The first major message of this book is to understand missional. Establishing a missional church means that you plant a church that's part of the culture you're seeking to reach. Since, in some cases, many will be hard-core emerging postmodern communities, this doesn't mean that the term postmodern can never be used. Thus, the mind-set of your mission field may be postmodern, but your methodology is still missional. Because we've heard so much about planting postmodern churches, we've come to think that's the goal. It's not. The goal of church planting is to reach people. They may be postmodern in their thinking, or they may be Korean or African American or young families or established professionals or counter-cultural or baby boomers or combinations of the above.
In most cases they will be combinations. In North America today, we have such a rapidly growing and changing population that church planters can't afford to target such a specific niche that we miss one part of a mission field in favor of another. And that's the tricky part, understanding the complicated fabric our society is weaving without becoming overwhelmed. For no church planter can do it all. You may gain a better understanding of families than singles. You may adapt methods that appeal more to young professionals than to retirees. But by learning about the components of the mission field around you, reaching at least some of them as effectively as you can, adapting your approaches while remaining faithful to the gospel—all of this is missional.
So, congratulations, reader, you're not only a church planter but a missionary! And can you see how we've come to this? At the same time we're experiencing rapid population shifts, we're seeing enormous changes in attitudes, in worldviews. It's possible to be a missionary without ever leaving your zip code. And that's a good thing because it helps you understand better than ever the second major message of this book, which is how the incarnation relates to church planting.
Missional is the posture—the way in church we approach people in culture—but incarnational describes what's actually happening. Just as Christ came to live among us, we dwell with the people around us. In many ways, we're like them. But we're changed, transformed; and because of that, we seek to change and transform. The concept of being incarnational as it relates to church planting emphasizes the importance of relationships in effective church planting. It's not about establishing a location for worship; it's about establishing a basis for coming together in the first place. Good church planting depends on good relationships.
It also depends on solid theology, which is the third major message. Relevance to the culture should never clash with the power of the gospel. There is much theological revisioning right now; some people are, in the name of missional thinking, abandoning basic theological messages. However, this book is not that book. Bible-based theology is the foundation for a successful church plant. No apologies for that!
The fourth major message is expressed in the word ecclesiological; the church matters. We know this because the New Testament is full of descriptions of how to transform the culture. The examples are all based on churches. Believers come together in churches, becoming stronger as individuals and as a body, with the goal of becoming the body, which in turn can transform the culture. That does not mean that the goal of a church is a brick building, large group, or incorporation. Yet the biblical idea and model of church does matter and is the goal of church planting. Church matters.
Fifth, today's successful church planter is spiritual—focused on spiritual formation. This may sound like a no-brainer (and perhaps it should be). But to be realistic about the state of church planting in North America, let's admit something: many church planters are by nature entrepreneurs, mavericks, free spirits, sometimes even misfits. (Thank God he can use cracked pots.) That energy can be harnessed and focused to be used for God's glory but only if the church planter is Christ-centered and transformed by the power of the gospel. In other words, a newcomer needs to leave the church being amazed by the awesome God the church planter serves, not what a cool preacher the church has.
I can relate to all these messages and more. I've come a long way myself and am still learning.
Today's Church Planter Should Be
My own experience in church planting began in June 1988. I'd just graduated from college with an undergraduate degree in natural sciences. I arrived in Buffalo, New York, ready to start my first church. I was twenty-one years old and had a vision to reach the entire city but little experience and no training. I didn't know it then, but desire wasn't enough. The church was not the great success I thought it would be. Although the church grew and we saw people changed by the power of the gospel, I could have avoided countless mistakes with proper training.
When I was planting this church, our district association was strategiz-ing to plant seven new churches within three years. The church I started in inner-city Buffalo, Calvary Christian, continues to this day with a faithful part-time pastor who was a layman at Calvary when the church started eighteen years ago. It is not a large church, but it is a faithful church in an area known for drugs and prostitution, and it is now planting a French-speaking African church in its facility.
Only one other district church plant from that time is still alive. It is a small church that took over the property of another church to survive. (One other church started, died, then restarted with a different name and location.) So an ambitious church-planting effort that began with great enthusiasm dwindled to a whimper. Discouraged and demoralized, our church planting supervisor left the area and then the ministry. Untrained and discouraged pastors left the field for better salaries and better possibilities in established churches elsewhere.
My first attempt at church planting did not struggle because of lack of effort. I wore out my knuckles knocking on doors. With the help of partnership churches, we contacted tens of thousands of residents to start Calvary, canvassing neighborhoods, ringing doorbells, talking to people on their front stoops and porches. When Calvary decided to sponsor a new congregation, Lancaster Bible Church, we did so with what we assumed was an innovative strategy, using billboards. The team generated many ideas and worked hard hours, but little success followed. (That church later died and was restarted.)
At this time in western New York and across North America, some strategies had succeeded. Successful church plants had shared their methods of success with others. Practices such as direct mail, telemarketing campaigns, and large grand openings had appeared infrequently but had become hot topics of discussion. At the first church I started, we began a direct-mail campaign and experienced some success. This piqued my interest in new techniques. However, many of these early methods no longer work as well as they once did, as I discovered in my next church plant (Millcreek Community Church, Erie, Pennsylvania) and the one I'm currently involved in planting (Lake Ridge Church, Cumming, Georgia). The rapidly changing cultural landscape requires that we use different methods to reach different communities.
More important, many of us in church planting have begun to realize that some things need to change in our field of work. When I think about the churches I planted, I have to say that I missed a lot of the key values discussed in this book. When I planted Calvary Christian Church at the age of twenty-one, I must confess that the church was more about me than it was missional and spiritual. When I planted Millcreek Community Church and its daughter churches, we were more attractional than incarna-tional and not particularly theological or ecclesiological. Simply put, much of this book is birthed out of the struggle and failure of church planting. Hopefully, we have learned enough that Lake Ridge will reflect more of the character of Christ than the character of our planting team.
Today much more material on church planting is available, and it's catching the interest of evangelicals. Church planting conferences meet regularly with hundreds in attendance. Thousands of Web sites are devoted to church planting. (Only two years ago, a Google search produced 244,000; now I find 940,000 entries.) My own church planting Web site received more than six thousand hits per month. Many evangelical denominations have placed a renewed emphasis on the subject. My employer, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, has committed to plant eleven thousand new churches by the year 2010. Other denominations have adopted similarly aggressive strategies. That's good news, particularly when it's partnered with better biblical foundations than in years past.
In spite of this, some people in church circles are not enthusiastic about this new emphasis on church planting. They misunderstand the purposes and intentions of church planters and new church starts. Perhaps they don't realize that God calls ordinary people to reach the lost among them, mistakenly thinking church planting is a task only for great visionary pastors who can go where no one has gone before. To others church planting is an alternative so that problem pastors can start their own churches without meddlesome lay leaders. And still others see church planting as a waste of valuable time and money, resources that could be used to revitalize declining churches. Finally, some see church planting as merely a way of stealing members from nearby churches.
While these problems may be true in some instances, the goal of mis-sional church planting is glorifying God, growing his kingdom, and developing healthy churches with new converts. It's a godly, even respectable, goal; and the respect should go both directions. Nearby churches may be older, smaller, and more traditional; but they've paved the way for new churches to move ahead. And missional church planters focus on the Great Commission by reaching the unchurched, not by seeking to attract area Christians.
Church planting is essential. Without it Christianity will continue to decline in North America. According to easumbandy.com: "Studies show that if a denomination wishes to reach more people, the number of new churches it begins each year must equal at least 3% of the denomination's existing churches. Based on this formula, mainline denominations are failing to plant enough churches to offset their decline." Without church planting, denominations will decline; but more important, the number of Christians will continue to decline. In fact, the few denominations that are growing attribute their growth to the increase in ethnic church plants. This shows that new populations to North America are being reached, which we celebrate, but established populations are not.
For denominations (or any partnership of churches) church planting is essential. The Reformed Church in America commissioned a study to find why some denominations grew and others did not. They studied nine evangelical denominations. Their first observation on the list explained that:
All denominations surveyed placed church planting as a very important, if not the number one, strategy for evangelism.... The fact is, starting a new ethnic congregation or focusing on a particular generation in a new start is much easier than trying to change the culture of an established congregation.
As for the objection about using resources to revitalize dying churches versus planting new ones, my belief is that both emphases are necessary. We want to see dying churches revitalized. God has allowed me the privilege of leading four churches through the process of revisioning, and it's a wonderful experience. But we must also start new churches.
Objections to church planting? Let's dig deeper, and find out what's really going on.
How did Christianity change from a faith spread primarily through church planting to a faith in which church planting is rare, sometimes even controversial?
One answer is that, as congregations become established and mature, the people who've invested themselves in those churches become protective, even wary of new ideas that might threaten the status quo. A new church plant—with all its excitement, attention, and buzz—seems like a competitor instead of a welcome newcomer. And why not? It's nice to be comfortable, isn't it? Protection and security are natural human tendencies. (Does your mother want her hard-earned retirement money invested in secure bonds and CDs or in a high-tech start-up company run by a bunch of twenty-somethings?)
But many pastors understand the need for, let's say, a charismatic, Presbyterian, and Baptist church in each community to serve the needs of members in these denominations. Yet many of those same pastors are hesitant to plant another church similar to their own in the same geography even though a different music style or congregational approach might reach an entirely different population segment. It could be competition, they reason. Worse, it might make the older church seem tired and out-of-date by comparison.
That attitude can spread like the flu. Laypeople in established and perhaps traditional churches who genuinely have a heart for reaching the lost in, for example, Asia or Africa sense that their pastor or other powers-that-be are uncomfortable and suspicious of the neighboring church start. So they become wary as well. What can those people be doing over there? The music is loud, and, well, they don't even meet in a proper church with an organ or a steeple. The reason for the change, engaging in mission among a new people, is missed. Ironically, they're completely on board with sharing the gospel in the language of a tribe of people in a faraway land, but they don't realize that same missionary tactic would be useful right there in Anytown, North America. And they certainly don't drop in just to see what's going on—like you might try that new restaurant your brother-in-law recommended—because that could be seen as disloyal to the church where they've invested so much of themselves. So the more they circle the wagons, the less they learn about missional church planting. And the cycle continues.
Critics of church planting usually don't voice their objections in such a straightforward manner. They typically raise a predictable series of objections. Here are a few.
1. Large-church mentality. For many the idea of one large church is more attractive than multiple churches. Large churches have the resources and programs to be full-service congregations. Thus, many leaders think the most efficient denominational strategy is to help medium churches become large churches.
Despite this bigger-is-better mentality, statistics do not support the assumption that size is necessarily the best way to reach people. Though large churches are often more cost effective than small churches, new churches are more effective than large churches, particularly in evangelism. On a per-capita basis, new churches win more people to Christ than established churches. Bruce McNichol explained the findings of his research in Interest magazine:
Clearly, the newer a congregation, the more effective that church is in reaching those who don't know Christ.
If we know new churches reach more people per capita and if we value reaching the unchurched, we must conclude that the most effective method of evangelism is planting. And it's gaining new attention because it's a biblical method that works.
2. Parish-church mind-set. Both the large-church mentality and the parish-church mind-set limit the number of churches possible in an area. The large-church mentality focuses on developing larger congregations for a region. As described earlier, the parish-church mind-set advocates the presence of only one denominational church for a region.
A parish is simply a geographical region (Louisiana still calls its counties "parishes"). A denominational parish has historically been defined as a region needing only one church to meet the spiritual or congregational needs of its people in that area. This has its roots in Europe. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians formally follow the parish model when planning the placement of new churches, and most other denominations follow it informally. They expect one church to meet the denominational and spiritual needs of a specific area. Proposals for new churches meet resistance because a church already exists in the area proposed for a new congregation. That resistance shows the parish-church mind-set: if a denomination has one church in a "community," the denomination has sufficiently reached that community, or so the thinking goes.
Parish mentality is a primary reason the church-to-population ratio is declining. Churches often die because people move out of rural areas to urban and suburban settings. Yet new churches may not be started in the new urban and suburban area because they're too close to other established churches of the same denomination. This and other factors have caused a decline in the church-to-population ratio.
Our Research Team at the North American Mission Board recently recalculated the church-to-population ratio based on statistics from the U.S. Census.
In 1900, the Census Bureau counted 212,000 churches. In 2000, the number of churches that existed in the United States was 349,506. In other words, the number of churches increased just over 50 percent while the population of the country has almost quadrupled. This decline in church-to-population ratio helps to explain the decline of the North American church during the past century. It's frustrating to evangelicals. At a minimum we should attempt to keep up with the population, but if we are truly to reach people in culture, we should want to do much more!
3. Professional-church syndrome. One of the greatest hindrances to church planting in North America is the notion that all churches must have seminary-trained pastors to be legitimate. My personal belief is that seminary education is important in helping provide doctrinal stability, ministry skills, and spiritual depth. My point, however, is that years of academic training are not necessary to start a church. In fact, waiting for a seminary-trained pastor in many cases delays God-called people from starting a church. (Now that I've said this, I'll point out that I take a high view of education, having taught at seminary and having personally earned two masters degrees and two doctorates. However, I stick to my guns on this. My educational choices are my own. Many well-qualified and highly successful church planters I know—in fact, most of them—made different educational choices.)
Roland Allen concluded that evangelistic growth in new churches is often inversely proportional to educational attainment. Allen believed the more education a pastor had, the less effective he likely he would be in the evangelistic task.
With the increased professionalization (education) of the clergy, church planting has suffered. Seminary-trained pastors often expect full-time salaries provided by established churches. During their years of education, seminarians sometimes accumulate significant debt that makes impossible either (1) bivocationalism (having two jobs, one ministry and one secular) or (2) volunteer ministry. On the other hand denominational leaders often consider pastoral candidates without seminary training to be ineligible or unprepared to plant new churches. These biases hurt church planting.
However, both history and present-day practices of several faith groups tell another story. American history records that lay preachers effectively planted many Baptist and Methodist churches along the American frontier. Today charismatic and Pentecostal churches encourage "anointed" persons, regardless of their level of theological training, to start churches. It's not surprising that Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, and Open Bible Standard churches are some of the most effective church-planting denominations in North America today. This is specifically because of their openness to using God-called, though not formally trained, leaders in founding new churches. (I caution that doctrinal error easily emerges in movements that don't provide adequate basic theological training. Wise denominations provide a middle option: offering training by extension for interested lay leaders and bivocational pastors.)
If we limit ourselves by assuming that pastors and church planters must be seminary graduates in order to plant new churches, we may never reach some areas of North America, such as expansive apartment complexes, mobile home villages, marinas, townhouse communities, and sparsely populated rural areas. Because of conditions such as poverty, transience, size, etc., many of these areas cannot support a "professional" seminary-trained pastor expecting a full-time salary. However, let's look more closely at the opportunities for evangelism and church planting in settings such as these, which experts call "multihousing" communities. By even conservative estimates, approximately 40 percent of United States residents (more in Canada) live in multihousing communities, yet only 5 percent of them (in the U.S. that's an estimated 5,000,000 of 100,000,000 persons!) have any significant connection with any kind of church. This population segment constitutes the largest unreached people group in North America. According to www.onmission.com, 60 percent of the unchurched in North America live in multihousing communities. Most of the people who will go into such communities and plant churches will not have spent seven years in college and seminary.
Obviously, the professional-church syndrome is a difficulty which denominations must overcome while simultaneously providing theologically sound and practical training for church planters.
4. Rescue-the-perishing syndrome. This is the idealistic assumption that denominations should first rescue dying churches before planting new ones. Every church planter has heard the objection: Why should we start new churches when so many struggle and die? However, saving dead and dying churches is much more difficult and ultimately more costly than starting new ones. Some authorities even argue that changing a rigid, tradition-bound congregation is almost impossible. As Lyle Schaller has indicated, even if it is possible, nobody knows how to do it on a large-scale basis. Starting new churches is much easier and, perhaps, a better overall stewardship of kingdom resources, just as it's sometimes more cost-effective to purchase a new vehicle, rather than pouring money into an old one to keep it running like new. (Embracing a church's history and legacy is important, but the church cannot lose its mission and direction without developing some serious oil leaks and knocks under the hood.)
The ideal strategy, of course, is to do both—help revitalize dying churches and simultaneously plant new churches. Stuart Murray addresses the issue well: "Current initiatives to plant thousands of new churches are ill-conceived unless these are accompanied by a significant reversal of the decades of decline.... There is no empirical evidence to support such an expectation at present."
Murray proposes, and I agree, that we need a strategy to revitalize established churches and, at the same time, to plant thousands of new churches. He explains: "Churches have been leaking hundreds of members each week for many years. Planting more of these churches is not a mission strategy worth pursuing. But planting new kinds of churches may be a key to effective missions and a catalyst for the renewal of existing churches."
Church revitalization does not happen much, but it does happen sometimes. I have been struck by how infrequently it actually occurs. During a recent breakfast conversation with Len Sweet, Len explained to me that recent studies show that nine of ten people who are told by doctors to "change or die" cannot do so. In other words, they are told to stop smoking, lose weight, or quit drinking in order to survive, and nine of ten die rather than change. Churches are similar; they often choose their traditions over their future. But some can and do change.
Let's look at an example—Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, formerly named Homestead Heights Baptist Church. HHBC was an older church in Durham that fit the description of many Baptist churches in the area. Under Pastor J. D. Greear the church has seen some major revitaliza-tion. It had always been a large church, but as the Durham community changed around it, coupled with some internal issues, the church rapidly declined in attendance. J. D. began as the youth pastor at this church, but a few years ago they called him to lead in a fresh direction as pastor.
Changing the church's name to Summit, they did much more than change their marquee. They started becoming intentionally missional in how they operated. In fact, the church recently sold its large, historic building to start meeting in a high school. This approach may seem backward to many traditional churches, but Summit Church considers it a great opportunity to become mobile and look for a location that will better suit their mission. As a church that's developed an intensely missional mindset, they're not only involved in starting and partnering with new churches and ministries overseas; they're also taking the same missional approach at home. Their once-dwindling attendance is now more than fifteen hundred and growing.
Summit is just one example. The point, of course, is that both revital-ization and new church planting are needed. Unfortunately, many who call for the revitalization of dying churches do so while also finding "convincing" objections to church planting. We need strategies to revitalize those churches which desire change. We also need to plant thousands of new churches throughout North America. If growing the kingdom is our ultimate objective, we must admit that one can't be accomplished without the other.
5. Already-reached myth. Among the strongest myths that discourage church planting is the flawed understanding that the United States and Canada are already evangelized. Certainly North American Christians have access to abundant resources of information. Evangelicals have been reading Larry Burkett for financial information, listening to James Dobson for advice on raising children, singing along with Third Day, and purchasing fiction by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. But unchurched persons in North America remain generally untouched by this evangelical subculture and abide in darkness because we aren't drawing them in with a culturally relevant gospel witness.
While there are many Christian resources in North America, unchurched North Americans no longer have a biblical worldview or understanding. (Some experts question whether they ever did.) Instead, their religious ideas tend to be distorted reflections of biblical truth. In other words, secular people may be familiar with certain religious terminology or ideas, but their familiarity is often a distortion of its original meaning. For example, the most-quoted Bible verse by secular North Americans consists of two words, "Judge not." Though they know the verse, their understanding of its meaning is skewed. They believe it's wrong to judge another person's choices as wrong or immoral, as long as those choices hurt no one. (In fact, intolerance is becoming the unforgivable sin in North America.)
Unchurched North Americans know Jesus said not to judge, but they seriously misunderstand biblical teachings on morals. For example, they have no understanding of the teaching on church purity in 1 Corinthians and the command that the church should judge in a redemptive spirit. When secular culture moves farther and farther from biblical norms, perceptions develop shadows—even corruptions—of biblical reality.
George Hunter believes:
The spiritual deadness of North America appears not only in its culture but in its churches as well. Churches in the first decade of the twenty-first century are closing at a phenomenal rate. Eighty to 85 percent of American churches are on the downside of their life cycle. Win Arn reports thirty-five hundred to four thousand churches close each year. The percentage of Christians in the U.S. population dropped 9 percent from 1990 to 2001.The number of unchurched has almost doubled from 1991 to 2004. Gallup provides further insight in a January 2002 poll—50 percent of Americans described themselves as "religious," while another 33 percent said that they are "spiritual but not religious" (11 percent said neither, and 4 percent said both). A recent book, Spiritual but Not Religious, chronicles this growing trend.
Our churches are dying, and our culture is changing. We know new churches can make a difference. Church planting is not easy, but without it the church will continue to decline in North America.
Obviously powerful ideas and mistaken attitudes work against church planting. Most of the North American church has not caught a vision for church planting and New Testament reproduction—at least not yet. Most Americans and Canadians are not connected to any local church. The North American church is in trouble. We need to plant new churches, or the church will continue to decline.
Even though some people oppose the idea of church planting, we must do it anyway—because it's biblical. In the following pages, you'll discover three compelling reasons to enact the biblical mandate for church planting: the command of Jesus, the need for new churches to reach North Americans, and the ineffectiveness of our present methodologies. Without church planting, we will not fulfill the Great Commission. Detailed explanations of the practical how-tos of church planting also will be included in this book.
Church planting is slowly regaining its biblical prominence in evangelical life. Between 1980 and 2000, more than fifty thousand churches were planted in North America. Christians are beginning to realize, once again, the need to place an emphasis on church planting in North America. And, even though there's some resistance to church planting, evangelicals are realizing its value and priority. This book is written to inform, to clarify, to encourage, and to persuade evangelicals to embrace church planting. May your passion for planting churches and growing the kingdom of God be enhanced as you read.
In addition to referenced material, below are some recommended resources. At www.newchurches.com, I have an annotated bibliography of the major church planting books with a focus on application in North America.
Childers, Steve L. Gospel-Centered Church Planting Manual Orlando, Fla.: U.S. Center for Church Planting, Inc., 2002.
Hesselgrave, David J. Planting Churches Cross-culturally. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000.
Logan, Robert E., and Steven L. Ogne. Church Planter's Toolkit (tapes and workbook). St. Charles, Ill.: ChurchSmart Resources, 1991.
Malphurs, Aubrey. Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century: A Comprehensive Guide for New Churches and Those Desiring Renewal, 2d edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998.
Murray, Stuart. Church Planting: Laying Foundations. Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001.
Wagner, C. Peter. Church Planting for a Greater Harvest. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1990.