by Rick Burke
The Christmas and New Year Holidays are behind us. If you are like me there have been some New Year’s resolutions that are beginning to already slip. After eating my way through the holidays, I made some resolutions to lose weight and get back to my exercise regimen (sound familiar?). You may ask, “How are you doing with that, Rick?” As with many other New Year’s resolutions, I am observing this year that a vision without a plan, intentionality and accountability generally lead to my vision being just a pipe dream. Good ideas without discipline are just that, good ideas! Have you noticed this about life in general? Whether the resolution is more education or having a regular devotional time or a date night with your spouse or exercise or whatever, there is the need for a plan with intentionality and accountability to get ‘er done!
I want to walk through some important considerations for our church as we prepare to launch Duane and Lavinia Manuel to begin a new church, Radiant. I will be referencing my own experience in church planting both as a missionary, layman and a pastor. I will also draw upon articles and books that I have read to offer some reasons for initiating new churches and why that is important. I will offer some biblical as well as logical rationale for starting new churches.
Ed Stetzer in his book, Planting Missional Churches, states that the whole New Testament is an anthology of church plants. Church planting requires both intentional efforts and is the direct and inevitable result of believers’ involvement in witnessing and gospel proclamation. Stetzer suggests four commissionings of Jesus as Biblical mandates to initiate new churches:
- “I am sending you…” In John 20:21 we read, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” and since the Father sent Jesus to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), we are sent in the same manner as Jesus to seek and save the lost. “Like those people two thousand years ago, we are called and sent by God to go wherever and for whatever purpose God chooses.”
- “Make disciples of all nations…” Two weeks following Jesus’ commission in John 20, Jesus spoke the Great Commission, which was the second of the sending commands (Mat. 28:18-20). This clearly explains that the task of world evangelization is given to His disciples both then and now. The best indication of what Jesus meant can be found in how these first hearers responded.
- “Preach repentance and forgiveness…” This third command describes the content and location of their proclamation. We are called to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations” (Luke 24:47). The content is repentance and forgiveness through Christ, and if this message is not through Christ, then church planting and growth are rightfully subject to criticism. The location is all the nations or “ethnic groups/ tribes/ or tongues.”
- “Jerusalem…to the ends of the earth…” (Acts 1:8) The final sending passage provides the geography: to the ends of the earth. Stetzer suggests that this directive is helpful if we want to teach our congregations that the work of a witness for Christ is not just overseas but right here at home too. Both missionaries and those of us who stay at home need to do the “missional work” of a witness and follower of Jesus.
These four sending commands are directed to early believers for the same purpose that Jesus was from the Father; that is to make disciples of all people groups both locally and globally. The New Testament Christians acted upon these commands as spiritually healthy and obedient believers, which resulted in more churches springing forth.
Stetzer concludes that the Great Commission instructs us to evangelize and congregationalize people in response to Jesus example and His command.
If this Biblical mandate to disciple all nations were not enough, a simple look at the facts should stir our hearts for greater intentionality to disciple and initiate new churches.
According to Stetzer the research team at the North American Mission Board recently recalculated the church-to-population ratio based on statistics from the U.S. Census:
- In 1900, there were 28 churches for every 10,000 Americans
- In 1950, there were 17 churches for every 10,000 Americans
- In 2000, there were 12 churches for every 10,000 Americans
- In 2004 (latest year available) there were 11 churches for every 10,000
Stetzer goes on to write, “In 1900, the Census Bureau counted 212,000 Americans churches. In 2000, the number of churches increased just over 50 percent while the population of the country as almost quadrupled…. At a minimum we should attempt to keep up with the population but if we are truly to reach people in our culture, we should want to do much more!”
Finally, Stetzer states that “bigger-is-better” mentality is not supported by the research as to the best way to reach people. He cites Bruce McNichol’s research in Interest Magazine stating that clearly newer churches are more effective in reaching those who don’t know Christ:
- Churches under 3 years of age win an average of 10 people to Christ per year for every 100 church members.
- Churches 3-15 years of age win an average of five people per year for every hundred church members
- Churches over 15 years of age win an average of 3 people per year for every hundred church members.
A common criticism of church planting is that our country is filled with churches, why is church planting important? Tim Keller (noted author, pastor and church planting advocate) offers some of the following reasons:
- New churches best reach new generations: Keller suggests that younger adults have always been disproportionately found in newer congregations. He suggests that is due to developed traditions which reflect the sensibilities of long time leaders from the older generations.
- New churches best reach new residents: Keller suggests that new residents are almost always reached better by new congregations due primarily to the fact that new congregations need leaders while older congregations may require 10 or more years of tenure to be in leadership. But in new congregations new residents tend to have equal power with long-time residents.
- New churches best reach new people groups: Keller says that new socio-cultural groups in a community are always reached better by new congregations. As an example he offers a scenario that if new white-collar commuters move into an area where the older residents were farmers, it is likely that a new church will be more receptive to the needs of the new residents, while the older churches will continue to be oriented to the original social group. He offers the same logic for new ethnic groups as well.
Keller states that new churches best reach the unchurched- period! He cites dozens of denominational studies that have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60-80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshipping body, while churches that are over 10-15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer from other congregations. What this means is that the average new congregation will bring 6-8 times more new people into the life of the Body of Christ as compared to an older congregation of the same size.
Why is First Free so committed to church planting? God’s Word commands it and the statistics confirm the need. How do we stay on focus for church planting? As a local church, we must have a plan and then be intentional and accountable to one another as well as to God or this will disintegrate like many of our New Year resolutions. Let’s pray for Duane and Lavinia as they start a new church in our area and let’s pray that First Free will birth many more churches in coming years!