David Lipscomb wrote a wonderful biography of Tolbert Fanning which was published in Franklin College and Its Influences (Nashville: McQuiddy Printing, 1906). There are many historical gems in this piece, especially concerning the history of the Nashville Church. One particular theme struck me as I read through it again.
After Philip Slater Fall, who had led the church into the Restoration Movement in 1827, left the Nashville Church in 1831, it was led by the elders of the church. The congregation practiced mutual edification and equipped while Tolbert Fanning and Absalom Adams were supported as Evangelists from 1832 to 1836. An “Evangelist” at that time was not the “local preacher,” but one supported to evangelize in the community and region. They were supported to plant churches. The Nashville Church planted, through Fanning, Adams, its elders and others, congregations at Franklin, South Harpeth, Hannah’s Ford, Sam’s Creek, Burnet, Philippi, Sycamore, and other places in the surrounding counties (pp. 48-49).
One of the disappointing aspects of the hiring of Jesse B. Ferguson in 1846 the church became consumed with their lead pastor and the congregation lost its equipping and church planting fervor, according to Lipscomb and Fanning.
When the congregation fell apart–falling from 600 members–it was reorganized with only a couple of dozen members. They asked P. S. Fall to return and he arrived in 1858. By the Civil War the congregation was around 200 about half of what it was when Fall left in 1831. Fall assumed the role of Pastor in th church such that, as Lipscomb remembers it, there were few who would even lead a prayer or give thanks at the table in the congregation. Fall did all the “public work” (p. 58).
This focus is problematic for Lipscomb. To his knowledge in the forty years since the end of the Civil War this pastor-led church “has not sent out a preacher or planted a church” (p. 60). In contrast, Lipscomb began meeting with others in the “suburbs of the city” in 1865 (p. 59). This congregation and its daughters have since established “about twenty churches in the city and suburbs.” The old, established congregation failed to multiply whereas the new plants multiplied.
How did Lipscomb account for the difference? The established downtown church employed a pastor who “preached to it, conducted the worship, and [drew] large audiences composed of talented, wealthy, and fashionable people.” This situation encourages a passivity such that “a church with wealth and numbers and talent and social position and attractive entertainments will be a helpless church” (p. 60).
Lipscomb thinks there is a better model. He planted churches among the “working classes, accustomed to doing their own work at home, and ready to do what was needed to keep te worship alive in their midst.” If churches are to grow and mature spiritually, they must do their own work rather than support “a preacher to minister to and for them” (p. 59). Church planting results when congregations focus on equipping members rather than supporting preachers, according to Lipscomb.
If a congregation among the “common people” is to support a preacher, then they will never “become self-supporting,” and this is unacceptable. “Christ intended his religion for the poor, adapted it to their necessities, and it is a perversion of the church of Christ to so change its character that it cannot live without money from wealthy churches” (pp. 59-60).
Let the church be the church, Lipscomb pleads. “The common people can do their own work at home and can sound the gospel out as no other people can” (p. 60).
Lipscomb believed that he followed Fanning on this points. He summarizes Fanning’s church planting method in this way:
The result of his teaching on the subject of the members doing the work of the church without a regular preaching or pastor was the establishment of a great number of churches in the towns and counties of Tennessee in which the entire services were conducted by the members of the churches; and a preacher was called in only to hold a protracted meeting. This in its beginning does not make a show before the world, nor is it attractive to those who seek entertainment; but it educates the members of the church in the study of the Bible and the practical performance of all the duties connected with the worship and work of the church. This is the best education of the members of the church that they can receive. No one can be said to properly understand a thing until he puts it into practice. No idea or sentiment is made his own until he practices it. The best and most sacred truths, although he may approve and admire them, do not enter into the make up of his character until he practices them in his life; so the reading, commenting on the Scriptures, praying, exhorting, and teaching others is much more effective teaching to those doing this work than hearing others.