This is an article from the March-April 2000 issue: The African American & Missions

A Church Planting Movement Up Close

A Story from the Field

A Church Planting Movement Up Close

The original booklet contains four case-studies. We present one of these in this issue. The other three will be presented in upcoming issues.

International Mission Board missionaries are currently engaged in a number of Church Planting Movements and near-Church Planting Movements around the world. While each of these movements bears the influence of our missionaries, each is different as well.

Despite these differences, there are common traits that characterize almost every CPM. In the examples that follow, you will see how several IMB missionaries came to be involved in CPMs. Some were instrumental in the movement from its inception, while others arrived after the movement was well under way. In each case, there are lessons we can learn that may be transferable to other situations.

A Region in China

The setting

China in the early 1990s was reeling from enormous social upheaval. Economic boom had left gross disparities between the haves and have-nots. Rapid urbanization was dismantling ancient family and communal alliances. The entire country anxiously awaited a successor to the Maoist doctrines which had held the collective mind for almost four decades.

New ideas were sweeping through the country and were viewed with a mixture of enthusiasm and rejection. The suppressed student democracy movement, culminating in the clash with government forces in Tiananmen Square in 1989, had left many youth despairing of political reform, yet still searching for some new hope for a better future.

What happened

Into this setting the International Mission Board assigned a strategy coordinator in 1991 to a region we'll call Yanyin. During a year of language and culture study, the missionary conducted a thorough analysis of Yanyin. It consisted of about 7 million people clustered in five different people groups living in a variety of rural and urban settings. He mapped their population centers and began several evangelistic probes. After a few false starts, the strategy coordinator developed a reproducing model of indigenous church planting that he implemented to great effect.

In his initial survey, the strategy coordinator found three local house churches made up of about 85 Han Chinese Christians. The membership was primarily elderly and had been slowly declining for years with no vision or prospects for growth. Over the next four years, by God's grace, the strategy coordinator helped the Gospel take fresh root among this people group and sweep rapidly across the Yanyin region.

Aware of the enormous cultural and linguistic barriers that separated him from the people of Yanyin, the missionary began by mobilizing Chinese Christian co-laborers from across Asia. Then, partnering these ethnic Chinese church planters with a small team of local believers, the group planted six new churches in 1994. The following year, 17 more were begun. The next year, 50 more were started. By 1997, just three years after starting, the number of churches had risen to 195 and had spread throughout the region, taking root in each of the five people groups.

At this point the movement was spreading so rapidly that the strategy coordinator felt he could safely exit the work without diminishing its momentum. The next year, in his absence, the movement nearly tripled as the total number of churches grew to 550 with more than 55,000 believers.

Key factors

Since his departure from the Yanyin assignment in 1997, the strategy coordinator has given considerable attention to examining the factors that enabled this Church Planting Movement to develop so rapidly. We are all the beneficiaries of this analysis, which I will relate in abbreviated form here.

As with so many assignments, the Yanyin ministry was bathed in prayer even before its inception. What began as a personal belief in the efficacy of prayer became a part of the DNA of the new Church Planting Movement as the early believers emulated the model of the missionary.

Training and structure were key elements in the initiation and rapid rise of this movement, as was the practice of "response filtering." Response filtering is the practice of using some large-scale evangelism tool, such as video, radio or other mass outreach tools, coupled with a "feedback loop" or filtering mechanism that allows the evangelist to glean from the proclamation those who are interested in receiving further contact. In this manner, seed-sowing is almost always linked to some attempt to "draw the net" and gather inquirers into a Bible study aimed at a new church start.

Let's take a closer look at the training and structure employed by the missionary. The strategy coordinator began with a small core of believers whom he discipled and then trained in basic church planting methods. The missionary calls his church planting method a POUCH approach. POUCH is an acronym. P stands for participative Bible study/worship groups," describing the type of cell group meetings through which seekers are led to faith and new believers continue as church afterwards. O refers to obedience to God's Word as the sole measure of an individual's or church's success. U refers to unpaid and multiple lay or bivocational church leaders. C stands for cell churches rarely exceeding 15 members before reproducing into new groups. H indicates homes or storefronts as the primary meeting places for these cell churches. Each of these five characteristics contributed to the reproducibility of the churches in a manner that did not rely upon outside funding, technology or initiation.

The strategy coordinator instilled in these initial converts a vision for reaching all of Yanyin with the Gospel. He shared with them his research on where the various unreached people groups of the region lived and assured them that Christ had equipped them with all they needed to reach the entire region with the Gospel.

The pattern he taught for starting churches was built around four steps: 1) Model, 2) Assist, 3) Watch and 4) Leave. Modeling referred to the act of doing church with the new (or soon to be) believers using the POUCH approach described above. Assisting referred to the act of helping the newly formed church to plant a daughter church. Watching was an important and conscious effort to see to it that a third-generation church was started without the assistance or direct involvement of the missionary. Leaving was the final crucial step of ensuring that the movement was truly indigenous and self-propagating.

In a very short time, the new Yanyin believers had started multiple POUCH churches across the region, each of which was modeling, assisting new church starts, watching to see that the reproduction was continuing and then leaving to go and begin a new church plant elsewhere. Undoubtedly the chain of reproduction was broken from time to time, but due to the many, many new churches that were being started, the breaks did not significantly slow the spread of the movement.

The remote region of Yanyin was far-removed from seminaries or Bible institutes. Government restrictions prohibited the building of any local seminaries. Instead, the missionary strategist looked to New Testament models of mentoring. As the missionary trained the first generation of church leaders, he insisted that they train someone else. Thus, training was done through one-on-one mentoring relationships. Each aspiring church leader was required to be both a disciple and a discipler in an ongoing chain of teaching and being taught "whatsoever things I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). Whatever a lay pastor learned one day, he would teach to another lay leader the next day. This provided the ultimate example of on-the-job training that was always vital, fresh and "just in time" to be used.

Unique Factors

Even though persecution and death accompanied the spread of the Gospel across Yanyin, there was not a systematic effort on the part of the government to stop the movement. This may have been partially due to the low profile of cell churches and the absence of new church buildings. New believers were immediately baptized and taught that it was normal for them to win others to Christ and lead them to form new churches. This "high demand/high risk" reliance on new converts as evangelists and church planters contributed greatly to the rapid expansion of the movement.

The nondenominational context of churches in China meant that there was no denominational tradition that the churches adopted. It remains to be seen whether heretical expressions will emerge within the movement. However, the highly decentralized nature of the Yanyin Church Planting Movement is not conducive to a single individual gaining control over the whole. At the doctrinal heart of each cell church is a commitment to obey the Bible. Since church worship consists of participative Bible study with multiple leaders, there is a natural corrective from within the group itself to misinterpretation or extremes of interpretation.

When asked about the movement's lack of denominational identity, the strategy coordinator commented that, even though the government forbids denominational expressions in China, the Yanyin churches are more Baptist than most Baptist churches he has known. He further predicts that their pattern of allegiance to the Bible and commitment to the priesthood of the laity will keep the movement on track.

Learning points

  1. From the beginning, evangelism was lay-led and centered among the lost rather than inside church buildings.
  2. Multiple, unpaid church leaders ensured the availability of the growing number of leaders needed to continually begin new works.
  3. The house-church pattern of the Yanyin movement is well adapted to growth and to a persecution environment.
  4. By leaving the assignment before it grew large enough to attract government scrutiny, the missionary helped the Yanyin movement avoid the appearance of foreignness in a country known for its nationalism and xenophobia.

Contents ©2000 by the International Mission Board.


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