The Church Planter’s Library (2): North American Church Planting & Renewal

[Editor’s Note: This summer we are posting some old but good pieces from BtT. This post originally appeared on July 7, 2009.]

North American church planting and renewal is not for wimps, dummies, or dorks. In order to plant and revitalize churches in 21st century America, we need men who are strong in their walk with the Lord, strong as husbands and fathers, and strong in perseverance. Further, the church needs men whose mind is buttressed by sound theology and missiology. Third, we need men who are culturally savvy, having a ready gasp of their socio-cultural context and an ability to communicate the gospel and plant the church appropriately in that context.

Finally, North American missiology is for those who are seeking to minister in diverse and multicultural country. Why? Because we no longer need to cross the ocean in order to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. In our own country, and even in the South, we find a dizzying array of cultures and sub-cultures, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of these cultures and sub-cultures are non-Christian or post-Christian, in that they do not have even a basic understanding of a Christian worldview or Christian vocabulary. And because the SBC is a mostly middle class, mostly white network of mostly declining churches that are not yet reaching those cultures and subcultures.

For this reason, evangelicals in general (and Southern Baptists in particular) must begin to take their own cultural contexts as seriously as IMB missionaries take theirs. We must labor consciously and carefully to learn the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can communicate the gospel faithfully and meaningfully in those contexts.

Along the way, it is helpful to read widely on issues related to church planting. Toward that end, here is a list of books for prospective North American church planters and renewers. (Note: Also beneficial is Ed Stetzer’s annotated N. A. Church Planting Bibliography from April 2009.)


After having immersed ourselves in biblical and theological studies, which provide the matrix within which we think about church planting, the first order of business is to deepen our understanding of the church. Pick a couple of ecclesiologies and study them with a pen in hand, reflecting, critiquing, making application. I recommend John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches and Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. The former is probably the best one-stop doctrine of the church available, while the latter focuses on nine crucial aspects for building a healthy church. If you would like to go retro, J. L. Dagg‘s Manual of Church Order is an older ecclesiology text written by a pastorally-minded theologian.

Classic Church Planting Texts

The next order of business is to read at least one of the classic texts on church planting. I will mention several. First, John L. Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches is a slim little volume written by a 19th century Presbyterian missionary to China. In juxtaposition to most missionaries of his day, Nevius encouraged workers to plant churches that were contextual and self-supporting. Second, Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of The Church is another slender little book written by a turn-of-the-20th-century Anglican missionary to China. He urges church planters to start churches that will spontaneously grow, multiply, and overcome various difficulties that hinder the church from growing in this manner. Finally, David Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond, 2d ed., is written by the doyen of 20th century evangelical missiology. In this contemporary classic, the author provides a biblically and theologically driven model for church planting that is also informed by historical, sociological, anthropological insights.

Warning: The first two volumes were written in another era and are a little more difficult to read than books being published in the 21st century. (In bygone eras, theologians were audacious enough to assume literacy in the Western world.) But they are worth the read. In fact, I think I can say without too much exaggeration that all contemporary church planting theory is “footnotes to Roland Allen.” Even today, his work is salient and timely.

Five Streams of North American Missiology

After having beefed up on ecclesiology and church planting classics, you are ready to begin making theological and missiological assessment of contemporary trends in North American church planting and renewal. I have divided current literature into five categories.

1. Reformed & Contextual:

By far the most well-thought-out and influential book in this category is Tim Keller & Allen Thompson, Church Planting Manual, published and distributed by Redeemer Presbyterian’s Church Planting Center (New York). Keller and Allen’s book manages to be at once deeply theological and eminently practical. Also in this vein are Mark Driscoll‘s The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out and Confessions of a Reformission Rev: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church. In the first book, Driscoll argues that the American church must center itself on a proper understanding of gospel, church, and culture. In the second, he tells the story of Mars Hill Church, from the time he planted it until the present. Both books are full of funny stories, so much so that I almost fractured my diaphragm on several occasions reading them.

2. Purpose Driven:

Rick Warren‘s influence on the contemporary scene is mammoth. Ron Sylvia, Starting New Churches on Purpose, is a church planting text in the vein of Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. This text is, for the most part, a-theological.

3. Missional/Incarnational:

The missiologists in this third category overlap at points with those in the first category, but are by no means synonymous. One foundational text to read is Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. A second significant book is Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, which is one of the most handy and helpful church planting texts on the market. Finally, Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways and Michael Frost, Exile are helpful treatments of a missional-incarnational model for church planting.

4. Organic/House Church:

Proponents of organic/house church overlap at points with the missional-incarnationals. The books to read here are Neil Cole, Organic Church: Growing Faith where Life Happens and Jonathan Campbell, The Way of Jesus. Another helpful but relatively obscure little book is Rad Zdero, The Global House Church Movement.

5. Miscellaneous Contemporary:

The fifth category is a catch-all. A few of the more significant texts are Steve Sjogren, Community of Kindness: A Refreshing New Approach to Planting and Growing a Church, Ralph Moore, Starting a New Church: The Church Planter’s Guide to Success, and Bob Roberts‘ trilogy of books, Glocalization, Transformation, and The Multiplying Church.

A Few More

In addition to the books listed above, here are a handful of other books beneficial for the aspiring church planter. Thom Rainer‘s books are well-worth the time spent reading them. I will limit myself to two. The Book of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles is the single best introduction to the church growth movement, including an almost-100 page section on theologically-driven missiology. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples, co-authored by Rainer and Eric Geiger, is a lucid and persuasive argument that churches need to return to the simple disciple-making process exemplified by Jesus.

In Comeback Churches, Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson report on more than 300 formerly declining congregations across multiple denominations, reporting on what it took to revitalize and renew those churches. Planting Churches in the Real World is the story of Joel Rainey’s first church plant and the numerous challenges and times of discouragement he faced. As Stetzer puts it in the blurb on the back of the book, “If you are a planter drunk with vision, this will sober you up.” Finally, Tim Chester and Steve TimmisTotal Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community is a helpful little book arguing that we must center all of the church’s life around gospel and community.

A Final Comment

In this installment, I have only mentioned a few of the books that will be helpful for aspiring church planters. Further, I have provided little or no critique of them. For that reason, I would like to invite our readership to comment on books that I have not included that you think are particularly helpful, or even to comment on or critique the books that I have included.

What new books (since 2009) can you add to this list? 

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  1. JAN   •  

    As a first time pastor working to guide a 55 year old church toward renewal, I have found Dever’s “The Deliberate Church” along with Hammett’s “Biblical Foundations” most helpful. This book by Dever has helped me think through why we do Sunday night and Wednesday night services, staff development and church organization.
    Also, Stetzer’s “Lost and Found” has helped us become more focused in what we are doing to reach a younger generation.

  2. Jay Wooten   •  

    Just finished Ralph Moore’s book. It seemed an even balance between Bible-driven-theological and marketing plans; a lot of practical tips also. He shot down my initial concept of church planting, but so did Proverbs 18:1. I guess even Paul had a partner when he went to preach in the market place.

  3. Mike McDaniel   •  

    Great recommendations, Bruce. I found your categories very helpful. We’ve used Keller/Thompson and Stetzer pretty extensively in our Church Planting Center. Another great resource in the Reformed & Contextual category is GCA’s 2-part Church Planting Manual. Unfortunately, you have to attend one of their trainings to get it. It’s very similar to Keller/Thompson, but a little more comprehensive, with more practical information in it.

    I recommend Comeback Churches especially for anyone who’s considering renewal/revitalization work.

  4. Joey Craft   •  

    What a great list of books! While I have not read all of them, there are several on the list that have helped shape my thinking and continually serve as “reference manuals.”

    Given that theology must drive our methodology, Hammett’s book is a must read for anyone in church planting or revitalization. Simply put, his love for the local church and robust ecclesiology is contagious. I have also found Keller’s manual very helpful – especially in working through some of the practical details that are seemingly behind every corner in church planting. Roberts’ “Multiplying Church” challenges the reader to build multiplication into the DNA and is also worth the short read.

    And yes, Driscoll is always good for pages filled with unparalleled humor!

    One book that is not on the list is Keller’s “Ministries of Mercy.” While I have not yet read it myself, it boasts to be a practical application of how churches can carry out serving the community…anybody have any insight on this book?

  5. Nathan   •  

    Very helpful Bruce. The way you started this post was incredibly helpful for me…a robust ecclesiology is paramount in my view. I would add a couple books for church planting that likely wouldnt find it s way on a church planting book recommendation list:

    CJ Mahaney’s Humility – I believe the North American culture thirsts for men who are not weak, but bold and humble…this book will fuel one to be as such no matter what culture one finds themselves in.

    John Piper’s God is the Gospel – If one doesnt have a full and robust Gospel then church planting will fall flat…this book opened my eyes up to a bigger more beautiful Gospel that gives life to dead bones…great tool to show a “post-Christian” culture a Gospel that is far more than they think.

    I would also recommend everyone attend a “weekender” at Capitol Hill Baptist Church…this experience will help the aspiring church planter see what a healthy church looks like and therein it gives them a glimpse of what they are working towards.

    Lastly, bantering the books Bruce mentioned with a group of brothers as we did on Tuesday mornings drastically increases intake (at least for me it does as I tend to be myoptic at times). Thanks Bruce!!

  6. Joel Rainey   •  

    Bruce, I’m honored to be included among the names you mention above, and applaud you for this strong focus on North American church planting. I’m convinced that church planting is the last best hope of this continent.

    There are two books that I would add to this list, one being Allen’s other work entitled “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” and the other being Neil Cole’s book “Cultivating a Life for God.” The former will appropriately challenge the reader’s missiological assumptions and subsequently cause some good “iron sharpening.” The latter is a very practical look at one way to facilitate rapidly multiplying small groups within the organic church approach.

    Additionally, I would require “Leslie Newbigin; Missionary-Theologian; a Reader” for almost any graduate level church planting course. Whether planting domestically or abroad, Newbigin can help the planter understand the appropriate relationship between the Gospel and the culture, and how the church emerges from the immersion of the latter by the former. He doesn’t get everything right, but he does ask the right questions. Good stuff indeed!

  7. Jay Wooten   •  

    Passing this along:

    Even though growing a church by serious teaching of biblical truth may be harder and slower, it does bear more radical fruit than less doctrinally serious strategies of growth. -John Piper

  8. Josh Reed   •  

    Doc, I enjoyed the categories and look forward to diving into some of these books. I agree with Nathan that Spiritual Formation centered around a robust Gospel must be first in line for the church planter. I know this is spinning your head already in thinking about a whole ‘nutha post complete with different categories and such (which I would greatly appreciate!), but I just wanted to add a couple of resources that have been most helpful. 1) With Christ in the School of Prayer – Andrew Murray. I am currently reading this and it is staggering… Prayer… I don’t think I need to say much more on the necessity of it. The question is, are we obedient to labor in prayer? Tozer said “no one has the right to talk to man about God without first talking to God about man.” May we seek the filling and guidance of the Holy Spirit as we herald the Gospel. (segue) Also, Tozer’s “insight for leaders” email devotional from is excellent in thinking through church leadership in biblical categories and the temptations we face and non-negotiables we must adhere to as shepherds. Thanks again!

  9. Josh Reed   •  

    One further comment, I really appreciated most of what Chester and Timmis was arguing for in Total Church. Although I think they can be accused of “pendulum swinging” too far in some places, their chapter on evangelism was one of the most helpful things I’ve read in a while. The Gospel proclaimed must go forth with the Gospel lived out for it to take root. Gospel community…

  10. Drew Ham   •  

    Thank you for the insight gentlemen. I am attempting to comment among those who are much smarter than I. Two books I might add to the discussion:
    . Breaking the Mission Code by Stetzer & Putman
    . The Convergent Church by Liederbach & Reid

    Humbly, Drew

  11. Nathan Akin   •  

    Dr. Ashford,
    I first want to say thank you so much for taking the time to invest in my life and especially when it comes to this topic. I agree with Mr. Rainey that Church Planting is the hope for North America, and I would add for the world. The Church is God’s chosen vehicle for discipleship, social ministry, mission, future multiplication of the body of Christ through planting more local churches, and more. And I want to echo several of the comments made here. Hammett’s book is a must read. Driscoll’s works are hilarious and very insightful for how we are to be missional, as well as the challenge to navigate between being syncretistic and sectarian. Total Church speaks to something that is lacking in North America, that being community. I believe that it is a must read as well and speaks to a major problem for the North American Church, though I agree with J Reed that there are a few spots that I would not necessarily endorse.
    In that same light, I would highly recommend all that Hirsch and Frost write. The Forgotten Ways really impacted how I view the church. I do not agree fully with everything they say. At times their ecclesiology seems lacking. But they critique some very important things about the church in the west that we need to hear. And they give some very helpful thoughts on how to engage our communities in an incarnational/missional way. And their thoughts on what they label “Liminality,” “Communitas,” and “Third Places” alone are worth the books The Forgotten Ways and Exiles.

    I’m looking forward to soon interacting with Neil Cole and the Keller Manual.

    Nathan Akin

  12. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nixon, right on. I should have included Dever’s “Deliberate Church” along with the IX Marks text. Haven’t read Stetzer’s Lost and Found yet.

    Mike McDaniel and Jay Wooten, thanks for weighing in.

    Joey Craft, I’ve got Keller’s “Mercy Ministries” on my “to read” shelf.

  13. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nathan, you’re right on all three points. I recommend Mahaney’s Humility and Piper’s God is the Gospel, and CHBC’s Weekenders are a great opportunity to be exposed to a church that seeks to be true to the biblical description of the church. Today, we were discussing the essays in Dever’s “Polity” and were again reminded about how serious our Baptist predecessors were about church purity, discipline, etc.

  14. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jay, great quote. Better to build healthy and a bit slower than fast and unhealthy. Cancer grows quickly but is undesireable growth…

    Josh Reed, Murray and Tozer are a reminder that godliness is at the heart of all that we do, church planting certainly not excepted. Let’s not get caught up in the mechanics of CP and forget that it is Christ himself who builds his church through his spirit and his willing servants…

  15. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Drew, I’ve got Reid and Liederbach on my “next to read” shelf.

    Joel Rainey, I’m honored that you weighed in on the discussion! You are right on target about Allen’s Missionary Methods: St Pauls Or Ours? Great book. And yes, church planting (and serious church renewal) is the hope of North America.

    Nathan Akin, thanks for your comments, especially your thoughts on the church being God’s vehicle for discipleship, mission, mercy ministries, etc.

  16. Sean Pyle   •  

    Tim Keller’s Church Planter’s Manual is the most beneficial book that I have read when it comes to church planting. Keller is a great thinker and leads the reader in a process that requires thought on how the church will be built and how to engage the culture. Keller also does a great job of offering categories without legalism as he realizes that ever context is different so though the Manual is geared towards church plants in New York, the manual is great for church planters in any context.

    Driscoll’s Radical Reformission has also been very helpful in regards to engaging culture and he is one of the best at this. I would also recommend Confessions of a Reformission Rev. by Driscoll. This is a recap of his planting Mars Hill Church. This book is extremely beneficial because it helps the planter think through issues such as church government, preaching, how to manage growth, amongst other things. The most beneficial part of this book may be that it helps the reader see mistakes that have been made by another planter, which will help the reader avoid some mistakes.

    I, like my bros above, would also recommend Dr. Hammett’s book because it extensively deals with Ecclesiology and forces one to think through that as he reads it. I would highly recommend reading this book, as all others, with great discernment.

    I would also highly recommend Total Church, Chester and Timmis are especially great when it comes to cultivating community.

    Lastly, it always helps to think through these things with other brothers, especially those who are wiser than you.

    Tyler Jones says that it is good to have someone to talk to or to mentor you that is roughly a few stages ahead of you in planting as well so that he can give you wisdom and insight to the decisions you are making. Thanks for these recommendations Dr. Ashford

  17. Tanner Turley   •  

    Looking forward to picking up a couple these recommendations. For a biblical-theological treatment on why our churches should look more like the church in heaven, check out Bruce Milne’s Dynamic Diversity: Bridging Class, Age, Race, and Gender in the Church. Also, Keller’s article, “The Missional Church” is a very short but helpful read. You can find it here:
    It is also in their church planting manual.

  18. Brandt Waggoner   •  

    Dr. Ashford,
    I echo the other guys who have been blessed with the opportunity to meet with you on Tuesday mornings. I really appreciate your willingness to take the time to invest in us. While I have not yet read many of the books you and others have recommended, I really enjoyed reading Total Church last semester. It was an eye-opener to me in realizing some aspects of a healthy church that are largely absent from many American churches. I am thankful for the focus on community within the church, and the chapter showing that we evangelize as we live lives together among the lost, centered around the message of the Gospel. This was a very compelling vision of the church. I would recomend that anyone not familiar with Dr. Hammett check out his books, and take his classes at SEBTS, you will not be dissapointed. Dever’s books have been extremely helpful, and I think his 9 Marks have been one of the most important contributions to ecclesiology in recent history. If you want a brief introduction to Dever, read What is a Healthy Church? which is short but stout. I appreciate the recomendations and look forward to reading many on this list.

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