If by “church planter” we mean someone who drives to a church building to teach the Bible in a local language on Sundays, then no. I don’t think every missionary is a church planter. One might consider that the answer to the question simply depends on one’s definition of “missionary” and “church planter.”
On the other hand, we don’t want to dive so deep into technical definitions or job titles that we miss the bigger picture. In my opinion, a missionary and church planter shouldn’t be considered so much as a question of semantics, titles, or occupations, but should be thought of more in terms of behavior, participation, focus, and priority.
For example, from the following illustrations, which missionary is participating in church planting?
- A missionary moves to a new location, rents a storefront office space, and hangs a sign that reads “Church.” He invites local neighborhood residents to attend on Sundays but doesn’t yet have any local church leaders or members.
- A missionary moves to a new location chosen in concert with local believers, rents an upstairs office space, and uses the space to teach evening classes to local pastors, deacons, and church members. He trains these students how to organize into teams that will plant multiple local churches.
- A missionary who is trained as a nurse practitioner moves to a central location among multiple church plants in a region. He creates a travel rotation to regularly visit four communities where a church plant is underway, and he provides health and hygiene services in cooperation with the local church’s evangelism ministry.
I would argue that while missionaries (b) and (c) are participating heavily in church planting and have prioritized church planting in their ministry, they are often not referred to as church planters, whereas missionary (a) would typically be called the church planter.
The apostle Paul gives us several indications about how we ought to appropriately identify those who participate in the ministry. In Philippians 4, he refers to those who provided financially for the ministry as a “partner” (v. 3). He mentions two women, Clement, and other members of the church who were coworkers at his side (v. 4). The church at Philippi shared with him in his hardship (v. 14), and the results of Paul’s ministry are attributed to the name of the church (v. 17). So, although we often credit Paul for the fruit, he is saying that the credit goes to the Philippian church.
Who is the “church planter” in this situation? Paul? Clement? The two women? The church at Philippi? I believe this passage indicates that all those who faithfully participated in the ministry, in any capacity, are responsible for the ministry. Paul seems less bothered about the semantics of titles and more concerned about faithfully participating in the ministry. In case that principle isn’t clear from his inferences to his ministry partners, Paul explicitly exhorts us.
Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:9 CSB)
Avoiding Mission Drift
One might ask, “If we say that anyone who participates in the establishment, growth, and multiplication of a church is a ‘church planter,’ doesn’t that weaken the term?” No, I think just the opposite is true. I think we must recognize that everyone who participates in ministry ought to be serving the establishment, growth, and multiplication of a church. Furthermore, we should constantly be considering our roles in relationship to church planting.
But how do we stay church-focused? As ministries grow and support roles expand, how do we ensure that those support roles are linked directly to evangelism, discipleship, and church multiplication?
I think the key is prayer. Share the churches’ prayer requests regularly with one another and pray specifically for requests in relation to the church. Meet with the church leaders and pray for the church together. Talk about the church, pray for the church, and pray regularly with the church leadership. I believe that people will naturally be inclined to get involved in the church as they see their own ministry roles in relation to the church.
That’s not something that can be done in a week or a month; it’s a constant battle of willpower and focus.
Back to the Answer
So, is every missionary a church planter? Ultimately, the question is short-sighted and shouldn’t stop with missionaries. I think that from a biblical and practical perspective, every believer who faithfully participates in the establishment, growth, and multiplication of churches is a church planter. They are a church planter in the most meaningful and significant way possible.
Don’t be afraid to say “we”
Even if you have participated in planting a church, you might be shy about calling yourself a “church planter.” People might misunderstand you. On the other hand, it might be an open door to an interesting conversation. Nevertheless, let’s say for the sake of argument that you don’t feel comfortable calling yourself a church planter. I would recommend that you start by using the word “we.”
“We have a church plant in XYZ city.”
“We are planting a church in ABC country.”
If you are a missionary working in support of a church plant, or if you and your church are supporting a missionary who is participating in a church planting ministry, then guess what; you are planting a church. That’s not someone else’s ministry; that’s your ministry. Get serious about it. Talk about the church. Pray about the church. Pray with the church. Learn how you can be more involved in the church.
When you talk to your pastors and missionaries, don’t ask, “How’s your church plant going?” nor “how’s the church plant going?” Ask them, “How’s our church plant going?” Then ask specific questions and for specific prayer requests. Pray for the church immediately together before saying goodbye.
When we fully realize that we are all part of the body of Christ and are all dedicated to growing and multiplying that body, our perspective on missions will change. We will give the glory to God for the fruit of the ministry that we will see all over the world.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published September 22, 2020.