Word Study #105 — To Plant – “Church Planting”; To Grow – “Church Growth”

While we are talking about buzz-words, let’s look at a couple more – “church planting” and “church growth”. It is no surprise that neither of these phrases can be found in the New Testament. However, there are a few references to the verbs, phuteuo, to plant, as well as speiro, to sow; and auxano, to grow. The words themselves are not at all ambiguous. An examination of their subjects and objects, however, can be instructive. (One “plants” cuttings or immature seedlings, but “sows” seed.)

Most of the synoptic uses of phuteuo are in parables referring to the planting of a vineyard. Paul uses it in a similar way in I Cor.9:7. The concept of “vineyard” is interesting, and could be explored later. For our purpose here, we will merely observe that the person who did the planting did so in the expectation that the vines would grow to maturity and bear fruit (in that order!)
Two other occurrences are found in Jesus’ matter-of-fact response to the Pharisees’ taking offense at his teaching (Mt.15:13), one (Lk.17:28) to the “business as usual” going on in Sodom before its destruction, one (Lk.13:6) to the unfruitful fig tree, and one (Lk.17:6) to Jesus’ enigmatic statement about the power of faithfulness. In his letter to Corinth, Paul uses the figure of “planting” and “watering” (I Cor.3:6,7,8) to describe his and Apollos’ work among the people there. He does not specify what he “planted.”

The references to “sowing”, on the other hand, both in synoptic accounts (Mt.13:3-19, 13:24-30, 13:31-32; Lk.8:5), and in John’s (Jn.4:36-37), focus understandably on the seeds rather than plants. And Jesus very kindly illuminates the details for us. In Mt.13:37, “The one who sows the seed is the Son of Man, and the good seeds are the sons of the Kingdom” (in contrast to the weeds); and in Mk.4:14, “The sower sows the Word,” or (Lk.8:11) “The seed is the Word of God.”

The epistles are less specific. Paul speaks (I Cor.9:11) of his having “sowed spiritual things” for them; of planting seeds as an illustration of the difference between one’s “natural” and “resurrection” body (I Cor.15:36-44); of “reaping” what one “sows” (Gal.6:7-8) in terms of one’s chosen manner of life; and with respect (II Cor.9:6-10) to generosity in sharing one’s resources. James concludes a treatise about consistent living (3:18) with “a crop of justice [righteousness] is sown in peace, by those who make peace.”

And that, folks, is all that is said about “planting”!
When anything is planted, of course, it is with the expectation of a harvest. But there are only three specific identifications of what is “planted” with respect to the Christian message: “the word / word of God”, “the sons of the Kingdom”, and “justice.” Paul adds, “What you sow is not the body that will be, but you sow a bare seed …But God gives it a body, as he wishes!” (I Cor.15:37,38).
“The church” is NOT what is planted! It is profoundly to be hoped that these plantings will result in the formation of “colonies of the Kingdom”, but that remains to be seen.

The intermediate step, naturally or supernaturally, is growth. But here too, both physical and spiritual expectation differs sharply from common rhetoric. You don’t pick grapes the first year you plant cuttings, nor harvest wheat immediately after grain is sown. What is planted must first grow to maturity, before bearing fruit. Creatures, or people, must also be nurtured to maturity (at least, they should!) before they are expected to reproduce! (Please see W.S.#13 and #64)

Some of the seeds will sprout, and some won’t (Mt.13, Mk.4, Lk.8). The same word, auxano, is used of the growth of a child (Lk.1:80, 2:40), of lilies (Mt.6:28), of seeds (Mt.13:32), of the brotherhood (Eph.2:21), and even of the word of God (Ac.12:24, 19:20)! Peter (I Pet.2:2) admonishes his readers to “grow up!”, and in II Pet.3:18, to “Grow in grace, and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul advocates “increase / growth” (same word) in “the fruits of justice” (II Cor.9:10), “your faithfulness” (II Cor.10:!5), “the knowledge of God” (Col.1:10), “the increase / growth of God” (Col.2:19), and “to grow up into him (Jesus)” (Eph.4:15).
The only place in the New Testament where “growth” refers to an increase in population is Stephen’s sermon in Ac.7:17, where he refers to the Israelites in Egypt.

“The church” is what happens while all this “growth” is taking place! As Paul reminded the folks at Corinth, “You all are God’s farm!” (I Cor.3:9). It is the atmosphere in which growth happens. But there is not a single reference to “grow” with “church”as its subject – or its object.

I will conclude with a look at the description of a time when the “population” of the church did increase dramatically, but none of the “planting” or “growing” words appear. This is the scene described in Ac.2:42-47.

A huge group had joined their fellowship at Pentecost, but nobody seems to have immediately organized a lecture tour for Peter, whose sermon had precipitated such a large response. Instead of launching a splashy media campaign (yes, there were “media” in the first century – that was the function of a “herald” kerux) , the group simply continued (Ac.2:42) “paying eager attention to the apostles’ teaching, to sharing, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.” Luke goes onto describe their sharing of resources, and notes (but does not detail) the experience of “wonders and signs”. Meeting “in the temple and from house to house” (v.46) daily, they were simply praising God, enjoying each other, and being gracious toward all the people!
Luke’s concluding statement is the kicker: “And the Lord added those who were being rescued [“saved”]to their community, every day!”

The church grew – simply by BEING the church!
They were not trying to “sell” a theology or philosophy, or to start “a new religion”.
There was no need to mount an “outreach campaign”.

They only needed to become God’s “demonstration farm”, so that folks could see the Kingdom in action.
If people today could see a demonstration of “the real thing”, that just might happen again.

I would love to be a part of a group of folks willing to try it!

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2 Responses to Word Study #105 — To Plant – “Church Planting”; To Grow – “Church Growth”

  1. terry welborn says:

    Ruth, I will forward this to a friend of mine in Richmond, who is the executive director of the association in which I was a pastor when I retired. This association in the past has sponsored a “church planter” in the association–with all good, but misinformed, intentions.

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    Bless you, Terry! That sort of thing is exactly what these studies are designed for! You are an encouragement to me. Thanks. Ruth

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