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Should Churches from Different Denominations Collaboratively Plant Churches?

Recently, a friend emailed me a question about church planting I thought I would share. I have edited the content and dropped names and denominations.

Ed,

I am a pastor in a mainline denomination—have been around for 20 years in various posts—and a good friend of mine, a pastor in a charismatic network, and I are in conversation about the possibility of planting a church. We believe God is leading us in this direction and have experienced “way open” in our prayers and from many friends who are thrilled about the possibility of such a church. We are early in the discernment process and simply trying to have as many conversations as possible. That is why I am contacting you. I would love to know if you have seen or heard of new church developments that are hybrid in nature like this, and if so I would appreciate knowing about them so we can make contact. We’d like to learn from folks who have been led in this way and have tried this venture.

In Christ,

Mainline Pastor

Here was my response:

Dear Mainline Pastor,

Thanks so much for writing. It’s good to hear from you. Let me first say that I am exceedingly excited that you folks are engaged in church planting. I think that this is an important and encouraging endeavor for your church.

So, I am 100% in favor of you planting churches, but your specific question is about planting churches in a hybrid model. I would probably call that a “collaborative model.” But either way, the idea here, if I understand you correctly, is a joint church planting strategy of a mainline and a charismatic church plant to be sponsored together.

I think when you consider two different denominational traditions planting churches together, one of the most important question is, what is the desired and required level of theological commonality in order to be able to plant a church together?

Now, I recognize that in a mainline tradition there is probably more flexibility than in an evangelical tradition, so these may be things you have already thought out and considered. But, for example, most of your charismatic friend’s churches practice baptism by immersion following conversion. In other words, they practice what is called “believer’s baptism.” Also, most of those churches would believe that the ongoing filling of the Holy Spirit will produce gifts, signs and wonders that are normative and would take place in the life and activity of a church. Needless to say, those are not things that your mainline denomination typically believes, though certainly there is a charismatic wing present in your denomination.

So the question is, what is the level of required agreement for you to plant together? I would consider some issues to be of such import that I could not put them aside in order to plant a church– they will come up later. I would include in those issues my beliefs about baptism and my beliefs about how the Holy Spirit is at work. However, it is not a secret to you that even in a local church, others have agreed to disagree on certain issues. Sometimes this is called a “dual” approach when it is in regards to baptism (see Jared Wilson’s blog on how and why his church does that). In other words, churches simultaneously allow people to be baptized by immersion following conversion, but also baptize infants in a covenantal fashion that would be more familiar in your denomination. However, for full disclosure, my experience and convictions would actually preclude that– the issue of baptism is a big enough issue that godly people disagree and end up in different church plants.

So, for example, when I was speaking at the “Dwell Conference” hosted by Redeemer Presbyterian, someone asked me if we could work to plant churches collaboratively. I actually said that I could not plant a church with Redeemer, even though I think we would have a tremendous amount of theological commonality with the church and Tim Keller. We could pray, learn, and strategize together, but not directly plant. It would work for a while until the first baptism, and then we would have to decide whether or not we needed a “cup” or a “tub,” due to my views on baptism by immersion following conversion and his views on covenantal infant baptism.

So, I think if you choose to walk down this path, you would have to sit down and say very clearly, “Here is what we believe or how we will practice these things in a local church.”

My suggestion would be that a better course of action would be to plant EITHER a church in the charismatic network to whom your friend belongs OR a mainline church in your denomination, with help from the other church. In this approach you would have the other church involved as a “partner” church but not to be the “parent church.” By that, I mean the parent church actually shares its DNA in both its theological approach and its methodological views with the daughter church. If that were the case, if it were a church from your friend’s charismatic network, a church that typically practices baptism by immersion following conversion, and where the ecstatic gifts of the Holy Spirit were present and at work in the life of the church, and the mainline church was comfortable enough to sponsor that church, then you don’t have any difficulty.

Churches I have planted have actually been financially sponsored by churches of other denominations that believed in what we were doing, but did not necessarily hold to some of the same views on what is often called doctrinal distinctives. But I think we’re better to think of them as our convictions about certain practices in the Bible.

So my suggestion is simple– plant in cooperation with one church as “parent” church, whose theological views would be reflected in the daughter church. The other church (who will be able to support the church plant though they have different theological views) to be a “partner” church along the way.

God bless,
Ed Stetzer

I’ve written or spoken on this issue a few times here and here. In the second post I explained,

It is a bad idea theologically, with bad results historically, for [denominations] to partner and jointly plant churches. But, it is a bad stewardship and irresponsible missiology for us not to find ways to learn from each other.

When it comes to church planting, it is not really the same as evangelism. In church planting, we need to plant our own gardens.

Before you think I am just a knuckle-dragging, non-cooperating elitist, note that my the two posts I just mentioned are in the context of the Church Planting Leadership Fellowship, where I gather the leaders of over 60 evangelical denominations and networks to learn from one another. And, I speak at more denominations than most people. But, at the end of the day, I don’t think that Lutherans and Pentecostals should jointly plant churches unless they agree that the church will have the values and theology of one of the two parent churches. There are denominations that are so similar that they don’t have defining doctrinal differences, but that is often not the case– denominations exist because Christians have come to different conclusions about important issues. There is one Church, but on this side of eternity, there will also be multiple expressions.

When you start deciding that some issues are not important (like baptism, spiritual gifts, etc), I think you weaken your beliefs. Believe what you believe with conviction, plant churches in friendship and community with others, but do so in line with your convictions.

What do you think of my answer? Would you answer differently?

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.