Four Adjustments in Church Planting

I’m a big believer in church planting, but I have some concerns about some of our current approaches. I wrote about them on Tuesday:

  1. The greatest needs are outside of North America.
  2. Our methods are too expensive.
  3. Our casualty rate is high.
  4. Our models aren’t always healthy.

I’m familiar with some of these realities, because I’m neck deep in them myself. I believe we need to do better. I’m no expert in how to do this, but I’m thinking through a few ways that we may be able to take a more effective approach.

1. Prioritize areas of greatest need.

We need to reach people everywhere, but we should prioritize places with the greatest need. This means a continued emphasis on church planting overseas, as well as in the most unreached areas in North America. For instance, J.D. Payne has listed the most unreached counties and metro areas in the United States. In Canada, I’m pretty sure you can add downtown Toronto, Québec, Newfoundland, and many other communities to the list. We should pay careful attention to the areas of greatest need and plant churches there if we are to follow Paul’s example (Romans 15:20).

2. Develop lean models of church planting.

Ed Stetzer talks about opening more lanes in church planting:

We've adopted a mentality of "clergification," believing that the only people who can plant churches are full-time, paid pastors. As a result, we have a long line of prospective planters (because church planting is definitely the hot thing right now) all waiting for someone to say, “You're clergy. You're full-time. Here's your money.” And there's not enough money for all of them. We've bought all the church planting that we can buy, and that's not enough to start a church multiplication movement. So there they are . . . thousands of planters, stuck in line waiting for their turn and their funding. Unfortunately, many times, we let one's funding determine one's calling.

The solution is the same as Wal-Mart's. We need to open more lanes. I'm not saying to get rid of the fully-funded lane. We need to keep that lane open while we redirect some other people towards other lanes. For example, we need to create a strategy that helps some pastors become bi-vocational. We need to help them find other jobs and teach them how to lead a church while doing it. Another lane would provide permission to ethnic leaders to go ahead and plant churches rather than having to walk through several layers of Anglo hierarchy to do so.

As Payne says, "Jesus said to go and make disciples, not wait for pastors to plant churches."

There’s going to be a continued role for full time vocational church planters, but this alone won’t get the job done. We need cheaper, more reproducible models too.

3. Reduce the risk.

Church planting will always be risky, but there are ways to reduce the risk. We can lower the dollar threshold needed to plant a church, making it less likely that the new church will go broke. We can incubate church planters within existing churches, growing their leadership until they are ready to plant. As we enlarge the church planting table, we can also open more models that have a lower failure rate. We can prioritize coaching for church planters. We also need to actively learn from other planters and organizations on how they mitigate the risk. This is especially important if we are going to focus on the most unreached areas. The risk is already high; we need to do everything we can to reduce it.

4. Focus on the harvest.

J.D. Payne’s definition of church planting is right: it is evangelism that results in new churches. What if church planting focused only on reaching the unreached in a people group or a community? This would take longer, but it would truly be closer to the biblical pattern of church planting. It would be less about branding and worship services, and more about evangelism leading to the birth of a new church community.

We talk about multiplication, but our current approaches to church planting in North America make it hard for this to happen. I long to see church planting that prioritizes the areas of greatest need, uses lean models, mitigates the risk, and focuses on the harvest rather than the already-reached

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.

What Keeps a Church Planter Going?

It happens to most church planters. At some point, you wonder what possessed you to think you could start a church from scratch. All churches are fragile, but an infant church is especially at risk, and the mortality rate for infant churches is high.

I’ve heard someone say that a third of church plants thrive, a third limp along, and a third close. That means that two-thirds of church plants either struggle or fail. I’ve also heard that average church grows to only sixty people or so in the first four years. In places like Canada, that number is even lower. As I heard Ed Stetzer say recently, "Church planting is a hard, long slog.”

What keeps church planters going in the midst of the challenges, especially if you are in one of the two-thirds that isn’t experiencing rapid growth?

One of the things that has helped me is talking to small business owners in our community. Because our community is new, dozens of new businesses have started. In each case, the person who started the business has poured significant amounts of money into the venture. In each case, they are working crazy hours. In most cases, they didn’t have a hope of breaking even in the short term. In some cases, they’ve already closed. Just last week I heard of another new venture in our community that shut down.

If small business owners can pour their lives and risk everything to start a new business, why would I risk any less to plant the gospel? If they are willing to pour time and money into selling products, and sometimes fail, why would I be afraid to fail in what we’re doing?

I don’t think I’m far off in thinking this way. In 2 Timothy 2, Paul compared the risks and hazards of ministry to that of a soldier, athlete, and farmer. “I endure everything for the sake of the elect,” he writes, “that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10).

Church planting is hard, but not necessarily harder than the work that soldiers, athletes, farmers, and small business owners do. If they are willing to put a good part of their lives on the line, why wouldn’t I?

Planting at the Intersection of Receptivity, Need, and Passion

Where should we plant churches? With over four billion people on the planet who are not disciples of Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility to answer this question carefully. No one has helped me think through this question more than J.D. Payne, author of Discovering Church Planting.

Payne suggests that we plant at the intersection of receptivity and need:

  • Receptivity — Where are people ready to hear the gospel? While there is a role for planting in areas with low receptivity, it is best to prioritize areas where people are receptive to the gospel.
  • Need — Where do people need to hear the gospel? Where are there a high number of people who have never heard the gospel, in contrast to areas where there are a high percentage of believers? (See Payne’s recent post on Utica as an example. I would argue that Toronto is just as needy.)

Payne argues that we should prioritize areas of high need and receptivity as a matter of stewardship. While some may be called to areas of high need and low receptivity, this is not the norm.

As I think about this, I would add one more consideration:

  • Passion — Where am I particularly suited and impassioned to serve?

This is probably worth its own post, but I have found that when God calls someone to do something, he usually also gives them a great passion or burden for that work. 

We should therefore aim to plant churches at the intersection of receptivity, need, and passion.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

What Church Plants Have that Established Churches (Often) Don't

Church plants have very little. They have little money, few people, no building, and an uncertain future. Yet church plants have a few things that older churches often don't have, and that makes all the difference.

What do church plants have? Three qualities:

  • A unified vision — Mission drift plagues many established churches. New churches typically don't succumb to this, at least in the early years. If you are in a church plant, it's likely because you've heard the vision and bought into it. Otherwise, there's little to keep you there. This is a huge advantage.
  • An outward focus — Churches tend to turn inward as they grow older. A church plant can't afford to do this, or they will not get off the ground. New churches have a focus on evangelism and blessing the community that is essential.
  • A flexible ministry model — Having little can work to your advantage. You can make changes without having to reinvent everything. Newer churches can change almost anything at a moment's notice. They are not constrained by buildings and years of tradition. New churches are nimble.

Please note: it's possible to have all of the above in an established church, but not without a lot of work. By work, I mean suffering. Established churches have more stability and resources, but these often come at the expense of the qualities I describe above.

Here's the beautiful thing: newer churches can help older churches move towards these qualities, as older churches help newer churches with prayer and resources. Both newer churches and older churches have what the other needs. Both are essential in the Kingdom.