Friday, January 27, 2012

Church Planting in the Bicol Region of the Philippines

Stimulating and Nurturing a Church Planting Movement in the Bicol Region of the Philippines Part II
By Dr. Dave Johnson
Assemblies of God Missionary to the Philippines

In the first blog I asked the following questions: What is a Church Planting Movement (CPM)? Do we have one in the Assemblies of God in the Bicol region of the Philippines? If not, how to we start one? If so, how do we nurture it? These questions came to me as I studied the book entitled Stimulating and Nurturing Church Planting Movements (2001), published by the International Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. This book to the subject of a CPM, and its contents form the outline of these two blogs. I use this as a framework of discussion as to whether we have, at least in my opinion, a CPM among the Assemblies of God churches in the Bicol Region of the Philippines where Debbie and I serve.
The authors define a CPM as “a rapid and exponential increase of indigenous churches planting churches with a given people group or population segment.” They then list ten essential elements that they feel are critical to experiencing a CPM anywhere in the world.  To begin to answer the questions I posed, I reflected on the first six elements in part one of this article, which can be read and downloaded from Let’s move on to number seven.

7. Cell or House Churches
In 2007, after much prayer and reading, the Holy Spirit led my wife to launch a house church planting program. She wrote out a basic plan, which we shared with the district leadership, who had a passion for church planting, but the lacked the manpower and financial resources to accomplish their vision. Debbie’s plan directly addressed those two issues by issuing a challenge to mobilize and train laymen to plant churches in homes in their communities. These churches, like the cells in a human body, would then reproduce themselves.
The plan was to open church planting schools strategically located throughout the region so that no one would have to travel far to attend. The training would be held two days a month for ten months. The focus of the house churches would not be on traditional preaching, but on interactive inductive Bible studies that the trained leader would facilitate. We started with three schools and twenty four students. Since then we have grown to fourteen schools with dozens of graduates and 143 students currently enrolled.  We have planted 207 house churches in just four years to go with the 208 traditional churches we already have. We define traditional church as one that has a pastor, program, and meeting place, most of the laymen who have planted a house church have come out of our traditional churches. Many, if not most, of the house churches are connected to a traditional church for relational oversight, but those who attend the house churches, in most cases from what we can tell, do not attend the traditional church.  
We thank God for what he has done, but we also acknowledge that there are some staggering challenges. First, the unfinished task. Only 2-3 percent of the 5,000,000 people in our region are born again and most of them are either unwilling or unable to travel far to go to church. Our vision is to plant a house or traditional church within walking distance of every person in our region. Ten or twelve members is about the best size for a house churches.  The simple math, then, reveals a need to plant more than 416,000 churches! To date, we have only 415 in the Assemblies of God. Obviously, we need a sustained, Spirit empowered CPM!!
Second, our research on the house church planting program revealed that we have not given sufficient oversight to the workers.  One of the signs of this is that only about 25% of the house churches planted have reproduced another house church and the number that have planted a third, fourth, or fifth generation house church is even less, meaning that if the training schools stopped today, the movement would eventually come to a half.
Third, our research revealed that many house church workers feel the need for further training.  Since most have jobs and families to support, enrolling in our Bible school is out of the question for most. The district leadership is currently taking some positive steps to address these issues, and I believe that the future of house church planting is bright indeed!

8. Churches Planting Churches
The mother-daughter church planting method has been, by far, the most fruitful method used over the years by our churches in Bicol. Also, as far as I can tell, nearly all of the house church planters, to date, have come out of the traditional churches and remain a part of them as well as the house churches they oversee, meaning that there is a link between the traditional and many, though certainly not all, of our house churches. In my assessment we have done well with the concept of churches planting churches.

9. Rapid Reproduction (of Churches)
As stated above, the authors believe that a rapid reproduction of churches is necessary to have a CPM. My first reaction to the idea of rapid and exponential was that it seemed a bit forced, as if we were telling the Lord of the Harvest how he should conduct his affairs. Apparently I am not alone in raising this question because the authors note that others have raised similar objections. On further reflection, however, I have changed my mind. One, I am convinced that a rapid reproduction is in fact the will of God for every nation! Second, rapidity is necessary, as the authors contend, to maintain the momentum of a CPM. Whether we have one or not in Bicol, in my opinion, will be dealt with below.

10. Healthy Churches
It should saying that healthy churches are needed to have a CPM. The authors contend that a healthy church is one that has the following five components: worship, missionary and evangelistic outreach, education and discipleship, and fellowship. I agree with their contention that if these are actively functioning in a church, growth will be automatic and natural.
Whether the Assemblies of God churches in Bicol are healthy is a fair and open question.  The average traditional church here has about 30-50 adult attendees, most of who are members, on any given Sunday. We have also shared in the pain of churches that have suffered splits—we’ve probably planted more churches in this way that we would care to admit! We have also watched some pastors deal with personal issues in an unhealthy manner and take their churches out of the Assemblies of God as a result. Most churches also struggle financially in a perpetually economically distressed part of the country.
On these bases alone, it is tempting to think that most of our churches are weak but, to me anyway, the issue is not that simple for the following reasons:
1. No formal assessment of the health of our churches have ever been ever been conducted to the best of my knowledge. The researcher and missiologist in me leads me to the conviction that, for this reason, making a summary judgment is inappropriate.
2. Most of our churches in Bicol are in smaller, rural communities, where the population base is not large, so one should not necessarily expect to find a large church.
3. Many of our churches have given birth to daughter traditional churches or house churches at some point in their history, which is a sign of health and vitality.
4. I do not know what the attrition rate is of churches that die or leave the Assemblies of God.
My answer to the question as to whether our churches are healthy is that I simply do not know. I believe that this question can only be fairly answered when a comprehensive, formal assessment has been done of the majority of our churches, including answering the question as to why some close or leave the denomination.

Answering the Questions
We have now come full circle and can answer the questions posed at the beginning. Do we have a CPM in the Bicol region? The first traditional church was planted here around 1960, and we currently have 208, meaning that our average growth rate is about four per year. If this were the only measurement, we would have to admit that we do not have a CPM. However, the fact that we have started 207 house churches in only five years may lead to a different conclusion. However, the multiplication rate of house churches planting house churches is far below the average needed to maintain the rapid growth. If this is not successfully addressed, the house church movement will not fulfill its immense potential.  So my answer to the question as to whether we have a CPM is “maybe,” or, to put it more positively, we are at the beginning of one, and I am certainly optimistic about the future.
The second question, “if not, how do we start one,” should be recast as “how do we start one among traditional churches.” I am not a house church purist. I believe that we need different kinds of churches in different situations, and I am firmly committed to continuing to plant and nurture traditional churches.  How, then, do we start a CPM among our traditional churches? Setting aside the fact that that our traditional churches have given birth to the house church movement and, thus, are participating in it, I believe that a thorough assessment, using any number of the tools already available, must be undertaken to determine the current health of our traditional churches. We should then respond according to the needs revealed in the research with the conviction that healthy churches will naturally grow and reproduce new, healthy churches.  The third question, “how do we nurture a CPM,” has already partially been answered. Nurturing takes place when actual needs are met.  One solution not yet mentioned is that we need (and are in the beginning stages of creating) a leadership development program designed to meet the needs of our existing pastors and lay church planters. Whatever we may do, the CPM must be nurtured with prayer, fasting, and seeking the Lord of the Harvest for continued revival and renewal. Maranatha!  

Copyright 2012 Dr. Dave Johnson 

*All Scripture references are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.

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