9 Reasons NOT to Plant a Church in 2012

“Church planting is the most effective form of evangelism under heaven” said C.Peter Wagner. I know he said that. I was there. I was a young [and good looking] Fuller Seminary student sitting in his classroom when he said it.

It was a welcomed idea, proven scientifically more effective than trying to expand older church structures. Back then, there was little argument against it and the idea was embraced by mission societies and church denominations who played it out in their strategies all through the 90′s and also during the noughties when the thinking became mainstream rather than rebellious. I was part of that movement the whole time.

But now it’s 2012 and while some young, enthusiastic people are out there planting churches like its 1997, others are focusing on launching more sustainable, more holistic, more measurably transformational Kingdom solutions.

One of the biggest trends in church planting that I observed in my recent 35-country trek is the SHIFT AWAY FROM planting churches towards NOT planting a church at all but focusing on a wider range of transforming Kingdom activities. Some church planters are delaying the worship service piece of the pioneer missional ministry for as long as possible and sometimes indefinitely.

- At our gathering in Prague, some of the key leaders of the Europe church planting movement a decade ago told us they had already moved into launching monastic type communities and less ecclesiocentric models of ministry than church planting.

- In USA, some of the most innovative new Christian communities I came across did not launch or host Sunday worship services as part of their ministry portfolio.

- In China, I met a young “church planting” couple who have started ministries in over a dozen cities but refuse to start church worship services. They told me that starting a church starts a long and arduous battle with the Chinese government that they have avoided by starting missional enterprises, Kingdom businesses and concert-like events . . . but NOT churches.

- Same in Indonesia. One group had started hundreds of communities but avoided Sunday worship services and refused to construct church buildings, which have a habit of being burned to the ground in that country. Real church happens when the conditions are right, they told me. They would rather seed a potential garden than plant a church.

WHY THE SHIFT?

There has been some disillusionment with the church planting movement, even after it has purged itself of its 80′s church growth pragmatism. I have talked with many of these leaders and have added some observations myself. Here are some of the issues, and 9 reasons NOT to plant a church in 2012:

1. The typical church planting model, in which the solo-church planter starts a gathering that he/she invites potential members to join and commit to lacks satisfying precedent in the Scriptures where Jesus sent out people in teams (2, 12, 70) to find people of peace (them, not us) to allow Kingdom ministry in their venue (not the planter’s venue). Add to that the awkward extension of the Temple tithing system into the present day and the whole package seems a little suspect or at least in need of some recalibrating with the New Testament.

2. The measurement criteria of the church planting project, focusing on numbers of attenders and momentum of new church launch, is too narrow, too shallow, unholistic and ignores more vital measurable signs of a transformed society in its various spheres (economic, environmental, social, impact outside the church environment, etc).

3. The people most likely to join a new church plant are usually those with some kind of church background – the de-churched, pre-churched, ex-churched – which means ignoring really lost people and duplicating the ministries of existing churches.

4. The focus on people pre-disposed or pre-favored towards church culture can lead to competition among churches to gather people from a diminishing pool of potentials and, worse, to “sheep stealing” which, although a shortcut to acheiving the goal of planting a church in the short term, fails to extend the reach of the gospel into a new culture as well as creating disunity and distrust within the existing church.

5. The challenge for new members to commit to a church meeting rather than be involved in Kingdom mission activities in the world can often lead to a consumer mindset among new members. By not hosting an event for members but rather inviting participants into mission, a different calibre of people is attracted to the ministry.

6. The new church plant creates a higher institutional visibility in sensitive countries which places it in danger of either stifling regulations or physical threat to its members.

7. The lack of traditional funding sources that used to fund church planter’s salary and the first year of operation (often US$100,000) has dried up in the midst of the global financial crisis and changing funding priorities, which has made more sustainable mission practices like micro-businesses and social enterprises become more important as initial building blocks of new ministry environments than trying to start a regular worship service, in which the only sustainable piece is the generosity of the initiates.

8. Church planting normally thrives in wealthier areas or suburban areas but ignores the urban poor. It also focuses on the functional people rather than the high-need people and so we end up with church that prioritizes the rich, something we are warned about in the Scriptures (see James).

9. In a country where the church already has a bruised reputation for greed, immorality and unethical practices, basing a strategy around starting another church and having people join it, and actually give money to support it, is a hard sell and a troubled solution.

So if these young people are not “planting churches” in 2012, what kind of Kingdom ministry environments ARE they establishing? And how are today’s church planters avoiding the past mistakes?

That’s the subject of another post. Check out one new network I found in Asia that is now nearly a thousand communities but still no worship service.

http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2012/01/practices-of-a-new-jesus-movement.html

  • http://about.me/samgreenlee Sam Greenlee

    Andrew,
    I think you have provided a helpful critique of church planting, but I have to disagree with some of your conclusions.
    First, while many of your criticisms are valid, the best way to correct abuse is proper use, not disuse. For instance, I agree that it is unnecessarily challenging to have a solo church planter and that team models are more prevalent in Scripture, but why abandon church planting instead of adopting a team-based model as many church plants are doing?
    If people have a tendency to evaluate the success of church plants with all the criteria, why not adopt new criteria?
    If sheep-stealing is a problem and church plants have mainly been reaching people with a church background, why not plant churches specifically geared toward reaching the unchurched (as well as the de-churched, who also need reaching) and discouraging members of other local churches from jumping ship for the latest thing?
    If worship gatherings have tended to be “events hosted for members” (a pretty pejorative way of phrasing things), why not not model them more faithfully on the Gospel as gatherings for members and non-members alike, where they can fellowship and drink deeply of God’s grace and wisdom? To expect Christians to be able to serve all week (a great expectation) without offering them a time of refreshment is not only a failure in pastoral strategy but an abandonment of God’s Sabbath model. Furthermore, there is no reason why Sunday mornings cannot be every bit as missional as the rest of the week.
    If a worship gathering causes problems in sensitive countries (this would not apply to your primary audience in the West), decisions have to be made accordingly, but rejecting any sort of gathering altogether would be problematic.
    If funding is problematic, church planters can work as tent-makers in the beginning or could be partially funded by existing churches that want to invest in mission. Many expected expenses are unnecessary as well (e.g. awesome sound equipment, projectors, fancy lighting, flashy literature).
    If church plants have tended to pursue the wealthy, then plant churches to reach the poor, or better yet, all people. Keep in mind that a faithful church can also set an entire population of middle class people on a new course of brotherly love and service to their poorer neighbors.
    If churches have hurt their own reputations, wouldn’t we be wise to correct that by establishing healthy and faithful churches rather than abandoning a model of Christian life that has existed since Acts?
    Again, I think many of your critiques are spot on and I am a fan of creative Kingdom strategies, but to suggest that Christians should give up on churches because of their failures is to fail to image Christ who “loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
    In any case, thanks for the critique which I am going to tuck away for the future.
    Sam

  • http://thewearypilgrim.typepad.com ron cole

    Hi Andrew, I wrote this last week in response to your thoughts….I am part of a small embryonic faith community making the shift;

    http://thewearypilgrim.typepad.com/the_weary_pilgrim/2012/01/compost-garbagescrapskingdom-planting.html

  • Curtis K

    Thanks for this… This is such a breath of fresh air. So what do you do if you want to start something like this? Is it so unique and context based that there’s no way to get training or get help on how to start? Are there networks in the US that are trying to facilitate this kind of thing? This sounds like the future to me… Time to get off the church train and find a better way in this world we find ourselves in.

  • Pat Pope

    I think traditional churches are being challenged to change as they find more and more of their members going outside of the church walls and outside of traditional programming to meet the needs of the culture. Traditional churches are finding fewer and fewer people available or interested in many of the in-house programs that are not willing to change with the times. Thus, churches are having to grapple with declining funds that people do not want to put towards some of these programs that they no longer buy into as well as declining numbers of willing participants. They will either continue to spread themselves thin trying to do it all or they will wake up and get on board with where their people are going. In other words, churches are finding themselves being led by their people as their people live out the mission of Jesus that was not birthed in a committee board meeting, church business meeting, etc. There are some organic changes taking place that are not bogged down in the minutiae that exists in some churches. So, to your point about not planting any more churches, the vehicle already exists for ministry–we just need to get on board with where it’s going.

  • http://about.me/samgreenlee Sam Greenlee

    One more note: I didn’t intend for my list of responses to be any sort of verbal beating, but was trying to respond point by point. I apologize if it seems otherwise. Thanks, Sam

  • Andrew Jones

    no problem Sam. Good to have some push back. we are a lot closer than you think.
    We ARE the church. yep!
    for a good example of a network with hundreds of churches (but NOT in USA) is here and some of their practices are outlined. http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2012/01/practices-of-a-new-jesus-movement.html

  • Francesco A.

    Interesting article. Although I agree with many of the statements, I think Sam is right to say we cannot throw away what is good together with what is wrong. We can’t get rid of churches simply because mistakes were made. This, of course, if we aknowledge the fact that a sound Biblical church IS something Biblical and good.
    In my opinion, this strong reaction to any form of organized church comes as an opposition to a model of commercialized, numbers centered, institutionalized church that is typical in North America. It would be a mistake to assume that it’s the same all over the world.
    You correctly note that in other cultures different solutions were found, but that’s exactly the point – we can’t generalize by saying that every culture should adapt a specific model, because one model is not working as it should in one culture. We can’t even say that since persecution exists in specific countries then no country should have organized churches.
    The Bible tells us of house churches (tried that) , and it also talks about wider meetings (tried that too). I strongly believe our focus should NOT be on the system, the method or the ways, rather on the Kingdom. We are called to spread the Gospel, not a specific model of church (or un-church for what matters) and whatever method works, we should use it.
    I leave in southern Europe where, I believe, there is space for both small groups (that might work better with hurt or disillusioned people afraid of being part of a more organized structure) AND more organized churches (that work better with someone who seek a valid alternative to the traditional religion). No person is equal to the other and God does not have one way to deal with people. In the same way we should be flexible and adaptable to the actual local needs.

  • http://about.me/samgreenlee Sam Greenlee

    Hey Andrew,
    I’d love to see, in every city, older churches, church plants, missional non-profits and businesses, Christian artists, etc. working together for the Kingdom.

  • Ann H

    I just don’t understand what your number 7 means. What are ” sustainable mission practices like micro-businesses and social enterprises ?” Another expression I don’t understand is “Kingdom mission activities.”

    “7. The lack of traditional funding sources that used to fund church planter’s salary and the first year of operation (often US$100,000) has dried up in the midst of the global financial crisis and changing funding priorities, which has made more sustainable mission practices like micro-businesses and social enterprises become more important as initial building blocks of new ministry environments than trying to start a regular worship service, in which the only sustainable piece is the generosity of the initiates.”

    I’m very interested in alternatives to traditional congregational ministry, but I don’t know how we’d get paid.

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