Church Planting Movements and the Crisis of Power in the SBC, Pt. 6.

Locked away in the archives of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, was evidence that concerns on the part of Patterson, Eitel and others that doctrinal compromise had run amok within the International Mission Board were justified. In September of 2003, I was given access to the dissertation by the dean of libraries and an associate dean at the Fort Worth campus. I made copies of key pages, and disseminated them to approximately twenty trustees of the IMB, to Keith Eitel, and to a number of field missionaries. It was undeniable that Curtis Sergeant’s thought and research had an enormous influence upon the methodologies employed by Southern Baptist missionaries, as he readily admits in the introduction to his dissertation. (34)
Sergeant’s major premise is that, in church planting, “one passes on a genetic blueprint by modeling.” If churches are going to reproduce quickly, therefore, it is important that the “DNA material” of the churches follow a pattern – his pattern – marked by abbreviated training cycles, women in key leadership positions, and openness to the Pentecostal experience. I will consider each of these in turn.

Church planting movements, by Sergeant’s criteria, are rapidly reproducing phenomena. In order for this reproduction to occur at a rabbit’s pace, leaders in new churches must be trained quickly and placed in positions of key leadership almost from the moment of conversion. Through a process of “shadow pastoring,” field missionaries are to model principles of church leadership, assist new believers in duplicating those ministry objectives, and then leave the new convert to continue the work unassisted. In order for discipleship to occur in this manner, “a person need be only one step ahead of the person whom he or she is discipline.” Sergeant clarifies: “For instance, a believer who has been in the Lord for ten weeks can disciple others who have been believers for only eight weeks, who could in turn disciple others who have been disciples six weeks.” (35)

Sergeant recognizes that this particular understanding of discipleship and church planting are counter-intuitive, and may, indeed, “run counter to other missiological approaches which are commonly taught.” They might seem, “illogical or disorganized or not to follow commonly accepted practices of evangelizing discipling, and forming new believers into local congregations.” (36) Thus, Sergeant shifts a focus from planting churches – the older missionary strategy – to fostering church planting movements. Sergeant continues:

As a CPM facilitator, one does not necessarily do things the same way as he would if he were concentrating just on evangelism or just on church planting or just on discipleship. If one is thinking of the process as a whole and if his endvision includes the possibility of a CPM, then all his effort must be focused toward the stimulation of a CPM. This means that he will likely respond to opportunities and situations in ways that in the short term, may seem counterproductive, but which, in the long term, will be more likely to bring about the desired results. (37)

Church planting strategies, under Sergeant’s scheme, adopt the principle of pragmatism, therefore, and become results oriented in a way that might raise suspicion in those who are more concerned for doctrinal fidelity. And while Sergeant is willing to admit that “church planting movement[s] are a sovereign act of God . . . there are things one can do
. . . to pave the way for God to work in this way, and there are things one can do to hinder or slow down the possibility for His working in this way.” (38)

The way, therefore, that field missionaries can reduce the reproduction cycle – and thus facilitate God’s work – is to “immediately place local believers in leadership positions in planting a church in a pioneer area.”(39) Failure to do so means that “it could take years for local believers to view themselves as competent to replace someone from outside who may have significantly more training or experience.”(40) This, it seems, in spite of clear statements in the New Testament about not putting new converts into positions of church leadership too soon.(41) Nevertheless, the kind of church that Sergeant “endvisions” is one without offices. In fact, such a church is minimalist.(42) Some missionaries who have followed Sergeant’s training have not even considered baptism by immersion as a necessity for the churches they plant. When asked by Sergeant about the mode of baptism, the missionary responded:

There was not one way . . . . Sometimes people would rent a hotel room and locals would baptize them. Sometimes they would go to the river. On occasion they would do it in their apartments. Sometimes they would sprinkle instead of immerse. There were lots of ways to do it. (43)

Other missionaries who learned Sergeant’s church planting methodology found no place in their definition of a church for the ordinance of baptism at all. (44)
For Sergeant, a minimalist church is one that “does not include anything extrabiblical,” such as buildings, offices, etc., or apparently baptism by immersion .(45) “Any believer,” Sergeant insists, “can plant a church,” though one is left with the distinct impression that he actually means that any believer who follows Sergeant’s training is able to plant churches. Yet Sergeant does, in fact, talk about church offices. And when he does, he presents a picture of church leadership that strikes many critics as theologically compromised.

When it comes to church leadership, Sergeant is at times unclear and at others quite beyond the confession of Baptist theology that he purports to endorse. His openness to seeing the biblical office of apostleship in a new way is confusing, and his apparent support for women as elders and pastors is disturbing. First, Sergeant sees a “plurality of leadership” whereby every church member has some type of leadership position, among which he lists as “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” To this list, Sergeant adds the office of “shadow pastor” that most commonly was held by “schoolteachers, housewives without children at home, or retirees, because it required a period of two months when they could serve.” There was to be “no artificial distinction between clergy and laity,” and there was not any “minister class . . . separate from other believers.”(46) In other places, Sergeant notes that “if someone was an elder or leader in the church, then he or she was free, and in fact encouraged, to attend the weekday services of multiple congregations.” Again, Sergeant asserts that “in terms of effectiveness, there is no question that it is advantageous to utilize all potential leaders rather than less than half since more than half of the church worldwide is compose of women…” (47) Such statements validate a concern that practicality rather than biblical principles have shaped the church planting methodologies at the IMB. (48)

When it comes to Pentecostal theology, miracles, the use of the sign gifts, and power evangelism, Sergeant’s research reflects an openness that might concern generous portion of the Southern Baptist constituency. When asked by Sergeant about any “signs and wonders” in their work, field missionaries gave the following responses:

Signs and wonders were involved in an area of rapid growth in the southern part of the province. In the north central region two churches were started as a direct result of a dramatic and high profile exorcism . . . . There have also been some dramatic power encounters with Qigong in our area. These power encounters have been in opposition to direct demon possession or countering signs and wonders done by Qigong practitioners. These have positively affected the work as well since Qigong is so highly revered by the Exwyzeese people. (49)

The most effective [method in evangelism] is miracles. Several of the evangelists work has been accompanied by signs and wonders. When the evangelist performed miracles, people believed. (50)

It is commonly reported that two-thirds of believers in our area are there due to a healing (or other miracle) in their own life or in the life of a friend/family member. Every church leader I know tells stories of healings and miracles.(51)

[Signs and wonders are] still in the beginning stages, but all our church planters pray for healing and cast out demons when they begin working in an area. In several situations they are seeing very miraculous results. This has emboldened people to believe, if not convinced them outright. Often it is part of the overall witness that shows that the gospel is true. (52)

Signs and wonders have been very important in the work in the city. Healings are a major cause for Christian growth especially in the countryside. In our personal work, we have seen signs and wonders used to strengthen new believers faith. (53)

Other concerns about the possible influence and implementation of Pentecostal theology – whether signs and wonders, or ecstatic utterance, or forms of “spiritual warfare” that appropriate territorial spirits, animism, and possible instances of Manichaeism have been raised in the days since Sergeant’s work was first made available to a wider readership in Southern Baptist circles. The concerns continue to be the source of controversy within the board of trustees, and the source of suspicion and rumor about Rankin on the part of men like Patterson and Eitel and the trustees with whom they dialogue.

By November 2003, the trustees were becoming aware of Sergeant’s research, and the IMB administration launched an investigation into the allegations about Sergeant’s doctrinal compromises. Within a few months, Sergeant was replaced at the board and moved to begin working with the Saddleback Church in Southern California, leaving the board to wrestle with how to address some of the methodologies Sergeant had injected into the arm of Southern Baptist missions. I must give Rankin credit, because subsequent to Sergeant’s transition out, he has listened at every turn to my critique of Sergeant’s work. I have emailed him several times, and each time he has graciously responded with openness and honesty. Nevertheless, questions about the place of demographic, anthropological, and sociological analysis when that data conflicts with guiding Baptist confessions of faith remain difficult. These two – practical experience and theological parameters – remain in tension at every level of Baptist life, and trying to determine when and how such research can best be used is beyond the scope of this essay. I wish to conclude, however, with some reflections about the political conflict that has clouded the judgment and rendered more difficult the task of international missionary work for Southern Baptists.


(34) Sergeant writes: “Due to the highly interactive approach of the [training] sessions, there are ample opportunities to glean insights from each of the participants. The live-in nature of the training also lends itself to one-on-one interviews and discussions at meal times, and before and after class sessions. The maximum allowable class size is thirty individuals. The author [Sergeant] had extensive opportunities over the course of 1997-2001 as he was a primary co-trainer for 727 [strategy coordinators] and a resource person for the training of more than 150 others.” Sergeant, 14. In Sergeant’s own assessment, his instruction made for a “watershed event in the progress of the East Asia region.” Ibid., 16.

(35) Ibid., 28.

(36) Ibid., 39.

(37) Ibid., 42.

(38) Ibid., 43. Elsewhere, Sergeant makes a startling claim: “Finally, there is eschatological import to taking the gospel to all peoples. If believers are interesting in hastening the return of the Lord, then they must be about taking the message where it has not been heard.” Dissertation Absract, March 1997, 16.

(39) Ibid., 57.

(40) Ibid., 57-58.

(41) See above at note 23.

(42) Sergeant includes in his research a definition of the church that meets his criteria: “If there are baptized believers and who are concerned for outreach then we consider it to be a church. The size of the group or form of leadership do not figure into our criteria.” Ibid., 156. Other missionaries whom Sergeant interviewed stated their approach to defining a church: “First, let local people decide what a church is. If they are followers of Jesus Christ and followers of the word and wanted to call themselves a church, I would agree.” Ibid., 226.

(43) Ibid., 228.

(44) Ibid., 249.

(45) Ibid., 72.

(46) Ibid., 95.

(47) Ibid., 117.

(48) One of the field missionaries whom Sergeant interviewed for his research had this to say about women in leadership: “Typical church leaders share responsibility with at least one other person in the congregation. They may be either male or female.” Ibid., 157. Another missionary noted that “75-80 percent [of church leaders] are women.” Ibid., 227.

(49) The terms Qigong is undefined, and the people group “Eywyzeese” is an obvious obfuscation to “protect the identities” of field personnel. The degree of cloak-and-dagger secrecy at the IMB is useful for a strategic purpose, but quite ridiculous from an academic perspective. Ibid., 164.

(50) Ibid., 227.

(51) Ibid., 280.

(52) Ibid., 328.

(53) Ibid., 553.

3 thoughts on “Church Planting Movements and the Crisis of Power in the SBC, Pt. 6.

  1. Qigong is a very religious martial art form
    similar to Tai chi but with Idols and worshiping them, and so on.

  2. Ben,
    Your points on Curtis’s view of baptism as well as his view on women in the office of elder/pastor are well taken and are a legitimate concern.

    The rest of your critiques of CS show a lack of understanding of missiology and your cessationism based theology. Also, you overestimate CS’s influence. Guidelines on what is a church handed down by IMB trustees have much greater weight and influence than one missionary’s teaching and views no matter what his role or title.

    As one who knows KE well and who has had much interaction with Patterson, I think your views on their ultimate motivations are right on track. Page never wanted Rankin as president from the beginning. The most positive thing I can say about their actions related to Rankin is at least they have been consistent. They faught to keep Rankin from getting the job and have opposed him ever since!

    Waiting for part 7….

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