Stuart Murray’s “Church Planting: Laying Foundations” is one of the finest books written on the topic of church planting. While the vast majority of books on church planting focus on the “how,” Murray offers a very welcome emphasis on both the theological and historical framework for church planting.

When discussing the theological foundation for church planting Murray argues that all church planters operate within some theological framework, but most often these frameworks “are assumed rather than articulated and adopted uncritically rather than as the result of reflection.” He also states that while inadequate theological reflection will not necessarily hinder short term growth, it will limit the long term impact of church planting and may result in “dangerous distortions in the way in which the mission of the church is understood.” He writes:

Church planting is not an end in itself, but one aspect of the mission of God in which churches are privileged to participate. We can understand the scope and implications of this mission, and the place of church planting within it, in relation to three important theological concepts.

Murray then elaborates on the topics of missio Dei, incarnation, and the Kingdom of God. In regards to the concept of missio Dei he shares these thoughts:

Missiologists have increasingly been drawn to this phrase to express the conviction that mission is not the invention, responsibility, or program of human beings, but flows from the character and purposes of God. Historically, the term mission was first used by theologians to refer to the acts of God, rather than the activities of the churches.

God is the Missionary, who sent his Son and sends his Spirit into the world, and whose missionary purposes are cosmic in scope, concerned with the restoration of all things, the establishment of shalom, the renewal of creation, and the coming of the kingdom of God, as well as the redemption of fallen humanity and the building of the church. Mission has a trinitarian basis and is theocentric rather than anthropocentric. Mission is defined, directed, energized, and accomplished by God.

For church planting this has considerable significance. First, the inevitable interest in internal church structures which characterizes church planting initiatives, as plans are developed for the formation of a new congregation, must not subvert the primary focus on the mission to which this new church is being called. Missio Dei is toward the world rather than the church. Robert Warren writes: “A church effectively engaged in mission will see that participating in the missioDei will involve shifting emphasis from a focus on the life of the local church . . . to concern for the world in its need, joys and struggles.”

Second, the broad scope of missio Dei must not be reduced to evangelism or church planting. Church planting is legitimate only if set within a broader mission context. Divorced from this context, church planting may represent little more than ecclesiastical expansionism. (Can anyone say “video venues” – those are my words not Murray’s!)

Church planting can too easily embody a limited vision of mission that concentrates on one or two aspects of this mission (usually evangelism and church growth) to the neglect of other vital aspects (including working for justice and peace within society, concern for the environment, and engagement with culture).