Skip to content
Home » Church Planting

Church Planting

Summary: We have always been committed to planting the seed of the Gospel among the nations so that it advances through spiritual generations of laborers living and discipling among the lost. We increasingly recognize the importance of families and relational networks in this process. This article compares our approach with what is often described as church planting. This article is best read alongside our article on “Navigators Among the People of God,” which tells the story of our extensive church ministries.


Early Views on Navigator-Church Relations
Navigator Decisions to not Pursue Church Planting
Navigators Seek to Foment a Gospel Movement

Early Views on Navigator-Church Relations

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Ephesians 2:19-22

Navigators have typically not seen themselves as church planters.

During extended sessions at our overseas policy conference in 1961, the discussion unfolded from a prior scriptural conclusion that God is persistently pursuing three objectives as He forms His people: “What God is doing today is calling out individuals, conforming them to Christ, and consolidating or building them into a habitation for God called the church.”

In the conference discussion, Lorne Sanny said, “We have agreed among ourselves that the local church is not a major objective of God, but rather a means. Therefore, we do not have a strong emphasis in our work on establishing local churches.”1 He added that the question before the conference was whether “the local church is the means, a means, a chief means or the only means of accomplishing God’s three major objectives.”

The sense among conference participants was that the local church is not the only means of fulfilling the objectives of God. Thus, there is no fundamental conflict as regards the origin, ministry, and government of The Navigators. According to the Scriptures, however, local fellowships are the chief means of fulfilling God’s objectives, indicating that we must sooner or later be related to the local physical church.

The following day, after further animated discussion, Sanny summarized2 an emerging consensus about how The Navigators, as a fellowship of people called to a specific purpose or function outside the local church, should position themselves:

  • We do not need to originate within a local church or out of the local church.
  • We may exist outside the organizational control of the church.
  • However, we should have some affinity for and helpfulness to some part of the body of Christ, be it the church or another organization, it being a principle of the body itself that we are to help one another.
  • We should decide, rather than the church, whether or not we are making a contribution to the cause of Christ.
  • Therefore, we may properly proceed with our objective, with or without the approval of the church, though we prefer its approval.

We see here some ambiguity. One aspect of this ambiguity resides in the different ways in which the phrase “the church” was used in the OPC discussion.3 A more-developed organizational understanding would need to wait until the Fundamentals of the Navigator Ministry (FOM) was prepared in the 1970s.

Lorne Sanny on the Importance of Local Congregations

It is important to confirm, however, that Sanny was adamant about the importance of local congregations. Here are a few extracts from his seminal 1966 paper4 on our relationship to the church and other works.

Ideally, we believe that local congregations, of the kind described in 1 Thessalonians 1, hold the key to true fulfillment of the Great Commission. So we are committed to the church generally, convinced that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God’s will be manifest (Ephesians 3:10), and we want to relate to individual churches and denominations as harmoniously and productively as possible.5

“Harmoniously,” because ‘just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ . . . and if the ear should say, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body…that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another’ (1 Corinthians 12:12-25 ESV).

“Productively,” because we want to help the church be the church. We can perhaps make our biggest contribution to the church by producing laborers. We know it takes only one man to spark a group, one group to spark a congregation. We can either be, or supply that man.

“As possible.” We dare not compromise our calling. Our commitment to the church and to churches is not a surrender to ecclesiastical bureaucracy. The Scriptures show that God the Holy Spirit separates men from the organized church and commissions them for a special task, holding them responsible to Himself (Acts 13: 2, 3). Anglican missionary statesman Max Warren speaks of ‘enterprises whose inspiration is the summons of the Lord to missions.’ The fact that they are not under any official church sponsorship, he says, “in no way belittles their claim to be, at their own points of impact, the church in action.

Navigator Decisions to Not Pursue Church Planting

As our thinking developed, we saw that the New Testament speaks of planting the Gospel rather than planting churches. Throughout the New Testament, starting with the parable of the sower, what is sown or planted is the Gospel or the Word of God.

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:6-11).

In general, we drew a careful distinction between the form commonly known as “church planting” and the more apostolic and contextual growing of fellowships around the Gospel in which we already engaged. We are church. Our concept has consistently6 been that the church is people, so that every Navigator beachhead, every new group in a staff home (oikos), is or has the potential to become church. We believe, after much study, that this way of understanding oikos and ekklesia is faithful to the New Testament.

This understanding is expounded in detail in the Fundamentals of the Navigator Ministry (FOM), where our conclusion was that The Navigators differs from local churches in intent, function, and form. This led to seven assumptions:

  • There is biblical precedent for gifted and called specialists to serve in mobile, as well as in local, capacities.
  • Such specialists are essential but must operate within limits.
  • There is precedent (though not a command) for such specialists to form themselves into groups to help extend the kingdom and build up the Body of Christ.
  • They must maintain a proper, balanced relationship to local congregations.
  • They must take care not to abandon their specialized calling.
  • Their leaders should be gifted and called.
  • Therefore, The Navigators is not a gap organization, functioning until the gap is closed. Nor are we “parachurch,” i.e., alongside the Body of Christ. We are para-local-church with a biblically legitimate precedent. We are a part of the church, God’s redemptive structure, just as local congregations are.

It followed that one of the six activities that The Navigators, as a society, would not do was to “become a church or plant Navigator churches.” The reason given was that to do so would be to stray from our calling and lose our effectiveness as a specialized function in the Body of Christ.7

Church planting has become a rather sophisticated and method-oriented activity. There is pressure to set up a church the proper way: building, budget, Sunday School, etc. Yet, this form is foreign and awkward for many of those whom we wish to enfold into the Body, even in a Christianized society such as the US. Church planting is often reduced to getting people to congregate and participate in the program.

Furthermore, the sad evidence from missions history is that, when sodalities such as The Navigators give birth to modalities such as The Navigator Church of the True Gospel, these modal gatherings cease to propagate, except biologically.8

David Bosch alludes to one of the consequences of the classic model of church planting:

Mission was a process of reproducing churches and, once these had been reproduced, all energy was spent on maintenance. (Karl) Barth asks, ‘Has not the work of this divine messenger and ambassador (Christ) actually ceased in the blind alley of the church as an institution of salvation for those who belong to it?’9

One of the best brief accounts of how evangelistic voluntary societies (sodalities) emerged from within denominational Protestant structures from the end of the eighteenth century onward is the essay by Andrew Walls on Missionary Societies and the Fortunate Subversion of the Church in his instructive book on The Missionary Movement in Christian History.10  He writes: “By its very success, the voluntary society subverted all the classical forms of church government, while fitting comfortably into none of them. . . . It was the voluntary society that first made the laymen (except a few who held office or special position in the state) of real significance above parish or congregational level.”

Voices in Favor of Church Planting

Nevertheless, there were occasional Navigator voices calling us to church planting. For example, Waldron Scott asked that the following statement be submitted to our international strategy conference in October 1974:

The aim of The Navigators is to make the greatest possible contribution to the fulfillment of the Great Commission in our generation by multiplying disciples. We therefore acknowledge (1) a special obligation to the nearly three billion unreached people on our planet, and (2) a corresponding commitment to gathering new believers into churches—in those unreached areas where no churches exist—and preparing them to function as living organisms. Every part of our program must fit within this framework. Therefore, our national ministries will have widespread evangelism as the first objective, disciple-making and multiplying as the primary means, and church planting (where necessary) as the ultimate objective.”11

He was under no illusion that this recommendation would be adopted; indeed, it was not. A few months earlier, while commuting to the Fuller School of World Mission in Pasadena, he had written an instructive paper12 for Navigator leaders on what we might glean from the Church Growth Movement.

Michael Griffiths, who was then the general director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), resident in Singapore, wrote a stimulating book entitled Cinderella with Amnesia13 in which he critiqued organizations such as The Navigators for their impoverished attitude to local churches. Griffiths opined:

The church is . . . a dynamic new community, winsome and attractive, and with an eternal significance in the purpose of God. The Bible makes it clear that the church is God’s goal for mankind, for the new humanity in its new communities. God planned the church. Christ gave himself for the church. The Spirit is building us together in the church.

His intriguing title “suggested that the bride of Christ had lost her memory, squatting in the institutional ashes, for many churchgoers merely attended churches instead of bonding and belonging to them, forgetting what church is for.”

Griffiths recognized that “there does seem to be a biblical distinction between what may properly be described as “a church” and various other ad hoc groups of Christians, even though all of them, as true believers, are part of the church universal.”

In a later conversation with Lorne Sanny in Tokyo, Griffiths suggested, “While The Navigators emphasized prayer, scripture memory, witness, and fellowship, at that time they were teaching nothing about the church.”14 He argues robustly for the importance of local churches; however, his strictures would be helped if he were to make a clearer distinction between local congregations and the church.

Jim Petersen’s Contributions

Another trenchant contribution from within our own ranks had been modeled by Jim Petersen in the buoyant ministries that flowed out of his approach in Brazil. By 1981, he was ready to present some thoughts to our international consultation on special groups in Malaysia, under the title “How to Establish Local Fellowships Without Losing our Mobility.”15 Some extracts from his paper follow:

Whenever possible, we seek to relate our fruit to existing local churches . . . but what about the places in the world where local churches do not exist, or where those that do, do not represent a viable option for our fruit? . . . To abandon those we win in such places would be irresponsibility on our part. But to become ‘church planters’ in the popular use of the term would be a digression that would greatly restrict our influence and potential for impact. So what do we do?

The solution lies in teaching those we evangelize and disciple how to draw themselves together and how to relate to one another as a body. In other words, we teach them how to become a church. . . . Success depends upon the clarity of our vision, especially in two areas: We must understand the essential nature of the local church; we must maintain a clear understanding of the distinction between the mobile and local functions.

Jim points out that the Bible holds two ideals for the church: everyone growing to maturity and everyone involved in the ministry (Ephesians 4). After tracing the impact of the examples and instructions in the Scriptures, he offered out of his experience in Brazil an illustration of the six stages in which a local movement typically develops.

Influence of the Scriptural Roots of Our Ministry

After the guidance provided by our FOM from the late 1970s onwards, our next thorough study is found in the Scriptural Roots of Our Ministry (SRM) from 1990 onwards. The FOM was a teaching tool, whereas the SRM was an invitation to join in an open explorative study of the Scriptures without predetermined “correct” conclusions. Relevant for the focus of this article is the section of the SRM on “God and His People” which continued to be influential in shaping our understandings and actions.16

Navigators Seek to Foment a Gospel Movement

The Commonwealth of Independent States emerged in December 1991 as a successor to the USSR. Many Western evangelicals rushed into what was seen as the extraordinary spiritual access that resulted. Much of this energy condensed into what became The CoMission.

Of the thirteen agencies that participated at the heart of The CoMission, during the early 1990s, eleven declared themselves to be church planters. The other two, Campus Crusade and The Navigators, were active in developing ways to “grow church” among17 their fruit. Helping our fruit grow in community as well as outreach is biblically authentic . . . but anything resembling a church-planting program would be likely to extinguish us as an apostolic function within the people of God.

In assessing the sphere statements flowing from the SRM process in the US, Don Bartel produced an essay that explored the concept of a Gospel movement. He commented on the “planting” of churches:

The Scriptures teach and illustrate Gospel planting followed by church growing or building. . . . The Scriptures provide us with two helpful metaphors. Paul referred to the Corinthians as ‘God’s field, God’s building’ (1 Corinthians 3:9). The concept of sowing and planting is appropriate to the first metaphor. Throughout the NT, starting with the parable of the sower, what is sown or planted is the Gospel or the Word of God. What grows as a result is changed lives. When speaking of the resurrection, Paul articulates an agricultural principle ‘when you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as He has determined, and to each kind of seed He gives its own body’ (1 Corinthians 1:15, 37-38). So it is when the Gospel is planted; a whole new life form is created.

The second metaphor is a ‘building.’ Paul clarified that his contribution to the building was to lay the foundation which is Jesus. In a more limited sense, the OT refers to Jesus as a ‘precious cornerstone or a sure foundation’ (Isaiah 28:16-17) which is laid in righteousness and justice, two prominent kingdom values. The idea is that once the cornerstone is laid, the rest of the foundation can be more easily laid. Jesus is the cornerstone of a kingdom building.

Both the seed and the cornerstone concepts are Gospel-focused. I contend, therefore, that The Navigators are ‘Gospel planters’ and ‘foundation layers.’ . . . The result, we hope, will be a Gospel movement.18

During our earlier discussion of contextualization at our international council (INC 5) in 1986, the comment was made that church planters typically have a blueprint of how a new congregation should be constructed, which can be dangerous.19 By way of contrast, in essence, Jesus said “you make disciples . . . I’ll build my church.”

Nevertheless, during July 1995, the International Executive Team encouraged Navigators to stimulate local fellowships, when necessary, provided that:

  • Nav staff are not the foundational people.
  • The name of The Navigators is not used.
  • The local/apostolic distinction is preserved.
  • Our apostolic thrust is not diluted.
  • The fellowships are not under the formal control of The Navigators.20

In May 1997, a small group of Navigators met to pursue a deeper understanding of what the Scriptures have to say about the church. The focus was on ekklesia and oikos. Aldo and Waldir Berndt from our movement in Brazil were very helpful theological resources.

This consultation paved the way for a task force that met in Malaysia in February 1999. Starting from the SRM on “God and His People” as well as several studies of early Christianity, Jim Petersen led us forward into considering “Critical Factors in a Multiplying Ministry.”

Our task force drew from several helpful studies in the literature on the early church. For example:

John Davis of Moorlands College writes, ‘The ekklesia in the New Testament is spoken of almost exclusively by using organic analogies rather than mechanistic ones. The organic analogy relates to life, growth, and relationships. We are the Body of Christ . . . living stones . . . a living temple, the bride of Christ.”21

Michael Green writes that, “Where there was a Christian home, the uses to which it was put were very various. The Acts of the Apostles alone shows us such homes being used for prayer meetings, for an evening of Christian fellowship, for holy communion service, for a whole night of prayer, worship and instruction, for impromptu evangelistic gatherings, for planned meetings in order to hear the Christian Gospel, for following up enquirers, for organized instruction.22

Soon, as the new century opened, God gave us The Core (the Navigator Calling, Values, and Vision).

Our calling endures. At its heart lies the commitment to advance the Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom into the nations. In pursuit of this, one of the Core Values which the Spirit laid on our hearts is “interdependent relationships in the Body of Christ.” Our assignment is to multiply transformed communities or as our Vision expresses it:

Crossing cultures into new cities and nations, teams of mobile pioneers intentionally proclaim and embody the good news of Jesus Christ, in such a way that transformed communities multiply. These communities are bringing joy and hope to their surrounding environments as relationships are healed and justice increases. Indeed, the lost and unreached burn in their hearts, as they move the Gospel into the nations.23

This crown jewel of creation which consists of Christ-like people living together with the kind of love that the members of the Trinity have for one another and enjoying that full, shared, self-subsistent being that characterizes God himself as God dwells in those people. Dallas Willard, The Allure of Greatness

By Donald McGilchrist
3941 words

See also articles on:
Navigators Among the People of God
Fundamentals of the Navigator Ministry
The Scriptural Roots of our Ministry
The CoMission
Apostolic Pioneering
Six Critical Factors


  1. OPC session 4.
  2. OPC session 7. Chuck Farah had observed that “we are a gap organization called by God into being to satisfy a deficiency in His church. If the church were doing its job, ideally, there would be no need for our existence.” Sanny’s position, in response, was that he agreed with Farah, but considered us to be independent organizationally though not autonomous.
  3. The distinction between independent and autonomous is also rather subtle!
  4. “The Navigators Relationship to the Church and Other Works,” four pages, 1966.
  5. Similar language persisted. Among the strategic global imperatives that we adopted in 1980 was imperative 7: “We must seek to relate ourselves and the fruit of our ministries effectively and harmoniously to the rest of the Body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8).”
  6. This is exemplified in our two most prominent teaching documents, The Fundamentals of the Navigator Ministry, circa 1978 and the Scriptural Roots of Our Ministry, circa 1990.
  7. FOM 2, April 1982, section VIII guidelines, p. 49.
  8. Planting churches, McGilchrist to Selland, September 21, 1995.
  9. Transforming Mission, Orbis, 1991, p. 376.
  10. Walls, Orbis, 1996, p. 241-254.
  11. Source: Double Helix p. 647. The ISC was Scotty’s last opportunity to speak to our international leaders who were gradually dismantling much of his “Strategy for the 70s.” He described this ISC as “a dismal affair” and, in November, he accepted the position of general secretary of the World Evangelical Fellowship, on loan from The Navigators.
  12. “The Navigators and the Church Growth Movement,” undated, twenty-five pages.
  13. InterVarsity Press, 1975, p. 9 and 104.
  14. “My Pilgrimage in Mission,” IBMR, volume 28.3, July 2004, p. 123.
  15. September 1981, four pages in papers for the COSG, p. 77-80.
  16. The relevant section runs from pages 79 to 119 of the SRM (The Navigators, January 1990), especially the scripture references on pages 113-118 which distinguish New Testament uses of ekklesia in universal, regional, city, house, and general contexts.
  17. Such participation was an initiative of the US Navigators.
  18. “An Exploration of the Issues Surrounding the Pioneering Aspects of the US Navigators Sphere Statement,” Bartel to McGilchrist and Petersen, March 1, 1996, six pages, in papers for the February 1999 task force on ekklesia-oikos, in Malaysia.
  19. Petersen reflected in May 1970, “Think roots! There are two ways to establish a history in a country. 1 – Imported. 2- Smuggle in a couple of seeds and let them take root. The imported one can only produce an organization, while the second offers the possibility of becoming a movement. The first is vulnerable to the political and cultural winds, but the second becomes an integral part of the landscape.”
  20. Source: IET notes of May and July 1995.
  21. John R. Davis, How Church Structures Can Effectively Help or Hinder Church Growth, Evangel, Autumn, 1992.
  22. Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, Hodder & Stoughton, 1970, p. 218.
  23. Extracts from The Core, 2002.



Copy link