Last week, I took some time to review Darrin Patrick’s new book Church Planter.  Below is all three parts compiled in one place.

Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission by Darrin Patrick
(Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 238 pp. Buy: Amazon | WTS Bookstore
Reviewed by Tim Brister

The Man

One does not have to look far to discover the plethora of books in the world of church planting. However, the majority of these books focus on the pragmatics of church planting—systems, techniques, processes, etc. Wisdom has often been discovered not in those who have learned to give all the answers, but rather from those who have learned to ask the right questions. The burning question among most church planting books seems to be, “How to plant a church?” In his book, Church Planter, Darrin Patrick takes a completely different approach, starting with a different, and I would argue, more pertinent question. He begins by asking not how to plant a church but who should plant a church. The first section of his book seeks to answer this question with the end goal to find men who are “fit to carry the message of Jesus to the world” (103). Patrick’s focus and prayer is that there would be a resurgence of “godly men to serve the church by the power of God’s Spirit” (17). This theme runs throughout this section and in many ways lays out a template for discovering and assessing men according to God’s Word.

In Section One, Patrick provides seven leading characteristics of a man prepared to lead in gospel ministry. I say gospel ministry and not church planting because these characteristics can (and should) be applied to anyone seeking to pour their lives into the spread of the gospel through leadership in a local church. Patrick writes from the perspective of a planter and pastor, providing personal anecdotes and lessons from his own experiences. As vice-president of the Acts 29 Network, he also writes with a reference to the values, vision, and philosophy of this church planting network. One could argue that this book could be intended as a boot-camp-in-a-book for aspiring church planters.

Summary

Not only does Patrick begin by asking the right question, he also begins by answering that question with something that is so often assumed—the gospel. He writes, “Salvation is the first and most important qualification for Christian ministry. Without it, nothing else is possible, and if you go into ministry without it, you will ruin yourself and those you seek to serve” (26). While this may sound painfully elementary, the fact is that our generation has largely been raised on a truncated, man-centered gospel producing men seeking to plant efficient churches with an efficient gospel message that does not save. From his own observations, Patrick notes,

“I have found that the main question both liberals and conservatives often start with is not, Is this man a Christian? but rather, Can this man grow the church? This lead question is revealing and alerts us to one reason why there are so many men who are planting and leading churches, yet who do not have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ” (23).

In the following chapters, Patrick focuses on the calling and qualification of men, accessing great resources from the past (e.g., John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Richard Baxter, Charles Spurgeon et al.) to glean wisdom and practical application in the process of discovering such men. Patrick explains that the call is confirmed by the heart (deep, unavoidable desire) and head (understanding specific ministry calling), constituting the inward call, as well as skill confirmation constituting the outward call. Chapter three (qualified man) is essentially an exposition on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 wherein we find the most detailed list of biblical qualifications of an elder in the local church.

The remaining four characteristics in the first section are evenly divided between who the man is (dependent and determined) and what the man does (skillful and shepherding). Patrick is careful to emphasize our deep need for the indwelling presence and empowering work of the Holy Spirit in the man’s life. For instance, in the chapter on dependence, he argues that “our effectiveness in ministry depends directly on our dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit” (59). This is repeated in the call to persevere in pastoral ministry as he argues, “The only way you can endure in ministry is if you determine to do so through the prevailing power of the Holy Spirit” (94). The unifying theme among all seven characteristics seems to be that the Spirit of God controls the man in his character (who he is) and empowers the man in his calling (what he does).

The most significant contribution in this section clearly is his chapter on shepherding. When looking for the kind of men who are visionary, driven, entrepreneurial, and ambitious to plant churches, these very same men often find it hard to slow down, live in the trenches, and lovingly address problems in people’s lives. Perhaps they don’t see it as important of an investment as they should and would rather be training future leaders than rescuing straying sheep. But what Patrick points out that the pastoral care and genuine nurturing of the sheep are indeed great investments in the health and progress of the church. As one who is concerned the biblical call to shepherding is often given back seat to biblically unwarranted characteristics such as entrepreneurial aptitude, I am greatly encouraged to feel the weighty exhortation to care for those whom Christ died, knowing that the minister will give an account to God for how he shepherded them.

The most unique contribution would be the triperspectival approach to leadership in his chapter on being a skilled man. Based on the offices of Christ (prophet, priest, and king), this triperspectival approach has been popularized over the past five years but to my knowledge not been widely accessible in book format. Patrick argues that the three basic skills of being a pastor or church planter is leading (king), teaching (prophet), and shepherding (priest). One way to assess each perspective is to consider the questions each one answers. The prophet answers the what question (speaking God’s truth to God’s people); the priest answers the who question (considering who needs care, encouragement, counsel); and the king answers the how question (giving oversight to the systems and structures to accomplish the mission of the church). A very helpful section in this chapter is addressing the dangers of this approach to leadership. Patrick writes,

“Any church developing a leadership culture that incorporates the prophet, priest, king philosophy must avoid the temptation to view it as a personality test. Since Jesus was the perfect prophet, priest, and king, and since as believers we are becoming more like Christ, we should be growing in all these areas. Leaders, especially pastors, must not lock people (themselves included) so firmly into any of these categories that they limit the usefulness of the gifts God has given them to build up the church” (75).

Critique

There are a couple of nagging questions that linger that could Patrick could give further clarification and explanation. In his explanation about the man “desiring” the office of an elder in the heart confirmation of his calling, Patrick provides a strong description of how powerful that urge and compulsion is to serve God in ministry, and rightfully so. However, it seems that strong urge can easily (and quickly!) turn into ministry idolatry, or at least be used to justify it so. How does one fan into flame the desire within the heart confirmation without it consuming one’s entire life in ministry idolatry?

Another concern in the calling is the skill confirmation, in particular the questions to inspect the fruit of his ministry (39). These skills, albeit important to leadership in general, are not necessarily warranted in Scripture and therefore could be considered more accessory than essential. The kind of skills Scripture seems to emphasize are teaching/preaching, shepherding/overseeing, discipling/mentoring, evangelizing/witnesses, and praying/interceding. Perhaps it could have been better stated that the general skill set laid out (on page 39) are important but not essential while these that I have mentioned are both important and essential to a skilled workman called by God and confirmed by the church.

One final point to mention is the general influence of mysticism in Patrick’s experience. This is understandable and expected from a non-cessationist, yet the references to feelings and direct revelations from God could make some readers uncomfortable, especially regarding the sufficiency of Scripture and the relationship between the Word and Spirit. Nevertheless, a Reformed cessationist should not have a problem getting into the car Patrick is driving, so long as the seatbelt is securing fastened.

Conclusion

Overall, the first section on “The Man” is one that I see being incredibly useful to a number of people, including future church planters for self-assessment, networks for coaching and training, and pastors in general for raising up the next generation of men to be used by God to carry the gospel message in the power of the Spirit. I highly recommend you to pour through this section, answer the questions at the end of each chapter, and probe deeply into your heart and life, as I believe it will serve you and those you lead as well in the future.

The Message

The Apostle Paul, missionary and church planter, is someone practitioners reference in developing missional paradigms, approaches to cultural engagement, and philosophy of ministry. However, what is most significant in Paul’s missionary labors is the message he preached. In fact, he spoke very plainly when he told churches that the gospel of Jesus Christ was “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).  What matters more than Paul’s method was Paul’s message—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul was very clear about this and spent much of his letters to church plants explaining the gospel (Romans), defending/confirming the gospel (Galatians), and encouraging believers to remember and remain faithful to the gospel (Philippians). In the second section of his book, Darrin Patrick focuses on the gospel message with theological precision and practical exposition. This section represents well what the resurgence of gospel centrality looks like among the younger generation of evangelicals, and those looking for a concise yet profound summary of the nature of the gospel will be encouraged by what they find in this book.

Summary

The five chapters can be broken down in two categories: theological exposition and practical implication. What I really appreciate about Patrick’s treatment on the gospel is that he does not shrink back at any point. In his chapter on “The Historical Message,” he makes it very clear that the gospel message is historical, not mythical; objective, not just subjective; and public, not just private. He writes:

“Euangelion is the announcement of what God has done objectively in history, not just the subjective experience of one person. The gospel, then, is fundamentally an announcement: it is not just about who God is or what he might do, but about what God has done in history. The gospel is not good advice on how to reach up to God; rather, it is a declaration about what God has already done to reach down to us. It is good news about a historical event that changes everything” (111)!

In “Salvation-Accomplishing,” Patrick spells out the nature of the atonement, focusing primarily on penal substitution and double imputation. In it, he shows how Jesus died for God—to vindicate His righteousness, and how Jesus died for sinners—to redeem, reconcile, and rescue them from their sin. Laced with Scripture, Patrick ably guides the reader into the depths of the glorious great exchange, addressing such important doctrines as propitiation and expiation while emphasizing how the voluntary death of Jesus was efficacious to save to the uttermost all who believe in His name.

In “Sin-Exposing” Patrick focuses on the nature of wrath and sin—two topics very unpopular in our age of tolerance and relativism. Patrick gets Edwardsian speaking of God’s wrath against rebellious sinners, showing how their essence of sin is independence from God, the latter section addressing the relationship of law and gospel.  He explains:

“If there is no challenging of the sinful heart, there is no gospel preaching.  If there is no astonishment of the forgiveness of sins, there is no gospel preaching.  If there is no joy in Christ’s victory  over indwelling sin, there is no gospel preaching” (151).

The practical implications of the gospel are addressed in his chapters “Christ-Centered” and “Idol-Shattering.” The chapter on Christ-centered is an overview of redemptive history with a gospel-centered hermeneutic, as Jesus taught us that everything written was about him. Those familiar with the work of Goldsworthy, Greidanus, and Keller would particularly appreciate Patrick’s emphasis on Christ-centered preaching over and against unbiblical alternatives such as moralism, relativism, activism, and self-helpism.  Not only does Patrick emphasize the necessity of preaching Christ from all of Scripture, he shows how tragic and dangerous the alternatives are–many which exist today in evangelical pulpits.

The most lengthy and unique contribution in this section on the gospel is the chapter on “Idol-Shattering.” Much like the chapter on triperspectival leadership, the subject of idolatry as it relates to the gospel has been discussed rather frequently in recent years, and Patrick has done a great job summarizing what people mean when they speak of idolatry today. The fingerprints of Tim Keller’s writings can be seen throughout this chapter, and the explanation on surface and source idols (from Dick Keyes and Dick Kauffman) was a very helpful addition, especially since it is not easily accessible in today’s gospel literature. Though I am not particularly a fan of illustrations (as they often break down), I found Patrick’s trampoline illustration on repenting of idols an accurate depiction of what a high view of God and sin does when there is deep repentance and sincere faith regularly operating in gospel renewal and heart transformation.

Conclusion

Those who love the gospel will love the treatment Patrick has given to this all-important subject matter. For the theologians, you may be surprised to see references to the hypostatic union of Jesus and simul justus et peccator with sources such as John Stott, John Calvin, Richard Lovelace, Michael Horton, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. But for the practitioners wondering what is the usefulness of a robust understanding of the gospel in ministry, you will discover the essence of biblical preaching as fidelity to the gospel and its sufficiency having inexhaustible implications. In a day where the gospel is watered down, Patrick has kept it unfiltered by human sensibilities. During a time when gospel explanations are often fuzzy and unclear, Patrick has brought much needed clarity and profundity in our milieu. Of all the things a church planter needs to get right, nothing is more important than the gospel message, and I am grateful to see that indeed, Darrin Patrick gets it right.

The Mission

The first section of Church Planter answers the who question, the second section answers the what question, and the final section answers the how question—in particular how to be a church embracing God’s mission to reach the world. The remaining five chapters segue from text to context, from word to deed, and challenges church planters to match a robust orthodoxy with a vibrant orthopraxy.

It has been argued by leading missiologists like Ed Stetzer that the crucial issues in the 21st century will be found at the convergence of missiology and ecclesiology. While it may seem obvious, there is still a considerable debate as to what we are planting—i.e., what is the church. Churches take on various shapes and expresses, including micro (house church) and macro (megachurch), attractional and missional, and liturgical and contemporary. What Darrin Patrick does in the final section of his book is provide a healthy framework for thinking through the essence of the church, the posture of the church in culture, and the agenda of the church.

Darrin Patrick coaches us first on matters of the heart—having the same compassion for the lost that we see demonstrated in Jesus. He writes,

“We go on the mission of the Savior because we share the compassionate heart of the one who sees people as sheep without a shepherd” (176).

Patrick exposes ways in which our hearts are negatively affected, including busyness, hurriedness, self-righteousness, and self-protection, explaining how our participation in the mission is directly connected to the disposition of our hearts.

He proceeds secondly to matters of the mind—that is, how we should think about the church. Based on a working definition provided by Mark Driscoll in Vintage Church, Patrick unpacks eight elements of a New Testament church. Various models are described, including their strengths and weaknesses, while Patrick ultimately argues that none of the models are all that a church should be but rather be a “teaching, praying, awe-inspired, classless, possession-sharing community on mission” (190).

The chapter on contextualization address matters of the feet—how one engages the culture with a missionary posture. This chapter is perhaps the best summary explanation on contextualization in church planting literature, and I would argue the most important chapter in his book. Numerous definitions and descriptions are given from guys like Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, Ed Stetzer, Graeme Goldsworthy, and Mark Driscoll. Here are some worth noting:

“Contextualization is speaking to people with their terms, not on their terms” (195).

“Contextualization is not giving people what they want but rather it is giving God’s answers to questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend” (ibid.).

“A good preacher must be able to exegete not only the text but also the culture of the hearers in order to be a faithful and fruitful missionary. We are to bring the gospel through the church to the world and avoid allowing the world to influence the church and corrupt the gospel” (196).

“There is no universal, de-contextualized form or expression on Christianity” (ibid.).

“We take the unchanging gospel into the ever-changing culture so that persons in a specific time and a specific culture can comprehend the truth of the gospel and be saved by it” (207).

In his defense of contextualization, Patrick shows how God in redemptive history reverses the Tower of Babel at the event of Pentecost and accommodates Himself to His audience by giving us Scripture. He then proceeds to show how both Jesus and Paul practiced contextualization to make the gospel known and understood.

Patrick follows up with matters of the hands—how a church practically engages their community through mercy ministry, social justice, and other forms of deeds emphasis. The majority of this chapter is taken up in narrative form, sharing how his church (The Journey) has sought to care for their city with a hands-on approach.

The final chapter lies at the heart of Acts 29 and much of modern church planting directives—reach urban centers and seeing cities transformed by the gospel. Based on the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28) and God’s direction to His people under Babylonian captivity (Jer. 29:4-7), Patrick argues for a perspective that is much broader than a church. He argues that churches should have a vision for the city. Although a much debated topic today, Patrick positively argues that churches should seek to redeem the culture by doing good deeds, being a blessing to the city, and engaging in all aspects of culture.

Critique

Darrin Patrick has written an excellent book, but there are a few matters of concern and critique. In the section on the man, I was somewhat surprised to find little attention give to the marriage and family life of the church planter. This was briefly addressed in the “qualified man” but given that so much stress and pressure placed on marriages and families, I believe this is a significant section missing in assessing the man called to plant a church. How a man leads his wife and children in apply the gospel, leading in family worship and devotions, and shepherding them through changes, difficult circumstances, and adversity is very indicative of how he will lead a congregation. Furthermore, how a church planter orders his life with God-prescribed priorities (personal devotion, wife, children, then church) is vital to the health of the church planter and the church he seeks to lead.

On the nature of the church, I question whether it is helpful to describe models of the church in such generalizations (187-89). On the hands of mission, Patrick says relatively little about the basis and integration of deed ministry in relation to the Word. I would have liked to have seen Patrick wrestle with the tension of orthodoxy and orthopraxy and in particular how one’s theological influences their methodology. On the issue of city transformation, Patrick asserts

“The basis for the Christian desire for the city to be renewed culturally, socially and spiritually is rooted in the past through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the future rising of all believers in Christ” (235).

This is a significant and controversial claim to make, and while I generally agree with his premise, concluding his book with such a bold assertion without significant warrant left me wanting Patrick to unpack this for us.

Conclusion

Over the past three years, I have had the privilege of getting know Darrin Patrick and the church he has planted. I can attest firsthand that he is the real deal, and this book is a tremendous offering from his life born out of his own gospel labors. While I can be charged with presumption to claim this book with play a leading role in training church planters in my generation, I don’t believe I’m far off in that prediction. There is simply no other book around with the same starting point, same emphasis on the gospel, and same level of healthy thinking about the church than Church Planter. It will be a required reading for future church planters both in the PLNTD network and future church planters being trained in local churches. May our Lord who promised to build His church be pleased to use this tool to tweak and train God-called men on mission for the advance of His kingdom through planting healthy reproducing churches!