I have been a strong advocate of church planting as long as I have been in the ministry. And I still believe very much in church planting. I have heard it said that the key to the spread of the gospel is new churches. I dispute that. The key to the spread of the gospel is the Spirit working through the church. New and local congregations should be part of the universal church. God did not ordain new churches. He ordained THE church that is meant to spread virally like yeast in flour. With this reality in place, church planting has become very very sexy amongst Evangelicals in the recent seven or eight years. This is not a bad thing either. But like all things, there exists a shadow side. As a three time church planter (and someone who has coached and counseled literally hundreds of church planters), I wanted to spend some time exploring that dark side.
It’s not a church plant, it is a church transfer
This, to me, is the largest dark side to the current obsession with church planting. Statistically, church are being planted with rapidity but the number of Christians are declining in the West. What that means, simply, is that many church plants are really church transfers. A new congregation is birthed but with existing members moving from another church. So one church begins by the pillaging of another. This is not a bad thing when that is an intentional mitosis model of the existing church (multiplication by subtraction). But usually it is not the plan of the existing church. Instead it is imposed on the existing church by a new congregation that subverts the existing church. This problem is also exacerbated by our Western success models. A church plant is ‘successful’ if there is x number of people there. So for a church plant to be deemed successful, they need bodies in the building, no matter where they came from. So I have always advocated that the best way to discern the fruitfulness of a church plant is by baptisms, not by Sunday attendance. So if a church has 30 people in the end of the first year and did 20 baptisms, to me that is a realistic church plant. If a church has 500 people at the end of the first year and did 50 baptisms, then that is a church transfer in my estimation. I always tell church planters this, “Seek and save the lost and throw back the already saved.” By the way, the “market share” of those outside Christ far exceeds those inside.
Not All church plants are alike
In trying to understand the impact of a church plant, we have to look at the circumstances in which it was birthed. Some church plants I like to call ‘trust fund’ church plants. Like a person with a trust fund, their work is fully bankrolled by a large sending organization (both finances and people). Another type of church plant is a “you against the world” church plant where it is a single individual just doing it without any help. Neither one of these ways (or any of the shades in between) are better, worse, more spiritual or less, but they are different and should be viewed differently. In a culture that finds its value by understanding itself in relation to another, this creates a pretty toxic environment. If a church just moved 100 people in an area from elsewhere and have 150 people at it, is it really more mightily used by God than a church that began with one family and has 40 people? In our culture, the church planter with 150 is considered a success and the planter with 40 is just another church planter. Do you see the rub there?
The church split plant
This is all too common and truly sad. This is the church plant that is really a split off of another church (usually led by a disgruntled ex-pastor, missionary or popular volunteer). This plant is within about 30 minutes of the host church and is fueled solely by the disgruntledness against the host church. It is never characterized this way though (until after some time when honesty prevails). It is always characterized in the most spiritual of terms, God’s calling, seeking to disciple differently then they see around. When I have talked with church planters contemplating this, I always say the same thing. “Don’t be THAT guy.” You see, once you are that guy, you carry that with you for the rest of your ministry.
In conclusion, our goal should always be the glory of God in the people of God by the Spirit of God. Church planting should not be a competition nor some sort of carnal badge of honor. It is the calling of God for us to be in His army in the way in which He desires. As churches continue to be planted, let us make sure that we do it with the strength that God supplies that in all things he will get the glory in Christ Jesus.