Lessons from one of the first CPM’s in Cambodia

Five years ago I watched a little youtube video that completely changed my life and redirected my approach to ministry. This is that video:

The video introduced me to the idea of Church Planting Movements (CPM), or rather the development of Disciple Making Movements (DMM) that lead to Church Planting Movements. I got the book that was behind the video (Church Planting Movements by David Garrison) and it started a major paradigm shift in my thinking. One of the CPM’s in Asia mentioned in at the beginning of the video was started by a Southern Baptist missionary in Cambodia named Bruce Carlton. Here is what David Garrison says about the DMM Bruce started in Cambodia:

Instead of planting a church himself, as had previously been his custom, the missionary began a mentoring relationship with a Cambodian layman. Within a year, he had drawn six Cambodian church planters into his mentoring circle. In 1993, the number of Baptist churches grew from six to 10. The following year, the number doubled to 20. In 1995, when the number of churches reached 43, the Cambodian church leaders formed an association of like-minded churches which they called the Khmer Baptist Convention (subsequently changed to the Cambodian Baptist Convention). The following year, the number of churches climbed to 78. In 1997, there were 123 Baptist churches scattered across 53 of the country’s 117 districts. By the spring of 1999, Baptists counted more than 200 churches and 10,000 members.

I have 21Wed2NI6-Lsince read much about CPM and DMM, but wasn’t aware that Bruce Carlton had written anything on the subject. Therefore when I came across a book written by him (Amazing Grace: Lessons on Church Planting Movements From Cambodia by R. Bruce Carlton) I had to get a copy. Unfortunately, the book is not available in digital format and is out of print, but used copies can be found.

The book is certainly not a textbook on DMM or CPM. It is really just a book about his experiences from his 7 years as a missionary in Cambodia. However, that 7 years of ministry resulted in an amazing harvest of souls and numbers of churches planted, and I felt there must be some nuggets of wisdom hidden in those stories. I was not disappointed. Three characteristics of DMM that leads to a CPM came through loud and clear as he told the stories. (1) He recognized the need to focus not on doing ministry or planting churches himself, but rather on discipling a few men and women who would become the church planters and who would disciple others in the 2 Timothy 2:2 paradigm of ministry. In other words, his focus was on multiplication through making disciples that make disciples. (2) His emphasis on prayer as the only way to find those people to invest his life in (what some CPM practitioners call “persons of peace” based on Luke 10). (3) His emphasis on obedience based discipleship and involving the disciple in hands on practice. Teach something. Wait for the disciple to put it into practice or teach it to others. Then teach some more. I will just place some quotes from the book that will give you an idea of what made all the difference and resulted in an amazingly fruitful ministry.

In early 1993 I had the opportunity to sit at the feet of a man who, in a sense, would become my mentor for the next several years. While in my home one day, this man spoke the following words of wisdom to me, words that would reshape and refocus our entire approach to church planting in Cambodia. He said, “Most people working cross-culturally usually ask themselves, ‘How can I reach these people with the gospel?’ This question narrows their vision and places the responsibility of the enormous task on their own shoulders, as if they were the ones who had to do it all. What we should ask ourselves is, ‘What is it going to take to evangelize these people?’ This question broadens our vision and opens new opportunities in that we no longer carry the burden by ourselves. We realize that there are more resources out there than just us. One key is figuring out how to multiply yourself. If you must plant every church yourself, in a good year you may be able to plant three or four churches. However, if in that one year you multiply yourself in the lives of three or four men, they may be able to start three or four times more churches in one year.”

and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses

entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2:2

I soon began to pray, “Lord, raise up some men and women in whom I can invest my life — those who have the desire to reach their own people with the gospel of hope and who have the burden to plant Cambodian Churches.” I did not know what God was going to do. I did not know from where God would call those whom I could mentor, but I tried to keep the faith that God in His wisdom would provide. I prayed, “Lord, I only want to work with the men and women whom you have called for this task…. I will not actively seek out those for this task. Lord, send them to me.” Within several months, the Lord raised up the first man.

The first man the Lord raised up for Bruce to disciple was a man named Rith.

Each week, I went to Rith’s home, and our studies focused on one step in the church-planting process. I always instructed Rith that before he could learn the next step in the process he must teach the material to another person. From the beginning, I tried to instill the concept of 2 Timothy 2:2 into Rith’s life.

I am not criticizing other cross-cultural workers, but I am reflecting on a truth that God revealed to me about my own life and ministry through my work with Rith. For example, in the beginning I sometimes treated the Khmer believers as children who were not capable of making decisions. I also expected them to consult with me about where to start new churches and became upset when they did not do so. I have witnessed many such paternalistic patterns in cross-cultural work and found none of them ever to be truly successful. I had to abandon my paternalistic patterns of dealing with Cambodians. This involved daily checks on my words and actions as I worked alongside the Khmer people. This is a continuing process. As I checked my words and actions, God did teach me increasingly more about the capabilities of the Khmer believers. Consequently, I shared with Rith another vision I had for the ministry in Cambodia. The vision was that every church birthed out of our church planting ministry would be birthed and led by Cambodians….. To this day, every Khmer Baptist Church started in Cambodia through this church-planting ministry or through the Khmer Baptist Convention has been started and led by Khmer men and women.

In 1994, I traveled to Battambang Province to visit churches in that area and to do some work with one of the local church planters working there. When we arrived in Battambang, several church leaders asked me to conduct a baptismal service for them because they did not know how to do it. My conviction was that only national believers should be involved in church leadership, so I refused to baptize the new believers. However, I did agree to teach the church leaders how to conduct a baptismal service. Then the church leaders themselves would be responsible for baptizing their own people.

The common qualification they shared was not capability but availability. These Cambodians have given themselves to God to be used of Him. One of the greatest blessings I received through the ministry God gave me in Cambodia was the realization that the same Holy Spirit who lives and works in my life is the same Holy Spirit who lives and works in in the lives of my Cambodian brothers and sisters. All of the churches that I have been a part of planting through the ministry in Cambodia have been planted by and are being led by Cambodian people themselves.

Some said that it cannot be done this way. They told me that Cambodians were not ready to lead these congregations. They said that the Cambodians were not spiritually mature enough to handle the responsibility. I refused to believe them. Many of these naysayers were measuring the capability of the Cambodian brothers and sisters according to our Western ideas. I saw what God could do and was doing in the lives of so many Cambodian people. I learned that the Holy Spirit does not work according to our Western thinking. The Holy Spirit works as He always has, calling out committed people who make themselves available.