Where to Plant a Church?

In 2006, my wife and I arrived in new city in Northern Ireland and planted our first church.  The city of Derry/Northern Ireland has 100,000 people, so choosing where to plant a church there was not excessively challenging. Basically our choices were between one side of the river or the other.

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 04.28.38 pm
Atlanta 285 Perimeter compared to London

In 2013, we arrived in London, England and began to look for and pray about where to plant a church. This time, the decision was much more challenging because London has a population of at least 8.5 million people and covers an area of over 600 square miles.

London, England is 85 times the population of Londonderry, Northern Ireland and much, much more sprawling. The city covers an area over half the size of the State of Rhode Island. This picture shows the 285 Perimeter of Atlanta situated very easily inside the M25 ring road the runs around London.

So for about 6-8 months, we drove around, surveying the city and asking the following questions:

  • In a city of 8.5 million, where should we plant a church?
  • Where can we plant a church that will make the greatest difference in the city?
  • Where is the most effective place to plant a church to help us reach the world with the gospel?

Can’t We Just Start Anywhere?

When I am asked to preach for someone, I often find myself spending as much time trying to figure out what to preach as I do in preparing the message to preach. Similarly, determining where to plant a church can often be just as daunting as actually planting the church.

The abundance of needy places can be overwhelming. On the one hand, we could just start anywhere. Though there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, we are commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. On the other hand, since our commission is to reach the world with the gospel (not just one area), then maybe we should give “the where” a bit more thought.

In this post, we will look at the following five factors that might help us as we determine where to plant a church.  (To limit the length of the article, I am going to assume that we are daily reading God’s Word, praying, and surrendering our will to God, so that we are in a place where we are sensitive to His guidance.)

  • Factor #1: Plant a church where you can train men.
  • Factor #2: Plant a church in a strategic place.
  • Factor #3: Plant a church in a needy place.
  • Factor #4: Plant a church only after getting wise counsel.
  • Factor #5: Plant a church in an area where God seems to be opening doors.

We came up with these factors as a result of what we believe is a Biblical philosophy of ministry, our own personal experience, and counsel from our pastor, Austin Gardner, and other missionary and church-planter friends.

Factor #1: Plant a church where you can train men. 

As church-planters, our number one priority is to train men. Jesus focused his efforts not on building a crowd, preaching great sermons, building large buildings, or even planting a church. He focused on training twelve men.

Without trained shepherds the sheep will scatter, and without trained men the churches will never become indigenous and the work will never grow past what we personally can do.

To reach an entire country, to reach the world, we must multiply ourselves through discipling and training men to be leaders who can reach and train others.

This means finding a place where there are young men (preferably between the ages of 15-25) who are in the “aspiring class,” the “common people” of Mark 12:37. They are looking for something more. They are looking for a way out. They are more like the fishermen who will forsake all and follow Jesus when he calls, less like the rich young ruler who will go away sorrowful.

Factor #2: Plant a church in a strategic place.

Most church-planters put on their prayer card: “Churches Planters to Brazil” or some other country to which God has led them. The sad reality is that most of us never come close to doing anything more than impacting one city, or, most likely, one area of one city.

Most church-planters, however, earnestly desire to impact more than just one area, but maybe they have not thought through the best way to do that. It is so easy to allow the pressures of one church-plant and the day-to-day responsibilities of the ministry to consume us so that we forget about the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

As we plant churches, we need to ask ourselves, “How does this church-plant fit in with a strategy to reach (at minimum) an entire region of the country with the gospel?” We should not think about planting just one church but planting multiple churches.

For many this will mean going to key cities where men can be trained and sent out, but sometimes there are strategic places that are not the largest cities in the country. Entire areas of some countries are neglected because none of the largest cities in the country are there.

Regardless the size of the place, we need to consider if it is a strategic place from which the Word of the Lord can sound out to other regions (1 Thess. 1:8, Acts 19:10).

Factor #3: Plant a church in a needy place. 

When trying to assess the need of an area, we may find the following two things to be true:

  • Everywhere is needier than we think.
  • Nowhere is as needy as we think.

Those might seem to be opposing statements, so here is what they mean.

  • It is almost impossible for us to find a place on this planet where people have heard nothing of Christ and where no evangelist has ever gone before.
  • It is also true, however, that everywhere has a great need for the gospel. Even in the most “evangelized” places of the world, with many great churches, there will still be some people who are not being reached for Christ.

So as we seek to identify needy areas, we should consider both who is already there preaching the gospel and then remember that no matter how much work is being done more work needs to be done.

When assessing need, here are some things to consider:

  • Where are there already likeminded Bible-believing churches?
  • Are those churches actively involved in reaching their communities with the gospel?
  • Where are there other churches with whom you might have some doctrinal disagreements but which are preaching the gospel?
  • What areas have the least amount of gospel witness?

Sometimes church-planters choose a country to go to or an area to plant a church without doing much research to determine the neediest areas. Often where we go has more to do with feelings, emotions, and circumstances than good, hard facts.

Factor #4: Plant a church only after getting wise counsel.

All of us have our blind spots, and none of us see with perfectly clear vision. That is why we need to continually be in the Word, so that God can search our hearts for sin and selfish intentions. That is also why we need to open up our lives to wise counsellors who can help us see what we have missed.

Proverbs 15:22 tells us, “Without counsel purposes are disappointed: But in the multitude of counsellers they are established.”

As we seek to determine where to plant a church, it is very important to bring as many wise counsellors into the decision as possible. This does not mean you follow the advice of everyone, but it would be foolish to not seek out or to ignore the advice of other church-planters who have experience and wisdom in church-planting.

Factor #5: Plant a church in an area where God seems to be opening doors.

When the Apostle Paul was traveling on his missionary journeys, he continually looked for open doors. (Read 2 Cor. 2:12, Col. 4:3, Rev. 3:8.) He made use of synagogues, people’s homes, a place where prayers were said by the river, marketplaces, and any other opportunity he could find to preach the gospel.

This does not mean that there will be no challenges, adversaries, or obstacles, but somewhere along the line God will begin to direct your steps, make you aware, impress upon your heart, and bring you back to an area that seems to meet all of the qualifications above (1 Cor. 16:9,Acts 16:6-10).

An open door could be a growing area of the community, an available building, some folks getting saved, or something else. We need to use wisdom in this area, because not every opportunity is an open door. It could be a distraction.

But we should pray for open doors, look for open doors, and ask God to open doors for us.

That being said, we need to realize that doors seem to open more often for those who are doing their part to be obedient, to work hard, to pray, to survey, to witness, and to learn all they can.  As we “are in the way” (Gen. 24:27), taking the next step, God will lead us.

What do you think?

We certainly do not have all the answers, so we look forward to hearing from you about other things to consider when trying to decide where to plant a church. Let us know what questions you might have.

11 Comments
  • Posted October 8, 2014 10:15 am
    by Austin Gardner

    Travis, Thank you so much for writing this. I know it was available on your blog and I hope that people sign up to get all that you write. I know that you have paid a price to learn the lessons you give here. You have studied the city like no one else. I want you to know that I love you and am very proud of you and all you are doing. God bless you.

  • Posted October 8, 2014 6:02 pm
    by Travis Snode

    You are very welcome. Thank you for your counsel and encouragement as I wrestled with these factors over the last several years. We are seeing fruit and doors open where we are, and I think these factors have contributed greatly to that. Most of all, it is great to know God is the Lord of the Harvest and oversees all that is going on. He works with us, through us, and even at times in spite of us!

  • Posted October 9, 2014 12:20 pm
    by Andrew Wilder

    Great Article! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on church planting they were very insightful. I like how you said, “That being said, we need to realize that doors seem to open more often for those who are doing their part to be obedient, to work hard, to pray, to survey, to witness, and to learn all they can. As we “are in the way” (Gen. 24:27), taking the next step, God will lead us.” If we do our part then God will definitely lead us in the right way.

  • Posted October 9, 2014 1:58 pm
    by Sergey

    Great article! But as you were waiting for God to make more open doors to plant a church, what kind of things and what were you involved in while you wait on God to creat open doors? Is it the things you would do on outreach to have those different open doors or what were you doing?

  • Posted October 9, 2014 4:03 pm
    by Glen South

    Thanks for sharing the article. Point two, it was said that we need to go to a strategic area, or city of the country. What do you look for in a city or area of a country to determine how strategic it is for training men. Also, it was stated that not every opportunity that presents itself is an open door, but it could be a distraction. How do you discern whether an opportunity is an open door, or a distraction?

  • Posted October 9, 2014 4:05 pm
    by Glen South

    Also, how do you identify the “aspiring class”?

    • Posted October 11, 2014 10:00 pm
      by Austin Gardner

      Since I am not sure when Travis might see and respond I want to respond to your comments. I am in Peru. This is my second attempt. I have lost lots of work over the last few days due to the wonderful internet here.

      Sergey and Glen, Thank you both for reading, commenting, and leaving a question. Sergey, Travis spent time surveying the city, he mailed out thousands of pieces of gospel literature, he tagged and knocked on doors, talked to people, put material on the internet and sought to advertise it. So he did everything he could to get the gospel out to the community. God opens doors but we certainly do not sit there and wait to see what “might” happen.

      Glen, we look for what we call the aspiring class. That is people that are not too rich to not want anything to do with the Lord or His service nor too poor that they will not have the get up and go to get anything going. That is typically people that live in upper lower class or lower middle class. We also look for people that are not to set in their ways to learn anything.

      A distraction would be something that got you off target. So if you know who you are and what you are supposed to be doing then you will probably be able to recognize and avoid a distraction. Don’t just do busy work so that you are not doing the ministry you were called to do.

      By the way, thanks Andrew for reading and commenting also!

  • Posted October 12, 2014 3:08 am
    by Travis Snode

    I apologise that I am just now getting to these comments. Thank you all so much for writing and asking questions.

    Andrew, thank you for your comment about being in the way and doing what we can where we are. It reminds me of Paul in Acts 16:6-10 where Paul was looking for the next place to go. He was praying and trying to go various places. Doors closed to Asia, so they went to Mysia. Then they wanted to go into Bithynia, but the door closes there. Then they moved on to Troas where God put on their heart Macedonia and a door opened for them there. The point is that while they waited, they worked. While they prayed, they endeavoured. While they looked for an opened door, they tried the handles of several before one opened. Some people wait for a vision in the sky, when they should just take the next step and serve in their local church or start a SS class or disciple someone.

  • Posted October 12, 2014 3:19 am
    by Travis Snode

    Sergey, Pastor Gardner explained some of the things were were doing while we were waiting.

    I think Acts 17:15-16 is a good example of what to do while we wait. Paul was waiting for Timothy and Silas, but he did not sit still. He began to preach the gospel to the people at Athens.

    What I tried to do was this: 1) The evening before I went out surveying, I would research and figure out as much as I could about the area I was going to survey – where churches were, where universities were, areas that might need a church, etc. 2) I would leave in the morning with my notes and some tracts. When I go to the area, I would drive around all day looking at as much of the area as I could, looking for potential meeting places, other churches in the area, residential areas, etc. Usually, I would eat lunch in the area and then try to go pass out some tracts or knock some doors to get a feel for the receptivity of the area. 3) In the afternoon, I would head back home and prepare for the next day. If I was not sure about a church, I might visit that church on the weekend to see if it was a good church or not. Also, at some point, maybe on Saturday or Monday, I would try to compile a report about my research. You can view some of the reports from my research here if you want http://www.intoalltheworld.net/boroughs/.

  • Posted October 12, 2014 3:33 am
    by Travis Snode

    Glen, I will try to provide some answers to your questions as well.

    First, regarding strategic area, I made the following notes. An area from which other churches can be planted, an area where people may travel to and from, an area that is not cut off in one housing estate, an area that is growing not declining. As a missionary/church-planter, you just want to bear in mind church plant number 2 and 3. I do not think this is the most important factor, but it is something to consider. The main question is can you train men there to go into the ministry.

    Second, the aspiring class plays into strategic. If our strategy is Jesus’s strategy – to train men, then we will want to go to an area where there are people who might jump at the chance to have a way out, to do something more with their life. So you would probably not want an area where there are lots of working professionals, university graduates, wealthy people, or people who are on generational welfare/dole. You want people who are employed, working low-paying jobs, who want more for their life. I found this factor one of the more challenging to work through, but definitely worth the struggle.

    Third, like Pastor Gardner said a distraction is anything that keeps you from your main job. Most church-planters/missionaries come with good intentions but there are all kinds of “good” things that can keep you from the “best” thing – training men. A distraction could be getting too focus on a particular type of evangelism, a particular ministry, training a person who is not teachable or able to teach others, just something that gives you the feeling of “doing ministry” but is not really moving you toward a touchdown which is getting a man trained for ministry.

  • Posted October 15, 2014 12:42 pm
    by Nancy Kelly

    Very good article on started a church. It makes you think how important it is the start a church and train the women of the church.

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