Is it a good idea?
Church planters sit in a lofty spot in the pecking order of Protestantism. Esteemed more than local church pastors but somewhat below foreign missionaries, church planters are viewed as being a sort of pioneer. Taking on a position at an existing church with an established membership and a building and money in the bank is one thing. Sure there are issues and typically people leave, but compare that with starting from scratch. It is a very entrepreneurial endeavor and that seems very romantic to Americans. I am not sure that it makes much sense though, at least in America. What are we really trying to accomplish?
I would start by issuing a simple challenge. Look up on Yahoo! Local or White Pages or something else virtually any town or city, small or large, and see how many churches are already there. I did so for the area we live in (the greater Lansing metro area) and the small town near where my parents live in Northern Michigan.
For Lansing, I picked a business in the heart of downtown as my starting point. Not counting non-Christian organizations like the mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses and also not including the myriad Roman Catholic churches and Seventh Day Adventists, there are around 150 churches. That excludes some churches where I wasn’t sure if they were Catholic or not (called St. something or other), what appeared to be parachurch groups and anything else of indeterminate status. What I found were a wide range of churches, from Tithe Missionary Baptist Church (better bring your checkbook!) to Original Church Of God (so THAT is where the original church went! It is in Lansing. Who knew?). Ranging from Orthodox Presbyterian to various Baptist churches to Wesleyan to Methodist to Lutheran to Pentecostal (lots of COGIC), there are a dizzying array of churches in Lansing. Most in English but also lots of Spanish language churches as well as a bunch of Korean churches in neighboring East Lansing. That only includes churches with a Lansing address (Lansing has a population as of the last census of 119,128 and I am guessing that number has shrunk like every other city in Michigan). Go outside of Lansing into the mostly affluent suburbs and the number of churches just explodes. Step foot off Michigan State’s campus and there is a wide variety of churches right there across the street. We pass a very large Lutheran church and a decent sized Baptist church to get where we are going and I am certain there are maybe a dozen other churches that are closer to us than where we gather.
Well, that is a big town. What about small towns? In the town where my folks live, a very small town of probably less than 1000 (993 people in 2000 and the population ain’t growing), I saw at least 7 churches listed online (and I think there are actually more than that due to a recent Baptist church split). So it is hardly an “unchurched” town. Frankly not many people are planting churches in small, economically depressed towns because they are too hard to get up and running and very difficult to make self-sustaining. You go where there are people in sufficient numbers to “support” a church.
I would be willing to bet that if you ran the same exercise you would find the same thing to be true. Most cities and towns in America already have a decent number of churches in place. I don’t think there are many cities in America that are “unchurched”. Even in New England there are lots of churches. In the town of Milford, New Hampshire where we lived for four years (pop. 13,000), there are seven churches and I would bet none of them is busting at the seams.
So should we be planting new churches in America? If so, why should we? It seems that church planting is driven primarily by planting the right kind of churches. For example, there is a Presbyterian Church in America plant in Lansing. Now there are already several Presbyterian churches here, including a very conservative OPC church as well as some mainline Presbyterian churches. But not a PCA church. That is not to pick on the PCA church, there are lots of Southern Baptist church plants in towns with several Baptist churches already present. Church planting seems less driven by a desire to plant churches where none exist and more driven by planting the right kind of churches amidst a bunch of the not-so right kinds.
Local churches are expensive, expensive to start and expensive to maintain. The overwhelming majority of giving in a local goes to maintaining that particular local church (somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-95%). Church plants spend an awful lot of energy trying to reach critical mass where they can grow into a building and a self-supporting staff. Once they reach that critical mass, they spend almost all of their money maintaining themselves. So church planters plant churches that become self-sustaining institutions or they fail. That doesn’t seem to be the best way to carry out the Great Commission.
It just seems to me that a lot of the funding used for church planting could be better spent on supporting churches where they are not an overabundance already, i.e. in foreign lands. A lot of that money could be spent on works of mercy in already existent local churches. Bibles in the language of people who are crying out for God’s Word instead of a slightly different Baptist church in Akron, Ohio. Keeping the heat on for a widow, helping a Christian family adopt a child. There are needs all around us that need to be met. I don’t think that a new church plant amidst a bunch of existing evangelical churches is one of them. We already have a cornucopia of churches and many of those are borderline dysfunctional. If you want to plant a church, really plant a church like the apostles did, go plant one in Ecuador or Ethiopia or Vietnam. Go where there is a need instead of where there is a want.