Should we Plant More Churches?

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Recently Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC spoke with a number of reporters at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  The talk and conversation covered a number of important issues. You can read the entire talk/interview here: http://www.eppc.org/publication/dr-timothy-keller-at-the-march-2013-faith-angle-forum/. Today’s blog post, however, lifts out just one part of his talk on the place of church planting. 

After you read the post take a bit of time and respond to Keller’s ideas and to where you see the CRC in this area of church planting.

FRED BARNES, The Weekly Standard:  One of the things that you have been very involved in, Dr. Keller, is planting churches.

DR. KELLER: Yes.

MR. BARNES: I think you planted dozens, hundreds, scores, so on. Could you elaborate on that a little and how important that is in keeping evangelical Christianity from shrinking, and, rather, you say growing moderately.

DR. KELLER: Real quick, generally speaking, when you start a new church, how do you do that? There are several ways of doing it, but basically you’re starting a church largely from scratch. You gather a few Christians, they reach out to non-Christian unchurched friends. You have to get startup capital for two or three years before the church grows to the place where it is funding itself.

Studies have shown that — and I can bear this out, because I started my church 24 years ago — studies have shown that churches that are less than 10 years old assimilate non-church people at six to 10 times the rate of older churches. There are a lot of reasons for that, and that’s exactly what happened to me.

In other words, for the first 10 years, pound for pound far more people from outside — people who didn’t like church or weren’t part of any church at all or weren’t believers in Christianity at all – were the majority of people who were there on a Sunday. And that slowly changes. There are a lot of reasons why.

In the very beginning, churches completely focus on their non-members and attenders, just to survive. And also, there is no tradition that says “we’ve always done it this way.” What happens of course is a church that is, say, 30 years old represents the leadership of the community 30 years ago, because they are the people that got involved in the church.

And so, the easiest one to see is the ethnic church plant. For example, in Astoria Queens it was very Greek and now it’s more Hispanic. But what happens is the Greeks are in charge of the churches. The Hispanics come along and they can’t get in, and so the Greek churches start getting smaller and smaller because the Greek leaders are not really opening up to Hispanics, yet the reality on the ground is there are more Hispanics in the neighborhood.

So unless you have new churches, you are not winning new people, you are not winning new generations, you are not winning the actual community as it is. And so if you have 100 churches in a town, and, say, 20 of them or 25 are under 10 years old, the overall Christian body will be growing in numbers.

If you only have one or two new churches, the overall body will be shrinking in numbers. If there’s like 10, it will be about the same. So whether Christianity in a particular town grows or shrinks completely depends on church planting. Otherwise, some churches get a hotter pastor, better music, and then pull people from other churches, and you have a recirculation of existing church members, but you don’t actually grow the overall footprint.

By the way, mainline churches, for example, just don’t start new churches. And part of the problem — Lyle Schaller, who was kind of a church consultant pundit, said years ago because mainline churches flooded the country, so that almost every square inch was part of some parish, it made it almost impossible to start a new church, even when there were all sorts of populations in a community that couldn’t be reached by the older Episcopal church, but you couldn’t start a new Episcopal church because we’re the Episcopal church of this area.

But Lyle Schaller said that evangelicals like to say mainline churches declined because of their liberal theology. But, actually, he says they declined because they stop starting churches, whereas evangelicals have always started new churches.

Leaving Keller behind and moving back into the life of the CRC, we have been told by those who study such things that to remain healthy and vibrant the CRC needs to plant 30 - 40 churches a year.  Our average over the last 20 years has been around 20 churches a year. So given many needs in the world and in the denomination does the CRC put enough emphasis on church planting? It is worth noting that 10 years ago CRHM had $1,000,000 to start new churches and $300,000 to recruit and train church planters.  In the next ministry year CRHM will have $200,000 for this work. What kind of investment would you like to see in this area?

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Tim Keller says it so well!  We have experienced the same kind of evangelistic growth in our church plant.  I wish the denomination would reprioritize and invest more in church planting but we can't wait as churches!  So, our church has made plans to invest $100,000 in a new urban church plant in the coming years.

A commentary about the las paragraph. There is always a risk when we tried to institutionalized church's mission. CRHM should function as a resource and help for local churches, but it seems to be the opposite. We have given CRHM local church's responsability an now we can see the result: We are decreasing, our members dont know how to share the gospel, or they believe that is not their responsability.  This is like paying someone to do what I am supposed to do. Besides, CRHM has been taking a role of patron or boss in many ways because they are dictating to churches how to fullfil their mission, otherwise there are not funds. There is always a risk when we institutionalized the Gospel.

Ramon,

In my years as a church planter (20 years) CRHM has always been a resourcing and helping agency not a boss or patron.  CRHM has always come alongside local churches to help them plant churches.  I only lament that as an agency they have so much less to help us with.  You are right that the vision must come from us as churches and regardless of how much assistance we get from the denomination we must keep planting churches!

Dear Kris, I appreciate your experience with CRHM on planting churches and thanks for your comments. However, I am not sure that CRHM would help with resources if a local church does not fullfil CRHM requirements.

Contributor

 

 

Hi Ramon and Kris,

This is an interesting conversation. I think it is helpful to recognize that CRHM did plant churches in the 1980s and 90s, but we no longer directly plant churches. Churches are planted by local congregations and classes. CRHM's role is to help assess church planters, help provide coaching for the church planter, provide initiate training, and provide a part of the financial support for new churches. We also encourage local churches and classes to carry out this work through a network of regional leaders. This type of work is in keeping both with CRHM's mandate, which is

Home Missions shall give leadership to the CRC in its task of bringing the gospel to the people of Canada and the United States, drawing them into fellowship with Christ and his church. This mandate has these aspects:

  • Encourage and assist churches, classes and regions in the work of developing and sustaining missional churches. 
  • Initiate, support and guide church planting and development in cooperation with local churches, classes and regions. 
  • Initiate, support and guide educational ministries in cooperation with local churches and classes.

And with Article 76  of the church order which speaks of Synod appointing a Home Missions Committee to carry on work that is beyond the scope and resources of local congregations.

It is true that CRHM does have some things we ask of new churches--including assessment for the planter to determine if he/she has gifts for planting, initial training for the planter, and having a coach. Experience has shown that these requirements greatly increase the likelihood of a plant going well.

Again, thanks for joining this conversation. We are thankful for all who are interested in church planting and reaching out to those who need Jesus.

Thanks for  posting this appropriate challenge from Tim Keller. Obviously our denominational leadership has not accepted this reality and has not made church planting a priority. In fact, several years ago the BOT and denominational leaders unilAterally decided to redirect about 1 mil in Ministry Shares from CRHM to other projects. As to CRHM usurping the local churches role, this was a decision of the denom and its cong's to create the agency and give it this mandate. It was finally the agency thAt said to the denom and churches - from the 80's on - churches plant churches not agencies. We spent priority time and investment encouraging, teaching. and "pleading" to take on this role. We did not have a culture for Parenting but I do see progress in this - slow but sure PTL. 

Another thing to remember with gratitude (as a balance to the readiness to critique the past) is that despite the less than ideal practice of CRHM taking on the parenting role - many new churches were planted, and thousands of new Christians have entered an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ. They really don't care who God used to help catalyze the famy of believers where they met Jesus.

But for long term healthy churches - and denom - churches need to plant churches with CRHM doing the value added infrastructure supports that help catalyze Gospel Movements  and church planting.

 

 

Dear Allen, Thanks for bringing out a little more light respecting the origens and tasks of CRHM. My personal thougts and "critics" are not to be considered in a negative way, otherwise we could not have any chance to have a constructive dialogue. I believe this is necessary. I agree with you that CRHM has done great things by helping and supporting congregations in their efforts to preach the Gospel,  but as human beings, CRHM has made mistakes too. Of course, the denomination, classis and congregations (leaders included) are not excempted either. In our Latino (Hispanic) situation CRHM has made mistakes too. I pray that we could find God's guidance and direction.

I resonate with Keller's sociological explanation for lack of church growth in a community. In my experience, it is factors such as a changing community and leadership resistance-to-change that lead to a church's disconnect from their neighbors and not theological matters. Could it be that CRC lack of growth in recent decades is not about theological arguing over things like women in office, etc, but rather simply about pulling back from consistently planting new churches?

My own church is pursuing a vision to plant churches. It is too early to tell, but I suspect that the missional zeal required to do this work will help the "mother" congregation to maintain it's own open armed approach to our neighbors and readiness to keep changing.

I agree that it takes more denominational commitment. However, the smaller denominational funding has, out of necessity, stirred local church planting efforts. That is a good thing. CRHM funds can best be used as catalyzing funds that support systems and motivate partners.

Jon, I agree with your comment that reduced funding flowing through CRHM has forced the issue for congregations and classes to step up and take more ownership for church planting. In my more positive moments I believe that a commitment to church planting is now embedded in the CRCNA at a level where it will be sustained. I still remain convinced that economy of scale means that CRHM can serve the church planting mission of the CRCNA by offering recruiting, assessing, training, coaching, and networking for peer learning, etc. in a way that local congregations and classes would struggle to do with the same quality and efficiency. 

And yes Ramon, folks at CRHM - certainly including me - have made lots of mistakes through the years. One of the mistakes made was not contextualizing the church planting program adequately for ethnic missions, and for all church plants in general. For the last decade or more - despite the many protestations to the contrary - CRHM and partners have insistently pushed a "principle-based" approach rather than a "model-based" approach to church planting. There are fundamental, core practices that are required for all church plants. We need to keep zeroing in on these values and practices and then contextualize for the given mission and opportunity. Some of these values/practices are: Robust Prayer Strategy, Missional Leader who is visionary, deeply missional, and networker/gatherer, a Core Group primarily populated by the demographic of those to be reached, and significant time to dwell among and learn about what God is already doing in that community. This will faciliate an appropriate contextualization of how to share and live the Gospel among them - Jesus incarnational strategy.

Shalom,

Allen

Participant

About 20 years ago, in a class on church growth at Fuller Graduate School of World Missions, as it was then named, I heard Dr. Peter Wagner say that the most effective strategy on earth for growing the church is to plant new churches.  It still is.

Yes, we should plant more churches!  But our denomination is not the only one who should be planting new churches. Our classis should be planting churches. Churches should be planting churches. Even a group of laypeople, under the authority of their local church, can begin a church plant. I have seen it done. Church planting is a mind-set. We were called to reproduce and the lack of money should not stand in the way. Our God has all the resources both in heaven and on earth. Jesus said, "I will build my Church!"

The irony of this topic is that in the CRC we have now more churches than ever, but our membership continues to decline. Could we draw some correlation between these two elements?

Perhaps, on the one hand we have an agency-driven obsession to "plant churches." And on the other hand, we have congregations that need to boost their commitment to reach the "outside" world, and take command of their God-given duty (and Church Order duty) to evangelize.

Thank you, Alejandro. Can you or can anyone else speak to the accuracy of the statement, "we now have more churches than ever"? Is that true?

Hi Jon:

You may download the latest CRCNA statistics and see these two elements. The link is here: http://www.crcna.org/welcome/membership-statistics

Dear Alejandro,

I don't want to seem non-gracious, pugnacious or contemtuous or any other rhming "ous" ending, but really?

I work for the CRC in CRHM after coming from a pentecostal then Presbyterian background with Young Life in between.  I am all about not being ashamed of the Gospel, about Following Jesus, being blown by the wind of the Holy Spirit and trying to Apostolic (in function, not in office eph 4:12ff).

Your comment riles me.

Yes, congregations need to step up to localize and global missional engagement, to church planting to the "renewal or all things" per our forefather Abraham Kuyper.  But, this isn't an EITHER/OR the way you make it sound. This is a BOTH/AND that can be beautiful, godly, eifying and missional all at once.  But, your comments vandalize this notion by particularizing.

Now, if you want to hear a great quote about church planting, church renewal in new forms and church-turnarounds, I direct you to the Fuller Seminary Winter Seminar in which the greatest management consultant of all time, Peter Drucker, suffering from age and phlebitis, at atop a serving table with his legs extended and said somehting like this: "today i wish to speak to you about planned obsolensence.  Without planned obsolesence, industry, business and even the church wil fail.  When i speak of planned obsolesence I am reminded that my friends in the medical profession tell me that 'nothing is more costly or futile than trying to keep dead bodies from stinking".

Dead bodies.  Jesus said kernels or corn must go into the ground and die to make new life.  Jesus also warned that he who seeks to save his life will lose it.  Denominations and associations solely focused on struggling local churches without planting new ones are dying or are nearly dead. I came from a Presbyterian USA denomination that has lost 70% of its members in a dazzling 48 years.  The CRCNA would be a very small group without church planting as would the RCA, Evangelical Covenant and others.

So, my brother, be careful of that which you advocate and wish for.  The psalmist said, "And God gave them desres of the heart and brought leanness to their souls."  I believe there is a glitch in your argument that might block what is good and bring great leanness to the soul of one of the truly wonderful Reformed/Evangelical denominations in the world.

Please, reconsider your stance and go for and "AND" instead of an "OR" and let's make our shared obsession the everlasting Gospel of Jesus Christ and his kingdom that is and is coming.

Submitted with both respect and honest pushback

 

Randy L. Rowland

Seattle, Washington USA

 

Dear Randy:

I am sorry to hear that my comments riled you. But, frankly, your comments sound threatening and chastising, which is probably because you wrote them in anger... not a good mood for this forum.

Nevertheless, Jon's question to my comment is still unanswered: is it true that we have more churches and less people?

You also drew some conclusions and conjectures from my very brief comment, which I believe are unfair for you to have written. I started my comment by carefully writing "Perhaps." For me, this is an exploratory "perhaps" with the honest desire to hear what other have to say on this topic. 

Re: Jon's question about number of churches and members:  the stats show that the highest number of crc members was 316,000 in 1992(and declining steadily since to 251,000), while the highest number of churches was 1099 in 2012.  Highest number of families was in 1991, although that is more stable factor.   The higher number of evangelism growth was somewhat steady since 1996, while the highest reversion year was 2009.  Highest transfers out was in 1995. 

I think rather than counting members, we ought to be counting attendance.   The RomC church often has only 10% of its membership attending church.   On the other hand, some Alliance churches have twice as many people attending as they have members.   National statistics indicate that half to two-thirds of members of churches are "inactive".   Attendance is a much better indicator of church health than mere membership, it seems to me.   Members who attend every week are more likely to be lively than those who attend twice a year.   Attenders who are not members are sometimes more active and lively than some members. 

Alexjandro does make a very good point. We must work on having healthy, discipling, evangelistic congregations, and plant new churches.

Thanks for the post, Larry. I also would add my strong amen to Keller's observations. I agree that unless the crc becomes seized with the vision and passion to plant missional, community-reaching churches in NA,  it's deline will continue unabated.  My experience has been that, although the church I planted continues to grow at a rapid rate, my sense is that its growth, as Keller puts it, is not "pound for pound" as concentrated on reaching non-Christians as it was in the early years. (Fast growing, large churches also end up growing by also attracting Christians who are looking to be part of a growing, missional church.)

One of the benefits of CRHM leadership in striving for a church planting movement in the denomination is that there is a vacuum of any dynamic, ongoing church planting ethos in congregations and classes. I agree with Jon that its still necessary to have a central voice from Home Missions to propel and catalyze a church planting movement throughout the continent. 

 

Somewhere in the conversation i think we also have to address one of the major factors in low enthusiasm for church planting- ie, church planting "failures." Classes and churches get "gun shy" about financially supporting new churches when previous "failures" are still present in peoples' memory. I think we need both more honesty up front about the potential for unsuccessful plants as well as more intentionality on mentoring church plants that "survive" to continued stages of growth and size.

Last thought- some of the most enduring and effective churches were planted in the 80's nad 90's by the old HM model. Just sayin. :)