The old mind-boggler asks, "Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?"
Now let's for a moment make the chicken a church and the egg a disciple. Does the disciple make the church, or the church the disciple? Further, which is the goal of the missionary? Since Jesus told us simply to "make disciples" (Matthew 28:20), should we consider that our ultimate mandate? Alternatively, since Paul and gang had this habit of forming churches (eg. Titus 1:5), should we make church-planting our final aim?
My not-so-profound answer would be that disciples form churches which make disciples which form churches which make disciples... and that is our task.
Plenty could be said about the biblical, practical and doxological value of the church - the gathered community of disciples - as, among other things, a mechanism for ongoing disciple-making. It was Jesus' idea, and can't be improved on!
But whatever else we could say about this riddle, it is clear that chickens don't give birth to chickens, rather, they lay eggs out of which chickens hatch.
What's the point of this? In my experience we have often conceived of church planting as churches planting churches rather directly. A church may pick a meeting spot in a town where a lot of our folks commute from, hire a pastor, hang out a sign, and announce a new church. They may have a plan to do that five times in the next ten years.
Without wrangling over terms, and without belittling a strategy which is not wrong and may very well be appropriate in certain contexts, let me stress that it's easy to leave out something rather vital in all this chicken-making: The egg -- or -- disciples and disciple-making. Disciples form churches as they need to. Churches which seek disciples later may find themselves attracting sheep from other folds rather than breaking new ground in the Great Commission.
On an unreached field, churches are planted when disciples are gathered. So what we call church-planting here starts with making disciples, because there aren't any yet, or very few. They form churches as they discover its place in the "all things" they are being taught to obey (Matt. 28:20).
It could be fruitful to take some of the same assumptions back to our home neighborhoods. Let's say a few families get busy in a nearby trailer park sharing Jesus through word and deed. The Spirit visits and a group of people come to faith. What now? Maybe they join your church. Or maybe because of distance geographically, culturally or socially, or just out of strategy to stay where they are, they form a new church, in a house, a storefront, or somewhere else. It happens, and it is church planting in a classic - might I say Book of Acts - sense.
The takeaways? Believe in God for new things, not only reshuffled things. Believe it for a nation whose percentage of Christians shrunk seven percentage points since 2007. Think of disciple-making as the centerpiece of church-planting. Make disciples in community with the support of your church in new neighborhoods and new communities, and get braced for the chance that the Spirit will blow and new churches will multiply to accommodate new disciples. Pray for us and others laboring among the unreached to set the right targets and avoid the wrong shortcuts so as to participate in this blessed and divinely-sanctioned business of making disciples which hatch into churches where there are none.