Church planting has long been in the evangelical DNA. In early America, frontier expansion went hand in hand with a vigorous campaign of church multiplication. Ever since, migration, conversion, and population growth have created receptive audiences religious entrepreneurs to forge new Christian communities.
Since the colonial period, Americans have never had much patience for the idea that a “churched” area could be left to the work of existing congregations. The preferred vocabulary nowadays is that of the “life cycle”: churches are born, they decay, they die. The conventional wisdom is clear: most old congregations fail to reach the lost. A constant stream of new church plants is necessary to attract the unchurched. The former will fade out to be replaced with the latter, until the cycle repeats decades in the future.
The Homogenous Unit Principle
It is no coincidence that the development of a systematic methodology for church planting dates to the 1970s. In that decade, the wave of secularization that had started as a ripple in the previous decade began to hit western societies with force.
Some were dramatically altered: Quebec experienced a “quiet revolution,” moving from one of the most Catholic regions on earth to one of the most secular. Other places, like the United States, were affected more partially, locally, and gradually. But astute observers could tell that even in America, the religious consensus of the past was in trouble.
The Fuller Theological Seminary church growth experts C. Peter Wagner and Donald McGavran offered a way out. Adapting a concept from the mission field, the “homogenous unit principle,” the two professors taught church planters to think of their local community as a mission field comprised of people groups.
McGavran encouraged pastors to craft the style and message of their new congregation to the tastes and needs of a particular demographic: suburban families with small kids, or young urban professionals, or retirees. Meanwhile, Wagner promoted church planting as “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven.”
The Fuller church planting techniques, modeled by seeker-sensitive churches like Saddleback in Orange County, California or Willow Creek in suburban Chicago, seemed for a while like a sure-fire strategy for success, tempting church planters with the allure of exponential growth within a few short years.
The homogenous unit principle has increasingly come under attack for its failure to promote multiethnic and multigenerational congregations. But some of the basic assumptions of church growth theory have been employed even by its critics. We are frequently told that church planting, even in areas rich with established churches, leads to dynamism, conversion, and even increased vitality among preexisting churches.
As a result, church planting has only become a more prominent theme among evangelicals in recent decades, perhaps most iconically in the non-denominational Acts 29 network. Similar efforts have ramped up across evangelical denominations, from the Southern Baptists’ Send Network to the Assemblies of God’s Church Multiplication Network, as well as more targeted efforts like Tim Keller’s urban-focused Redeemer City to City or the Wesleyan Church’s Dirt Roads Network in rural Kansas.
Questioning the Church Planting Orthodoxy
Yet in recent years, an undercurrent of criticism has developed in response to these trends. The Dutch missiologist Stefan Paas has questioned the claims of the church planting networks. Paas, himself a long-time church planter within a conservative Reformed denomination, rejects the centrality of church planting.
In secular contexts, he argues, plants generally do a good job in attracting newcomers, but these congregants tend to be Christians who have relocated to the area or refugees from other churches rather than true converts. Paas affirms that church planting can be a genuine good, but warns that it must be entered into carefully and with serious contextual knowledge.
Before I moved to East Texas when I was scoping out the church scene, I came across the website for a Longview church plant, now apparently defunct, that proclaimed that Longview was among the 100 most unchurched cities in the country, and thus desperately in need of new church plants. The pastor had misread the ranking. It was not a ranking of the most secular cities, but a ranking of cities from most to least secular, and Longview was close to the bottom of the list.
You could draw all kinds of lessons from this church planter’s website, from our educational system’s failure to teach data literacy to the psychological power of motivated reasoning. But what really stood out to me was the planter’s basic lack of interest in understanding the actual religious landscape of his future mission field.
This church plant was, unsurprisingly, a false start. But a church planter who came into Longview with a similar attitude, along with real charisma, a gift for preaching, and an effective launch team, could easily be much more successful, even if the result was simply re-shuffling the deck of church attendees. In Boston, church plants always seemed to be a tough slog. In the South, there are many stories of new churches that are almost full from the get go.
I’m not entirely convinced by Paas’ approach. He regrets the loss of congregants in established churches to church plants, which is a fair concern, but some churches avoid the task of preaching the gospel or make no effort at discipleship. Although in theory committed Christians could stay and serve as a leavening agent in these churches, in many cases the leadership structures or cultures in established congregations makes this a fool’s errand.
The best answer, in theory, is probably something that in other contexts (e.g. the UK) is fairly common–a commitment to church planting but also church revitalization. When this involves a congregation at the end of its life passing on an almost-empty building to a new set of leaders and congregants, it is relatively simple. Combining two very different congregations (especially when they represent different theologies, cultures, or generations) is a far more involved task. In the South at least, it’s far easier, unfortunately, to simply let declining congregations snuff themselves out while entrepreneurial leaders forge their own trails.