This was a question posed to me in a phone conversation with an associational leader. I didn’t call him to speak about church planting, but I guess he just needed to vent. “I have many established churches that are struggling to keep their doors open. We need to focus more on revitalizing these churches and less on planting new ones. We already have enough churches, we just need to strengthen the ones we have.” While I certainly sympathize with this associational leaders concern for the churches in his area I also recognize his statements to be a little short-sighted. C. Peter Wagner is widely known as the father of the modern day church growth movement. In his book, Church Planting for a Great Harvest Wagner states, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.” Interestingly Wagner wrote that statement 26 years ago when church planting wasn’t a hot topic. What did Wagner see that some don’t see in relation to the importance of planting new churches?
I sometimes hear people say things like, “We don’t need new churches because there are plenty of unused seats in our existing churches” or “A new church will only take people out of the pews of already struggling churches.” But are those statements actual facts or simply statements based on assumptions from uninformed observers? The truth is that we MUST plant new churches and I think there are many reasons why this must be an emphasis in the Southern Baptist Convention and other mainline denominations.
- Planting new churches helps fulfill the Great Commission. If we are going to make disciples of all nations then we must begin new works that will effectively reach the nations. I would make the argument that this was exactly the Apostle Paul’s mindset. When you study the book of Acts you find that Paul went to the major cities of his day for one reason, to plant churches. Paul first went to Lystra, Derbe, Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth and other major urban areas to plant churches that would plant more churches. Paul understood that if the Gospel was to spread effectively he needed to reach the major cities and build strong churches that would begin new works in the surrounding areas. We know that he placed Titus in Crete in order to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5), which essentially means, “train new church leaders”. Most scholars agree that the church at Colosse was a church plant which began through Paul’s work in Ephesus. (Col 1:7; 4:12). If church planting was the focus of the Apostle Paul it should certainly be the focus of the church today.
- It takes all kind of churches to reach all kinds of people. America is growing increasingly diverse while many churches remain narrowly focused on a specific demographic. In a recent study Demographer William Frey, research professor at the University of Michigan, found some interesting trends in regards to the growing diversity in the United States. He focuses on the diversity in terms of age, “Forty-seven states and 90 percent of the counties have an absolute decline in white population under age 20. All net growth of children in this country is coming from racial and ethnic minorities.” (Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America). That is a shocking statement, but what does it mean for the church? If we are going to reach the “nations” we must realize that the “nations” are coming to us and largely they are coming unreached. A Pew Research Study released in March 2016 revealed the changing landscape of American population. “By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. Much of this change has been (and will be) driven by immigration. Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years, mostly from Latin America and Asia. Today, a near-record 14% of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5% in 1965. Over the next five decades, the majority of U.S. population growth is projected to be linked to new Asian and Hispanic immigration.” (10 Demographic Trends that are Shaping the US and the World, Pew Research Council). As the church of Jesus Christ how should we respond to these statistics? We could shake our fist at such numbers and galvanize our selves in our churches in order to maintain the uniformity that most congregations now realize. This is not Great Commission thinking. I believe that Jesus Christ would rather his church begin new churches that will best reach this growing diverse population. We must be “in front” of the changing dynamics of diversity and not playing catch up for the next 50 years. Lets be honest, most SBC churches in rural America will not effectively reach a diverse population and many have no desire to. Yet if we are going to be true to the command of Christ to “make disciples of all nations” then we MUST plant churches that will most effectively reach all kinds of people.
- Many of our established churches will close their doors in the next 20 years. I hate that my fingers just typed that last statement. It is a sobering thought yet it is undeniable. In his book, This Present Future Reggie McNeal states, “The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off.” He also states, “80% of money given to churches comes from people aged 55 and older”. Wow! Our state convention has placed strong emphasis on church revitalization in the past 3 years. Much resources have been given to send “church coaches” to declining churches in order to assist those church leaders in assessing the current church culture and recommending systemic changes to promote new growth. I have seen evidence that this is working, yet most churches that need this the most don’t seek assistance. For many churches, by the time they do ask for help it is too late, the dye has already been cast. I see the “ground truth” of this as I travel. We should assist church leaders to revitalize these churches who are in decline and celebrate the success stories, but also realize that many churches will close. For every church that closes we must replace it with a new work that has a better chance to reach new people for Christ.
- New churches are often more effective in reaching new people. “Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60-80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any church, while churches over 10-15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer from other congregations.” (Tim Keller, Why Plant Churches) I know there are other variables and this isn’t always the case, but I believe that new churches do a better job reaching and baptizing new believers and study after study reveal that truth.
- Church population is losing ground to numerical population. From 1990-2004 America grew in population 18.1% while the church population slightly declined. (ChurchLeaders.com) Thom Rainer has stated many times that the greatest concern for the evangelical church is the rapid rate in which churches are unable to keep up with the growing population rate. Every time I hear hear a well meaning person say, “The last thing we need is another new church, we already have enough churches”, I cringe. We may have lots of churches, but most aren’t missional and most are not reaching the growing diversity in population.(and have no desire to reach them.) In Alabama, (the Bible belt) we are accustomed to churches on every corner, but in most areas of the united states this is not the case. I once preached a revival in Montana and was struck by the fact that we drove 30-50 miles each day without seeing an evangelical church. In America (and yes in Alabama too) we must be robust in our church planting efforts.
We are blessed in our state to have a tremendous church planting strategy through ALSBOM and Church Planting Strategist Lamar Duke, yet it cannot be accomplished by one man or one organization. If thriving churches would assist our state convention to plant more churches in the coming years we could more effectively carry out the Great Commission in our state and beyond. Also, if pastors, ministers, associational missionaries and lay leaders would all pray for the Lord to send out more workers in the field and for effective new works to begin we would truly see a Great Commission resurgence. So yes, lets revitalize our declining established churches, but also maintain a strong commitment to begin new works for the glory of God.