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? 

The Church Planter’s Library (1): Introduction

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

There is a noticeable upsurge of interest in North American and International Church Planting among young seminarians. Rarely does a day go by that we do not meet, speak with, or receive an email from, a young student interested in church planting. More often than not, one of their questions is, “What books do you recommend for somebody interested in church planting?” That is the question that this blog mini-series seeks to answer over the course of three more installments covering North American Church Planting, International Church Planting, and Cultural Context.

Several reminders, caveats and disclaimers, however, before we begin: First, we do well to remember that our time reading Scripture is by far the most important reading we will do when preparing to plant churches. Reading through Dever, Keller, Driscoll, and Stetzer will never replace reading through Acts, Romans, Ephesians, and I Peter. We profit from spending serious time in the Word every day, as it is the lens through which we read anything else.

Second, the book lists I provide are in no way comprehensive. I assume that I am recommending books to those who are pursuing a well-rounded theological education. My recommendations will deal with selected sub-categories within a broader theological and missiological education. Third, these booklists should be viewed as lists of “books that are helpful to work through” rather than “books by authors who think just like me and with whom I agree on everything.”

Finally, please contribute to the conversation by commenting. Your thoughts will be particularly helpful in this series, as you contribute to a lively conversation about a very important topic-church planting and renewal. If you think of additional books that are helpful, or have comments about the books I have included so far in the series, do not hesitate to comment. It may turn out that the comment section is as helpful to our readership as the lists themselves.

With those caveats in mind, I hope that you find the next three installments helpful. In the first installment, I will provide a booklist for North American Church Planting and Renewal. In the second, I attempt a booklist for International Church Planting. Finally, I provide a list of books to help the prospective church planter get to know his international or North American context.

“Why I Endorsed Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll and What I Disagree With”

Early this year Thomas Nelson released the book Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together by Mark and Grace Driscoll. The book immediately became a best seller as well as a topic of spirited conversation and debate. Some loved it and others hated it. Few, however, were neutral in their opinion, regardless of whether they had read the book. I was asked, along with my wife Charlotte, to read the book before publication and consider providing an endorsement. We read it and, after talking it over, agreed to give a “qualified” endorsement as long as none of the wording was changed. That request was honored and so the endorsement appears as follows:

“Real Marriage is brutally and sometimes painfully honest. Further, it is frank and direct in addressing a number of important marital issues. Sometimes you probably will feel uncomfortable. And, you may not agree with everything Grace and Mark Driscoll say. We didn’t. However, this is a book we will gladly use and recommend to others who care about healthy, biblical marriages. We believe both husbands and wives will be blessed by and benefit from its content. Grace and Mark are to be commended for writing a book that bares their souls and, more importantly, points to the redeeming power of the gospel in the sacred covenant called marriage.”

A few of my friends have asked me a couple of questions: 1) Why did you endorse the book knowing, or at least suspecting, it could be controversial? 2) Exactly what is it that you disagree with in the book? Those are fair and good questions and so let me respond to both.

First, why did we endorse the book? We did so because we believe it powerfully demonstrates the redeeming power of the gospel in healing broken and troubled marriages. Opening chapters such as “Friends with Benefits” (ch. 3), “Men and Marriage” (ch. 4) and “The Respectful Wife” (ch. 5) would be helpful and valuable to anyone seeking a biblical framework for their marriage The book is clear in its complementarian understanding of what the Bible teaches about gender roles, and it affirms that God ordained only heterosexual, monogamous sex within the covenant of marriage. Mark and Grace also are brutally honest about the baggage they brought into their marriage, but then testify to how God has brought wholeness, joy and blessing as they confessed and repented of sin, sought and extended forgiveness, and more faithfully embraced God’s role assignment for a husband and a wife. I strongly suspect thousands of couples will be helped and given hope for their own marriages, especially if they have walked a path similar to Mark or Grace.

We also thought the chapter on Sex as God’s gift (ch. 6) and the chapter on the dangers and destructive nature of pornography (ch. 8) were valuable and well done. I could go on but let me simply say that we found a great deal of good in the book and believed and still believe it will help many couples find fulfillment in their marriages and glorify God in the process.

Second, exactly what do you disagree with in the book? There are several things I can share here and I am glad to do so. I am also thankful that as I share where I disagree with my friend Mark, I know he will receive it from a brother who loves him, and that it will not harm or negatively impact our friendship one wit! This is how Christian brothers and sisters should relate to each other.

Mark’s “vision” of seeing sexual sin makes me very uncomfortable. I am not sure what to make of it, and it concerns me that he seems to have these revelations in an ongoing kind of way. I have never had such a vision first of all. I acknowledge that may say something about me. Further, I am not sure there is any real value in sharing things like this in a public venue, even if they are true. Some things are often best left unsaid. I believe that is the case here.

It is also the case, and I doubt anyone will be surprised here, that I am in disagreement with sections of the (in)famous chapter 10 entitled, “Can We ______?” Now to be honest and fair, this chapter overall has more good than bad. In fact I believe most of it is good. The documentation and research is solid. And, I appreciate Mark and Grace tackling tough issues. Someone needs to. As someone who has conducted hundreds of seminars on marriage and family in the past 20 years, I have been asked about almost all of the issues that the Driscoll’s address. In my research for my book God on Sex, a popular treatment of the Song of Solomon, these issues repeatedly came up. I chose to address them in a much different way than Mark and Grace, and in most instances did not address them at all. Again, someone needs to, and I appreciate Mark and Grace taking the risk even if I disagree with some of their conclusions.

Let me begin by saying I think their taxonomy is too narrow in answering the question, “Can We ______?” In addition to: 1) Is it lawful? 2) Is it permissible? 3) Is it enslaving?, I would add 4) Is it loving? 5) Is it glorifying to God with my body? 6) Will it bless and build up my mate? 7) Does it glorify God? Further, I believe natural theology is very helpful, especially when dealing with the issue that has caused the most controversy, the issue of anal sex (An issue that receives all of 2 ½ pages in a book of 249 pages). Taken as a whole, even if one does not think there is a chapter and verse that specifically addresses this issue (some would argue Romans 1:18ff does), the weight of the biblical witness would speak against engaging in this activity. Now, to be fair to the Driscoll’s they conclude their treatment of this issue with the following: “As a general rule, unless both the husband and wife want to attempt it and can do so without pain, shame, or harm, this should not be done. Unless both of you have a clear conscience about the matter, it is unwise to engage in this act” (p. 189, emp. mine).

Concerning other issues addressed in chapter 10, I am willing to grant more liberty and freedom for creativity within a heterosexual, monogamous marriage. My understanding of the Song of Solomon and Hebrews 13:4 are my guides at this point, as well as my expanded taxonomy noted above.

In conclusion this is certainly not a perfect book and Grace and Mark say this at the very beginning (p. xi). There is only one perfect book and we all know which one that is! However, Charlotte and I think Real Marriage is a book that will help many in spite of certain flaws. I was asked the other day in light of all the controversy surrounding the book would I endorse it again? The answer is, yes I would. I am already hearing from those who are being helped by the book as they pursue a God glorifying marriage. For that we should all give thanks, whether we are a fan of the book or not.