January 18, 2021

Witnessing a Birth

new-birth-1024x927Last Sunday I had the privilege of experiencing something rather special. I was invited to attend the first ever service of a new church.

For the last 30 years I have had a strong interest in church planting. When in seminary I wrote a thirty page paper on “Philosophies of Church Planting”. I have a stutter, which would make full time pulpit ministry difficult, but for many years I imagined myself as having a future as a member of a church planting team. As a lay person, I have been directly involved in two church plants(one is still going strong, the other closed its doors), and assisted more indirectly in a number of others (You need a pianist, here is someone who can help you out.)

For many years, for most denominations, church planting has been pretty haphazard. I was involved for a number of years with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Their strategy was to identify an area that was “underchurched”, identify a potential church planter, hold a public meeting and introduce those who were interested to the church planter. The church would struggle along for a few years, and would either survive or fail, largely based on the giftedness of the church planter. (The failure rate was quite high.) They also tried bi-vocational teams, and that met with limited success as well. More recently they have decided that denominations do not plant churches, churches plant churches. So they have switched their strategy to building up core groups within existing churches. The members of the core group would be from a certain geographical area that is distinct from that of the mother church. When the core group is strong enough to stand on its own, it goes out and starts its own church. This strategy seems to be a little more effective in planting churches that actually survive.

While not a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, this was the strategy that was employed by the church that was birthed on Sunday. It started with six people who attended a church outside of their community, but has a vision for their community, a small Canadian city. A year and a half later the core group had grown to 60 people, and a few months after than the leaders of the mother church gave their blessing for the church plant to proceed. It took another year of much planning and prayer before the new church was ready to open its doors. By this time the core group had grown to 180 people, still meeting as part of the mother church. These 180 invited their friends from the area, but really had no idea how many might show up at the first service.

Last Sunday arrived. The parking lot filled up. The overflow parking filled up. The over-overflow parking filled up. Four hundred and ninety people showed up for the first service.

Here are some other observations I noted from the service:

People were given opportunities to use their gifts. The family that invited me have six children. The youngest was in the class of two to four year olds along with 20 other kids. Her mother taught the kids, and her two older girls served as helpers in the class. The dad and his six year old daughter served as greeters at the door. Next week he will be playing bass guitar for worship, something he hasn’t done for over 10 years. Their fourteen years old son ran the power point, and their seventeen year old son was responsible for the sound system. They both did excellent jobs.

The sermon was excellent, talking about the importance of seeking after God, along with an emphasis on God’s grace.

There was an invitation made to those who had not yet made a decision to follow Christ, to stand if they wanted to do so. I could only see the first six rows of room, so I do not know how many chose to stand, but in the rows I could see their were six standing. I felt privileged to have experienced not only the birth of a church, but multiple new births as well.

The one draw back: theologically I didn’t fit. There were two many things in their statement of faith that I disagree with. Sometimes I think my theological education is a bit of curse. It makes it hard for me to “sign on the dotted line” wherever I go. Still I am happy for my friends, and think that this will be a wonderful place for their family to be.

What has been your experience with church plants? What has worked, or not worked? I haven’t touched on this in the post, but why do we plant churches? As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. My current church, and the church I previously joined, were church plants. The current one works pretty well, ’cause we try to be friendly and inclusive. The previous church was a bit more cliquish, and the people in it “too busy” to do much outreach, so it stayed small.

    Why do we plant churches? Families grow. The Kingdom of God is meant to grow. And we’re not all the same. (And that’s fine.) Some of us are gonna put the Eucharist front and center; some the sermon; some the music. Some of us are gonna emphasize a living experience with God; some a careful, orthodox development of theology; some a safe space for hurting people; some a resource center for a needy community. One church can try to be all these things to all people, but they’re not gonna do as good a job as multiple churches. Not even if they’re a big, rich, enthusiastic megachurch. So when people see a lack, they can plant a church.

    • “…some of us are gonna put the Eucharist front and center…”

      Well, yes, because that is what we are commanded to do!!! Anything else just baffles This Old Papist!!

      • I think that a church can take a number of different emphases, and still be true to scripture. For example the church that focuses on Social Justice would look to these verses:

        Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
        And what does the Lord require of you?
        To act justly and to love mercy
        and to walk humbly[a] with your God.

        Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
        because he has anointed me
        to proclaim good news to the poor.
        He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
        and recovery of sight for the blind,
        to set the oppressed free,
        19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

        James 1:27 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

        OR I could point at what Jesus says are the greatest commands…

        OR I could point to the 24 hour worship that goes on in heaven…

        OR I could point to the great commission.

        • flatrocker says

          I think allowing for the freedom to emphasize varying planted practices so they resonate into a particular culture is very wise. Christianity can indeed be a very big tent. As long as, however, we remember “they came to know him in the breaking of the bread.”

      • Not commanded by God, though.

  2. “…the importance of seeking after God”…and “an invitation to make a decision to follow Christ.”

    There it is. Having it all start with the person.

    “Free-will” is the bane of the church.

    It isn’t the answer to the problem. It IS the problem.

    And these pastors and preachers have these poor people lapping it up.

    What a crying shame.

    • Our words & actions do enough to turn people away from the Kingdom on a daily basis. Seems like inviting them into God’s story is a welcomed change.

      Steve, I’d pay to see you interact with common folks who lack a church background. How do your law/gospel, free-will/sovereignty paradigms play out in real relationships?

      Genuinely curious.

      • I work with some Baptists and non-denom. Evangelicals right now (same thing, theologically).

        How do I interact with them? I’m patient, non-judgmental, I do speak biblical truths to them with a subject comes up. They do cock their heads. Or argue. That’s ok. That’s good. I want them to hear what the Bible actually has to say about these things. I never beat them over the head with it.

        But this is a different sort of place with many seasoned Christians who are exposed to these differences almost daily.

        I believe I can be a little more frank in this setting.

        • No no… I said folks who *lacked* a church background. I’m curious about your language and vocabulary. If “inviting” isn’t something you do, I’m wondering how you communicate faith.

          Or is it that you only socialze with church folks?

          • I talk to all manner of folks about Jesus.

            I get to know them. Find out where they are being had by the world (as we all are being had in some way)…and then, when I feel they have some confidence in me, I speak to them about what God has done about it in Christ Jesus. And I pray for them all along in the process.

            The Spirit will do what He will do. I don’t need to goad them or scare them into some meaningless decision for Jesus.

    • Steve,

      I knew when I wrote this, that however I worded it, you would find a way to criticize it. But you know, this was not a sermon about “felt needs”, it was a sermon that focused on who God was, presented the good news of Jesus Christ, and invited people to follow him. If that doesn’t fit your theology I’m sorry, but it certainly fits with what I read in the Bible.

      • Mike,

        I’m just responding to their errant doctrine which leads people back into themselves and which makes a law out of the gospel.

        Im not judging anyone (if they are Christians or not).

        It really is sad (having been one exposed to that sort of self-focused religious project in the past).

        • How do you even know what their doctrine is Steve. I didn’t even say what type of church it was. Quite frankly, your attitude comes down as very judgemental.

          • You did, however, say enough to narrow it down to a ballpark. It sure don’t sound like Oriental Orthodoxy! Seeking after God and making a decision for Christ are very contrary to Romans 3:11 and John 15:16.

            I understand many Evangelicals have ways of understanding these types of issues which minimize cognitive dissonance. It’s not that their lack of what we would consider theological precision is some sort of heinous crime.

            It’s just that with this specific doctrine, decision theology, we see very much spiritual harm being done. We’re sorry if you don’t see it. We’re not judging you for buying into it. But it does make us sad, ’cause we’ve witnessed the spiritual fallout.

          • Marc B. says

            Miguel –

            “It’s just that with this specific doctrine, decision theology, we see very much spiritual harm being done. We’re sorry if you don’t see it. We’re not judging you for buying into it. But it does make us sad, ’cause we’ve witnessed the spiritual fallout.”

            Now take the term “decision theology”, and replace it with “double predestination”. The other side of the coin.

          • Mike,

            I’m not being flip, or boastful…but I’m quite sure that I understand their doctrine (“free-will”, decision theology ) better than they do. And I’m aware of where it started and why…and why it persists.

          • I agree, Marc. Which is why Lutherans reject them both.

        • flatrocker says

          For someone who has an issue with the doctrine of infallibility, you sure do seem to practice it a lot.

          • I never said that ‘I’ am infallible.

            And I don’t have an issue with infallibility. God’s Word is infallible.

            I’m not really sure what you are referring to.

    • I might not be as strident as Steve, but I too get the hives when I hear “the importance of seeking after God” and “an invitation to make a decision to follow Christ.” For starters, the evangelical (fundamentalist) contexts I’ve been a part of in the past spent most of their time worrying if they were really really seeking after God (don’t waste your tonsillectomy! Do you find more joy in God than in sex with a chocolate eclair??!!) and if they had really truly made a decision to follow Christ (how can you call yourself a Christ follower when you vote Democrat? Aren’t you putting Satan first when you vote to abort gay babies?).

      Now while I believe that God actually loves us and saves us and that we are essentially “passive” in that, I do believe that this should in turn motivate a strong sense of social justice and that we should be doing good works. As Paul might say, this is why we have been saved. But still, the general tenor and “Christianese” or those statements is off-putting to me.

      • Sex with a chocolate eclair?!?!?! ROFL. Well put.

      • I remember hearing that there was a door into the kingdom. Facing outward, there was a sign over the door that said “Whosoever will may come.” The sign over the door on the inside said, “Chosen in Him before the foundation of the world.” Both are true. We don’t yet know how to reconcile the two statements (even if we think we do), but we can trust that there will come a time when we will.

  3. Those of you who know me are aware that I am not a troll, or looking for an argument.

    That established….. PLEASE explain too me how church planting (some take off, some fail) is different than deciding whether the neighborhood needs another CVS or Applebees???

    • Good question Pattie. I was thinking much the same….

    • I don’t really understand the question Pattie, unless Tom has somehow answered it below.

    • I’m not entirely certain that I understand the question either, but the concept of church as franchise is one that has at least crossed my mind. Just for background, I originally came out of a church that has started as a plant, and went on to be very involved in the planting of another church, so I pay more attention to this than the average person would I suppose. In the majority of cases it doesn’t seem like need is a primary deciding factor as much as branding seems to be. I live just south of a very affluent community which has to have at 4 or 5 (possibly more) churches that would be considered mega churches, I remember a couple years ago hearing advertisements for a well known ministry that (with a mega church model) that had been “called” to plant in that same area. It reminded me of the franchising that you were mentioning, as if this area already had an Applebees, Chili’s, Max & Erma’s, etc, but what they were obviously in need of was a TGIFridays. On the other hand, you have some that are seeking market saturation rather just than leveraging the high return markets. There is a certain denomination in this area that has just littered the city and surrounding suburbs with churches, but no matter how many there seem to be there also seems to be a few new plants that are surfacing.

      I don’t think that the motivations behind church planting are all bad, I know that when I was involved my motivations were largely good, but even in the best of situations there can be some pretty deadly pragmatism that is involved in deciding where these churches are going to plant, or whether they will be planted at all.

    • I’d love to engage you on this Pattie, but I’m also not sure I understand the question. Perhaps we could begin with you explaining how church planting is the same as deciding if a neighborhood needs a new Applebee’s or CVS?

    • cermak_rd says

      The big difference I could say is that businesses are a lot more careful about where they locate. If an area is saturated with eateries and another area is under-covered (yet wealthy enough to afford one) then the smart money would say locate in the underserved area.

      From what my cynical eye sees is that in my area, churches tend to be planted in leafy (wealthy) areas. The poorer neighborhoods are more apt to have religious startups built by people who actually come from the neighborhood they’re serving.

      Market research really should come into this though. If I understand rightly, the Catholic church is booming out west and in the south. Assumedly someone in the chancery is analyzing trends and deciding when a new parish is warranted. Or in areas like Philly and New York, the chanceries are looking at trends to determine which parishes to close or consolidate.

      Religious institutions aren’t businesses, but they can’t operate as though financial considerations are moot.

    • To put it delicately, I would suggest that, at the very least, church planting is a means by which we make the Kingdom of God accessible and tangible in a physical & social space which previously had little or no Christian witness.

      It follows from Christ’s “go make disciples” mandate; “go” is emphasized, because we do not expect people to seek out a church and “come” on their own, exceptions notwithstanding.

      • Sounds good, in theory. But I see that the way too much church planting does not happen in areas without a presence of Christianity. And the definition of “un-Churched” can be a bit fishy at times.

        • Agreed Miguel. Just hope that clears up the “why?” for Pattie & others.

          And I acknowledge that I speak as an east coast guy without lots of the cultural religious baggage that gets triggered for some in this discussion.

          • Yes, it helps.

            From where I sit, so many plants look like brand-spreading rather than meeting any needs of un-churched, and/or people driving long distances to get to a particular church.

            And, as other mention farther down the comments, a fair bit of poaching from other churches, based on non-doctrinal issues, such as who has the prettiest programs and showmanship.

            To me, that is like building a CVS across from a Walgreens…..the area does not NEED a drug-store, but if we build, it will keep the business in OUR store rather than theirs…..because the Walgreens a mile away is too far???

            PS…not picking on either store chain…..I use them both and have no stock in either!!!!

        • Richard Hershberger says

          Are there any significant areas in North America without of presence of Christian churches? It seems unlikely, unless we go down the route of “my church is the One True Church.”

          • Well, see, it is not an easy thing to belong to a church whose teachings you do not believe, trust me. Not everybody is comfortably at home in lowest-common-denominator Evangelicalism.

            Michael Spencer was unable to visit a Lutheran church because there wasn’t one closer than two hours from him. If you’re Moravian, there’s only a small section of the country you can live in and find a church of your tradition. The progressive mainlines or generic non-denom’s with Baptist theology may be interchangeable among themselves, but certain traditions lend themselves to a bit of specificity, without the benefit of being as pervasive as the Roman Catholic church.

            The churches who celebrate closed communion do not necessarily believe themselves the only legitimate church, but a member who actually believes their teaching will never be at home worshiping elsewhere.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            “Michael Spencer was unable to visit a Lutheran church because there wasn’t one closer than two hours from him”

            Remind me where Michael lived, as I find this statement remarkable. Or was he looking for an LCMS church? There are parts of the country where those are pretty thin on the ground. I also used to know a guy who packed up the family into the car every Sunday and drove for an hour and a half to the nearest WELS church. I was split between admiring his dedication, and thinking he really needed to get over and go LCMS, at least while he lived there.

    • Final Anonymous says

      Pattie, I’m no troll either :). Doesn’t the Catholic Church build new churches, or change boundaries for parishes also? I live in a very Catholic area and I’ve seen Catholic Churches close, or combine, and I’ve recently seen two new ones built. Is it different somehow than with Protestant denominations?

      • @Final Anon….sorry, had to respond to an emergency (I am a nurse) and haven’t been connected in over 24 hours, so I was not ignoring your question!

        Roman Catholic churches tend to respond to attendance only, building a new church in response to things like a new suburb and a need for worship space. The combination occurs when there is either no longer a large enough congregation to support two parishes…OR, more often, a shortage of PRIESTS to cover two different parishes. Churches close for the same reasons….no parishoners, no priest, and/or a combo that means no money.

        And while it is true that parishes differ in “flavor” and personality, the doctrine and Mass are the same.

  4. Mike Bell lives in Ontario. Canada is VERY secularized, therefore public display of faith/religion is not a positive as it may be in many parts of the US (I live in NWArkansas where “faith” is always a part of political ads). “Church planting” is a much more serious endeavor in Canada than what I’ve experienced in my part of North America. Therefore, I take it as more significant in Mike’s case than I would in my local experience.

  5. A couple of my ancestors, two brothers, immigrated from Nottingham England to Bancroft Ontario in 1782. They were the lead builders of the Anglican Church building in the middle of town.

    • Very cool Tom, but I think you mean (or should mean) 1882. Bancroft’s first settlers were in 1853, and the first Anglican Church was built in 1890. We really have a young (European) history up here.

  6. Most church plants (underline MOST) are about transfer growth, not new souls in the Kingdom.

    Has anyone ever done a study on how many church attenders came to faith because they attended church? I accepted Christ in a college bar because that’s where a group of Christians decided to meet (before business hours, that is), That being said, a LOCAL church assembly that can serve a LOCAL neighborhood is more apt to attract the curious or seeking of that particular neighborhood than is a more remote, established church. Peopel generally prefer their own comfort zone.

    • oscar, you make a good point here, related to Mike’s previous post about vision stuff. I’m wondering if one of the problems with satellite churches is that they take on the identity of their parent church, as opposed to better modeling the community they are planted in (while still utilizing the same resources, etc).

      It doesn’t have to be much, it doesn’t have to be radical, but every church should reflect it’s environment to an extent…and not the environment it may have come out of.

  7. Lynn MacDougall says

    Why do we plant churches? Good question. We have a church plant in our home going into its third year. It primarily started to reach out to college students and is primarily built around relationships. By the Christian culture standard it is a dismal failure. We are small with high turnover because college students leave. Yet we are a family and the internal growth is real and true. My husband is ordained and bivocational, by the way.

    Through 10 years of “formal” ministry and these past 3 years I have become more amd more disillusioned with why we do church at all. It seems often that the reason the organized church does church planting and evangelism is to get people in the door and increase the numbers – low numbers equal failure (at least in America) . It feels to me that we are much more concerned with “the church” and it’s success than with God and His worship. We say all the right things but when it comes right down to it, it’s about money and numbers.

    I do believe in church planting but being on the inside, something is really wrong. Oh and whoever said “transfer growth” above – that seems more right than wrong; something new and exciting in our overstimulated Christian environment draws the church people over. I know this is so cynical but this is what I see.

    • In a recent conversation with the Pastor of the church plant that closed its doors, he made the comment that perhaps the journey of struggling together was more important than the destination.

      • I think that in many cases that can be true. Having been part of a church plant that failed after a little over two years I learned a lot, and am still processing much, about what the church is and is not. More than anything, in the experience we all grew into something like a family. I don’t see the people from that plant as often as I would like, but they are people that are still often on my mind. As much as you can get caught up in marketing and growth strategies when involved in a plant, one of the true blessings is getting to know and live life with a group of people who are determined to be active in their faith. I’m part of a small home fellowship now which has much the same feel of that small planting group, but without the pressure of overhead and numbers.

        With the idea of transfer growth, I’m not sure that is entirely a bad thing, as being part of a church plant allowed me to stretch myself, and use some gifting in a way that I may not have been afforded in a smaller more established setting. It obviously has its drawbacks as well, as plants can also attract those looking to gain influence for less than noble reasons.

    • Lynn, how we “do church” today has evolved over centuries from the initial gathering of believers holding disparate views and experiences into a very specific calculus of organizational flow charts measuring perceived need against community presence.

      The whole paradigm of a dedicated building housing a programmatic experience with a preacher-centric podium in front of a passive viewer audience is about as far from exciting and spontaneous as it gets. When Jesus said that He would build His Church He wasn’t speaking about church planting, but increasingly we moderns have taken it to mean just that.

      I don’t know what the answer is. Heck, I don’t even know what the question is! All I know is that, outside of personal relationships with other believers today’s “church paradigm” holds little interest for me, even though I am a member of one of those organizations.

      • Lynn MacDougall says

        Oscar, this is helpful.. I don’t know the question either and absolutely have no answers. I can’t help think that we are so used to our structures and flow charts and ideas of success that we have created “church” in their image rather than being humans created in God’s image to love God and neighbor. I know I’ve said this before but the young adults I spend time with leave evangelical churches because they feel like a project , not a person – because they are being sold a product, not being in the presence of the God beyond human understanding. Heck I’m almost 50 and that’s how I feel.

        Also , while I don’t agree with Steve on multiple issues and comments, I do think his comment “having it all start with the person” is accurate although maybe with a different train of thought. The way we “do church” is person centered and “me” centered so much… I don’t need one more minute thinking about ME! That is why the place I find the most sanity is the ancient liturgy and Eucharist. It is all about God and worship of Him not me and my feelings. Our church plants are so geared toward the person or the community or the culture that God seems to get lost in the shuffle.

      • Lynn MacDougall says

        Oscar, this is helpful. The church seems more about “creating the church/God in our image” of structure, program, flow charts and our view of success rather than worshipping God in HIS image. I’m not sure how this asks a question or gives an answer but it does seem so backwards; we are so used to the way we think about it that we assume it is right. I know I have said this before, but in my relationships with college students, so many evangelicals have left because they feel more like a project than a person, because they feel they are being sold a project and not being ushered into a Presence.

        Whilst I don’t agree with some of what Steve says or the way he says it, I do think his comment above “having it all start with the person” actually gets to the seed of it somehow. We plant churches for the sake of the individual/community/ felt need more than for the sake of our Great God and Himself. Oh we say it’s for Him but when we don’t have the “results ” it’s over and done with.

  8. Christiane says

    maybe if the baby Church began as a family of faith that moved into a neighborhood to become a part of it and befriend it and contribute to the community AS a neighbor with good will . . . not expecting anything ‘from’ the people but wanting to be ‘with’ them . . . bringing gifts of friendship and good will, of kindness, of patient presence while letting the community get used to them, entering into the work of the community to help its needy, and offering a hand to help without expecting something in return . . .

    maybe then, the baby Church will be adopted and valued as a family member in a place where patient kindness is needed to build trust over time . . .

  9. Mule Chewing Briars says

    I spoke with Father after liturgy about the possibility of starting an Orthodox parish in our town. We travel about 30 miles one way to attend that parish, so it made sense to us to ask how it should be done. His answer surprised me.

    ‘You need a lot of committed people to get an Orthodox parish off the ground. You need a priest, and it is helpful to have a deacon. You need some people who can sing, and who will dedicate themselves to learning the services of the Church, if they don’t already know them. Then you have the issue of vestments and vessels. This is a major expense, and usually more than a single generous donor can handle.

    It can take several decades to write all the icons in an Orthodox church.

    I just finished watching The Pillars Of The Earth mini-series based on the Ken Follett book. It was about the construction of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals in the 12th and 13th centuries. They certainly had a different concept of church-planting.

    • You know it seems as if the mainlines do not get it. We are used to hundreds of years of a nominally Christian society and excel at pretty church services, but do not do well at reaching out to the culture around us.

      I am in one such church and took the leaders through an exercise of recording where we spend all our time. It was all either preparing for a service or doing the service. When I started to question this I received the reaction ‘this is as it should be’. We are spending almost no time on mission.

  10. David Cornwell says

    Church planting is one of the most difficult callings on this earth. However most of our established churches are basically ministering to the “faithful?” Very little real evangelism is done, because no one knows how to do it or wants to do it in our present circumstances. Our American cultures are increasingly pagan in all kinds of ways, resulting in post-Christian society. So church planting must be considered. Getting it right is difficult. I salute those who try.

    Here is our authorization:

    And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

    David Fitch, who is a C&MA minister, writes a lot about church plants. I like what he has to say. He has a piece entitled “On Fundamentally Changing the Expectations of Church-Planting” which can be found on the web.

    • Well said David.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      Here we come to the heart of the matter: the claim that plants are better at bringing in the unchurched than are established churches. Otherwise, the plant is merely an attempt to poach members from other churches: at best a pointless exercise, and at worst a drive to the bottom with trendy flash and insubstantial feel-good messaging. But is there good data showing that this claim is true? It is not obvious to me that it should be. The notion that there is a population of unchurched people just ripe for the plucking, but unwilling to darken an established church’s door, seems to me implausible.

      I live in a medium-small semi-rural/semi-exurban town. We all the usual mainline churches (with the Methodist and Lutheran churches being quite large), plus a largish conventional Baptist church, a large Pentecostal church, and a Baptist church openly working on the megachurch model. Since I came here ten or so years ago there have been three plants I am aware of: a Reformed wannabe megachurch, a historically black Pentecostal church, and something in a store front on Main Street whose big selling point is that they promise that they in no way resemble a church, but whose theology (if any) is a complete mystery to me. I am aware of them because, respectively, the Reformed wannabe megachurch put up a big electronic sign on the main highway, the black Pentecostal church mailed out postcards (and amazing cards they were: the most arrant expression of prosperity Gospel I have ever seen), and because I walk past the storefront on Main Street and see the sign in the window promising that they are in no way like a church–and they have coffee! Only the second is any sort of active outreach. If the other two are doing anything more than putting up a sign and waiting for people to walk in the door, it has escaped my notice. The third clearly really is going for the unchurched, I am curious to see if there really are a bunch of people out there who want to go to church, but hate the church part of it. They have been there a couple of years now. I haven’t seen any sign of huge growth, but they presumably are managing to pay the rent.

      So what evangelizing have I seen? The Baptist megachurch sends people around door to door. They hit my house about every two years or so. I have a nice chat, explaining as pleasantly as possible that I like my current church, and would rather have a root canal than to join theirs. The other is the United Methodist church. My neighbors three doors up are active there. When we were looking for a daycare provider we asked them if they knew anyone, and they suggested a licensed provider who was also a member, and whom we adore. Come the summer we put the kids in Vacation Bible School there, because the provider was also a teacher there. The kids loved it, and my wife (a semi-lapsed Catholic) ended up attending while we put the kids in Sunday School. Does this count as evangelizing? Heck, yes! Evangelizing doesn’t *need* to be socially awkward.

      So suppose a dedicated, even fervent, group within one of those established churches decided that the church’s evangelizing sucked–almost certainly true–and that they wanted to do something about it. Should they go off and form a plant? I don’t see why. Any sensible church would look at these people, appoint them the Evangelism Committee, and set them loose while praising heaven for them. I can confidently state that (1) there are already churches wherever you might be thinking of putting that plant, and (2) there are plenty of unchurched people where that established church already is.

      • David Cornwell says

        This is just a quick, non-thoughtful answer, off the top of my head, so take it as such:

        You said:
        ” I can confidently state that (1) there are already churches wherever you might be thinking of putting that plant, and (2) there are plenty of unchurched people where that established church already is.”

        I agree, but these churches can be there forever and still do nothing.

        Most mainline and other established churches do little to reach those who are unchurched. Even if they are aware of the need, However there are exceptions. Some of those become missional and reach deeply into neighborhoods. In time they begin to make an impact, or to make their presence felt in a new and good way. They do, in time, reach the unchurched.

        A new type of church plant starts out differently and with different expectations. The article I referenced above discusses this type of approach. I think it has promise. The link is: reclaimingthemission.com/?p=4312

        I fail to see how we as Christians, living in a culture that is increasingly pagan and violent can simply throw up our hands and say we are doing all we can do. We are called to be heralds, announcing the good news. God’s Word will be heard by some. We cannot manipulate or force results. It is in God’s hands at that point. God will find some of the lost.

  11. Michael, great post–as usual! I have three comments.

    First–FWIW–I,too, have a stuttering problem, as did my father before me and as does my son after me. It’s way worse in Spanish than it is in English (an LSP graduate student could write a dissertation on that on, I’m sure). And as Mel Tillis would tell you, you don’t stutter when you sing. Problem is, I can’t sing. But if I teach, both at the university and at church, with some degree of conviction and a smidgen of passion, I find I control it quite well. Just a thought.

    My second comment is that I am the pastor of a church which I and several others planted 25 years ago. We’re not huge (peak around 200) but we’re here, doing well, even have our own building. Back in 2008 we sent out close to a third of our congregation on a new church plant. It failed miserably. The lesson I learned from this is that in spite of a good plan, good equipment and funding, good theology, good music, good teaching (the pastor which led it was a highly gifted teacher and musician), and so on, it takes a certain gift to make it work. A similar church plant in our association started in a home with about 10 people; today it is a multi-site church of several thousand. The lead pastor these had the gift for church planting, the one we sent out did not.

    Finally, you stated that “The one draw back: theologically I didn’t fit. There were two many things in their statement of faith that I disagree with.” Now I’m curious. What was it about their statement of faith that you did not agree with?

    Thanks, Michael.

    • Lynn MacDougall says

      What does “make it work” mean? This is what I don’t understand. It sounds like what you are saying is since the second church is a “multiple site church of several thousand” that means it is successful. The first didn’t have the numbers so it “didn’t work?” I can’t find that in Scripture.

      • Lynn, the Church (note the uppercase “C” for universal body of Christ) is successful, triumphant and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16.18) As for individual local churches, however, it is a different story.

        To address the Scriptural basis of what I’m saying as best as I can, I would only say that local church plants have survived and failed since Paul and Barnabbas starting planting churches in Galatia. Reasons vary, but the fact remains that sometimes a church’s lamp shines brightly and sometimes Christ snuffs it out (Revelation 1-3). Again, reasons vary and include everything from outright apostacy to “benevolent mismanagement” (for lack of a better euphemism). It is what it is.

        The church which failed dwindled from about 100 people down to 10 in a period of about five years with the most dramatic drop in the first year. The church which I mentioned was successful grew from 10 to over 1,000 in about the same period of time. Both churches were started by good Christian men, both are theologically sound, both taught the gospel and ministered/are ministering to the the hurting–spiritually and otherwise. Yet. one closed its doors and the other continues to minister, now in various locations.

        I hope I have addressed your questions.

        • I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that a congregation rises and falls on the church planting “gifting” of a single man, that just seems odd to me. I would have to imagine that more went wrong than a little mismanagement for the one congregation to scatter, and it was more than a single man’s gifting that resulted in the growth of the other. On the other hand, I think that framing the issue in this way might be one of the problems in some of our church movements, that the entire thing is based on the giftedness of a single man. We can look at problems of apathy within a congregation, the consumerist culture of the church, and the cults of personality that have developed, and the “one gifted man” concept can be found rooted n each of those.

          • Dallas, there’s always more than a single cause to, well, everything. Even so, as a church pastor and university dean/director for 20 years I have observed some things which lead me to the conclusions I make. And my main conclusion is that leadership is pretty much everything. I could be wrong, but that’s my best shot at it.

            Now, before success or failure can be determined we have to go back to the original objectives. And no, this is not automatically to be deemed a consumerist mentality but simply as a way of determining success and failure. I would agree that determining objectives in line with a business model is a bad idea for a church. Regardless, if a church plant’s membership dwindles down to 10 dispirited and deflated people, whose original intent (or objective) is only a shadow of what they presently experience, then the verdict of failure has some merit.

            Yes, you could argue the remnant grew in their faith, that they experienced fellowship, that they ministered to others, and so on. All of that may well be true and a measure of success. But then again, if you dwindle down to near 0, that is an indication of failure, whether that be the outcome of incompetence or misfortune.

            On this we can agree–Christ is in full control of His Church and His churches, and in the aggregate the entire body will be triumphant (already is, actually). But local churches will thrive and fail to thrive.

          • In my area of the world (Western Canada) a lot of groups no longer send out single planters, but teams. It just does not make sense to have it all rest on one person.

            A recipe for burnout, and guaranteed to attract control freaks and empire builders. Not saying always, it just sets the stage for that to happen.

        • Lynn MacDougall says

          Somewhat. It still seems what I am hearing is numbers, numbers, numbers. Below you say leadership is everything. So back to being man-centric and not centered on God. Honestly, most of theses comments still sound that way , even while saying they are not corporate, consumeristic, etc… I am still hearing that that is what the church has to be to survive. It makes me want to run the other way

          • At this point I feel like I have run in the other direction. I am happy with the little home group that I am in, and have spent a lot of time looking at what it means to be the Church. While I can’t say that I have any real definitive answers, I can say that I am really turned off from what I am currently seeing on the whole. It seems to me that numbers create more problems than they solve. Sure you have the resources to minister to more people, but you also have all of the overhead of staff and building and everything that comes with that. You have to worry about how eveyone can be ministered to, and frankly more inportantly how to empower others to be ministers themselves. I’m not necessarily saying that home churches are the answer, but I have seen a lot more authenticity within that setting than what I have been in otherwise.

          • Lynn, numbers count (pardon the pun, couldn’t be helped).

            I’m happy to be the pastor of a church with an average attendance of 150 which peaks to about 200 on Easter and Christmas Eve service. So we’re not exactly what you would call a megachurch. Nor do I ever mention the need to increase our numbers nor is anyone pressured to do so. I would welcome a higher membership, but there’s no membership drive going on.

            Still–and this is my point–if a church plant dwindles down to a tiny fraction of its original size when the intent was to go in the other direction (not the only goal, mind you, but a goal all the same), then something went wrong somewhere. And more often than not the problem is with the leadership of the church.

  12. Rick Ro. says

    Our church planted a church ten years ago. Our young associate pastor felt led to plant a new church that reached a different demographic (younger than 35) than the one our church was reaching (older than 35). And although he had the “blessing” from our church, our senior pastor was concerned about too many people leaving his church to attend the younger pastor’s new church. Bad feelings ensued. The “support” the parent church was to give the church plant never really materialized (it became more of a “you’re on your own now” attitude than “we’ll help you through this”). The church plant experienced some initial growth, but eventually its numbers began shrinking to the point they asked to rent space from the parent church.

    I recognize there were several reasons why the church plant failed, but one big reason why this one failed was because the church plant lacked support and commitment from the parent church. Our pastor was clearly more concerned about what would happen to HIS numbers than the success of the plant, and that concern permeated throughout the relationship between churches and even its members. Not pretty. Still some bad blood between folks involved.

    • Better to focus on a physical location rather than a social demographic, IMO. I think that models incarnation much better.

      • Rick Ro. says

        Yep. That might’ve been another of the issues. There were several of them, to be honest. But support of the parent church (and its leadership) was high on the list.

  13. I attend a UMC that was the first church in town, back when it was the wild west, known more for saloons than churches. Apparently our church had a hand in establishing all the other UMCs in town, as the place grew into a city. Our last venture was in the 90s, when the thought was that since the town had grown miles beyond where we were, it might be time to plant a new church to the west of us. We had a retired pastor who wanted to head it up, and they started meeting in a school building. After several years, it had grown to about 50-75 people attending and he wanted to move on. So we assigned it as a half time duty to a new associate pastor. The attendance promptly dwindled to the point that we gave up and simply absorbed the remaining members back into our congregation. I always thought that the woman who tried to take it over simply did not have the gifts that were needed to keep it going. At the very least, she had such a different personality from the first man, that the transition was too difficult. My other observation is that the leadership with in the Cal./Nev. conference now seems to have a lot more experience with closing churches than opening them.

  14. Final Anonymous says

    I am very conflicted about the idea of church planting.

    On the one hand, like it or not, convenience can be a major factor in church attendance (especially at certain times of life, ie married with young children, single and working too many hours, older or disabled with time/energy constraints).

    Will a Methodist attend a Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran church if the closest Methodist congregation is 30 minutes away? Maybe, but many will lobby to start a new Methodist church closer to home. I certainly don’t begrudge this kind of plant, and they are often successful.

    And this is just my bias, but I’d rather see 20 new church plants than 1 mega-church. I appreciate the efforts of larger churches to maintain intimacy with the congregation by splitting off when attendance grows unwieldy.

    I often don’t agree with their theology, but I have a certain appreciation for the young church-planters who set up in under-served rural, urban, or economically disadvantaged areas, or who start churches for immigrant-specific populations, or hold services in languages other than English.

    On the other hand, I am aggravated to no end with young Bible college graduates who tout their “church planting” emphasis, display their long-term plan blueprints for neighborhood penetration, and set up their circus tents in areas already teeming with churches (and money; always follow the money).

  15. Too often church planting seems to be about spreading religious franchises in a religious free market. I so rarely see planting efforts put where they are legitimately needed. Especially with evangelicalism: They don’t need an acts29 church in every zip code: The presbyterian, southern Baptist, or EV Free churches already there serve their community just fine.

    I really have a hard time believing that America is suffering from a lack of churches. Most church planting isn’t because of that anyways. It’s more like: Let’s start from scratch, so we can do it our way, with our methods, and get it right this time. A lot of times it seems to be about a fresh start after a break with some perceived traditional barrier to numerical success.

    Here’s the rub, for me. Church planters will quote stats about how many congregations are closing their doors. Is the solution really to perpetuate the cycle? Why are we not even asking why this happens? We don’t need more unhealthy congregations. We need the churches we have already to be more faithful. A bunch of religious startups are draining membership, funds, and denominational resources away from struggling parishes already having a hard time competing with the local megachurch. When the mom and pop shops and the zealous young entrepreneurs compete for the table scraps, they shut each other down, and the big box JesusMart wins anyways. What a waste.

    I served a “church plant” for 3 years. I want those 3 years back. It was a waste of time, a waste of money, and it only took me 1.5 years to come to that conclusion. There was absolutely no reason for this congregation to exist, no matter how important the Pastor thought his particular emphasis or doctrinal nuances were. We had zero distinction from any of the many Evangelical congregations in our area, with the exception of a few very negative traits.

    The church shut its doors not long after we left. Incompetent leadership had a lot to do with it. Successful church planting most certainly does require a special set of skills. I’m not convinced they are very pastoral skills, but I am convinced that most pastors/church planters lack them.

    There is a time and a place to start a new church. Replicating the great Saddleback/Northpointe fairy tales isn’t one of them. Go to the rural areas. Do some inner city work. Quit playing ecclesial monopoly in the suburbs, please.

    • You make two good points, Miguel. First, “We don’t need more unhealthy congregations. We need the churches we have already to be more faithful.” I like that and I wish that more of this would be the norm. Problem is that in this culture it’s sen as either an intrusion, trying to resurrect the dead, or a matter of the elder board hiring a “church consultant” to turn things around. Not for me.

      Your second good point mirrors what I wrote above, “The church shut its doors not long after we left. Incompetent leadership had a lot to do with it. Successful church planting most certainly does require a special set of skills. I’m not convinced they are very pastoral skills, but I am convinced that most pastors/church planters lack them.” This does not validate or invalidate the merits of church planting, but it does indicate that some pastors are good at starting churches and most are not.

      As for me, I have no desire and much less energy to do another church plant.

    • Robert F says

      ” Go to the rural areas. Do some inner city work. Quit playing ecclesial monopoly in the suburbs, please.”

      Here in Lancaster County, PA, an old established Moravian church has sold its facility in the suburb, which it has occupied for a long time, to move to Lancaster City, using a rental space in a larger building as its new location. The church decided that they want to be a presence in the city, so they’re pulling up there old established growth and are re-planting in a place where they believe there is real need for Christian witness and service.

  16. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?
    The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church
    both by Roland Allen

  17. I think some churches need to close down.
    Sometimes a church ends up as a small group of people that have an unhealthy dynamic. It may be a few families or strong individuals who run the show. They may have no desire to either grow in their own spiritual lives or reach out to the community.
    You get people for whom it is a social club with their kind of people and they ride out the duration of any leader who comes in, resisting any attempts at change. And sometimes denominations see this and simply allow them to die rather than trying to keep things going.

  18. 14-15 years ago I was part of a group that shifted from a strong church to a revitalise a struggling church. Our sending church struggled after that even though they’d only lost 5-10% of their people. But our little church ended up sending people to plant two mini-churches.

    This year I am part of a newly planted church – we started in February and I had just moved into the area. This time I was not part of the sending church, so I got to see it from not-quite-the-inside as it started. I’m enjoying it there, although I fear my time living here may be limited.

    Often new churches are better at reaching the community than older ones, and more smaller ones allow for more every-member ministry than fewer larger ones. They are some common reasons for planting.

  19. I am reminded of a helpful quote from Bob Roberts Jr. He said something along the lines of “We need to stop planting worship services and begin planting church communities.”

    Based on my experience with church planting in Canada, I can’t but think that of those 490 people the vast majority were either already believers, or those who have had significant Christian influence at some point in their lives but have drifted from the church and maybe from faith.

    Canada is very post-Christian and it is my experience that most folks are not looking to the church for answers. For some a sizeable portion the church is the last place they will look. Hence, inviting folks to a service or a Bible Study tends not to accomplish much (this is based on personal experience). Hence, what church planting needs is not more good worship services. What church planting needs is communities of Jesus Followers living on mission together, embodying the Gospel with a neighbourhood… living under and living out the grace of God in radical ways. Generally, the people won’t come to us… we need to go to them. We need to live among them.

    The following article ‘On Fundamentally Changing the Expectations of Church Planting’ by David Fitch more fully expresses what I am suggested. http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/?p=4312

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