By Bishop Joao Carlos Lopes
I have been a bishop in the Brazilian Methodist Church for 25 years. After a few years in the episcopal office, I realized that our churches were stagnant. Not many people were joining the church by profession of faith. After much prayer and conversation with the conference leaders we decided, among other things, that no one would become an elder candidate before planting a church.
“Give me a church and I will give you the title” became a well-known saying in our conference. Now, 17 years after that decision, we have witnessed thousands of new believers as well as dozens of pastors who have experienced the joy of planting a new church even before entering the probationary period and becoming an elder. I am convinced that church planting is a key element in spreading the Good News of the Kingdom.
In Acts 10:38, in his dialogue with Cornelius, Peter said that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and he went around doing good…” There are a lot of good, loving, and even sacrificial things that we Christians in the Wesleyan tradition do specifically because we are followers of Jesus. After all, we are disciples of the one who “went around doing good.” All over the world we express our love for our neighbor by feeding the poor, fighting for justice, and caring for the orphans and the sick. By doing so we offer ourselves as channels of God’s grace to all people.
However, unless those efforts are aimed at getting the gospel to people who have never heard it and then gathering those people into local communities, we are neglecting the mission Jesus gave to his disciples.
Of course, I am very aware that there is no command in the Bible such as “go and plant churches.” But Jesus told his disciples that they should go to every village, every town, and every nation “making disciples … baptizing them and teaching them to obey Jesus.” And, as we know, all these things happen in the context of local communities.
When we do evangelism, the best way to teach and strengthen the new believers is gathering them together in local churches. So planting churches is essential for evangelism that bears fruit that will last.
In his journal of August 25, 1763, John Wesley wrote: “I was more convinced than ever that the preaching like an apostle, without the joining together those that are awakened, and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer.”
I am sure that same spirit was present in the late 1800s when the Methodists were planting more than one new congregation a day. That inspired the writing of a hymn that was sung in missions gatherings, campmeetings, and Sunday services: “We’re building two a day, dear God, we’re building two a day! All hail the power of Jesus’ name, we’re building two a day.”
We need that same fire. We need to take seriously the challenge of planting new churches. It is the only way for us to make sure that we will not have a wonderful and large church only in our “Jerusalem,” neglecting the command to go to people who have not heard the good news of salvation.
The experience we have had in the Sixth Conference of the Brazilian Methodist Church has taught me a few principles:
1. Church growth is not the same as church planting. The church in Jerusalem, according to Acts 2, was experiencing amazing growth, but the disciples were not planting new churches elsewhere until the persecution came upon them in Acts 8. Only then did church planting began to take place, for example, in Samaria and Antioch.
The reality is that most leaders prefer church growth to church planting. And the main reason is that church growth does not necessarily take us out of our comfort zone. Church planting always does. But it is worth it. Our experience is that many churches planted by new pastors are now planting new churches. It has become a new culture.
2. Evangelism is not the same as church planting. By itself, evangelism doesn’t necessarily give birth to new churches. According to Acts 19, the men from Cyprus and Cyrene shared the good news about Jesus in Antioch. They evangelized! But it was Barnabas and Saul who planted a church there.
Brazilian people used to use Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” as a means of evangelism. At the end of every presentation, after the prayer of confession, the evangelist was supposed to say: “Look for a church in your neighborhood (or look for the nearest church to your home).” For evangelism aiming at creating community, this is not acceptable. The evangelist also has the responsibility to make sure that the person evangelized is integrated into a community of believers.
3. Evangelism can be moment-based but church planting is always a process. Church planting takes building relationship, sharing the good news, bringing people together, assimilating them, and training new leaders.
Churches are not planted in the pastor’s office. Churches are not planted at Church Planting Conferences. Nor are churches planted in Church Planting Research Centers. Churches are planted on the streets, where the unbelievers are. We need to focus on reaching the unreached and the unchurched, making sure that we are “not building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
Joao Carlos Lopes has been the resident bishop of the Sixth Conference of the Brazilian Methodist Church since 1997. He earned both his M.Div. and Doctor of Missiology degrees at Asbury Theological Seminary. Besides his episcopal role, he is also a professor of pastoral theology at the Paraná Evangelical University and a member of the Board of Trustees of Asbury Theological Seminary. This is the fifth of a series of articles provided by TMS Global to platform some important voices in global Methodism.