Church Planting – or – Evangelism in the SBC?


It’s the proverbial “chicken-or-the-egg” kind of question: For Southern Baptists, which comes first – evangelism or church planting? It is true that all chickens hatch from eggs and all chicken eggs are laid by chickens, but do we have a “causality dilemma” in the spiritual world?

I became a Christian in a traditional Southern Baptist church at the age of 23. One year later, I surrendered to the ministry and soon found myself in college preparing to change the world.  During my last year at Union University, my wife and I prayerfully determined to go where Southern Baptists were less prevalent. I accepted a scholarship to attend Midwestern Baptist Seminary in Kansas City and was soon involved with a new church in fast-growing Johnson County, KS.

After nine years of pastoring, I became a church starter strategist with the Home Mission Board (SBC) and several years later found myself finishing a seminary degree that I put on the shelf during a church building program. From Kansas City, I commuted to Southwestern Baptist Seminary for a couple of semesters working on a Master in Missiology, since they offered that degree. I wrote a master’s thesis on church planting in affluent areas my last semester. I loved every minute of it!

A great discovery!

Leaving Southwestern’s library one evening I acquired an old 45-page research paper that was being culled. Jerry S. Key had written the paper in 1956 for Dr. Cal Guy’s Missions 55 class. That musty document opened a new world to me. It introduced me to the life and missionary work of Dr. John Livingston Nevius.

Nevius was born in Seneca County, NY, on March 4, 1829, and eventually studied at Princeton for the ministry. With his calling as a missionary and new bride, the Neviuses arrived in China in spring 1854.

Church planting and evangelism go together, just like planting spring crops in north Georgia. You need good soil and good workers to produce a good harvest. The Southern Baptist Convention needs both if it is to reach the world for Christ. JOE WESTBURY/Index

As a long-time Presbyterian missionary to China, Nevius saw the good, bad, and ugly in doing missions. Later in life he developed what is now studied as the “Nevius Plan.” He was greatly influenced by two of the greatest mission theoreticians and strategists of the 19th century: Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson. Their “three-self” formula for mission work was modified by Nevius as he put much more responsibility for evangelism and missions on the laymen won to Christ in local congregations.

The goal was to plant indigenous congregations by teaching new converts to share their new-found faith within their natural spheres of relationships. The Nevius Plan demanded that the new mission enterprise learn to evangelize and grow in its own native environment without the help of foreign monies and very limited outside personnel. The Mission must learn to be totally dependent on the Lord, not the Board (thousands of miles away).

Miraculously, in 1890, Nevius’s path crossed with young, inexperienced missionaries fresh on the field in Korea. Nevius poured a lifetime of lessons into them during a short period of time. In turn, these young missionaries followed the Nevius Plan to the letter and Christianity sprouted quickly in this ancient land of Buddhism, Shamanism, and Confucianism. It was a modern miracle, for the largest Christian congregations in the world flourish in South Korea to this day.

The plan encapsulated

The following principles summarize the Nevius Plan:

  1. The missionary, pastor, and new Christians are to be involved in personal evangelism through wide itineration.
  2. Self-propagation: with every believer teaching someone less mature in the faith, while learning from someone more mature in the faith.
  3. Self-government: with every Bible group under its chosen unpaid leaders. These groups will help pay a circuit missionary to help train the people.
  4. Self-support: with all chapels built and provided by the local believers. As soon as possible, the groups help pay the salary of the circuit missionary helper.
  5. Systematic Bible study for every believer.
  6. Strict discipline according to the Bible.
  7. Cooperation with other Christian groups.
  8. Non-interference in lawsuits.
  9. Help serve the community and the problems of people.

Wide itineration? What?

The Great Commission commands us to “go” and “make disciples” and Nevius saw the work ethic of the Apostles as the perfect example for the missionary and those he was to win and train. Nevius taught new Christians to go where people were already hanging out and find a way to share the love of Jesus. Curious crowds were to be sought and seekers of the light to be brought under the Word of God. Preaching to any and every size group was expected as the missionary and workers planed their work and worked their plan. However, private conversations would be crucial in getting concrete results. This work of “wide itineration” and preaching should be prayerfully planned.

New converts to Christianity should be led to work for the conversion of their neighbors, friends, and family, without pay, remaining in the vocation and setting in which they were saved. The home of the convert is to become a virtual mission station. The life and testimony of the new convert in its effect upon their neighbors and family would be immeasurable as they witness his or her transformation while living an ordinary, normal life.

New believers were brought into worshipping Bible study groups and they were expected to “throw out shoots” (new worshipping and study groups) in the same way plants do. Nevius learned this self-propagating character must be baked-into the DNA of the Mother Church[es] from the first hours of their existence. New believers were to be taught that the work of spreading Christianity is the duty of every new Christian. Korean Christians were not received as full members until they could bring someone else; therefore, the new Christians got to taste the joy and learn the duty of evangelism from day one! These “new shoots” would turn into New Testament congregations with a heart for planting daughter congregations.

The future for the SBC?

Southern Baptists will flourish until Jesus returns “if” our church planters have a burning desire to introduce people to the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit by winning new believers and training them to do likewise. New believers can be trained as local missionaries, not as members with an “it’s all about me” mentality.

Overall, Southern Baptists will see an upward trajectory in baptisms as we clear our heads and hearts of any distracting doctrines, bothersome bureaucracies, and quenching quibbles. We simply need to fall in love with our Lord Jesus again and allow Him to be first and foremost in our lives, families, churches, and convention.

Last, I would call on our North American Mission Board to focus our collective energies and resources toward a radical redemptive effort in the year 2020 as Southern Baptists lay everything on the line for Jesus: sink or swim!

So, which one comes first? Believers with evangelistic hearts and strategic minds know it is both; synergistically, there is sowing, reaping, and gathering!

© Ron F. Hale, June 19, 2017

church planting, evangelism, John Livingston Nevius, missions, Southern Baptist Convention