I read an interesting interview of Dr. Aubrey Malphurs that Ed Stetzer posted: The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting. The topic, as if often the case with Ed’s blog, is church planting and Dr. Malphurs’ new book on that subject. I found something Dr. Malphurs said to be very interesting…
Why have you written a book on church planting?
Because of the state of the church in North America. What does that mean? The North American churches are in decline perhaps like never before. Eighty to eighty-five percent are plateaued or in decline. It's not uncommon to hear people use the term Post-Christian in describing North America. There is a growing number of unchurched people -- especially young people. At the same time there are a number of cults and religious groups that are growing. I've also observed that fewer young people going into ministry. At the seminary level my experience has been that not many who are going into ministry are thinking about church planting. All this to say that the solution is twofold -- church planting and church re-envisioning. And as Peter Wagner once said, "I'd rather have babies than to raise the dead!" While my ministry (the Malphurs Group) works more with re-envisioning churches, I believe that church planting is what God will use to turn the state of the church around in North America. And It's my prayer that this book will encourage this.
Those are pretty sober numbers in the fourth sentence and I think just from what I have seen, it is certainly plausible that 80-85% of local churches are plateaued or in decline. Show up at many mid- or small-sized local churches and not only will there be lots of empty pews, there will be lots of older people. In many of these churches, the focus is on survival, on maintaining the church and that leaves little left over for the mission of the church. If you think that is not true, look at the typical budget and see how much of the offering stays within the walls of that church building.
Here is what I wonder. With the vast majority of local churches plateauing or declining, which I assume is based on attendance numbers, how does it make sense to prioritize planting more of the same? In a town full of declining churches, why plant another one?
I kind of think that it would be more valuable to train men to become stronger leaders in their own church groups to lead those churches to start reaching the community. Bring men from local churches, regular guys who might not be official “church planters”. Maybe call them “church renewers” if you need to have a snappy title. Provide training to these men to help equip them to lead and serve and in turn equip others. The Southern Baptist Convention has a lot of resources, wouldn’t it make more sense to train a bunch of guys in regional conferences several times a year than to invest a ton of money to support planting yet another church? Why not strengthen and revitalize the churches that we already have? It makes sense rather than recreating the wheel yet again.
So why don’t we do this?
I am afraid it is likely because doing so runs counter to the current paradigm. Church planting is very chic right now. There are tons of books all over the spectrum talking about church planting. How to do it, the theology behind it, ways to be successful at it. Some people talk about planting “missional” churches, some about planting “confessionally Reformed” churches. It seems as if we assume that the reason the church is not reaching the lost is that we don’t have enough churches. Yet the vast majority of the churches we already have, and there are tons of them in virtually every town, are doing very little other than surviving and grinding out the basic functions of a traditional church week after week. I don’t think that tweaking the process or using a name that doesn’t drive people away (how many Baptist church plants have “Baptist” in their name?) or rearranging the superfluous details is going to make any difference for the long term, which means more than 3-5 years down the road.
What I think we need is a radical reshaping of our entire thinking about church planting and the mission of the local church in general...
- Revitalizing existing churches instead of planting new ones
- Equipping the entire body instead of performing for them
- Replicating the church instead of sustaining institutions
- Lots of small, local groups instead of ever-larger churches that draw for miles around
While I think that small gatherings in the house church type model are by far the best and most Biblical model to meet in, the reality is that most of my fellow Christians are not convinced of that. Simply wagging our fingers at them is not going to have much impact other than making us feel superior to them because we have it all figured out while they wallow in their ignorance.
I am pretty convinced that the future of the visible church in the West, especially in America, is a bifurcated church with a relatively small number of megachurches with name-brand pastors and high production values, kind of a regional hub that draws people in from great distances, on the one end and on the other end of the spectrum very small church groups, meeting in homes or rented space or small, modest buildings. As fewer churches are able (or willing) to financially support clergy, I think that the small, simple churches will have to rely on non-professional ministers, men with jobs outside of the church because they simply will not have the financial resources to pay a minister. Because of this, men who desire to work in vocational ministry will be concentrated in the megachurches that have a budget to support a paid clergy team.
I also think the future looks grim for denominations. As of 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention which is by far the largest denomination, had some 45,000 local churches affiliated with the SBC. Those churches reported “Primary Worship Attendance” of 6,207,488. That works out to around 138 people on a given Sunday. Now those are not exact figures because many, many SBC churches have far less than that and a few outliers on the other hand have thousands on a Sunday. Second Baptist Church in Houston boasts some 24,000 average attendees on a given Sunday and First Baptist Church in Jacksonville claims 28,000. Rick Warren speaks to crowds of nearly 20,000 and impacts many, many more. A number of other churches pastured by well known men have attendance figures in the thousands while hundreds of tiny congregations are fortunate to have 50 people on hand. At 138 (which includes adults as well as visitors and children) is dangerously close to the breaking point for a church to continue to meet its budget requirements and the future clearly is one of fewer and fewer church attenders.
The reality that is facing the church demands that we prepare for the future by doing what we should have been doing all along. Reduce the overhead costs of our congregations and free up that capital for missions work and mercy ministries. Eliminate the pyramid structure with a select group of professionals at the top. Revitalize existing church groups and refocus their mission to be equipping, outreach and replication instead of sustaining and surviving.
I don’t think these changes are going to happen overnight. I also don’t think these changes will happen by constantly haranguing the institutional church. I do think that these changes are coming and not only is there nothing to stop them, they will ultimately be healthier for the church and for the mission of God’s people. There is an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Our church planting paradigm fits that definition of insanity and we need to start to effect real change if we are going to see the church in America have a real impact on those around us who are perishing every day without Christ.