Why Not Here?

Recently I was asked if I have a theory for why Church Planting Movements (CPMs) happen in some places and not in others. I do and I am sharing that answer below.

Simply put, the more “churched” people are, the more likely they are resistant to disciple making movements. We have always seen a strong correlation. CPM works in the highly resistant, radical Hindu and Muslim areas of northern India more than in the southern areas where Churches of Christ, Baptist, et al missionaries have operated for generations.

Our approach (what Western people grew up experiencing) is actually a highly contextualized gospel presentation/modeling that developed in response to the highly individualistic rationalistic-enlightenment of Western Europe and the U.S. But the very same reasons why it appealed to several generations of Americans are the same reasons why it is being rejected by post-enlightenment people in those same regions and why it bore little fruit in pre-enlightenment people groups in other parts of the world..

I know, you are glazing over. I understand. I do too, just reading back over it. While I am tempted to delete that last paragraph, I will leave it because it may connect with other things you have read. Let me use an analogy, though.

Near where I live there is a large farm that is surrounded by subdivisions on two sides and an industrial park on the other two sides. It is just a matter of time before that land is bought out and converted to one of these two uses. Until that happens, there is some high-tech farming going on there to raise cotton. They use herbicides to poison the ground cover in the spring and then use huge no-till equipment to plant the cotton in perfectly aligned rows. At the peak time they use some Star Wars-like apparatuses to apply more herbicides to the weeds growing between those rows and fertilizers on the cotton. Recently they have used specialized machinery to harvest that cotton and pack it in bales about the size of a tractor-trailer trailer.

All of that technology works here in Murfreesboro. Would it work in sub-Saharan Africa? Yes, but would it be practical? No.

Highly educated people like me have tried to take a highly contextualized gospel presentation/modeling method (comparable to the high-tech farming) to people groups who rejected it because it is so foreign. Yes, even if they know it will work for us here, they are quite sure it will not work for them there. Even if we use it there successfully, they will attribute that to us because we are different from them. They have seen lots of our stuff work only as long as we are there to prop it up with our money and our foreign ways.

But Jesus lived and discipled in a far different culture than our Western world. His life was lived with people with worldviews much more like those of sub-Saharan Africa and rural China than like ours.

CPM feels like a natural fit to people groups who still have a strong sense of multi-generational extended family. Such families feel like our Western evangelism is more closely akin to kidnapping and brainwashing (like we might view a cult). To reach them it is best to use a slower process that simultaneously exposes many of the family members to the worldview-shaping stories of Israel’s God and Jesus, the Father’s final answer to humanity’s problems. When such a process is facilitated by a family member, he/she intuitively raises issues as an insider, unlike we would because we are outsiders. Here the family comes to consensus.

Now here is the challenge for us, if I am correct. How much are the people there in your situation more like the Western worldview than the pre-enlightenment worldview? Maybe the region of the world where you live is in transition. Because of rapid urbanization and increased financial resources, mega-cities more nearly resemble the Western world from the outside. But are they?

Likely you’ve heard the old adage: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy.” How does this apply? While they may be doggedly pursuing Western wealth, fashions and power, are they still rural people in their inner being? I do not know.

I firmly believe that the CPM critical elements will have to be applied differently in urban settings than in rural settings. They will have to be tailor-fitted for each people group.

Within one of the African nations where a friend worked extensively, there are multiple CPMs within the same geographic region. One is among people who grew up in an ancient church heritage (comparable to the Russian Orthodox). There is another for Muslim Background Believers. There is another for former Animists. The starting worldview for these three groups is radically different and attempting to address all in the same setting with the same strategies would preclude reaching any of them.

Okay, I anticipate you want me to ground all of this in Scripture—as you should. Think with me about why there are four gospels in our New Testaments.

Each is an accurate presentation of the good news of Jesus for four different people groups with four different worldviews. Matthew presents Jesus for the Jewish background believers. Mark presents Jesus for the Roman worldview. Luke presents Jesus for the Gentile background believer. And John presents Jesus for the Eastern worldview people who were conducting their trading excursions into the province of Asia.

The Jesus film has met with more success in Muslim African regions than in most of Asia. A young Cambodian church planter told a friend he knew why. “The Jesus Film uses the wrong gospel. If it used John’s gospel instead of Luke’s it would be more fruitful here,” he opined.

Now what do we do here in America? We chop up the four and then put the pieces together in chronological order and call it a Harmony of the Gospels. Our actions could be seen as presumptuous. It looks as though we believe God needs our help to get it right. I believe this is an example of our cultural imperialism.

Back to the opening question, again. Why haven’t any of the guys I worked with in jail become church planters planting churches that plant churches? I am attempting to do this in a highly churched area. Every guy in this jail (except possibly a couple of Laotians at one point) brings a mental image of “church” to every Discovery Bible Study. Some of their experiences help and some hurt. Much like a marriage counselor working with a couple, they bring their family of origin and their marriage experiences into every discussion of family—whether they realize it or not. You can deconstruct that (and sometimes you must) and/or you can try to quickly train them in healthy ways to deal with challenges rather than digging through their past dysfunctional coping skills.

I’ve tried the later. My fruit says I probably need to also do more of the former. I thought the brother who trained me was too confrontational on these matters and wanted to try a different approach. I think I have kept some people engaged in the conversation longer than he would, but he certainly has room to challenge whether or not that has produced the results I wanted. He stays overly busy with people who want to give something new a try so he does not worry about those who will have to chew on this for a long while. Because I have stayed with a congregation that I had already spent 13 years modeling very traditional approaches, I was forced to attempt different approaches.

I pray for the day when there are CPMs in middle Tennessee. I am currently training a group of six and then also a couple of individuals who have a passion for refugees and/or college students in this area. Recently I have heard that there are some exciting things happening among Hispanics and Latinos in California. I pray for the day when it happens among some of the 136 different people groups in the Nashville region.


  1. John,
    I am on the same page with you. I think SBC, etc. brands of church planting is far too complicated and unworkable. Church planting, in my mind, is a simple process that can succeed anywhere that two or three are gathered together.

    I’m working on a short piece now with a working title, “Church Planting/Starting Made Simple … Here’s How”.

    Peace & good work!

    Bro. Joe


    1. Glad you found it helpful, Rebecca. Some exciting things are starting to happen among immigrant groups who have strong extended families. Points to the cultural weaknesses of our rugged individualism.


  2. very thought provoking , John. One reason it does not work here maybe the lack of interdependence and lack of relationship in our culture. the Latinos are better at that than most Americans. It is hard to share when you do not interact daily with anyone.


    1. Gayle, thank you for commenting. I certainly agree with your assessment. Our American “rugged individualism” isolates us from meaningful relationships and rapid multiplication flows through relational channels. I fear that our learned disobedience probably contributes even more, though. I will post on that soon. Thanks again.


  3. Hey John

    I think your confession in your second last paragraph reveals a lot. I encourage you to ponder more on this. We are seeing some success in Western culture, but not by working with resistant people. I believe that every culture has people whom God has prepared and it is our job to find them. Movements always begin with early adopters. If we try to work with those who are less open, then movement is stunted. When we seek the early adopters and network them, then movement begins to take place.

    I am one of those praying for CPM to take place in middle America. I believe it can and will happen.




    1. David, thanks for your perceptive response. You are absolutely correct that movements happen with early adopters. At times the challenge is differentiating between the early adopters and the early “curious.” Clearly Jesus gives us much insight on this. His ministry called together great crowds of the curious, but as he clearly laid out the life-changing obedience that discipleship demands, the curious dropped out. We have to keep praying that God will lead us to those he has prepared and we must keep going and looking for them in obedience to Jesus. Thanks, brother for your thoughts and your prayers. Blessings.


  4. I would like to see this happen not as something to compete with the present church structure but to fill in the gaps in fulfilling the Great Commission by going and making disciples and training them in doing the same thing. There are 384 people groups in the U.S. and they can all be reached with the same message just not the same method.

    Brian Shelton
    Paducah, Ky.


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