Why is church planting still a thing?
In my work and studies over the past couple of decades I’ve run into many a person – young, middle-aged embarking on a second career path, or retired looking for a place of service in their later years – spoke of a call they felt on their life, not just to ministry, but specifically to planting new churches. One wealthy suburban church I served stated it plainly in their long-term vision: “We will plant three new vital, growing churches in surrounding communities in the next ten years.”
I’ve been uncomfortable with this model for a long time. Why is church planting such a great idea when we can’t fill the ones we already to have? When so many congregations are more concerned with paying the bills than being the body of Christ in their neighborhood, what makes us think the key is starting new churches?
What in the world are we doing?
We are building a church on consumerism. When we plant a new church, we aren’t really evangelizing, we are merely offering a new option, a new flavor, a jesusy novelty from which people can choose. We are introducing a new competitor into the local church economy. And if we brand ourselves in just the right way, we can have, at least for a little while, maybe we can have the coolest church in town.
A New, Possibly Unpopular Model
It’s time to be honest. The concept of church planting is a quaint idea, one that has probably run its course as a legitimate model of domestic evangelism. What was once a new frontier now has more churches than chain restaurants, and they can’t all keep their doors open.
So I’d like to propose a new model.
It will sound like sacrilege to many of you, I know.
Instead of church planters, we need church closers.
Yeah, I know, it sounds awful. But think about it. Those of you who regularly attend church, how many other churches do you pass on your way to your own? I can’t even count, but it’s probably 50. The reality is that most of those can’t even afford to maintain their buildings. They can’t pay their pastor fairly. They are already on the brink of locking their doors for good. Even if they try to deny it, the end is near.
Instead of closing as a last resort, let’s be proactive.
We Have Too Many Churches As it Is
In the suburb of Houston where I live, there are five struggling United Methodist churches. They might not admit it, but they are all struggling.
In fact, there used to be six, but one sold their land when the school district offered a ton of cash.
Combined, the sanctuaries of those five churches could probably accommodate 2000 worshipers. Yet the membership – not attendance, but membership – of those churches, according to the handy UMC find-a-church feature, totals 978. Even if everybody on the rolls attended, never got sick, never traveled, never became shut-in, and the congregations were never divided up into traditional and contemporary silos, the buildings still wouldn’t be more than half-full.
While these all were once thriving congregations, they no longer are. Their stories are mostly the same. The population changed, the area declined, the industries closed. Some of them even moved out of declining neighborhoods only to be caught by the decline a couple decades later. Some people jumped ship as the big box McCongregations moved into surrounding areas.
More than anything else, I suspect, cultural shifts gave people freedom to stop going to church if they didn’t want to.
All of these churches still have catchy, optimistic slogans, each one subtly suggesting that their dying Methodist church is somehow different.“We’re the church that loves kids.”
“Come grow with us.”
“We won’t tell you what you’ve done wrong, but what Jesus has done right!”
“We’re a family of faith that cares.”
But the writing is on the wall. Each week brings more funerals. New attendees that once seemed excited now have better things too do. The glory days of these churches aren’t coming back. So why in the world does this town still need five Methodist churches?
It doesn’t. It can barely sustain five churches of any stripe.
But they toil away, trying in vain to bring a few butts into their seats and delay the inevitable another month or two.
Check Your Calls
Maybe this description hits close to home. Maybe this describes your church, your community.
But what might happen if the people in these congregations decided to quit competing? What if they combined their congregations, their resources? What if parishioners dropped their allegiance to their own churches as if they were cigarette brands, and sacrificed them for the sake of the kingdom?
What if these churches worked to proclaim Christ crucified instead of peddling themselves to an area of a few square miles?
I get it. It’s a hard spot to be in. There’s lots of history here. These are buildings in which we’ve first heard about Jesus’ love, baptized our children, married our spouses, and buried our parents. These are important places in which stones of Ebenezer have been raised in your lives. I have those in my own life, too, and I’m thankful for them.
But still, Christ calls, “Follow me.” Maybe that call beckons you out of those beloved places. Churches, maybe Christ is calling you to sell your buildings and your land and be church closers, not planters. Instead of trying to attract membership, maybe just settle for being the church.
Stop the Competition
Both of these types of churches – the new plant and the one that’s declining – are trying to trap people with a gospel substitute. Namely, they want to sell people on a weekly event instead of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. But this isn’t making disciples. In fact, it’s selling people on a lie. Consumerism is killing the church, yet we continue to treat people as consumers.
All of the church must stop courting spiritual consumers. Worship is for believers, not novelty seekers. Rebuke them. They know not what they do.
Stop offering them different worship formats and pseudo liturgies built on commercial entertainment.
Stop advertising the benefits your church can offer over all the other ones.
Stop trying to attract bored Christians from other churches.
Stop planting new churches when there are too many already.
Stop fighting to keep your doors open when there are other options.
Stop predicating your existence on attracting more butts to your dusty pews.
Slim down. Streamline. Cut the fat. Come together and worship with elegant, refined liturgy rich with Scripture and history, symbol and ritual. Don’t act like a young upstart company trying to gain a share of the market, or like an old brand that must reinvent itself. Worship like the church.
And then go.
Go out and feed the hungry.
Go out and clothe the naked.
Go out and fight for justice.
Go out and end oppression.
Go out and proclaim anew the old, old story of God’s love.
And do all of this in the name of the one who sent you.
Then you’ll actually be the church.