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According to Lifeway Research, in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 3,000 new churches opened and 4,500 closed, continuing a decades-long congregational slide. Church experts say that these numbers increased after the pandemic, as people were reluctant to come back to in-person services.

Some pastors reported that typical church attendance is only 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels, said Scott McConnell, executive director at Lifeway Research. Research by the Survey Center on American Life and the University of Chicago found that in spring 2022, 67 percent of Americans reported attending church at least once a year, compared with 75 percent before the pandemic. According to other experts, the work of church planting is decelerating in certain regions, while many churches are closing their doors altogether. With these and other experts pointing out the church’s crisis in the United States, how do we respond to the objections to church planting that we often hear when we speak about the need for planting new churches?

Planting churches has been the most effective way to advance Christ’s kingdom since the time of the Apostles, but some legitimate questions need to be answered with care and grounded in what the Bible says about starting churches. These questions include the following: “Do we really need a new church?” “Why not just drive a little farther to go to a church in the next city?” “Aren’t there enough dying churches that need revitalization?” “Why can’t we just tell people to come here instead of planting another church?” “Can’t we just start another campus and broadcast the sermon?” “Doesn’t it weaken existing churches to send some to a new congregation?” “Wouldn’t it be better to spend our money on a new building or on global missions?”

The answer to the question “Do we really need a new church?” is obvious when we look at the data on the church’s decline. But also, we need to be faithful to God’s plan to fulfill the Great Commission. There is no doubt that church planting is God’s strategy to carry on His plan to take the gospel into the whole world and make disciples.

The first reason to not stop planting new churches is that it is biblical. In the Gospels, we find that after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, Christ responded to him, saying:

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:17–18)

The meaning of these words has been discussed many times, but there is a general consensus that part of Jesus’ mission was to establish His kingdom through the church, the ekklesia, the gathering of those who believe and confess with Peter that Jesus is the Savior of the world. The kingdom of God has arrived, and Christ will build His church by the power of that kingdom. This power will be revealed by the testimony of the church’s prevailing over hell. John Calvin says:

Jesus excited his disciples to perseverance, that though their faith was little known and little esteemed, yet they had been chosen by the Lord as the first-fruits, that out of this mean commencement there might arise a new Church, which would prove victorious against all the machinations of hell.

Jesus appointed the church to advance His kingdom, and this is what the Apostles did in the book of Acts. Paul traveled around the Roman Empire, looking for opportunities to preach the gospel, and he found that the best way to be faithful to the gospel was to plant churches. He had in mind more than just the oral proclamation of the good news; he had a vision for local communities where new believers would be taught what Jesus did and His will for their lives. Paul reminded his disciples not only that are they saved by grace to live a faith individually but that they belong now to the people of God.

This is a good reason to plant new churches: church planting attracts more unchurched people than does making an existing church grow or broadcasting the service to other locations.

When Jews and gentiles were converted, Paul asked them to get together for further instruction and worship. It is also important to notice that Paul’s letters to the churches were meant to be read by the whole congregation and not just by the leaders. In Pauline theology, faith in Christ is always lived and experienced in community. Jesus’ plan to build His church is fulfilled in the Christian gathering where the sacraments and the Apostolic teaching are ministered to the people of God.

Finally, Paul appointed leaders to take care of the new churches that had been established by the preaching of the gospel (Acts 14:21–23). The answer to the question “Do we need more churches?” is a plain yes. We need more churches not only because the number of churches is declining but because church planting is God’s strategy to make disciples of all nations.

The next two questions that we should answer, and that have much in common, are these: “Aren’t there enough dying churches that need revitalization?” “Doesn’t it weaken existing churches to send some to a new congregation?”

The answer to the first question is yes, many churches do need revitalization, but there is enough evidence that churches that plant churches revitalize themselves as they share their human and financial resources to start new churches.

Matt Capps, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Apex, N.C., gives this testimony of how he led his church into revitalization by helping to plant new churches:

One way to revitalize and invigorate an existing church is to lead them to invest in God’s work above and beyond themselves. In most cases, regularly giving to church plants also encourages greater generosity within the existing church. It’s important then to teach your people to hold their resources with an open hand and be ready to willingly give toward God’s work outside their own walls. Over the past eight years, this is how we have led our church to be involved in church planting. It’s taken patience and persistence. Our financial stability strengthened as we increased in generosity. In fact, we paid off our debt in four years.

To respond to the question “Doesn’t it weaken existing churches to send some to a new congregation?,” I’ll share my experience with El Redentor Ciudad de México, the church in Mexico City that I helped plant in 2011. Since 2011, we have helped to plant two daughter churches. Our small church of 120 members gave up families and money to help these church plants. The miracle was that after we lost families and income, we received new members in the next months and our finances were balanced. This happened both times that we sent our people to plant a new church. When we see the reality of God’s presence in our mission, we need to ask, Do we rejoice in the new church that has been established, or are we going to regret losing three or four families from our small church?

It is clear that planting new churches requires lots of faith and generous hearts, but what can we say about other options besides church planting? What about multi­site churches or megachurches?

This is somewhat of a challenging question because we need to consider that Christ’s church is diverse and that He calls different people through the ministry of different churches. Multisite churches or megachurches may therefore be legitimate for a particular time or season, depending on the context—particularly an international context. Nevertheless, several studies demonstrate that the average new church gains most of its new members (60–80 percent) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshiping body, while churches over ten to fifteen years of age gain 80–90 percent of new members by transfer from other congregations. This is a good reason to plant new churches: church planting attracts more unchurched people than does making an existing church grow or broadcasting the service to other locations.

For those who ask, “Wouldn’t it be better to spend our money on a new building or on global missions?,” I can say that a Presbyterian church that I know in the northwest United States has decided that it will not own a church building so that it can make better use of its resources. This church has decided to help its community by renting facilities from the school district, which is always in need of more funding. This midsize church has also committed a good amount of its income to help church plants in the United States and abroad, and it has helped plant more than ten churches in the last fifteen years. This is an example of a mission-minded church that has a vision of the kingdom for its own community. Church buildings and global missions are important, but there is always a chance to evaluate where the money can be used in a more fruitful way.

If the church in the United States will continue with its mission, it will have to plant new churches that will be able to reach out to new people. Younger adults are usually attracted to newer churches, and groups such as immigrants and ethnic minorities can be reached more easily through new churches that are purposeful about reaching out to them. New congregations must often focus on serving people outside their own ranks if they want to grow, and they may be moved to create a welcoming environment if new converts or unchurched people start attending.

Church planting can also help the established church as older leaders and congregations learn new skills, create new ministries, and produce new ideas that are needed for revitalization. In my presbytery, church-planting efforts had not been a top priority for many years. But recently the interest in what we have been doing in Mexico City has captured the attention of some leaders in my denomination, and I have been asked to make a plan to share some of our evangelistic and discipleship strategies and ways to serve the communities where we have planted new churches. The success of new churches will make the established congregations examine and evaluate their vision, their mission, their priorities, their identity, and their faithfulness in the way they use their God-given resources.

Jesus spoke about the arrival of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17), and this kingdom kept growing as new people joined the community of believers and experienced the reality of God’s grace and forgiveness. Church planting can keep the church as a radical and countercultural group where people are accepted regardless of their social background, gender, race, and education (Gal. 3:27–28). The new values that the Christians embraced gave birth to a new relationship between different kinds of people who experienced the unity of the faith in the gospel. The Christian values of forgiveness and love for one another created a radical dynamic that changed the culture of the Roman Empire and can change our world today. The present crisis of the church may be the calling that is needed to consider church planting as the natural response to advance the kingdom.

As we review the data about the church’s situation in the United States, we can see not only that church planting is good for regions and countries that are not Christian but that we need new churches to help Christian nations remain faithful to our Savior. Church planting should not be seen as a threat to older bodies, for we do not need to choose church planting over revitalization. We naturally need new churches and older churches to have a healthy church that is always reflecting the beauty of the gospel.

Challenges to Church Planting

Joining Christ As He Prays for Us

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From the May 2024 Issue
May 2024 Issue