“Church planting? What is that?”
I still get asked that question, even after a couple years in. Any way you slice it the idea of church planting is often either misunderstood or, literally, unheard of. The questions are many, including:
- Why plant a new church in a city already filled with other churches?
- Why not focus instead on helping existing churches grow?
- Won’t starting a new church merely take people away from other churches?
- Shouldn’t we focus on cultivating better churches, rather than adding churches?
These are valid concerns that stem from a fundamental misunderstanding/ignorance of the complexities of revitalization, organizational life-cycles, demographic diversity, theological distinctions, leadership styles, evangelism, and general philosophies of ministry within existing churches. It’s more complicated than we may at first realize.
Therefore, to simplify it a bit, the following are seven guiding principles that drive church planting, in general, and are driving us, in particular, to plant a new church in the heart of the city of Seattle. Our second birthday is this April.
#1. JESUS’ FUNDAMENTAL CALL WAS TO PLANT GOSPEL-CENTERED CHURCHES.
Matthew 28:18-20 is known as the “Great Commission” from Jesus to the Church. It is a commission to “make disciples”, “of all nations”, to “baptize”, and to “teach”. In other words, Jesus commissions his followers as a people who are sent to all peoples, to invite them to become one of God’s people, that results in a new redeemed people, the church. It’s a commission to plant churches not merely isolated acts of sharing our faith. Even the act of baptism itself signifies “incorporation into a worshipping community with accountability and boundaries.” (1) (cf Acts 2:42-47) It is apparent the apostles interpreted Jesus’ words in this way as they immediately began to plant churches after Pentecost. (cf Acts 13f)
#2. MORE PEOPLE ARE REACHED THROUGH MORE GOSPEL-CENTERED CHURCHES.
Statistics show that the more churches there are that preach and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the more people there will be who are reached with the Gospel. The opposite is also true; fewer Gospel-centered churches results in fewer people changed by the Gospel.
“Dozens of studies confirm that the average new church gains most of its new members (60-80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshipping body, while churches over 10-15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer from other congregations.”
- Tim Keller, Church Planting Manual p30
In other words, the more new churches that are planted, the more new people there will be who are reached with the Gospel. Keller argues that if churches over 10-15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer growth and the majority of churches in any given context fall into that category, the number of active Christian churchgoers will be shrinking even if some of those churches are doubling in attendance. In this scenario, which is the case in Seattle, the church growth in existing churches only helps to offset the normal declines of the older churches. Ground is still lost.
“No time in American history has the need for new churches been more critical. New church planters are needed now to scale back the decline and death of existing churches. In order to survive Christ’s church must be replanted in every generation.”
- Joel Comiskey, Planting Churches that Reproduce p28
We need lots of different kinds of churches to reach lots of different kinds of people with the same Gospel.
#3. NEWER CHURCHES REACH MORE PEOPLE THAN OLDER CHURCHES.
Not only do more Gospel-centered churches reach more people; newer churches reach more people than older churches.
The average new [church] will bring 6-8 times more new people into the life of the Body of Christ than an older congregation of the same size…What does this mean practically? The only wide-scale way to bring in lots of new Christians to the Body of Christ in a permanent way is to plant new churches.”
- Tim Keller, Church Planting Manual p30
Joel Comiskey provides a possible explanation of why this is true…
”Church plants need new people, new ideas and new vision if they are going to emerge out of the darkness into the sunlight. Established churches tend to be more concerned about building upkeep, the personality of the preacher, who’s on the board, and the program schedule for the upcoming year…Church plants are completely stripped of all illusions. Do or die. Reach out or close the doors. Invite or implode. Church [plants] are desperate for growth. Without growth, the church folds. This reality keeps church [plants] on their knees, crying out to God.”
- Joel Comiskey, Planting Churches that Reproduce p31
#4. BIG CHURCHES ARE NOT ALWAYS THE MOST EFFECTIVE.
It is easy to assume that larger churches are more effective than smaller churches. Though that is true in some areas, it is not true in all areas.
“Statistics do not support the assumption that size is necessarily the best way to reach people. Though large churches are often more cost effective than small churches, new churches are more effective than large churches, particularly in evangelism. On a per-capita basis, new churches win more people to Christ than established churches.”
- Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches p7
Additionally, Seattle is a paradoxical, independent and slightly-anarchist city. We love coffee, but prefer independent coffee shops. We love music, particularly of the independent, home-grown variety. We like creativity and innovation, as long as it was done out of a garage and not a high-rise. We don’t take well to “the man” – no matter what form he (she?) comes in. Big churches in Seattle can be viewed in the same way. Though big churches have their niches, Seattle is a city of independent, distinctive neighborhoods, each calling for an independent, distinctive, local gospel expression.
#5. PLANTING NEW CHURCHES IS OFTEN MORE EFFECTIVE THAN CHURCH REVITALIZATION.
Whatever you call it – replanting, revitalizing, or rejuvenating – helping to save plateauted, declining or dead churches is next to impossible.
“Saving dead and dying churches is more difficult and ultimately more costly than starting new ones. Some authorities even argue that changing a rigid, tradition-bound congregation is almost impossible…starting new churches is much easier and, perhaps, a better overall stewardship of kingdom resources, just as it’s sometimes more cost-effective to purchase a new vehicle, rather than pouring money into an old one to keep it running like new.”
- Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches p11
Rather, argues Peter Wagner…
“Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”
- C. Peter Wagner, Strategic Growth p168
#6. THERE IS A GREAT NEED.
There is need everywhere. Take Seattle for example. Amidst the beauty, creativity, ingenuity, and passion of Seattlites less than 4% of the nearly 600,000 people here identify themselves Bible-believing evangelical Christians. The Northwest has been described as the “None Zone” because it is home to the nations highest density of people who say they have no religion, including atheists & agnostics, making sense of Seattle’s ranking as fourth least churched city in the country. In 2008 Forbes magazine gave Seattle the dubious national rankings of 3rd Greediest City (4th, 11th, and 16th richest Americans call Seattle home), 4th Most Lustful City (124% more sales of contraceptives than the national average), and 4th Most Envious City (crime). The majority of large evangelical churches have either left the city, are located outside the city or import their Sunday message via video. To the average Seattlite, evangelical protestantism is invisible.
#7 EVERY GENERATION MUST REDISCOVER THE GOSPEL AND THAT OFTEN HAPPENS THROUGH GOD CALLING HIS PEOPLE TO PLANT NEW BIBLE-BELIEVING, JESUS-LOVING, GOSPEL-CENTERED CHURCHES.
After years of prayer, counsel and consideration, Jen and I believed that Jesus called us to plant a new church in the heart downtown Seattle. So that’s what we’re doing. Only our good and gracious God knows what our future holds, but so far so good. Contact me if you're looking for a church plant to partner with or a place to receive training to plant.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21
(1) Adapted from “Why Plant Churches?” by Tim Keller