This blog post is contributed by Ted Szymczak. Ted is a SEND missionary who has served in Poland for several terms, and now champions training for church planters within SEND.
What role should expatriate missionaries play in the process of planting churches among the unreached? Recently I took part in training which opened up a whole new vista in my personal view of this critical issue. Having served in three church plants in the USA and three others in Poland, I thought I knew a fair amount about church planting. But as is often the case, I had more to learn.
The Multiplying Churches Globally course is hosted in Minneapolis by Reach Global with the participation of SEND International and several other organizations. The training is based on the seminal cross cultural church planting work, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication, by Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, both of whom have taught at the course. In a four week online course followed by a four day face-to-face time, the training presents a variety of helpful issues. One of the most insightful aspects for me had to do with the three roles that expatriate church planters can play – the missionary as the pastor, as a catalyst or as an apostle. As you may have guessed, I highly recommend both the book and the course.
Our first missionary church planter takes a pastoral approach. When picturing classic Western church planting, this is most often what we have in mind. In this scenario, the church planting missionary serves as the pioneer and leads in an upfront role in the church plant. SEND’s first two church plants in North Central Europe, where I served for 17 years, were pastoral church plants. The approach has some advantages and some drawbacks. One advantage is that it usually brings quicker results and has high quality teaching. The typically more highly trained expatriate missionary pastor serves as a draw to attract new people to a church plant. On the down side, the transition to national leadership to can be lengthy and difficult for some of these same reasons. Few nationals have the training or resources of the missionary church planter to fill the missionary’s big shoes. It can, however, be argued that in some frontier contexts, a form of this model is a necessary precursor to any church planting. SEND NCE was able to negotiate the transition to national leadership successfully in both of our first two church plants, but that is often not the case.
Our second missionary adopts a catalytic church planting approach. This church planter seeks to plant a fellowship that is strong enough to serve as a model and mother church for multiple future daughter churches. After the initial church plant is completed, the missionary continues to serve as the pastor or as a key resource person to catalyze the planting of new churches. Advantages of this approach include the reproduction of churches and a typically strong church support network. The disadvantages are that few of us church planters are a “Rick Warren” and gifted enough to effectively serve as catalysts. Secondly, not all church plants are strong enough or have enough vision to serve as mother churches. However this approach can powerfully impact the church planting in a given region. In Poland, my family and I had the privilege of working with one such church (though not one that SEND had planted) which was instrumental in planting a half dozen churches, half of which were even intentional!
Our third missionary church planter takes an apostolic approach. This church planter attempts to plant churches that are not dependent on the church planter or on outside resources. This church planter is more of a visionary, an equipper, and an encourager. He works alongside, encouraging and training multiple national church planters, often simultaneously. Yet hardly do we ever seen this church planter up front in any of the actual church services. His goal is to equip local leaders, hand off ministry to them and then move on, at which point he maintains a more distant but prayerful and supportive role. So what photos or stories does this church planter put in his or her newsletters? They probably have more to do with what God is doing through their network of church planters. Strengths of this approach are that it tends to more effectively facilitate leader and church multiplication as well as promotes a greater sense of local ownership. A key downside of this approach is that it is slower, particularly in the beginning. Another challenge for the missionary is how to identify local leaders which are faithful, called and available. Then there is the challenge of a more nomadic lifestyle of the apostolic church planter. We see examples of this in the work of Tom Steffen (missionary among the Ifugao in the Philippines and author of Passing the Baton), as well as in the life of the Apostle Paul.
So, what story is God wanting to write through your church planting work? I hope consideration of these three approaches helps expand your perspectives as it did mine.