Why plant a church? Why plant a church in the Bible Belt? Why plant a church when there are already so many churches? Do we really need more churches?
In this post, I want to explain the thinking behind church planting that helped to convince me of its ongoing need today in America.
For some time, I was convinced of the importance of church planting in global missions, but, probably like you, I wasn’t sure how it made sense in the United States because we have so many churches already.
But the problem was I did not understand the thinking and strategy behind church planting.
Here is how I first thought that church planting worked:
- You have an area.
- It is filled with people (the gray dots), but no churches. So what do you do?
- You plant a church (the white cross).
- The church begins to grow and do its work.
- Mission Complete.
Now, you move on to another area and plant another church.
But there were at least THREE problems with the way I was thinking.
Problem 1: Diminishing Outreach of Growing Churches
As any church grows, it will struggle to keep reaching its area (precisely because it is growing).
I know that sounds counterintuitive, but this is true of any growing church. As a church grows, the center gets stronger, which is a good and natural thing, but the outer edges of its reach slow and weaken (Keller, 2002). Certainly, it will keep reaching out and making converts, but its efficiency and pace will diminish.
And the problem is, as you can see on diagram 2, there are still people who have not been reached. No single church, no matter how big it is, can reach every person in an area (Keller, 2012).
Problem 2: Population Complexity
In Diagram 1, I represented people with gray dots, but it’s not that simple.
The reality is there are all kinds of different peoples and stories and cultures in an area. One missiologist (Stetzer, 2014) has remarked that we tend to think of American culture as a pancake (i.e., that we’re all the same), but in reality, American culture is more like a waffle, with many different pockets of culture.
So, for example, in my context, even though our city is fairly small and homogenous, we recognize different regions (East, West, North, South) and different neighborhoods within those regions. And with each of these pockets, comes a set of known stereotypes.
Again, the point here is that no single church, no matter how good it is, will be able to connect to or reach all of these different kinds of people in an area.
Problem 3: Church Decline and Population Growth
In that original diagram I showed you, the variables were static, 30 gray dots and one church. But that’s not accurate. Two things are happening all the time: Churches are closing, and the population is growing.
Let me give you a few stats here:
- Every year 3500-4000 churches close (Stetzer, 2006, p. 13).
- In 1900, there were 28 churches for every 10k Americans. In 2004, 11 for every 10k.
- From 1991 to 2004, the number of unchurched adults doubled in the U.S. (Barna quoted in Malphurs, 2004).
- Side note: Are these number accurate? Probably not. The numbers are probably worse (Malphurs, 2004, p. 36) because in America going to church is still considered a good thing, so people lie about their attendance.
- There are now 120 million secular folks in U.S. (Stetzer, 2006).
What do these numbers mean? They mean…
- The U.S. is now the largest mission field in the Western Hemisphere (Stetzer, 2006).
- The U.S. is now the fifth largest mission field in the world (Stetzer, 2006), out of 196.
So, what must the Church do? How do we address…
- The diminishing outreach of growing churches?
- Population complexity?
- Churches decline and population growth?
We plant new churches!
“A city needs all kinds of churches reaching all kinds of people” (Keller, 2012, p. 20).
Not only is church planting is reflective God’s character and consistent with the New Testament mode, but, if we drill down into the studies and stats, we see that this strategy addresses these three problems best.
So, how does church planting solve Problem 1, the problem of diminishing outreach for growing churches?
Church Planting reaches NEW People.
Missiologist Peter Wagner has famously observed:
- “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches” (quoted in Malphurs, 2004).
And as Ed Stetzer notes, studies consistently affirm this:
- “On a per-capita basis, new churches win more people to Christ than established churches” (Stetzer, 2006, p. 7).
I will not get into the various reasons new churches reach more unchurched people (See also, Beynon, 2011, p. 17 on smaller churches working better. Also, Stetzer and Bird, 2010), but the point is simply that they do. And this point is not contested. So, if you want to keep reaching unbelievers, plant a church.
How about Problem 2, the problem of Population Complexity. How does church planting address the challenge of population complexity?
Church Planting Reaches DIFFERENT People.
Studies consistently show that church plants are better at reaching (Keller, 2002; Malphurs, 2004; Stetzer, 2006):
- New generations.
- New residents.
- New people groups.
Why? Not because the existing churches are doing a bad job or don’t care. Not at all. But simply because more churches means more opportunities and more points of cultural connection.
Pastor and church planter, Tim Keller (2012) writes, “One church, no matter how big, will never be able to serve the needs of such a diverse city. Only a movement of hundreds of churches, small and large, can penetrate literally every neighborhood and people group in the city” (p. 362).
And finally, how does church planting address Problem 3, the problem of church decline and population growth? Well, this may seem pretty obvious, but…
Church Planting Reaches MORE People.
I guess this is pretty obvious, but just to say it plainly: You’re not going to disciple more people with less churches. You’re not going to reach a growing population with a shrinking church base.
- Studies show (Stetzer, 2006, p. 5) for a denomination to grow and offset declining churches, it needs to plant at the rate of 3% of its total churches PER YEAR(!).
- Studies show (Greear, 2015) that to keep up with population growth we need to DOUBLE the rate of churches being planted right now. That’s 7,200 new churches PER YEAR(!).
So Plant a Church
So, if you want to have an impact in a community, plant a church.
If you wish to make more and better disciples, plant a church.
If you wish to see the gospel penetrate new and different people groups, keep planting churches.
If you wish to see the gospel anchored in new generations, plant a church.
If you wish to reaching a growing, diversifying population, keep planting churches.
A city needs all kinds of churches reaching all kinds of people.
Beynon, G. (2011). Planting for the Gospel: A hands-on guide to church planting. Christian Focus.
Greear, J. D. (2015). Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send. Zondervan.
Keller, T. (2002). Why Plant Churches. Retrieved from http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Why_Plant_Churches-Keller.pdf
Keller, T. (2012). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Zondervan.
Malphurs, A., & Aldrich, J. (2004). Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century: A Comprehensive Guide for New Churches and Those Desiring Renewal (3 edition). Baker Books.
Stetzer, E. (2006). Planting Missional Churches. B&H Academic.
Stetzer, E. (2014). 5 Reasons Established Churches Should Plant Churches. The Exchange | A Blog by Ed Stetzer. https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/june/5-reasons-established-churches-should-plant-churches.html
Stetzer, E., & Bird, W. (2010). Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers. Jossey-Bass.