Interview With Peter Roennfeldt–Good Planters Make Good Neighbors: Perspectives on Church Planting

Peter Roennfeldt, DMin, has spent his life sharing the Gospel, making disciples, and planting churches. He has served as a pastor, evangelist, missionary, seminary teacher, and pastor-to-pastor. He and his wife, Judy, have lived in four countries, equipping and coaching planters and movement practitioners. As well as initiating Discovery Bible Reading, he has produced conversation guides for disciple-making, church planting teams, and movement leaders, as well as for the prophetic writings of Daniel and Revelation. Peter is the author of eight books: Following Jesus (2017), Following the Spirit (2018), Following the Apostles’ Vision (2019), If You Can Eat, You Can Make Disciples (2018), If Your Church is Closed, Be the Church (2020), If You are Thirsty, You Can be Spirit-filled (2020), Enjoy the Living Word (2021), and with Your Church Has Changed (to be released March 2021).

Petr Cincala, PhD, is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, assistant professor of World Mission, director of NCD (Natural Church Development) America, and managing editor of the Journal of Applied Christian Leadership.

Petr Cincala, on behalf of the Journal of Applied Christian Leadership: Can you tell me about your experience with training, mentoring, and coaching leaders?

Peter Roennfeldt: It was modelled by my first mentor or supervisor in ministry. Four to five days a week, for eight or more hours each day—for a year (1971)—Pastor Bill Otto took me with him to observe every aspect of his ministry. As we drove and ate together, Bill shared ideas, reviewed the visits we were making, and encouraged me. From the first week, I was assigned weekly preaching and visitation opportunities. I learned that my local church leaders and members were my team—volunteers to be encouraged, mentored and inspired; when they agreed to take on an assignment, my role was to affirm, provide the resources for them to complete the task, walk beside them as needed, but also check in at agreed times and expect what they had agreed to would be done.

JACL: How did these experiences transition into a passion for raising up leaders and church planters?

PR: During the second and third years of ministry, I became responsible for large rural districts with four to six churches—and then I ended up planting another two churches. I was dependent upon my team of elders and members because it was simply impossible to do everything! I was still learning to delegate and trust, but any success I experienced depended upon the team. It was not my job to control but to encourage, resource, and motivate all believers to enjoy participation according to their giftedness and experience.

Early in my fourth year of ministry (1974), my wife, Judy, and I moved to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea for our first in-depth experience in crosscultural ministry. My ministry assignment involved daily equipping five to seven intern graduates from our college in public evangelistic ministry and to support the pastors of the three city churches. We quickly realized that the spectator environment of large churches contributed to backsliding, giving rise to a statement for which I have been credited: “Large churches are factories that produce backsliders.” So, together with pastors, interns and members, we embarked on multiplying church plants.

During the next four years, we planted 14 new city churches—which have since multiplied to more than 60, most of them far too large today. It was an intense time of equipping leaders to involve all members possible in evangelism and disciple-making. After this, Judy and I transitioned for two years to leading the Sonoma Adventist College ministerial faculty (the senior college at the time). This gave us the opportunity to reflect and assess the effectiveness of what we had been doing—an important task but difficult to do in the midst of intensely active ministry.

JACL: Do you have any insights on cross-cultural church planting?

PR: Engaging indigenous Australians in planting new faith groups before going to Papua New Guinea, as well as ministry in Pacific countries, not only introduced me to cross-cultural mission but also the pervasive issues of contextualization. I learned that all theology, doctrines, and church systems are contextualized. In my imagination and experience, Jesus was a straighthaired, blue-eyed European, while in the minds of indigenous and Pacifica people, Jesus was one of them: dark, with curly hair—as depicted on their painted evangelistic charts. Because of our different contextualization, what we believe we are saying is not understood as we imagine by those of other cultures, including doctrines and kingdom methods.

I learned to respect other cultures, and through conversations, allow the Spirit to teach His ways. These experiences taught me to constantly check on what was being understood. I have found that reflection on the life, teachings, and methods of Jesus—through reading the Gospels and Acts, in context—provide an environment for the Holy Spirit to crystalize what He envisages. While I underscored principles—making disciples in all ethne (relational streams), cultivating oikos faith groups (households of faith), and mission hubs in districts—I learned to affirm a variety of expressions and insights, while coaching the planting teams to constantly assess what they were doing in the light of the apostles’ applications of Jesus’ teachings in their circumstances.

During my first ten years of ministry, I was taught some basic essentials of church planting. For example, I learned that a new plant is not formed by transferring members from established churches but by gathering new disciples. Also, new plants must plan to multiply within a short time—the timeframe being somewhat culturally determined, but never more than a couple of years. Thirdly, the evangelism methods must be simple, natural, easy to multiply and zero-dollar, so that new disciples can begin sharing faith as soon as they learn of Christ. And also, disciple-making happens most effectively through relational streams—the ethne of the great commission or the wantoks relationships of Melanesia.

JACL: What would you say is the secret to your success?

PR: A number of times I have been thrust back into district ministry. The time spent in Papua New Guinea was followed by nine-years as a Division and Inter-Union city evangelist in Australia and New Zealand, again working with teams of pastors (sometimes 25–30 at a time, for eight to nine month-long evangelistic programs), with multiple churches and members. I then transitioned into refocusing and growing an existing church for six years while also engaged as Conference evangelist and Ministerial Association Secretary (or pastor-to-pastor)—resourcing more than 60 pastors and their spouses.

During those years, I also teamed with leading Christian leaders and pastors of other denominations to cultivate a biblical understanding of the missional insights of Donald McGavran and Lesslie Newbiggin. A small team of us organized The Australian Fellowship for Church Growth, organizing major Church Growth conferences and producing a regular bulletin with a national readership to coach and foster teams.

In dialogue with other Christian leaders, I discovered few had ever met an Adventist or engaged in meaningful discussions. However, I was never once treated as less than a fellow believer nor expected to surrender my distinctive convictions. I learned that my years of practical ministry experience in evangelism, disciple-maker, and church-planter—and my commitment to modelling ministry based on the example, teachings, and commission of Jesus— together with my wide reading of the latest research, books, and publications—was highly regarded and respected.

Hands-on ministry among non-believers, working with teams of effective leaders and pastors, treating all members as part of the team, and respecting all regardless of the level of contribution they were able to make—together with wide research and reading—also helped me to appreciate the members and pastors for whom I was directly responsible in ministry.

Three other specific points come to mind. While I had produced countless sermon summaries and seminars on Daniel, Revelation, and Hebrews—which were all translated and available for others to use at no cost—I had consciously decided not to write-up my own methods. When I did write church planting and coaching/mentoring materials, I tried to reflect processes that I had learned from others and put them into practice. In my third year of ministry, I read Fordyce Detamore’s Pastoral and District Suggestions, in which he urged using ideas that others had proven effective—not rushing too quickly to our own approaches. Maybe I was slow, but it seemed wise to reference others in my first 25 years!

Hands-on ministry among non-believers, working with teams of effective leaders and pastors, treating all members as part of the team, and respecting all regardless of the level of contribution they were able to make

Secondly, in 1980 and the ensuing years, the Adventist church wrestled with huge doctrinal and sociological challenges. Some see it as primarily theological, but it was also a clash of leadership and ecclesiological styles. In Australia, the conflict was messy and very public, but during those years, I was still standing on public platforms sharing the message of the Gospel and Adventism with thousands. It was a painful time, but one that demanded authenticity and honesty—even when the church was, at times, responding (regardless as to what was truth!) in un-Christian ways. I was constantly coaching and mentoring hurting and broken members, pastors, and leaders and responding to a public and media that was increasingly cynical of Christian churches that even destroyed their own.

Then, during the early 1990s, my involvement in leading and coaching expanded. Leading small groups of pastors on study programs in the Bible lands multiplied to leading coachloads of pastors, evangelists, and church planters, as well as invitations to conduct evangelism and church planting field schools in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. At the same time, while still carrying responsibilities in the Victorian Conference as Ministerial Association Secretary, Conference evangelist, and senior pastor of Burwood Adventist Community Church, I was invited to foster a new initiative for the South Pacific Division, Mission to Secular Society, a network of Adventist Churches for the Unchurched in the major cities of Australia and New Zealand. While I cast the vision, what was accomplished was not entirely my doing but the result of a large number of creative, dedicated, visionary pastors and members who were inspired with the vision.

JACL: How have you managed to multiply leaders and propel the churchplanting movement forward?

PR: As a local church pastor, I had followed the practice of identifying eight to ten key people to mentor and skill, taking each with me for three hours each week for six months. As we drove between appointments and visits, we could share ideas; I poured my heart and soul into them. In the five or six months we spent together, I worked to skill each one, to enrich them spiritually and as disciple-makers. After that, they each teamed with another, and I invested time in another eight to ten people—with all teams multiplying again after another six months or so.

It is solid work, especially for the first couple of years. Such work also is a huge time commitment and requires you to be vulnerable and consistent. If you are looking to start such a mentorship/discipleship program, trust those elected by the local church, perhaps even starting with them in the initial eight to ten. However, do not limit yourself to elected leaders. Some may be tough to work with, but when you spend time with them—and they experience disciple-making in homes—their hearts and journeys will change. Follow this hands-on process, and by the end of the first year you could have over 30 involved in mission.

In movements, all are disciple-makers—including all leaders. So, I always tried to start at that level. After a year or two—with multiple disciple-makers multiplying in teams—do what Jesus did by selecting those who will cultivate the movement and invest heavily into them.

While working within the denominational systems, I have been committed to thinking movements. The contrasts between the essentials of movement leadership and positional leadership in denominations are stark.

In movements—movement leadership:

  1. All are disciple-makers;
  2. All are involved in church planting—based on natural leaders;
  3. Church planting overseers (planters)—multiply church plants;
  4. Some will be mission hub–network multipliers; and
  5. A few will be mission catalysts, who looking beyond at the national and international needs.

In denominations—positional leadership:

  1. All are members;
  2. Pastors and evangelists are paid;
  3. A hierarchy of conferences officers and departments exists;
  4. Additionally, a hierarchy of union officers and departments exists;
  5. And finally, the denomination is run by division and General Conference officers and departments.

Being conscious of this contrast has enabled me to define my ministry and engage with mentoring and cultivating movements, even while employed within denominational-positional leadership roles and systems. An essential of movements is that all are disciple-makers, including the church planting overseers, network multipliers, and mission catalysts. Jesus was always a disciple-maker. If I follow His example, whatever role or responsibility I might have, I am still to be actively involved in sharing faith and making disciples in my community. I can never protest that I am too busy or travelling too much. I am a disciple, and therefore a disciple-maker!

In cultivating regional, national, or international movements, the principles used at the local level are simply multiplied. Identify the key people to be mentored, and focus upon resourcing, equipping, and encouraging them. It involves having a broad vision of “no place left” where the Gospel is not known (Rom. 15:23, NIV) and intentionally fanning every flame of interest by small teams or families to share faith, for they will plant churches and multiply.

At the local church, district level, or with international movements, gather the key people together at set times to share their experiences, and empower them to equip and inspire others. Train them in how to share their stories so that it is not a rambling, incohesive report, but focused and motivating. Let the best practical stories be told. This will, in turn, sharpen their commitment to disciple-making, church-planting, and movement-building. This means that within a short time your role and movement facilitator will be to affirm and cheer other key players—and you can step out of the way. Jesus left, as did the apostles, and God’s kingdom continued.

JACL: What are some “sticky” or problematic models of church planting to avoid?

PR: What I have learned is this: don’t try to control what others might envision. While what a planting team might plan seems similar to what I unsuccessfully tried, they have different skills and are working in a different territory. So, share the missional principles Jesus lived by (incarnational, apostolic, and messianic) and the missionary methods He followed (ethne, oikos and mission-hubs), but encourage all teams to adapt these to their context.

Problematic models of church planting include:

  • Any that cost more than the team can fund or that the community will support. Under no circumstances should a plant be dependent upon foreign or outside funding. This is a sure recipe for multiple problems.
  • The hiving off model can struggle. If a large number, even 15–20, hive from an existing established church, they will bring the culture of their church with them. This culture will insulate them and make it difficult for new folk to feel welcome. They will often drive or travel into the target community and thus have little or no connection. Additionally, if they are friends, they already have their social systems and may not need others.
  • Unless both generational and migrant church plants have clear transitional strategies to include and involve others, their long-term viability may be at risk. However, relational streams are fundamental to disciple-making, and if there is clear vision and plan to multiply within one or two years—into other streams—this model can be highly effective.
  • It is risky to base church plants purely upon a particular worship style, without regard to the other purposes of church: service, disciple-making, and obedience discipleship growth.

There are frequent tensions between mother churches and the church plants in their districts within the Adventist denomination. There are several reasons for this:

  • Denominational systems assess a church’s health on the basis of membership (not the number of disciple-makers) and tithe-giving, and church plants are perceived to undermine the size of both membership and finances of parent churches.
  • Most Adventist churches live in an environment of competition with their sisterhood of churches—for example, some feel their church is committed, while the others in the district are too traditional or too liberal. This often creates an unfair assessment of church plants.
  • Many administrative leaders seem too busy to read, and some local church elders and boards are neither familiar with missional literature nor New Testament frames for disciple-making and church-planting and therefore feel threatened by church plants.
  • Church planters can also be very enthusiastic, and their enthusiasm—and catch-phrases, such as, “It is easier to give birth than to raise the dead!”— can appear judgmental, resulting in alienation.

Finally, Church systems often listen to the “noisiest” leaders, usually those of the parent-churches. This can result in church-planters being “called in” or “reigned in.”

JACL: How has COVID-19 impacted church planting? What are some ways of using this difficult time for good?

PR: COVID-19 was a wake-up call to the reality that the systems depend upon church functioning at the local level. There is no church without the local church, and when scattered, we learned it was much smaller than could be imagined. The basic unit of church is the “two or three” who gather in Jesus’s name (see Matt. 18:15–20)—the household of faith or oikos model.

In places where members, pastors, and leaders had been equipped to think of church as Jesus and the apostles envisaged it when buildings were closed (and where access to internet platforms were unavailable) church plants multiplied in small groups and household.

Like many others (maybe up to 50% of attendees before COVID restrictions), my wife and I decided not to just watch church on Zoom but to read our Bibles and Facetime neighbors to serve and share faith in our community. We are now discovering numerous stories of church plants that have launched in these ways.

Two professional believers invited an atheist university student to share their first lockdown Sabbath (allowed within the health-imposed orders in their city). The student came for food and discussions, and, while they can now return to their church building, they have continued their fresh form of church with 12–15 people, most of whom were unbelievers or those on the fringes of faith.

JACL: What are some advantages of the digital age/digital marketing for reaching young people in light of church planting?

PR: Another clear lesson of COVID-19 has been that digital media and the internet are great for contact and communication, but it is not church. Churches are planted with the purpose of worship, service, disciple-making, fellowship (not just meetings!), and fostering obedient discipleship (see Matt. 22:37–38 and Matt. 28:18–20). Interestingly, during this pandemic, while the younger generations assisted established churches get up-to-speed with technology, very few looked in on “Zoom church.” They communicate with social media, but that is not church for them. They are fostering a variety of hybrid and digital forms that are more relational and Bible-focused than perhaps those of older generations. “We are church” and “missional church”—the priesthood of all believers, with justice and without discrimination against any—are themes very important to the hearts of young adults. And that is more like Jesus’s and the apostles’ idea of church!

JACL: Does church planting have a future, in general? Within the Adventist Church, specifically? In what form?

PR: Adventism began as a planting movement. In the Global North, it is far from that today; and in the Global South, Adventism is at risk of stalling within its systems. But, yes, I believe that church planting has a future.

When I entered ministry and began planting churches, the term church planting was not on the agenda. Few Adventist pastors could share how they had done it, and few other denominations were doing it! However, many Christians, mission agencies, and even denominations are committed to multiplying disciples and planting churches. Some are committed to planting one church for every 1,000 people on the planet, with the vision of “no place left” where the Gospel is not known (see Rom. 15:23).

Today, Adventism is surrounded by many committed to this vision and serious about preparing people for the return of Jesus. While Church Growth was derailed with technocratic methods that pitted it against evangelism and church planting (which were encompassed by McGavran’s essential ideals)— and, missional has been popularized and misappropriated (as feared by proponents like Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch)—I believe the future effectiveness for a movement of Adventist church planting will depend on returning to Jesus’ methods of disciple-making, with the apostles’ frames for church-planting.

However, I realize, this will call for a major shake-up—for we have become very comfortable with Constantinian models of church and firmly entrenched in applying the messages of the three angels to modern and pre-modern thinking, rather than also addressing our postmodern, post-Christendom, and post-Christian-pagan environments.

The challenges and opportunities are enormous. It would be exciting to be starting the journey of church-planting today, but with the experiences of disciple-making, church-planting, and movement-building that many have blessed me with over the decades.

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