When I was a young christian, most churches were part of a denomination and most people knew what denomination they belonged to, even if they never actually attended. People didn’t switch denominations very often. When they moved house, they would generally find the closest church of their denomination and attend it.
Most new churches began when a new suburb was developed and the denomination would set up a new congregation. There were few independent churches and they were generally quite small.
But it’s all different now. People change denominations easily. There are many independent churches, many of which began as a “church plant” from a larger independent congregation. And increasingly, the denominations are “planting churches” too. But is this a good thing?
Stemming the tide and growing the church
In most English speaking countries, the numbers of people attending church are declining, A few individual congregations are growing, but often this is ‘transfer growth’ from smaller struggling congregations. Some churches are making converts, but others are losing members, so numbers continue to decline.
Churches often live in the past (not surprising since their age profile is generally older than the general population) and have often lost meaningful contact with the community around them. Church plants are aimed at making fresh contact, drawing in new members by conversions or renewing the faith of former members.
Generally, a church plant involves a pastor and team leaving a “sending” church, setting up a rented building in another location (sometimes even another town), and then after a fanfare of publicity, starting to hold services. (The picture above is loosely modelled on the publicity for an actual church plant.)
But are they an effective strategy to meet their goals? Missiologist C. Peter Wagner has said: “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.” Is this right? And how does it work?
Doing something missional is better than doing nothing
Statistics from the National Church Life Survey in Australia (NCLS) show that churches that attempt some form of missional activities generally make more converts than those that don’t.
Getting out is better than staying put
Studies in the US (e.g. here and here), England, Netherlands (there is a link to an English summary at the bottom) and the NCLS study in Australia all show that starting a new church is a better mission strategy than doing mission from an existing church. More new people are attracted and the new church will generally have greater vitality.
There seem to be several reasons for this. New churches are generally younger and the congregation and minister are more focused on mission than maintenance. Newer churches are more flexible and innovative so they better target the needs of the communities around them and attract more and younger newcomers.
But there are also problems …..
Considerable resources are often required to fund the type of new church we think will be attractive, including rent, pastor salary and publicity. A great deal of effort goes into just establishing the church, before any unbeliever has an opportunity to hear their message. If the community isn’t receptive, the church plant may fail, and all this effort is wasted.
The large set-up effort can mean that the mission comes second, and is only addressed after the logistics are sorted.
Often the church plant team comes in from outside the local community, and much time may be required before it is accepted.
A church plant continues the ‘attractional‘ strategy of inviting non-believers to join our church – a strategy that is known to be ineffective with the majority of the population, especially in some subcultures and places, and will mostly only attract people with some previous church background.
In poorer communities, this approach to church planting may be seen as elitist and poorer people may be alienated from it. Such communities may never be able to support a pastor and this type of church, making it less likely that a church plant will be attempted in such locations.
Studies show that many people who attend new church plants are drawn from other churches nearby, sometimes leading to the demise of the neighbouring church. One observer reports seeing the new church actually take over the older church.
It is a relatively slow process. Experience shows that most sending churches, and most planted churches, take a decade or more to be strong enough to plant another church.
The culture of the church plant is determined by the sending church rather than by the local community. If there are significant differences in culture, this is a critical problem.
Critics argue that modern church planting follows methods contrary to both Jesus and Paul.
A better way?
We need new types of church
If we want to attract and minister to our postmodern western societies, we need new types of churches, with some or all of these characteristics:
- less structure and hierarchy;
- focus more on the journey of faith;
- a more open and inclusive community (no ‘them and us’, no ‘in or out’);
- less emphasis on buildings;
- flexible, nimble, responsive to the community around them.
This means being part of their host community, similar to how Jesus became one of us. The church will serve that community (that is part of the good news of the kingdom of God) and identify with it. It will speak and live in the language of that community and address the concerns of that community.
Many such churches have been built around works of service, especially in under-privileged areas, for example:
- training unemployed young people in job skills
- teaching English as a second language
- setting up communal spaces such as coffee shop, art studio and meeting rooms
- counselling services and self esteem groups
- small visible businesses
- join volunteer community groups, take part in local festivals, etc
This isn’t just an effective tactic. It recognises that the kingdom of God touches and transforms all parts of our lives. It is a living example of the kingdom to those who are outside it but looking for something that works.
Plant a mission, not a church
Instead of entering a community with an agenda and a pattern of church life that reflects where the planters (missionaries) have come from, new churches should begin with mission. Christians living in the community serve the community and look to share the good news with people who may never come to a church, but may be open to the help and new life that Jesus brings.
This type of ministry won’t begin with a fanfare. The team will be earning their living in secular work rather than the leader being a paid pastor. Only when they start to make converts – I’d prefer to call them disciples – will a church start, and it will be on familiar territory for the new disciples (“growing faith where life happens”), and in a form that is relevant and natural to them. New disciples will feel more at home and feel easier about inviting their own friends and familiy.
Preferably, a new disciple who is a person of significance in the host community will lead the new church, with support from the missionaries. If this isn’t possible, the missionaries will train up leaders and elders quickly, just as Paul did.
This new church may not have a ‘worship service’ as we understand it, for it may not be helpful in that context. Tall Skinny Kiwi notes a “SHIFT AWAY FROM planting churches towards NOT planting a church at all but focusing on a wider range of transforming Kingdom activities. Some church planters are delaying the worship service piece of the pioneer missional ministry for as long as possible and sometimes indefinitely.”
Going to ignored subgroups
Cross cultural ministry doesn’t just happen when missionaries go to foreign countries. Even within the one suburb there may be many different subcultures, some of which never mix, and many of which wouldn’t be seen dead in a church – dance culture, special interest groups, those suffering addictions or mental illnesses, aged and shut-ins, the unemployed, environmental activists, public housing dwellers, minority ethnic groups, etc.
Modern church plants rarely touch many of these groups because they are of a very different culture and have little connection. These groups are as precious to God as anyone else, and it requires special, incarnational, ministry to reach them. We shouldn’t neglect them.
Conventional western church, with formalised and structured services, long sermons, and complex doctrines requires literate and focused people. Missional churches should be able to present a succinct and relevant pattern of teaching that is easily learnt and easily passed on. With this, new members are able to pass on their faith quickly and growth continues.
Small may be better
These sorts of churches may never be large, but that may be good. Of course bigger churches have some advantages as well as disadvantages, but they will be impossible in some subcultures and locations. Simple churches (as they are often called) are a growing phenomenon, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them. There are tools and ideas available to help them to work, grow and multiply.
The missional church
Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch say: “A Missional Church is the hope of the post-Christendom era.”
In many situations, a truly missional church will be more like a rabbit compared to the institutional church elephant. Hopefully the two will work together to plant many missions which will become churches.