Bill Gates reportedly could become the first trillionaire in history. Microsoft, the company he started, began in a garage. Apple similarly began with a few folks dreaming of a new way of computing. It also launched in a garage. In fact, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Disney and Amazon all started in garages. My point is not that garages are built for high-impact business. (I have personally made some discoveries in garages, but they usually involved finding long-forgotten mementos.) The point is that some of the largest and most impactful corporations in the world began without requiring property, a proper venue, large amounts of capital investment or massive manpower.
Spiritually speaking, Jesus’ entry point into His creation was garage-like — a stable, swaddling clothes and no midwives or attendant physicians. It could have been a garage if there were such things then. The stable was the garage of His day — a place to house transportation and store animals and stuff. That is the place where He got His start. Now, more people follow Jesus than have followed anyone else in history. I am one.
Movements are more likely to start humbly than with the splash of a cannonball. If they are truly movements that revolutionize, then they are not of the common order created by secular or political strength and willpower. They are typically started by ideas, heart, relationship, entrepreneurship, commitment or cause. That is, at least in part, why they become movements. They are not simply extensions of the strengths of society. They are radical departures from convention. So people like John Wesley embark on historic change by meeting with a small band of people, committed to simple works to demonstrate their love for God and the poor. A century later in the 1850s, William Booth started a movement without a building or a pulpit but by caring for street children and the homeless. The Salvation Army began with William and Catherine Booth with not so much as a garage. That movement shortly had 10 employees and, within a decade, more than 1,000 volunteers. Wesley and Booth similarly were unappreciated by the church and left without church support.
Some say the Free Methodist Church was birthed under an apple tree near Rochester, New York, and formally set in motion with 45 laypeople and 15 clergy at a nearby campground. That was a garage-like beginning once again. A liberating spread of the gospel — replete with the message of holiness, freedom and equality — emerged from humble beginnings by B.T. Roberts and now is repeated in more than 90 countries under the same banner and motivating presence of God.
What does this have to do with church planting? Just about everything. When I speak about church planting with the average church member, I have come to realize that most people view church planting as something requiring enormous sums of money, hundreds of people, a building to house large gatherings, and leaders possessing great skill and years of education and training. I will concede that many churches have begun that way, but not the majority. The majority of Free Methodist churches around the world have been planted in more humble circumstances and with very modest means.
The majority of church plants from my perspective and experience have begun in homes, rented halls or existing facilities with no professionals to lead them. They were started by passionate people who possessed the core of what Jesus requires of a church — devoted people seeking to disciple others to become loving followers of Jesus Christ. The venues have certainly included garages, living rooms, and rented office space and schools. The investment has often been less than a few hundred dollars and a commitment of a small core of people to tithe from whatever income they have — meager for the most part. The leaders have often been people who have had little training but more of a sense of calling and commitment to love God, love people, make disciples and do what the Holy Spirit reveals must be done in the Holy Scriptures. When that is present, the rest seems to happen under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit.
I know of what I speak from three postures. I have planted churches in very simple settings. I have been a missionary who has planted and sponsored church plants in very humble settings. Now, as a bishop, I travel in parts of the world where the church is growing with the greatest pace and with the fewest resources. Again, simplicity coupled with faith seems to win the day.
I do not pretend to be an expert on church planting. I know a little bit about it. The churches I have planted have had varying levels of what most would consider success. Some have thrived. Some have survived. Some have birthed other churches. Some have died. But the Spirit used all of them to impact people and change communities. Some have impacted and developed leaders. Some have labored to find a home. All have honored God and have been means to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and Great Commandment (Matthew 22:35–38, Mark 12:28–30).
I think back to the venues that hosted these inauspicious gatherings. They were birthed in homes, schools, a friendly church willing to take in an orphan group of believers, a rooftop, an aquatic center, a college chapel, under a big tree (not an apple tree) and in a storage facility (garage-like enough). I have watched others being birthed in theaters, retirement centers, community centers, office complexes, warehouses, apartment common rooms, funeral parlors, strip malls, restaurants, parks, bowling alleys, barns and pole buildings.
Some started with no professional pastors, no budget, no printed materials and no website. Most began with groups smaller than a baseball team. Some advertised their presence. Many had little promotion, initial response or expressed interest in their gatherings by the communities around them. But, out of these inauspicious beginnings, some of the most globally impacting churches I know were birthed.
My intent in this article is clear and threefold.
The first reason I write is to demystify the process. This is not business for the professional but calling for the committed, passionate and faithful followers of Jesus. Since the church was formed by Christ and filled by the Spirit, standard business practice is not the basis upon which the church is formed or upon which it relies. I oversee the Free Methodist Church in several countries. One of them will remain anonymous for safety reasons. In that particular place, there are no professional clergy. None! There are no highly skilled church planters. None! Yet, to the best of my knowledge, more Free Methodist churches are planted there than anywhere else in the world. The expectation is simply that obedient followers of Christ should be part of starting something new to “reach, teach, mend and send” (quoting Light & Life Christian Fellowship Lead Pastor Larry Walkemeyer) people to do ministry in areas yet unreached.
Remember that none of the church planters in early Acts received professional training either. The Holy Spirit always moves people to do things beyond their comfortable experiences, perceived abilities and classical training. He is good at that. Don’t get me wrong. He gives gifts and expects us to use them for His glory. But one should note that starting or planting churches is not in any of the Bible’s list of gifts. A good argument can be made that church planting is what people of all gifting abilities may do.
Second, my hope is to normalize church planting. Planting churches has been part of church life since Jesus formed it and the Spirit filled it. Church planting was not a spectacular or unusual occurrence over the past 2,000 years as much as it seems to be in America in the 21st century. People, moved by God, started churches in order to have places to gather and minister.
Christians have always understood that worship is our highest expression of faith in Christ Jesus. Then, developing healthy relationships among those with whom we pursue God together is essential to the expression of our faith. Gathering together is a natural outcome of building relationships. Hence, we worship and gather so that we might honor God and bless one another. It is hard to imagine living the Christian life without worshipping God and gathering with other believers to worship God and build one another up. When we do that, we are experiencing church. When we are doing that in a new context, we are experiencing church planting.
Though I travel the world, I have never come upon a place where there are enough churches to serve the community, reach all of the spiritually needy, engage all of the people to live out their purpose for God and saturate the environment with the saving presence of Jesus. I have been to the Bible Belt, a city with so many lit crosses that that the sky is red at night, and a place called the Jerusalem of the East. In those places, I have met many people who have been untouched by the church and were unaware of the good news of Jesus. Even in those places, I am convinced that Jesus would like to see more churches to penetrate the darkness with even greater light.
The final reason I write is to help remove the fear associated with church planting. I have witnessed that fear firsthand through the years. Here are the objections I have heard when I have planted churches and hear most often when I listen to concerned church members: “It will destroy our church family if we send people out to start another church.” “We will lose our friends.” “We are not big enough.” “We need the people and financial resources here to complete the work God has called us to do.” “There are enough churches in the community that can reach everyone.” “We will just add more services here rather than start more churches.” “We don’t feel called to plant churches.” “It is not our corporate gift or calling.” “Our call is to strengthen what we have, not extend beyond what we are able.” You might add to the list. But these are the most common objections.
There is not enough space in this article to address all of these. I will just offer some summary points that address them.
There are people your church cannot reach well due to distance, culture, calling, health or makeup. Churches are like fingerprints, clouds and waves of the sea. They are all different, and different churches are needed to reach different people.
Christians should know that we grow through giving away, through sacrifice and responding to God’s call. Sending people and resources away never kills or even hampers the church — if it is done to bless God and His church. I have seen no exceptions to that. It generally fosters deeper faith and joy — especially when we see the fruit of our gifts and sacrifice. Sending is what the church has always done. That doesn’t just mean sending our young people to college or our medical professionals to the mission field. The healthy church, like the healthy Christian, gives and sends.
Saying “If all of the churches would do their part, we wouldn’t need to plant any more churches” is like saying, “If everyone came every Sunday and if everyone tithed, we would have more than enough people and more than enough money.” The truth is that such an ideal is never realized; at least I have never seen it so. Some churches in your community are laboring, unhealthy, struggling to survive, have a poor reputation in the community, have limited vision or leadership to live out their calling, and have struggled to find their reason for existence. That is the reality in most communities. New churches that are formed with fresh vision, passion, faith and health generally bring life to the community and even the churches in that community.
I would like to return to the manger. The church really started there. I would like to go back to the house where some disciples had gathered after Jesus’ departure (Acts 2:2). The Spirit-empowered church was realized there. I would like to be in a room with a small band of clergy on Oxford’s campus. The Methodist movement began there. I would like to return to the apple orchard where B.T. Roberts and friends conceived of a church. The Free Methodist Church was birthed there. I would like to go to your garage where…
Bishop Matthew Thomas has been an active part of the Free Methodist Church since 1979. His ministry roles have included serving as a pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent.