Jesus said, “I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not stand against it.” The timing of His statement was ironic. One-time followers were leaving in droves. As He grew closer to the cross, people were not willing to pay the price to follow Him. The future of the church looked bleak.
Sort of like today. Statistics indicate that 80 to 85 percent of present-day evangelical churches are in plateau or decline. In light of these numbers, it might seem counter-intuitive to strategize concerning planting new churches. Should we not be shoring up the existing churches rather than planting new ones? Don’t churches get better at winning the lost with experience, with time?
The reality is church planting is the most effective way to spread the Gospel around the world. Ed Stetzer in Why We Don’t Plant Churches reveals, “Among evangelical churches, those (churches) under three years old will win 10 people to Christ per year for every 100 church members; three to 15 years old will win five people per year. After age 15, the number drops to three per year.” Our own experience in the COGOP also tells us that church planting is singularly effective. Everywhere the Church of God of Prophecy is growing, we are planting churches.
Studies confirm that the average new church gains most of its new members (60–80 percent) from people who are not attending any other church, while churches over 10 years of age gain 80–90 percent of new members by transfer from other congregations. Let that sink in. This means that the average new congregation will bring six to eight times more new people into the body of Christ than an older congregation of the same size. So, though established congregations provide many things that newer churches often cannot, older churches in general will never be able to match the effectiveness of new churches in reaching people for the Kingdom.
Why would this be? As a congregation ages, it tends to allocate most of its resources and energy toward the concerns of its members, rather than toward those outside its walls. This is natural and to a degree, desirable. Older congregations have a stability and steadiness that many people need. This does not mean that established churches cannot win new people. In fact, many non-Christians will only be reached by churches that are dependable and have attained respectability.
In contrast, new churches are forced to focus on the needs of non-members, simply in order to “launch.” Its leaders often come from the ranks of the formerly unchurched and the congregation is far more sensitive to the concerns of the nonbeliever. Consider this: In the first years of our Christian walk, we have more close relationships with non-Christians than we do later. So, a congregation filled with unchurched people will attract many more nonbelievers into the church than will the members of an established body.
New churches bring new ideas to the body of Christ. It is the new churches that will have freedom to be innovative. They become the “research and development” department for the whole Body. The existing church may have been too wary to try a particular approach or was absolutely sure it would not work. But when the new church succeeds with something, the other churches eventually take notice and get the courage to try it themselves.
New churches are one of the best ways to find creative leaders. In older congregations, leaders lean on tradition and their connections. New congregations, on the other hand, attract a higher percentage of venturesome people who value creativity, risk, innovation and the future.
New churches challenge other churches to self-examination. Sometimes, when considering the effectiveness of a new church, an older church can define its own vision. Often the growth of the new congregation gives the older churches hope that it can be done. Sometimes, new churches can partner with older ones to take on ministries that neither could do by themselves.
Church planting works best when the new congregation is birthed by an older, “mother” congregation. Often the excitement flows back into the mother church in various ways. Though there is some reluctance to let go of the friends and leaders who left to form the new church, the mother church usually experiences a surge of self-esteem, replacement leadership, and even new members. Church planting is one of the best ways to renew the whole body of Christ. The evidence for this statement is strong-—biblically and historically.
Let’s learn from the United States. According to Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in The Churching of America, in 1820 there was one Christian church for every 875 US residents. But from 1860–1906, US church planting slowed, bringing the ratio by the start of WWI to just one church for every 430 persons. Then, in 1906 (coincidentally or not, the year of the Azusa street revival), over a third of all the churches in the country were new ones. As a result, the percentage of the US population involved in the life of the church rose steadily. For example, in 1776, 17 percent of the US population went to church, but that rose to 53 percent by 1916.
However, after WWI, church planting numbers began to fall. Over the years, the continental US became covered by towns and cities, each with its own churches. There was strong resistance from older churches to any new churches being planted. Most churches reach their attendance peak during the first two decades and then plateau or shrink. They cannot assimilate people as well as new churches. Even so, the older churches feared the competition from new churches. Mainline church congregations were the most effective in blocking new church development in their towns. As a result, the mainline churches have shrunk drastically in the last 30–40 years.
What is the lesson here? Church attendance is in decline and decreasing. This cannot be reversed in any other way than in the way it originally increased. We must plant churches. This proven process of church planting can be the means for sowing the Gospel seed in every land and every community. Peru is an example of a nation who has taken this call and run with it. With a clear vision for church planting in place, strategizing for five years in preparation, the Church of God of Prophecy in Peru planted 44 new churches in one year.
The Administrative Committee of the Church of God of Prophecy has presented us with this strategic goal: We will make church planting our primary method of evangelization across our global network. How do we do this? The last earthly words of Jesus are recorded in Acts 1:8: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This evangelistic mandate cannot be carried out in our own power. We must be empowered by the indwelling Spirit of God. Whatever methods or models planters or pastors may choose to employ, they must move in the power of the Holy Spirit and leave the results to God. We sow the seed of the Gospel and God gives the increase.
At the 2012 International Assembly, other strategic goals were presented for implementing the Vision 2020 call. One of these is for every church to develop adaptable, sustainable church planting practices.
Each church around the world should seek to mother new churches. Nature teaches us that every healthy cell reproduces. A mothering church is one that is committed to allocating its resources to send out and support church planting teams into a new harvest field.
Another strategic goal is that we must identify, equip, and release God called, gifted church planters and church planting teams. Each presbyter, overseer, and pastor should have the mindset that lifting up the ministry of church planter is one more way to equip people in their giftedness. Churches must train and release church planting teams. A worthy goal is that every local church plants a church. Churches of any size will learn that by planting churches, they will grow.
How do we get started? Church planting must first be about knowing and following Jesus intimately and authentically. Remember, Jesus said the gates of hell would be involved. Church planting is spiritual warfare. Knowing Jesus and His Word is what it will take to battle hell. So, read, go to conferences, learn all you can. But most importantly, spend time with the Master Builder. Know what His plans look like. And then follow them.
References: D. McGavran and G. Hunter, Church Growth Strategies that Work (Nashville:Abingdon, 1980) and Lyle Shaller, 44 Questions for Church Planters (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991)