What Is Church Planting?
You’ve seen them in your community. They’re popping up in old buildings, fields, and other empty spaces. They show up with catchy names and make lots of loud noise, often attracting quite a crowd in the process. But what are they? Where do they come from? And why are they here?
I’m talking, of course, about church plants—when a new local church begins where none had previously existed.
Church planting is the process of beginning new gatherings of Christ-followers and God-fearers, led by church planters, people who are fulfilling the Great Commission through commitment to a specific vision in a particular community and context.1 Church plants can be autonomous, draw support from a denomination, exist as a campus of another church, or come about in some other way.2 No matter the model, though, the church plant exists as a new iteration of the body of Christ on earth.
Planters and Pioneers
Church plants are not always the first church in a geographical area. But church planters nonetheless have a pioneer mentality. Unlike settlers, who help populate an area after it’s been explored and has some infrastructure, church planters aim to boldly go where no one has gone before—using means and methods that haven’t been used before and interacting with people who have never before been effectively reached with the gospel.
Church planters are “men and women who have in some way committed their lives to the exhausting but exciting venture of faith that includes the planned process of starting” a new local church.3 They’re committed to what is often a long and difficult process, willing to risk their time and energy for the sake of reaching more people with the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done.
Eventually, of course, many church planters become church growers, those who lead a church into the maturity of equipping more and more disciplines who are themselves equipping disciples.4 In contrast to established congregations, church planters are often able to break molds and try new things for the sake of advancing the Kingdom of God in their communities and contexts.
Of course, there are already a lot of established churches. So why do people plant new churches?
Why Plant a Church?
There are many reasons to consider church planting.
First, church planting represents a tangible way for Christians to fulfill the Great Commission, to “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19-20). No place on earth is 100% churched. While there are plenty of locales with lots of churches, in no area does every belong to a church (let alone attend one on a regular basis). For example, St. Louis is a traditionally Christian city, with large numbers of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal churches. Yet something like 80% of people living in St. Louis did not attend any sort of church last weekend.5
Second, innovation and expansion are demonstrably workable ways to bring non-interested people into the community of faith. We’re intuitively familiar with this phenomenon: many people like to try new things, particularly when they don’t already have loyalty to something else. The rise of the nones—those who increasingly turn away from established churches, denominations, and ways of interacting with religious ideas and practices—has been well established.6 One major benefit of church plants is their status as something new and exciting within a particular culture and community, which positions them for maximal relational, missional, and evangelistic impact—particularly to the “nones.”
Third, the vast majority of established churches have plateaued or are in decline.7 Misalignment on mission, a lack of evangelistic zeal, ineffective leaders, commitment to sin, prioritization of comfort, and a whole host of other reasons have left many American churches without the means or desire to reach those who are not already part of their churches. While church planting is by no means the only possible solution to the ongoing decline of churches, it is one powerful way to push back against these trends.8
How Does Church Planting Help?
There are numerous benefits to planting churches.
Church plants advance the Kingdom of God.9 When more and more believers gather together, proclaiming the gospel, preaching the Scriptures, celebrating the sacraments, and living in community, the Kingdom of God tangibly advances in our world.
Church plants allow for more creative and innovative ways of doing church and sharing the gospel.10 As culture, technology, and communication continue to change, the church will need to continue its millennia-long pursuit of sharing the gospel in terms that non-Christians can understand. New churches often represent the cutting-edge of this process, as they can attempt ways of connecting with people that established churches cannot.
Church plants evangelize more vigorously than established churches.11 Newer churches are more likely to seek to attract newcomers, and often structure their outreach and ministry to focus more on those outside Christian faith,
Church plants have a better chance of engaging the culture they’re trying to reach.12 Rather than speaking to an established Christian subculture, church plants bring unreached or under-reached subcultures and geographies into direct contact with the gospel.13
Church plants are often built to last by being purpose-driven and simple.14 Although focus, order, longevity, effectiveness, and growth do not themselves constitute the telos of the church, these characteristics often demonstrate the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the local church.
Church plants often connect better with unreached communities.15 Community and relationship develop around similarity, shared viewpoints or experiences. When a church plant is led by someone in a parallel life stage, geography, situation, or background as the surrounding community, that church has a better chance of reaching those people.
Church plants often connect better with younger generations.16 As Boomers and Gen-Xers grow older and Millennials and iGen-ers take more of an active role in culture, the church will need to do a better job of forming these generations. Church plants that are viewed as “relevant” and “engaging” by younger people may do a better job building relationships with them.
The Problem of Innovation
As commonly framed, Christianity often has problems with new things. Whether it’s new ways of thinking about Jesus (as during those pesky Christological controversies in the early Church), framing theology (like during the Reformation), using academic scholarship to inform faith (as in the modernist-fundamentalist debates), or thinking about human sexuality (like in many contemporary churches), Christianity and newness don’t always get along.
In part, this is because the message of Christianity claims to transcend time: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). If the gospel is true, then it cannot fundamentally change. The other part of this conversation is that Christians have not always been able to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to what is core to faith and what is not. Thus the ongoing tension between preserving the veracity of what is truly important for Christian faith while simultaneously speaking that truth into ever changing contexts and with regard for ever changing concerns.
What the average 21st century American living in St. Louis, MO thinks about is very different than what a medieval farmer living in India would have thought about, which are both very different than the concerns of a Roman centurion serving in first-century Alexandria—but Christianity has always aimed to speak to every person’s situation. Thus, Christians have always wrestled with the tension of holding as true “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”17 and proclaiming that Truth to different audiences.
Is Christianity fundamentally opposed to that which is new? No, but we must guard the deposit of truth that has been entrusted to us.18 The gospel never changes, even though the manner in which people live in gospel community does.19 Innovation is thus not an inherent problem for Christianity, provided that the innovation fits within the bounds of Christ-centered theology and praxis. As with so many other things, then, the act of church planting is neither inherently good or bad—it falls to the manner in which the planting is undertaken to make such a judgement. The best church planting endeavors are those which recognize the reality of ongoing change in our world and say to that change, “The Good News of Christ is valid here as well—let us show you how.”
Challenges of Church Planting
Obviously, church planting is not all fun-and-games. There are plenty of challenges inherent in starting a new church, including those of:
- Momentum. Overcoming friction is difficult; it’s hard to get something new moving.
- Change. By-and-large people like things the way they are, but church plants require people do something different—sometimes radically so.
- Imagination. People often struggle to imagine things in ways that are sufficiently unlike what they’ve previously experienced.
- Finances. New churches cost money, which can be hard to raise in an existing organization, let alone for something that doesn’t exist yet.
- Leadership. Finding the right people to lead a plant can be nearly impossible, especially since the established church is already facing a leadership shortage.
- Busyness. Church planting takes a lot of time and energy, resources that are hard to come by without intentional living amidst our increasingly busy lives.
- Continuation. Even once a church plant gets started, it’s often hard for the church to stay outsider-focused or remain a catalyst in its community.
- Growth. Even when a plant continues to fulfill its purpose, it will often face growing pains as ministries and resources need to scale.
Church planting is no easy task. These challenges and the others that inevitably arise ensure that even with prayer, hard work, learning from other plants, and dedicated leadership, the realities of church planting require long, difficult, and often painful work.
Called to Plant a Church?
Despite those challenges, Christ has called His Church to expand to the ends of the earth.20 Much of the rhetoric around contemporary church planting focuses on the leadership abilities of the planter and the capabilities of the planting team.21 While that emphasis makes sense—those who lead in the Church are called to high standards—the truth is that whatever a church plant accomplishes occurs by the grace of God and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, the Triune God leads the church planting process: He is the builder of His Church.22 Those men and women who are called to commit their lives to starting and growing new local churches are but part of the process—humble servants in the ongoing advancement of God’s Kingdom.
1 There are a number of formal definitions of church planting, many of which focus on churches that are outward focused in their communities. See Chester and Timmis, Total Church, 85 and Aubrey Malphurs, The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting, 17-18.
2 See “What are Multisite Churches?” for some insight into the contours of many modern church planting movements.
3 Malphurs, 25
4 Although some planters, like Francis Chan in recent years, follow an apostolic model of starting churches and then rapidly moving on to another plant. See We Are Church for more information.
5 Malphurs, 7. Outreach Magazine, “An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America.”
6 Pew Forum, “’Nones’ on the Rise.”
7 Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, 13. Stetzer indicates that 80-85% of established churches have plateaued or are in decline.
8 Stetzer and Dodson write about how some churches have effectively battled their decline in Comeback Churches: How 300 Turned Around and Yours Can, Too.
9 Tim Keller, “Why Church Planting?”
10 See Anthony Siegrist, “The Church Needs to Be a Place for Radical Innovation.”
11 Malphurs, 9. Chester and Timmis, 86-7.
12 Stetzer, 1-2
13 Stetzer, 51. On this reality, Stetzer writes, “Church planters who immerse themselves in the new culture without a commitment to traditional patterns will be the best change agents.”
15 See Ed Stetzer, “Six Reasons Established Churches Should Plant Churches.”
17 Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory 2.6.
18 See 2 Timothy 2:14.
19 Something I posit that even our Orthodox and Catholic brethren understand this; there is something fundamentally different about using the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in 21st century America as compared with 6th century Constantinople. The liturgy itself may largely be the same, but the world it is speaking to is different and—because of that—the reality of the missio Dei is different as well.
20 See Acts 1:8.
21 See Hybels, Courageous Leadership.
22 See Matthew 16:18.
Image courtesy of Outreach Magazine.