Throughout the history of Christianity, I have observed two models of church planting that, for the sake of this conversation, I will label Frontier & Immigrant. Typically, the Frontier model church plant is the fruit of an evangelist who, in obedience to the call of God, brings the Gospel to a new geographic area or to a specific unchurched group within a geographic area that is already churched. As a result of this work, individuals come to faith and form a fellowship of believers.
This was the model employed by the apostle Paul who, during his missionary journeys, brought the Gospel to Galatia and beyond. More recently, this was the model employed by Francis Asbury and his followers who followed the western migration of the emerging Uniting States. The Methodist congregations scattered across this nation testify to their effectiveness.
The Frontier model has implicit strengths and weaknesses. One strength is that the Frontier model church plant values evangelism. This value flows naturally from its birth as a congregation since it was brought into existence by the work of an evangelist. One may safely conclude that Frontier congregations most certainly believe they exist to seek and save the lost. One weakness of this model is the relatively shallow depth of relationships between those in the church. This is the case because the work of the evangelist often leads a disparate group of individuals into the church to live as brothers and sisters in Christ. They share their experience of conversion to faith with Christ, but have not yet developed additional shared cultural experiences. Without this thick congregational culture, the people in the pew discover surface-level relationships (which, in this day and age often leads to church hopping) and, then, long for deeper fellowship. In response, the Frontier model church plant prioritizes the development of the kind of koinonia that causes people to stick and that the world finds intriguing, if not attractive.
The Immigrant model church plant is the fruit of corporate faithfulness to the word of God by a group of like-minded Christians who happen to live in close geographic proximity to one another. Following the example of the apostles, they form a congregation characterized by the apostolic marks (Acts 2:42-47) and/or historic marks of the church (faithful preaching and administration of sacraments/ordinances). This was the model employed by the believers who, because of persecution, migrated to Antioch (Acts 11:19). The Antiochene Christian immigrants enjoyed culturally diverse and were gifted with several prophets and teachers. Plus, while life’s circumstances (threat of persecution) gave them reason to be inwardly focused, the shared the Gospel with the world by sending Paul and Barnabas to the frontier as evangelists.
The Immigrant model also has implicit strengths and weaknesses. It benefits from a shared story or culture that provides depth to relationships between church members who, thereby, find it easier to develop koinonia as brothers and sisters in Christ. But as immigrants, they did not necessarily migrate to their new homes for the purpose of seeking and saving the lost. Plus, they may not even love the qualities and characteristics of their new community. They may, then, live on the fringe of society with little influence in the community for effective evangelism. This reality, in turn, may encourage them to prioritize evangelism through evangelists outside of their communities.
In summary, the Frontier model church plant values local evangelism and may neglect koinonia and, perhaps, global mission. The Immigrant model church plant values koinonia and global mission, but may neglect local evangelism.
Why emphasize the distinction between these two types of church plants? I have found this distinction especially important for the many Immigrant model church plants I have the privilege of working with.
First, this distinction affirms the value of Immigrant Model church plants which, in my, albeit, limited experience, seem disparaged and surely neglected by many. The Immigrant model church may not have been established for the purpose of seeking and saving the lost in your community, but that is OK. In fact, it is more than OK. Such congregations have been established in the mold of the church of Antioch, one of the most significant and influential Christian congregations in the history of Christianity. Immigrant congregations may not witness many conversions in their own communities, but they have made possible many elsewhere.
Second, Immigrant model churches have strengths in the very areas Frontier model congregations struggle. Immigrant model congregations are typically characterized by thick relationships which have weathered many storms (and several pastors). They understand and embrace multi-generational koinonia, discipleship, and mutual service. Furthermore, as people who were once disenfranchised, they value helping people in need, and as people from another part of the world, they value global missions.
Third, Immigrant model congregations benefit more from strategies designed for Immigrant model churches, than from those designed for Frontier model churches. Let me explain through analogy. I just completed an order, by phone, for new tires for my car. Interestingly, the sales person asked for the model of my car so she could select the best tires of the many options available. Her request made sense to me and the result has been a nice smooth ride. Similarly, I submit that some tires (strategic initiatives) are better suited for one model (Immigrant) than another (Frontier). I also acknowledge, as a side note, that the application of this principle is difficult in this day and age because the market (conferences and books) is saturated with tires for one model – the Frontier. Very few tires have been designed for the Immigrant model.
Is this much to do about nothing? Let’s take the popularity of small group ministries. Nearly every congregation I run across has adopted an initiative to develop something akin to small groups. As I reflect on this, I think it safe to conclude that the emphasis on this form of ministry flows from Frontier model church plants, i.e., large seeker-sensitive congregations, attempting to address the inherent weakness to their model: koinonia, mutual service, and discipleship. I think it also safe to conclude that because of small groups, many Frontier model congregations have witnessed significant fruit in the aforementioned areas of congregational life.
I have also observed that many Immigrant model churches, which already enjoy strong, sustaining relationships, have adopted the strategic initiative of small group development. In other words, they have adopted a program to strengthen their inherent strength. But wouldn’t Immigrant model congregations be better served by developing initiatives to address an inherent weakness? Frankly, the last thing some churched folk need is to spend more time with churched folk. It seems to me that they would be much better served if their congregations adopted initiatives that help them develop their cross-cultural skills so they can spend more time hanging out with their unchurched friends and neighbors.
Fourth, but somewhat related to #3, Immigrant model congregations have an inherent weakness: a disconnect from the community and a corresponding ineffectiveness in leading people from the community to saving faith in Christ. Early on in the congregation’s history, this didn’t bother the church much because it made sense: the congregation spoke a different language from others in town. But now that the congregation speaks the same language as everyone else, the church is tempted to think local evangelism should be easier. But it’s not. And why not? Because few congregants have learned to talk about the Christian faith with people outside of their immigrant community. In response to that inadequacy, many Immigrant model congregations developed programs to attract people to their services, but that didn’t work either. Why not? Because the people in the community have always viewed the church as set apart—kind of like most Americans view the Amish.
In the light of these realities, how does the Immigrant model church address the weakness of local evangelism? There are two, maybe three options here. First, the congregation may choose to develop strategic initiatives to train congregants to be effective witnesses for the Gospel to neighbors and friends in the community. Second, the church may choose to build on its strengths and double down on sending out others to seek and save the lost. Third, since these options are not mutually exclusive, congregations may choose both/and.
Of course, if the Immigrant model church doubles down on its strengths and fails to find ways to extend the Gospel to neighbors and friends, its future is clear. As the stream of immigrants slows to a trickle and the congregation ages, the church will someday close. And that, too, is OK. As the history of Christianity teaches us, congregations come and go. They are planted, experience a dynamic life cycle during which they enjoy great fruit, then slowly die. Such is to be expected.