Church Planting is not “Sheep Stealing”

Last week Paul Levy wrote an article on church planting that struck a nerve with me.  It struck a nerve with me because 1) I’m pastoring a young church plant, 2) he makes a good point; 3) I think that he is wrong. Here’s the meat of Levy’s post:

My question, having met a few church planters in the last few weeks, is, when somebody says they are looking to gather a core, is that code language for we’re looking to take people from another church and put them into our church plant? That isn’t a criticism but I think we need to call a spade a spade. Of course those of us in established churches need to be gospel hearted and generous but I think we also need to give the church planting movement a bit of a slap. To grow churches in this country is hard, hard work and to turn churches round is tough and so somebody turning up and trying to take the people you’ve cared for can be somewhat trying. I’d love it if I met with a church planter and, when I asked him what stage are you at, he replied ‘I’m trying to steal Christians from other churches.’ I’d at least give him points for honesty.

The Good

Let me start with what I think is a good point embedded within Levy’s statement.  The current craze of church planting is not all good.  As with any fad or movement, you have to acknowledge the good with the bad.  In this case the bad is the entrepreneurial personality driven church plants.  In other words, you have a guy who wants to be a pastor and so he shows up into town and sets up his own lemonade stand by himself.  In these cases the new church plant is built upon two pillars 1) a man’s desire to be a pastor & 2) a man’s personality.  Hardly the Titus 1:5 model of churches planting churches.  Unfortunately the evangelical church has done little to discourage this kind of church planting.  In fact, in some ways it has celebrated this by elevating self-made & self-ordained pastors who “personally built their church from the ground up.” (I hope you see the problem with this statement) Theologically speaking, this is wrought with problems.  Practically speaking, there are thousands of self-made church planters whose lemonade stand… I mean church plant is utterly failing because they are ungifted and “unaffirmed.” They are working outside the church, which is what Christ has promised to build.

The Bad

That being said, I think that Levy is absolutely wrong when he subtly equates all church planting with “sheep stealing.” I’m not saying that this kind of thing doesn’t happen.  But it doesn’t happen in all church plants and it is not limited to church planting.  I could just as easily say I wish that Paul Levy would have enough integrity to say that he is growing  his church by putting the church down the street out of business.  It’s almost as if Levy is saying that it is inappropriate for a church to grow numerically through transfer growth.  I doubt that he would put it in those terms though.

The Ugly

I mentioned that I was drawn to this article for three reasons.  I already explained what I think about two of these reasons, now let me explain this from my perspective of the pastor of a church plant.


First of all, we are not interested in “sheep stealing” or movement growing.  In other words, we don’t want to have more people come so that our kingdom will be bigger. Whether that kingdom is our local church or our theological position we don’t believe that it is the real kingdom.  We are interested in seeing God’s kingdom grow through the conversions and spiritual growth of His people.  Practically this means that at our church we might send you back to the church that you are coming from, even if that church doesn’t agree with us theologically (but the gospel is clearly articulated and the bible is revered). In fact, we have had this happen already.  When I speak with a visitor I always find out if there are coming from another church and if they are I ask them why they left, and then I call their pastor next week.  If they don’t have the blessing of the pastor or they are leaving to run away from the shepherding of that pastor then I will give them a call and tell them they can’t come back until they work it our with their pastor.
Secondly, what we must  recognize is that providentially God has allowed different local churches to exist within the same area.  One of the ways that the unity of the Universal Church is preserved is through Christians who disagree on certain issues worshipping separately. This allows me to have unity with my paedo-baptist brothers without having to keep my young children out of the splash zone at church.  When we have a new family come to our church we want to know if there is a theological disagreement that would prevent them from worshipping or serving in their previous church.  Sometimes this is easily distinguishable and doesn’t really require a conversation (i.e. coming out of a charismatic background to a boring expositional church like ours). Sometimes it takes a lot of conversation.  For instance, our leadership teaches futuristic premillennialism but recently we counseled a possible new member to continue attending a church where they teach amillennialism.  We disagree on this issue, but in speaking to him it was clear that this doctrine wasn’t preventing him from worshipping or serving.
Third, sometimes a new church is providentially given the opportunity to minister to people that other churches might not have.  This happens through evangelism and new conversion (at least you hope it does).  It also happens with Christians who need to grow.  We have someone in our church who wasn’t a committed part of any church.  But one day he was at his storage unit and saw us next door.  He came and has been blossoming under the ministry of the word. He is passionately evangelizing his family and friends and has brought two new people with him already… Two new people who weren’t previously a part of a church.
Finally, it helps to remember that the established churches were at some point “trying to take the people hard working established churches cared for.” That was no doubt trying…
As you can tell I am more than conflicted about Levy’s article.  He’s right. He’s wrong. It’s personal.  In the end I think that church plants need to be more interested in God’s kingdom than their own kingdom, and all churches should rejoice in the fact that there are other local church that faithfully proclaim the Gospel.
note this post was written wile still under the influence of anasthesia from surgery