If you had 12 missionary families (or pairs of singles) and an unreached people group numbering millions of people spread over a large geographic area, how would you place them for optimal church planting effectiveness? Would you pick 12 key locations and place 1 family in each location, or would you place 3 families each in 4 key locations?
If your goal is to reach as many people as possible with the Gospel, it might seem more strategic to put each family on its own so that churches can be planted in 12 locations rather than just 4. However, given the nature of the body of Christ, human limitations, and the role of community in evangelism, I question whether that strategy is as good in reality as it looks on paper.
Missionaries need teams. While it is sometimes possible to plant a church all by yourself, just you and your spouse (or with one other co-worker), there are practical and biblical reasons to gather a team for church planting rather to go it alone. Here are four:
1. You Need a Community to Represent the Body of Christ
In the body of Christ are many members (1 Corinthians 12), and all those members are needed together to give a full representation of Christ to the people around us. Different people have different gifts and different personalities, talents, and temperaments. If the only representation of the body of Christ that a non-believer sees is a hand and an ear, there is a whole lot more which is missing. More team members (and eventually church members) help the watching world get a better idea of who Christ is by seeing more parts of his body. People that my spouse and I don’t quite connect with might be better reached by a teammate who is very different from us. Having more teammates increases what people can see of Christ as we try to help them embrace Him and to come together as a church community.
2. Community is a Means of Evangelism
Many people think of evangelism as one person verbally telling another person about Christ. And that is an essential part of evangelism that can’t neglected. But there is more to it than that. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). If there is hardly any community for people to see, how are they going to see Christians loving one another? How are they going to see grace and forgiveness extended and received? If you have a team, with all the messiness that goes along with real relationships, there will be opportunities for people to see the grace of God in practice as people get offended and hurt, but then reconcile.
Of course, sometimes teams (and churches!) completely blow up and don’t reflect the grace of Christ. But that’s not an excuse for avoiding teams. Christ did not save us to be connected to him alone, one lone member dangling from the Head. We were saved to be in community, in the body of Christ. Part of our sanctification and witness to the world is learning how to love each other well in the midst of brokenness.
3. No One Person Has All the Gifts
When I was a university student many years ago, there was a joke among the students in our college fellowship that you had to be able to play guitar in order to be on staff with InterVarsity. Of course that wasn’t true, but it highlighted the fact that the staff worker often needed to be multi-talented because sometimes there wasn’t always someone around to lead worship. Solo pastors of small churches also often called on to be preacher, counselor, children’s leader, secretary, pianist, janitor, and so on. In a church planting situation, no single person, or couple, has all the gifts and abilities needed to reach out to the community and to minister to all the needs in the church that they hope will take off. Even if one person did have all the gifts, would they have enough time in the day to do it all? It’s highly unlikely. Having a missionary team increases the number of gifts and time available to do outreach as well as to minister to various needs in a budding church.
4. Teams Alleviate Loneliness and Discouragement
If you are all on your own in some small town (or big city!) with few to no churches or Christians around, it can get very lonely as you labor day in and day out to start something that nobody understands or appreciates. It is easy to put in a full day of work and wonder if it made any difference to anything or anyone. And then you need to go to bed, get up the next day, and do it again. Hopefully, not every day is that bad, but some days are. Having teammates for spiritual fellowship and just plain old friendship can be a great encouragement to carry on, and to help us regain perspective when we lose sight of what we are doing and why. In the digital age, it is always possible to reach out to people far away for laughs and encouragement. However, there is still no replacement for physical, real, live people in the same location as you who understand the sights, sounds, and people you are experiencing and can be there with you.
What Happens If You DON’T Have a Team?
Lest I overstate my case, I should add the qualification here that it is not wrong or impossible to plant a church by yourself, or with just your spouse or one other person. It has been done and will continue to be done in many places around the world. And sometimes it just needs to be done like that because there are no other co-workers available.
But if you have a choice to go it alone or work with a team, I am convinced that it is better to go with a team. I’ve heard too many stories of couples getting discouraged, burning out, and going home before they ever get a church planted. Scattering a bunch of missionaries as broadly as possible to plant as many churches as possible may sound like a great idea, but if many of those missionaries burn out and go home before they ever plant a church, maybe it is time to rethink that strategy.
In the long run, perhaps putting missionaries in teams will result in more churches because the missionaries stay around long enough in order to actually plant churches. And if they plant one church, they’ll be around to plant another (and with more experience too). The encouragement, fellowship, and testimony that comes with the diversity of the body of Christ means more missionaries remaining in ministry over the long-run and probably more churches planted – even if such a team strategy seems counter-intuitive at the outset when there are so many unreached places and so few workers.