Why should we plant churches? One of the most important resolutions proposed by Episcopal Resurrection, of which I am one of the authors, is an ambitious vision for planting new Episcopal churches. Adam Trambley has written a careful blog post outlining the vision behind this resolution – please go and read it.
If we are going to make a priority of planting churches, I believe that this is exactly the kind of large vision (and funding) we need. Diocesan resources and expertise aren’t sufficient – we are going to need to band together church-wide and make it happen.
But why should it happen? Why should we be planting churches at all? Don’t we have plenty of unused capacity in churches that are already in existence? Isn’t it more efficient to fill up the churches we have than to start new ones?
Well, no. Not really. Below, I’ll give you the seven best reasons to start new churches, based on the research I did for my upcoming book, God Gave the Growth: Church Planting in the Episcopal Church (you can find more details on these arguments there; it will be published in June 2015).
- Planting new churches is one of the best ways to reach new people with the good news of the gospel, because new churches are more likely to grow.
I don’t have to tell you that the Episcopal Church is in steep decline. From 1965 to 2012, the US population increased by a whopping 62%, while the numerical membership of TEC decreased by 39%. (TEC figures provided by Kirk Hadaway, TEC Director of Research; US figures found here.) The decline is bad enough in sheer numbers, but as a percentage of the population, our decline is staggering. TEC fell from 1.6% to a minuscule 0.6%, a 63% decline, over the same period.
The Episcopal Church is utterly failing at fishing for people.
Planting new churches is the best way I know of, not just to reverse this decline, but to answer Jesus’ call in the Great Commission to go and make disciples. How do I know this? Let’s do the numbers.
Based on figures Kirk Hadaway, the Director of Research at the Church Center, provided me, between 2000 and 2008, across TEC, we planted 99 new churches. (Two notes: first, that’s a terribly low number, especially since we closed 432 churches during the same period. Second, statistics actually showed 119 new churches during that time, but I have excluded churches planted or re-formed due to the sexuality conflict – I am considering only truly “new” churches.)
Of those 99 churches planted, 69 were still open in 2012, a 70% success rate over four or more years. The old trope that most new churches fail is absolutely not true. In fact, Episcopal churches have a far better chance of success than nondenominational churches, precisely because of the diocesan and denominational support (financial, leadership, training, prayer, and otherwise) that we provide.
Of those 69 new churches still open, average Sunday attendance in 2012 was 95 people, compared to ASA across the whole church of 65 people. In other words, newer churches were 48% larger, despite having much less time in which to grow, and in most cases, far fewer financial, building, and staff resources. The ten largest church plants from 2000 to 2008 (including my own church plant, Church of the Nativity, #10 on the list) had 2012 average attendance of 359 people.
In a publication on the Episcopal Church’s website, Hadaway discusses factors associated with church growth, and concluded that newer churches are more likely to be growing churches: 54% of churches founded between 1996-2009 were growing, vs. 17% of those founded before 1900.
If we want to reach many new people with the gospel through our beautiful Episcopal Church, one huge and necessary strategy is to take some risks and plant some churches.
- A new church is mission-focused.
People who plant new churches absolutely must ask questions of mission and purpose in order to survive. There can be no complacency in a new church. Craig van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile write:
It is often observed that starting new congregations with a missional imagination and posture is easier than reorienting existing ones. This is so in part because the process of planting a new church is inherently missiological and open ended. Leaders of new congregations must ask the key missional questions of identity and purpose that existing congregations often take for granted. These congregations must engage with those outside their doors in order to grow and thrive…. New missional congregations keep at the forefront of their minds and hearts the question of how they can give the gospel as well as their gifts to the community. (Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 161.)
Having a strong mission and purpose is strongly associated with growth, according to a research report on the Episcopal Church website.
- A new church can respond to population shifts.
In Stephen C. Compton’s book, Rekindling the Mainline: New Life Through New Churches (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2003), vii, he points out that mainline denominations’ major growth spurt in the 1950s and 1960s coincided with a large population shift from rural to urban areas. The denominations responded strategically with a corresponding surge in planting new churches in the areas people were moving to. That’s a big reason why they grew rapidly back then.
Population shifts are still happening today, without corresponding strategic moves. We need strategic action. New churches can and should locate in growing areas. New churches can also be planted to reach out to new demographic populations: new language and socioeconomic groups that are not TEC’s traditional strong points. We especially need to take immediate strategic action to plant Latino/Hispanic churches – that population is booming with growth, and our proposal includes significant money to create a training program for lay and clergy leaders for Latino/Hispanic ministries. In the Episcopal Church, only 18% of predominantly White congregations are growing; 43% of Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or Multi-racial congregations are growing. New churches can be strategically planned and located to reach these new folks.
- A new church can respond to generational shifts.
The Episcopal Church is much older on average than the US population as a whole. New churches can try new ways of reaching young adults and youth. The kind of gatherings that appeal to Baby Boomers may not be the same as those that appeal to Millennials (in fact, the Millennials may be much more traditional). New churches have the flexibility to try innovative ways to reach new populations.
- A new church can try new things.
Change is hard in an established church. A new church doesn’t have that problem – in a new church, you make it up as you go along. That means you can try all kinds of innovative experiments to reach the people in your neighborhood. This willingness to change is strongly associated with growth, according to Hadaway’s statistics.
- New churches benefit existing churches.
Established churches often oppose nearby church plants, and can be among the biggest barriers to new churches’ survival. But studies have shown that a new church in a community does not harm existing churches. In fact, new churches trying new things can actually serve as the “R&D Department” of the whole denomination. Established churches can learn from the experiments that succeed, and those that fail, in new churches.
- New churches are in a different part of the church life cycle.
Stephen Compton describes the life cycle of churches in five stages: Birth, Vitality, Equilibrium, Decline, and Death, and shows that most of a church’s growth happens during the Birth and Vitality stages, roughly the first ten to fifteen years of its existence. After that, a church can stay in Equilibrium for a very long time, maintaining roughly the same numbers, before it starts to decline. If we want to reverse decline in the Episcopal Church, we need to have far more churches in the Birth and Vitality stages than we have in the Decline and Death stages. That means planting new churches.
Mind you, planting new churches is not ultimately about reversing the institutional decline of the Episcopal Church. Jesus didn’t die so that the American landscape would be plastered with Episcopal Churches, lovely though they are. But Jesus did die – and was raised – and commissioned his disciples to share the good news of his resurrection and the kingdom of God with all nations. We are commanded by Jesus to share the treasure of the gospel with others. We can’t hoard this treasure – it is meant to be shared. That means, yes, revitalizing the congregations we have. And it means planting new ones, to reach new people with the love of Jesus Christ.