The Dark Side of Church Planting

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.

10 replies
  1. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Thanks, Daniel – that is some sane and sober writing about church plants, church transfers, church raids, and hostile takeovers. Why is it so sexy to be a church planter today? Let me offer my opinion and then I’ll sit back and take the blowback.

    It was very sexy in the early church (Acts 4) to sell your possessions and give the proceeds to the apostles who would then distribute this as needed. People’s sacrifice was in plain view and those who gave were admired by others. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be numbered among those who gave all – they loved the praises of man. Church planting is a very public affair. (Can you imagine a church planter saying, “I’m planting a church, but ssshhh, don’t tell anyone.”?) Maybe not the church planter, but those who send can give overemphasis to what he’s doing and inadvertently place him on a pedestal. A church planter receives the praises of man – and this can be a heady narcotic.

    And let me be frank – we have started two churches out of CC Fremont and there is something in me that gets satisfaction in saying that. Not only can church planting feed the ego of the planter, but that of the sender, too. It seems as if this in someway validates me. The more church plants, the greater the validation (that’s the theory, at least). People see me as doing something right, being kingdom minded, a visionary man of faith, etc. A worthy undertaking can often be served by unworthy motives.

    The church planter should ask the question: Am I making a complete sacrifice of all that I am and have? Am I willing to go anywhere or only to this particular zip code? Will I give and serve up to a point – just like Ananias?

    The church sender should ask: Am I doing this to validate myself or is this a kingdom mandate?

    Like most things, it’s probably a mixed bag. Who will deliver me from the body of this death?

  2. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Good stuff, Mike. I think that in many ways we need to enter the day of the gentleman church planter.

    I had a CC senior pastor come to my office about four years ago telling me that God was leading him to leave his church and plant a CC in Union City – just north of Fremont (where I pastor). I said, “Great, but you should know that our youth pastor went to Hayward (just north of Union City) about three years ago and both of us serve Union City. I will happily support a CC plant in Union City, but if you want to be strategic about planting CCs in the SF East Bay Area, there are other cities between Hayward and Oakland that could use CCs.”

    To his credit, he didn’t say, “I have heard from God and I will not listen to the voice of man.” He and his wife drove around the East Bay and have planted a CC in San Leandro. Ruben was a real gentleman and wanted to fit in with the CCs that were here and desired to make a strategic difference with a strategic plant.

  3. pstrmike
    pstrmike says:

    I’ve been on both sides of that desk. I’m from Northern Cal, and I had felt led to check out some areas down there and yet I also felt that God would not only speak to me directly but would confirm through the pastors of existing churches in the region. I was not encouraged to plant in an area[s] that I was considering there, and that is how I ended up in Oregon. I spoke with the local CC pastors here, and while not soliciting their permission or blessing, looked to be sure that I wasn’t going to plant in an area that was already plowed or where there wasn’t a real need.

    I think the ideal of community is largely neglected in church planting. Confirmation and assistance should be sought from existing churches so as to become welcomed additions and co-laborers in the harvest.

  4. Benjamin Morrison
    Benjamin Morrison says:

    some great points, daniel. ESPECIALLY the warning against the split-plant. but i do feel that the first point about transfer growth could use a few nuances to balance out the warning.

    first, let me say that, in general, i do agree with the warning against “transfer growth” (especially if it is of the sort coming from a church-split). if we’re talking about transfer within the same or similar movements/doctrinal framework, your critique of transfer growth is probably valid most of the time. but should we not consider it an important work of the God through the church plant if He is bringing people in from churches with very unhealthy teaching (word of faith, heavy legalism, theological liberalism, etc.) to a new church that is dedicated to teaching the good news of grace and the Word of God so that these might be healed by the truth?

    i say this from experience. the church i planted and currently pastor is probably 80-90% transfer growth. however, these are ALL from churches with heavy legalism (like losing your salvation several times a day) and/or word of faith teachings. when they came to us, some of these people were literally on the brink of suicide or very bitter at God from the oppression they were under in their previous churches because of unhealthy teaching and abusive, authoritarian leadership. though i’d love it if we had a larger portion of “fresh” believers (they are INFINITELY easier to disciple than un-teaching and re-teaching people who’ve been deceived for years), i cannot deny the Lord’s work in this transfer growth. i think discerning the REASON for the transfer would add an important dimension to this point.

    second, your warning against “pillage” is fair, assuming it’s literal and not a generalization. pillaging implies an intentional strategy to steal/take believers from another church, and that is way off. however, if, without any intentionality on the part of the leadership, God brings people from other churches (again, with some valid reason) in order to build them up, i would certainly hope that they would not be lumped in with the “pillagers” who, for example, go to home fellowships from other churches and try to siphon off believers to their plant. for our part, we never attempt to get people to leave their present church when they come to visit our church. they come and, if the Spirit opens their hearts because they see the goodness of Jesus through the body and the Word, they stay. when they start talking about how they enjoy our church and feel at home here, we just encourage them to pray about where God would have them. because we are all proud and sinful (at least i am ;), church planters do need to be careful about their attitudes towards those who are already believers attending another church, not just seeing them as potential sanctuary-fillers. it’s too easy to be more concerned with building our own, little kingdom than the kingdom of God.

    third (and last ;), though we all desire to see more people come to Jesus through the churches we serve in, and though measuring baptisms rather than attendance would certainly give you a better idea of new conversions, i have this problem with it as a measure of a “healthy church plant”: it’s still a number. as you mentioned in your second point, 150 with 100 from another place is not better or more mighty than one with 40 from scratch. likewise, one with 20 baptisms is not necessarily better or more mighty than one with 5 baptisms, but with others whom the Lord has brought to be healed of false doctrine or other negative experience, and who are growing in what it means to love Jesus. we must not forget that the task of the church is not simply to “win people to Christ” but to make disciples. it seems to me that it’s the Lord’s prerogative to bring people to a church plant at whatever stage in that process they’re at (be it right at conversion or for further discipleship). a far better (and much less tangible) measure of a healthy church plant would be if the Gospel is transforming the lives of those who come, if they are learning to walk with Jesus closer than before and growing in trust of Him, if they are learning to repent quicker, forgive others, rejoice in trials, etc. of course, that’s much harder to put in an spreadsheet to show your sending church. 😉

  5. Matt Kottman
    Matt Kottman says:

    Good stuff Daniel,

    As a church planter I find this encouraging. We cannot call transfer growth conversion growth.

    We do have transfer growth, but when people show up from other churches, I do a few things.

    1.) Sit down with them and find out why they want to come here. Are they running from conflict? Are they running from church discipline? Are they majoring on minors? Ultimately if they come for these negative reasons, my experience is that they will do the same in our church.
    2.) I speak with the pastor of the church from which they are coming (much easier to do in England where almost all churches are under 100 people).
    3.) If they are traveling from a long distance (by this I mean 30 min or more), I look to see if there are closer churches that are gospel-centred that they could grow in and be a part of as we believe our gathering as a community is important.

    This ultimately means a lot of transferring people do not stay with us, but those who do stay have passed through the above filters.

    We recently had a large group join the church who had been under Word-Faith teaching. Such transfers I gladly accept because what they were hearing is genuinely unhealthy and destructive.

    Our goal should always be seeing the lost converted and all believers discipled.

    At the end of the day, we need to stand by John the Baptizers maxim: A man can receive nothing unless it is given to him by God (John 3:27). However God is using me in church planting, no credit comes to me because it all comes down to the grace God has given me.

    • Benjamin Morrison
      Benjamin Morrison says:

      matt –

      some good questions to run through! i agree that it is important to discern the reason for the transfer. it might be valid, might not. but certainly all transfers should not be treated alike. in our case, there are no other healthy churches in the city (all are into health and wealth or heavily legalistic – there’s only about 10 protestant churches in our city total). then again, i realize that’s not the majority of cases and certainly not in america or other countries where the protestant church has any serious presence, and therefore such filters are much more necessary. like i said, i just felt that the point about transfer needed that nuance of the REASON for transfer to balance it out.

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