Four Problems with Church Planting

I’m a big believer in church planting, yet I have some concerns with some of our approaches. Today I want to outline some of my concerns. On Thursday I’ll suggest some tweaks in how we plant that address some of these concerns.

1. The greatest needs are outside of North America.

Paul said, “And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation…” (Romans 15:20). While there are many people who have not been reached with the gospel in North America, I also agree with J.D. Payne who writes:

I am sometimes asked, “Where do we begin our disciple making and church planting activities?” My general response is, “The greatest needs are outside of North America.” It is in those locations that we find the greatest physical and spiritual needs. Most of the two billion who have yet to hear the good news live outside of our context.

2. Our methods are too expensive.

J.D. Greear writes:

Many church plants start with a yearly budget of $200,000 or more, which means that before they’ve even planted the church, they need to grow the church to 200+ just to become self-sustaining. For many planters, especially in difficult contexts, this is simply unrealistic. Unfortunately, most don’t recognize the mistake until year 3 when their funding begins to run out.

Another problem with this approach is the sheer amount of money it will require given the number of churches we need to plant. Southern Baptists have a goal of planting 15,000 churches by 2022. Even if every plant only required $100,000 each, that’s 1.5 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money in a day when many of our churches are plateaued or declining.

See also Trevin Wax's interview with Jimmy Scroggins.

Then there is the human cost. Truckloads of stage gear, chairs and childcare infrastructure have to be set up and torn down each week. It’s a ton of work and key volunteers can burn out easily.

3. Our casualty rate is high.

The North American Mission Board has found that the survivability rate of church plants in their study was 68 percent after four years. That means that almost a third of church plants fail. This is costly, both in terms of money and people.

4. Our models aren’t always healthy.

I can't say it any better than J.D. Payne:

We do not need another flavor of church in the Baskin Robbins of North American Christianity; we need missionary bands to settle for nothing less than disciple-making that results in new churches...

Are there times when a church should hive-off members to begin work in another area? Yes.  Is it okay for a congregation to send out a pastor with several church members to plant an “instant” church in a community? Yes, under certain circumstances.

However, such models tend to be difficult to reproduce (in view of four billion unbelievers), pose contextualization challenges, are costly, and often do not result in a great amount of disciples made.  The weight of the biblical definition for church planting is not found here.  Such models should be the exception when it comes to church planting.  Today, they are often the expectation. 

Again: I believe in church planting. We need to take seriously, though, that these four realities are keeping us from being as effective as we need to be. On Thursday, I’ll suggest some tweaks in how we can address these concerns.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

God Doesn’t Want Matt Chandler to Be Your Pastor

God doesn’t want Matt Chandler to be your pastor (unless you happen to be in his church). God has placed your pastor in your church to care specifically for you.

9 Marks of an Unhealthy Church

Here are nine marks that your church–even one that believes the Bible, preaches the gospel, and embraces good ecclesiology–may be unhealthy.

How to Be Happy When Someone Leaves Your Church

When another church prospers, I rejoice in God’s grace to them.

5 Things People Blame The Church For ... But Shouldn’t

Here’s the challenge: Be part of the solution. And the solution is not to walk away or be endlessly critical.

12 Ways to Overcome Fear and Confront like a Master

Excellence requires confrontation.

MLK on Creative Street Sweepers

Anything you do with emotional investment and creativity is a type of art, and all work is to be done in an artful — rather than merely utilitarian — way.

Under My Skin

The emerging church was all the rage, and I had just picked up Don Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church. I noticed that he mentioned a church I’d never heard about before: Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Speaking of Redeemer, Carson wrote, “It displays all the strengths of the emerging church movement, while avoiding most of its weaknesses.”

I began to look into Redeemer, and soon discovered a world of gospel-centered renewal that I never knew existed. My own soul was changed through Keller’s preaching, and then by discovering others like Jack Miller. My ministry approach changed as I began to see the centrality of gospel doctrine for the life of the church.

It feels like the other shoe dropped last year. When I picked up The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund, Jr., I expected a good read about gospel doctrine. I didn’t expect that it would go deeper and describe something I'd never really considered, never mind experienced: the importance of a gospel culture. It's a manifesto. Ortlund writes:

The current rediscovery of the gospel as doctrine is good, very good.  But a completely new discovery of the gospel as culture — the gospel embodied in community — will be infinitely better, filled with a divine power such as we have not yet seen.

From a distance, I’ve been sensing some of that culture through Immanuel Church in Nashville. It’s made me jealous that we experience that here as we plant a church in Toronto. “A gospel culture is not easy,” Ortlund writes. “But it is possible.”

There are a handful of books that have gotten under my skin. This is one of them. I’m forever grateful the current focus on gospel centrality. I’m so hungry now that we experience what Ortlund describes as gospel culture, or die trying. Maybe you’ll join me.

Answering Life's Two Most Haunting Questions

I’m in the middle of reading Russ Ramsey’s excellent book Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as we come to Easter. It’s good, but I had a moment yesterday when I recognized myself in the book, and it wasn’t pretty.

Ramsey retells Jesus’ one of Jesus’ many confrontation with the Pharisees:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:8-11 ESV)

It’s a familiar story. Ramsey’s commentary, though, exposed a little of my own heart.

But they were not unlike the rest of the world who wanted so badly to know the answers to life’s two most haunting questions: “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” The world has historically measured such things based on possessions, reputations, influence, or family name. When power tells the story of worth, everyone postures themselves for the best possible seats at the table of life. But Jesus proposed another way. What if people didn’t find their position in this world according to how they compared to others, but rather by what God said of them? What if this were all that mattered— the Father’s affection for his children?

A lot of life and a lot of ministry is spent trying to answer the questions, “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” As a result, life and ministry can be about trying to establish our place before men, rather than joyfully accepting the lowest positions as we rest in what God has said about us.

This isn’t a new concept, but what’s new is recognizing how powerful this is in my own heart. I’ve long known the importance of living out of God’s approval rather than earning approval from others through my efforts. How quickly, though, I forget.

When it comes to the questions, “Am I valuable, and am I lovable?” we no longer have to look to our reputation or ministry success. Those question have been answered. We just have to remind the Pharisee within us of that daily. The gospel frees us from having to validate our worth through our ministries.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

3 Ways to Be a Friend of Sinners

Given the priority of scripture, and specifically the life of Jesus, I would prefer to come down on the side of being a friend of sinners. How do we do that, though, in a way that is faithful to his word, and honors God all the while?

Seven Ways We Can Guard and Repair Relationships

  1. Let’s rejoice in one another, because the Lord rejoices in us.
  2. Let’s create an environment of trust rather than negative scrutiny.
  3. Let’s judge ourselves, even as we give each other the benefit of the doubt...

Parenting Means Wrestling Demons

There is a war on children, and we are all, in one way or another, playing some role in it.

3 Well-meaning (but Unhelpful) Approaches During Grief

Through the years as a pastor, and now as a husband more intimately involved, I have seen at least three well-meaning but unhelpful approaches to a grieving person.

Preaching: 3 Questions for Managing the Heart

What we, and our churches, need most is for us to be engaging our hearts as we prepare to preach, after we preach and as we work through our own emotions in the days following.

How the Local Movement is Revitalizing Church

Thousands of Christians are reclaiming the ancient idea of the “parish” and weaving together a shared life in the place they call home.

Are You Ready to Minister in the Cities?

Consider cities. They are the next last frontier of Christian missions.