A Case for De-Coupling Church Planting and Entrepreneurship
Over the last decade, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in how we talk about church planters. In an effort to define what planting is, how it works and who does it, we’ve conflated the terms church planter and entrepreneur. These are two different words from two different realms, and I’ll say right up front that finding universal definitions for these terms is virtually impossible.
The word “church planter” comes from our modern practical ministry vernacular. Nobody used the term thirty-plus years ago. Back then, people who started churches were called pioneers. If you go even further back in church history, you’ll find that those who started new churches were often referred to simply as “evangelists.”
On the other hand, “entrepreneur” comes to us from the vocabulary of business and industry. It refers to someone who starts something, often at great personal risk. As entrepreneurialism has become more discussed, researched and pursued in the last thirty years, it has become popular to refer to those who start churches as entrepreneurial.
There’s nothing wrong with these terms. They both express a certain aspect of people who start churches. But here’s the problem – sometimes leaning too heavily on a term can alienate people from the actual calling to start new churches.
Take as an example the conflation of church planting and entrepreneurship. The two seem like a match made in heaven. And I, for one, have often stood in front of rooms full of 18-20-somethings explaining church planting in terms of entrepreneurship. Why? Because entrepreneurship is currently a notion that is highly valued and stirs the imagination.
Everyone wants to be like Mark Zuckerberg. This millennial generation doesn’t want to work for someone else; they want to work for themselves. They’re the entrepreneurial generation, so say some experts – (Forbes and the Washington Examiner to name a few). So, everywhere I went, I told young people they should turn their desire to advance God’s kingdom and use their natural entrepreneurial leanings toward what I believe is the best way to reach new people for Christ, starting churches. And it worked.
Lots of young, charismatic, self-starters stepped out in faith and started churches. But over the last couple of years, I’ve started to wonder where all the church planters have gone. It doesn’t seem that as many young people I interact with lately are interested. A recent article in The Atlantic sheds light on one of the reasons why.
Research suggests entrepreneurial activity has declined among Millennials. The share of people under 30 who own a business has fallen to almost a quarter-century low, according to a 2015 Wall Street Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data. A survey of 1,200 Millennials conducted in 2016 by the Economic Innovation Group found that more Millennials believed they could have a successful career by staying at one company and attempting to climb the ladder than by founding a new one. Two years ago, EIG’s president and co-founder, John Lettieri, testified before the U.S. Senate, “Millennials are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation in recent history.”
So, all our efforts to sell church planting as ecclesial entrepreneurship worked as long as the people we were talking to were interested in entrepreneurship. But it may not continue working in a new era where entrepreneurship either isn’t cool anymore or seems out of reach for one reason or another. That’s the danger of leaning too heavily on a term in recruiting planters. When the term doesn’t connect anymore, it’s no longer effective.
But there’s something deeper here than terminology alone, and it could affect our ability to mobilize leaders for the future if we’re not careful. We must be careful not to misidentify what is at the core of church planting. I think tying church planting and entrepreneurship too closely together risks this.
Rather than framing planting as ecclesial entrepreneurship, the church would be better served if we framed it biblically. The way to do that is by calling it what it is, apostolic ecclesiology.
Unlike the term “entrepreneur,” the word “apostle” is a biblical concept. It means “one who is sent” and flows from Christ’s words, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Paul recognized the ongoing work of those who are sent when he said, “Christ himself gave the apostles…” (Eph 4:11).
The term “apostle” has taken on different meanings to Christians throughout the centuries. While most American evangelical movements would shy away from using the term as an individual’s title, it’s often used to discuss the function and gifting of people who are starters or founders of churches and Christian movements.
Words matter. Using the vocabulary of entrepreneurship grounds church planting in business and brings to mind people who are savvy, charismatic and creative. Using the biblical vocabulary of apostleship grounds church planting in mission and brings to mind people who are faithful, passionate and resilient.
Grounding ecclesiology in mission rather than entrepreneurship helps Christians not to disqualify themselves from a spiritual calling based on their lack of interest in business or start-up skills.
Today when I stand in front of young people (and any age of people for that matter) to discuss church planting, I don’t say, “Some of you feel like you have an entrepreneurial gift and you really want to start something from scratch. Why not start a new church and reach people with the gospel?”
Instead, I say what I should have always said – what people have said for generations before me: “No matter what personality God has given you. No matter what professional interests you have. No matter the trajectory of your personal ambitions. Has God put it in your heart to take the message of the gospel to people who don’t know him? Are you willing to be a carrier of the good news to places where God’s kingdom is not known and recognized? If so, you may have an apostolic gifting. Maybe God is calling you to start a church!”
Can church planting still thrive when entrepreneurship isn’t cool anymore? It can if it’s tied to the one thing that never changes and never goes out of style – mission and the sent-ness of the people of God.