church plant in all of Europe is hosted in her home (Acts 16:40). As a wealthy benefactor, she recognizes her role in God’s kingdom for supporting the mission and work of the church.
When the slave girl was set free from demons, an entire system of exploitation crumbled to the ground (Acts 16:16). Ordinary gospel ministry turned the city into an uproar, as the idols which produced systems of exploitation were being confronted and destroyed. In fact, Paul and Silas were beaten because of the economic impact they had on exploitative business practices (Acts 16:23). When sinners are set free, the rich and powerful often suffer.
Upon the conversion of the Philippian jailer, one of the ordinary laborers of an oppressive power structure is set free from the evil of this age (Acts 16:29-34; Gal. 2:4). We have no reason to think this jailer left his trade; instead, it is likely that he remained in his trade, but would do so as a Christian. Through the testimony of the early church, we know it was through the witness of faithful Christians who lived and labored in every part of public life that eventually overturned the Roman Empire.
Even in those churches which do not choose more direct political and social action, these elements of social justice should be present in our life and witness together. When grace is set loose, well – it changes everything.
The churches are to be a people who would participate “in the bringing about of a new order, in establishing a community of love, in struggling for justice and peace as an anticipation of the ultimate revelation of God’s kingdom.” As professor and missionary Harvie Conn so beautifully stated, “Like stars in the universe, the churches are to shine in blamelessness and purity… By their love of all people, by giving no occasion for valid criticism, by their service of others, they are to be ‘the only hermeneutic of the gospel’.”
The burden is on the churches, not on her critics, to become more like Christ who is her head (Eph. 4:15).
Will the cries of the harassed and wounded sheep be heard by the churches (Matt. 9:36-38)?
Will they turn from their idols or become like them (Psalm 115:8)?
Will a new wave of church planting take up the call to integrate social justice holistically and naturally into its work, built on its convictions to proclaim Christ and his kingdom?
Will our society give God the glory for what happens in the churches (Eph. 3:21)?
Will we participate in God’s redemptive plan, secured in Christ, and promised to the church?
Despite the many failures of the modern church, I remain convinced that if we take up our call in its fullness, church planting is still the best way to see new believers come to faith and increase social justice in our communities.
— See, for example, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. See also Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church (InterVarsity Press, 2022); Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Brazos Press, 2020).  Ryan Burge, Jim Davis, and Michael Graham estimate that roughly 15 percent of American adults, or 40 million people, have stopped going to church altogether in the last 25 years. See their book The Great Dechurching.  See Andrew Whitehead’s article, Why Christian Nationalism makes American Christians less Christlike.  For example, the traditional expectation in the U.S. Evangelical context for church plants is that they should have a plan for becoming financially self-sustaining by year 3. However, data suggests that only 44% of churches planted since 2005 or later were financially self-sustaining by year 3, and only 64% by year 5. Becoming financially self-sustaining can no longer be the guiding metric for healthy church plants.  “Churches, especially new churches with young leadership and young congregants, seem to be a feature of stable and upwardly mobile communities. The disadvantaged communities that are most in need of the services churches exist in part to provide cannot afford to start and sustain those churches—and thus they are not getting them.” See “Low-Income Communities Are Struggling to Support Churches,” Patton Dodd, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/low-income-communities-churches/549677/.  See Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne (Liveright, 2020); Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths(InterVarsity Press, 2019); Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2001).  Ben Hein, “The Myth of Christian Decency,” July 2023, https://benhein.us/the-myth-of-christian-decency/.  Keller, Center Church, 355.  For example, see St. Basil the Great, On Social Justice; Abraham Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty; Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited; Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.  One of the better explanations of this view can be found in What is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway, 2011) By Kevin DeYoung and Greg Glibert.  Walter Rauschenbusch’s classic Christianity and the Social Crisis (republished in a helpful new edition in 2007 by HarperOne) articulates a traditional view of a “social gospel.”  See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996) and Tom Holland, Dominion (Basic Books, 2019).  Orlando E. Costas, The Integrity of Mission: The Inner Life and Outreach of the Church (Harper & Row, 1979), 57.  Conn, Urban Ministry, 145-146.