What 21st century American Church Planters can learn from Church Planters in India.

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

One of the joys of my life has been the privilege of training young ministers of the Gospel in the USA and in India.  Prior to coming to Asbury to serve as President, I taught at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for 11 years, and, prior to that, Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. One of the biggest differences I noticed in teaching students in India and teaching students in the USA was their perspective on church planting.  My American students thought very little about church planting.  Starting new churches for them was a kind of exotic idea which a few brave souls might try, but certainly not part of the normal expectations of someone called into full time ministry.  My American students fully expected to graduate, be hired by a church, and be given a salary, pension plan and parsonage.  In contrast, my Indian students couldn’t even imagine such a prospect.  They knew that they would have to graduate, go to a village, start preaching and evangelizing and, over time, plant the church that they would then pastor!  Why this difference?  Because in North India there are very few churches and the Christian percentage of the overall population is less than 1%.  In N. India, pastoral training is evangelistic training, since there are so few Christians.  Evangelistic training must lead to church planting since there are so few existing congregations. In India, to “plant” a church has little to do with buying land and building buildings. To plant a church is to gather new communities of believers who unite themselves together for prayer, worship, witness, and service.

This contrast between India and the USA helps to illustrate the major challenge that is facing the churches of North America. Even if you grant that our seminaries are doing an excellent job producing great pastors and teachers, this will not be enough. In the midst of our increasingly secularized society, we can no longer simply produce pastors and teachers.  We need to learn from the lessons of the Indian church. We need to also train evangelists and church planters!  We need to train and equip men and women in the skills and practice necessary to effectively evangelize a whole new generation in the USA who know little to nothing about Jesus Christ, the Christian message, and the revelation of God’s Word.  We need to train leaders who can oversee dozens of new lay led, bi-vocational churches.  In other words, our seminaries must not only train pastors and teachers for established churches, but also train evangelists and church planters for the teeming millions in America who have not heard the Gospel and will likely never enter into the doors of an established church.  We must recalibrate our thinking to see ourselves as living in 21st century north India, rather than in 1950 United States.  Interestingly, we will also be learning what it was like to be a Christian in the 1st century.  And those 1st century Christians brought the mighty Roman Empire under the sway of the Gospel through faithful preaching, evangelism, and church planting!


  • Chris says:

    So … I guess my first question to you would be, how does Eph. 4 fit into this? Will you reformat the way you make an M.Div at Asbury to specialize in Apostleship, Prophesy, Evangelism, Teaching, and Shepherding? I would imagine the MA:I.S. program would fit the first and third, but I’ve never seen a program that trains prophets …

    • I spent 3 1/2 years in South Korea. They also expect that a Seminary graduate will go out and establish a new congregation, pastor it a while, and then he can applyl for ordination and conference membership. Of course Korea has a large Christian population and is different from India in many other ways, but they expect Church planting to be part of their beginning work.

    • Perhaps the so-called four or five fold ministry mentioned in Ephesians has to do with all serious believers have all of those qualities in some measure to be developed. The qualities are not titles but rather descriptors of expressions of faith and the nature of how we relate. When we discover the approach and methodology of Wesley (and his historical mentor, Ignatius of Loyola), we will be planting churches in the nooks and crannies of communities–wherever two or three are gathered to discover integration of the human self with the Divine Presence.

  • Dr. T, my mind also went immediately to Ephesians 4 as I was reading your blog post. Would love to hear any comments you would like to share, not only about training for the respective offices, but also about how to build a team of these fivefold offices, how they should work together, and what that might “look like” in the 21st century church. Do you see the fivefold offices at work in the majority world church? What might that look like in North America? Thanks in advance for any insights you can share.

  • Debra Meyer says:

    I am an ATS grad, MDiv 2007, and am writing a plan for church multiplication through house churches in the north Denver/Boulder area. Your blog is inspiring and confirms my call to support new believers to reach their friends who are often unreached people groups – in our area. Could you please recommend references with data you refer to when you write: “the teeming millions in America who have not heard the Gospel and will likely never enter into the doors of an established church.”

  • The recovery of a five-fold ministry is, mercifully, not shouldered completely by a seminary, Asbury or any other. We’ve gone a good job over the years preparing pastors and teachers. We can do even better. We have prepared evangelists only occasionally, but at least it is in our history and in our DNA. Asbury was founded by a revival preacher. H. C. Morrison (founder of Asbury) once said that he would never hire a faculty member at Asbury until he first saw him “work an altar call.” The tougher part, as you readily picked up, is the Apostolic and Prophetic gifts. It is hard to anticipate whether a student may or may not be a bishop someday (or some apostolic position like that). We can only plant the seeds and model effective leadership and then wait and see what grows up thirty years later! As for prophets, we must first teach our students to seek prophetic giftedness the way they seek other gifts like pastoral care or preaching or teaching. Second, we must teach pastors without the gift how to recognize the gift in others. The church needs prophets, especially today. Part of good pastoral leadership is recognizing all the gifts in our midst. A healthy church must have all the offices and all the gifts and all the fruits to effectively embody the presence of Christ in the world.

  • Lanny49 says:

    How would HC Morrison look at “working the altar call” today when in many churches evcen singing an invitation is looked at as being unnecessary or with downright contempt as being manipulative or judgemental (!”Who are you to say I or anyone needs to repent?”
    Having read hundreds of hours of the writings of John Wesley (ATS ’88) and am now reading the journal of Charles Wesley and having been through wonderful time of the seeing the Holy Spirit move in my own ministry, how I long to “work the altar” again seeing true repentance and transformation in the lives of sinners (like me).
    Dt. Tennent, every time I read your articles I feel you are God’s man for this time at ATS. Glad you are at the helm. God bless you and your family.

  • We have a lot to learn indeed from the global south when it comes to church planting and being missionaries in and to the post-christendom West.

    As a practitioner of mission in suburban NE Ohio, I have learned that beneath the “allure” of church planting is a deeper call to “die to self” and “die to Christendom.” I didn’t enter ATS intending to be a church planter and I didn’t even consider it as a vocation until three months prior to my graduation this past May. I studied missiology both in the classroom as well as globally and locally being active in the practice of mission, but I didn’t think of living as one in America full-time…. I mean who pays for my salary, parsonage, health insurance, 401k, pensions, etc…. ?

    I am currently an ordained Anglican Priest who is living as a missionary, shepherding as a Pastor, but trying to get paid as a tent maker. To make matters worst, I have been called to one of the driest places in America (no, not a poor urban setting or the Pacific NW like I would prefer) … a county of suburbanites just south of Cleveland, Ohio!

    I am surprised though Dr. Tennant of how many Pastors (and laity) who passively pity me for having gone through Seminary and earning an MDiv and getting ordained to the Presbyterate and now I’m stuck with a ministry job that doesn’t “pay up.” As if the privilege of sharing the Gospel with people isn’t payment enough!

    Keep on writing, I love the substance!

  • T Tennent says:

    Most of my data comes from the following sources:
    1. World Christian Encyclopedia
    2. World Christian Trends
    3. World Christian Database

    See, Todd Johnson
    The statistics on the decline of European and European Christianity in diaspora (N. America, Australia, S. Africa, etc…) is fairly well documented. The estimates range from a low of around 7,000 per day loss to higher estimates of around 11,000. This would not apply to the explosive growth of ethnic churches in N. America. This is only referring to European descent people-groups wherever they have migrated in the world.

  • Dr. Tennent,
    I am an ATS graduate M Div 2010. I do not challenge any of your statements about church planters. I so want to be a planter. It is a deep desire of mine. I remain very uncertain as to how to go about it. I am also a proponent of the five fold ministry. I am highly prophetically gifted. I have been given the Chozeh gifting. I appreciate the gifting as it has been so rewarding. I was gifted at the age of 33 with the gift not being fully activated until age 55. I have experienced trips to Heaven and Hell. I have related my experiences to two individuals on the ATS faculty. They are Dr. Steve Seamands and Dr. Reg Johnson. They have tried to understand my gifting. I could teach those who have the gift, how to use it. I can inform those who see prophetic gifting of what it truly is and when it is not the gift. I live close to Wilmore and would love to talk to you more about the way God has gifted me. Perhaps I could have the chance to reveal some of the deeper things of God’s Kingdom. I know a few other prophets in this region. We are a misunderstood group of believers.

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