If you’ve heard stories of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Christ and thousands of churches planted in a short amount of time, then it’s likely from one of dominant church planting methodologies or movements gaining prominence.
In recent years, there have been reports of astounding numbers of people getting saved and of churches being planted in countries like Bangladesh, India and China. These stories have been the currency of many missions’ mobilizers.
The stories are exhilarating to hear, and many churches have been moved to action in the Great Commission based on what they perceive to be happening around the world. Nearly all of these “breakthroughs” owe their progress to some version of rapid church planting methodology.
Given such an outsized influence, it’s worth asking the question: Does CPM measure up? Does this methodology stay true to the principles we find in Scripture, or is it too good to be true?
But before we address the meat of the issue, we should make one thing clear. Every CPM practitioner I have ever met has excellent intentions and God-honoring motives. Their burden is the task of reaching every tongue, tribe and nation with the gospel of God’s glory, and they live their lives toward that end.
In these times, there are a growing number of sending agencies and missionaries that have effectively given up on church planting among unreached people groups. They prefer to put all their eggs in the “theological education for nationals” basket or are persuaded that direct engagement with unreached people groups is too difficult or too close to colonialism. Commendation, therefore, should be given to those who put their own lives on the line to plant churches among unreached people and language groups. It remains one of the toughest tasks on Earth. CPM practitioners are zealous and admirable men and women in many ways, and that should be stated up front.
The concerns with CPM, however, don’t stem from the lack of zeal or motives of its adherents. The concerns surround the methodology itself and its theological basis. Every follower of Christ should have a deep desire to seek converts and plant churches as fast as possible. But it behooves each follower of Christ to make sure we are working for authentic converts and real churches. If it fails that test, then it will ultimately do more damage than good.
Let me summarize three areas where CPM should give pause to those concerned with seeing authentic converts and planting true, lasting churches.
1. The Marginalization of Qualified Teachers
One of the core tenets of CPM is that qualified teachers (I Timothy 3/Titus 1 requirements) are a detriment, especially in the early development of a church. The thinking is that unbelievers naturally gravitate to teachers closer to their level, and they are less likely to get involved or participate in a group when an “expert” is teaching. Because of this, it is actually preferable to have unbelievers leading unbelievers in Bible studies.
However, nearly 2000 years of church history and the pattern of Jesus’ ministry clearly states the opposite. Consider all that was accomplished under the sending of the 72 disciples in their brief ministry. They returned and ceased what they were doing. Were they unfruitful? No, but what Jesus had in mind was more lasting and would require more training. Thus, this incredibly fruitful short-term event was terminated so that a more lasting ,fruitful foundation could be instilled in these men while Jesus was still with them. Qualified leaders are the backbone of healthy churches throughout history and using unbelievers as teachers or Bible study leaders is dangerous in too many ways to enumerate.
2. Rapid Growth as an Implicit Expectation
To qualify as a Church Planting Movement, the metrics are four generations of churches in less than four years. From the original church planted, the next three generations (one planting another, that one planting another, and that one planting another) takes place in four years or less. Think through how this would look in the context of your home using a modest number of six churches planted each generation: a church planted in 2020, six more churches in 2021, with those planting six more. By 2024, we would have 1,296 churches. Some will say that it’s apples to oranges to compare church planting overseas to church planting at home. But, if the principles are Biblical, they are supra-cultural. Yes, the application of the principles will be different in New Delhi than in New York, but the principles remain unchanged … if they are biblical.
Others in CPM don’t hold rapidity as a goal, but as a natural by-product of what happens when the methodology is employed. The “Spirit moves where and when he chooses,” is a phrase we often hear. To buttress the validity of movement theology, many will point to Pentecost, the Great Awakening, and Paul’s church plants through the book of Acts, where the gospel seemed to move quickly.
There is no doubting or denying that when God chooses to move, He does so when and how He pleases. But those times of rapid growth are fairly few compared to the decades and centuries of slow church growth by the patient, persistent teaching of His Word, many times with few visible results.
To draw methodologies from those rare events of the Spirit’s moving is to confuse description with prescription and open the door to all manner of questionable practices. May we thank God for times of great growth and extraordinary events in the church’s history, but may we always delight in the ordinary means that God continues to use near and abroad.
3. A Poor Definition of a Church
While definitions of a church abound today (here are two that are solid) , those missionary sending agencies that primarily employ CPM rarely define what a church is in explicit terms (whether on their website or in the public sphere). While defining terms would be tremendously helpful to sending churches, it would inevitably be limiting to agencies. Defining what is and is not a church would mean that some are doing…that thing, and some are not.
But where the definition of a church is non-existent, or “squishy” (some of the more common ones are: where two or more are gathered together, a group that gathers to hear Bible stories, unbelievers meeting to hear someone teach), there is usually an equally “squishy” gospel. As Mark Dever stated so well when questioned on CPM: “When you’re sloppy in defining what a church is, it leads to being sloppy in defining what a Christian is … and people will go to hell because of your errors.” Creativity, “thinking outside the box,” and the ubiquitously popular “it’s messy,” are too often just covers for the advancement of an anemic version of what a church is.
The heartbreaking aspect of the CPM conversation is that very few missionaries are getting trained in anything other than CPM and its cousins. In my recent travels to India, China, and Turkey, the stories abound of “churches” starting rapidly but dying just as rapidly. Mass conversions and hundreds or thousands of churches planted make for great prayer letters, but follow-up visits five to ten years later find nothing there. What this does to those who bought into this type of “church” is painful to contemplate, but something that is all too common.
As I wrote at the outset, the advocates of CPM are commendable in many ways, and there are components of CPM that are also quite commendable. But churches need to be wise when thinking through where their funds, energies, and members are going when CPM and its cousins are being employed. All that glitters is not gold. Big numbers, rapid growth and exciting stories are routinely shown to be fictitious or flashes in the pan that do not last. Modification can mitigate some of CPM’s downsides, but if the core remains unchanged, it runs the risk of birthing watered-down churches at best, and a gathering of unbelievers who are following something—but not the gospel—at worst.
 These are usually sending agency representatives that work to mobilize church members to join the cause of world missions and recruit for their agency.
 Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery. (Thomas Nelson 2014). Pg 8.
 Trousdale, Miraculous Movements. (Thomas Nelson 2012). Pg 38
 This is a helpful T4G message by Mark Dever that speaks to the value of patient endurance and the dangerous allure of speed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6hSeNj747Y
 Revival and Revivalism by Ian Murray is a great read on how men in the early 19th century strove to replicate, through methodologies, what only the Spirt can do. It’s an excellent book that provides insight into missions today.