Why Most Churches Don’t Plant Churches

734161_church_pews.jpgIn a previous article I highlighted some of the reasons why many missionaries do not plant churches once they are on the field. I said, “They have not been discipled in a church planting atmosphere, and they come from churches that have never planted another church.” When prospective church planters are sent by North American churches to plant churches in other cultures, from churches which don’t plant churches where they are, it comes as no surprise that few churches are being planted in many fields. Many missionaries have been discipled in a maintenance ministry rather than in a multiplication ministry. The only church life they have experienced has been in a church that focused on member care and which had never been involved in planting churches. While these same churches provide support for missionaries who plant churches “over there,” they neglect to plant churches “over here” in their own North American context.

We have heard for a number of years that North America is one of the great unreached mission fields. Yet many churches continue their solitary existence with some thought but little action toward planting another church in their town, their state, or their country. They also commit few resources to accomplish what remains one of the great omissions in many Bible-believing churches. The question must be asked. Why do most established churches never plant other churches and after decades of existence are unable to point to another church they have planted? One of the problems many independent churches face is that they lack networks for partnership in church planting. Denominational and associational movements with unquestionable evangelical commitments are actively planting churches. They have something to teach us. Apart from some statewide associations here and there and initiatives from larger churches, fundamental churches seem to be lagging behind in church planting. Many churches simply lack the resources to plant churches on their own while other churches with resources may refuse to partner with church planters unless the new church looks like the supporting church. Will they emphasize the right Bible version, have the right polity, use the right name, practice the right standards, and employ the right music? There must be criteria for supporting church planters. Yet overly stringent demands may lead to supporting church planters who plant only ineffective church clones.

Your average church has relegated missions to one of the programs of the church, competing for resources with member-care ministries that provide more visual bang or immediate benefits. This is a theological problem and has been echoed by others who hold that “in the ecclesiocentric approach of Christendom, mission became only one of the programs of the church…. But it has taken us decades to realize that mission is not just a program of the church. It defines the church as God’s sent people” (Guder 1998, 6). Certainly some churches are missionary- or missions-minded and will designate a small percentage of their income to support missionary activities in what is often called “foreign missions.” However, recent studies have shown that “the money given by the people in the pews … is largely spent on the people in the pews. Only about three percent of money donated to churches and ministries went to aiding or ministering to non-Christians” (Rob Moll, “Scrooge Lives,” Christianity Today, 12/05/2008, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/december/10.24.html [accessed Feb. 19, 2009]). Now some might argue that this is only one measurement of a church’s priorities. Perhaps, but it cannot be ignored.

Think about this for a moment. Does “mission” or “missional” really define your church? Ask yourself, as a pastor or member of a church, what percentage of what comes in to your church goes out for ministry that does not immediately benefit your congregation? Does that lead to an uncomfortable stroke of conviction? We build institutions, establish programs, and create numerous para-church ministries. For what purpose? Are we primarily concerned with ministry for the benefit and comfort of believers? Certainly the church must be concerned with the edification and education of its church members. But when these pursuits lead to neglect in multiplying reproductive churches, it is time to reorient our focus.
Planting a new church usually takes far longer than anyone imagines, and it is not getting easier to plant churches in our present cultural climate. I understand the enormous challenges and the investment and sacrifice needed to launch a church plant. Over twenty-five years ago, my wife and I were sent to plant a church in Philadelphia, my hometown. I was fresh out of seminary, and we moved back into the city. God gave us a small core of people, my wife worked full-time for a few months, and our sending church gave us a small weekly paycheck. I taught Sunday school, led the singing (I know that’s scary), and preached the morning service, the evening service, and the Wednesday night service. I did my best, which means I often scrambled to study and now know that no one should be expected to preach and teach well that many times a week. My wife played the piano, worked in the nursery, taught children, and did ladies’ Bible studies. We knocked on doors and received new move-in contacts from “Welcome Wagon.” Within one year we were self-supporting, and my wife was able to quit her job. We rented four locations in as many years before God allowed us to purchase a church building replete with beautiful stained glass windows and a huge pipe organ. Christ built His church and allowed us to be co-laborers with Him.

Yet times have changed, thankfully in many respects. In some ways the challenges are more daunting in church planting than in the past. On one hand, more and more churches are planted by teams, as it should be when possible. More time is taken to prepare for a church launch in order to constitute a committed core of people who will enhance the sustainability of the ministry. More attention is given to demographic studies in order to better understand the target groups. On the other hand, door-to-door evangelism can no longer be done in many areas. Rental costs have skyrocketed. Team ministry requires more resources to send and sustain a team in place. There are higher expectations by attendees and prospective members in the area of facilities and technology.

Christianity has moved more from the mainstream to the margins of society, particularly in urban areas that have been largely forsaken by fundamental churches. Happily, there is a refreshing call today for Christians to return to the cities from the safety and sameness of their utopian suburbs, to reject mono-cultural homogeneity in order to embrace divinely ordered diversity, to reclaim ground that has been lost to triumphant secularism, and to engage the culture of ideas in urban centers of education and the arts. All this in order to preach Christ and Him crucified in the densely populated, multi-cultural arenas of spiritual warfare and to live as Christians in community in neighborhoods that have been broken by sin and are filled with despair. Churches that will not partner with other churches, that will not invest significantly in supporting church planting teams, and that continue to concentrate on themselves in an exclusionary way will not plant many churches. They will however miss out on many of God’s blessings and fail to accomplish numerous purposes for which God planted their churches in the first place. How refreshing and spiritually delightful it would be to see in our time fundamental churches at the forefront of church planting and for God’s glory!

Guder, Darrell L. ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.
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