This is my 54th year to be involved in planting new congregations. I helped my parents plant a congregation when I was 15 and planted my first congregation myself when I was 19. That was after spending the first 15 years of my life in the home of church planters. My parents were planting a church the year I was born. So, I learned a lot by osmosis at the breakfast, lunch, and supper table for the first 15 years of my life until I had the opportunity to experience it myself.
I planted four churches before I was 30 and have spent the years since then as a strategist and denominational network leader for planting churches. I have helped denominational organizations strategize for the planting of thousands of churches, and I led a specific effort during my 30s and 40s that planted 500 churches.
I come to the Exponential church planting and multiplication conference in Orlando this week with that background, and with a specific focus on developing a multiplication movement in a Baptist association in the Midlands of South Carolina that will need to plant at least 100 congregational expressions over the next 25 years.
I have certain convictions I want to test during this week. In some I am a contrarian to the euphoria and group-think expressed in this type of gathering. Let me share various points for consideration.
First, it is important for building capacity and sustainability over the long term for churches to plant churches rather than for planters to plant churches. Yes, we must have exceptionally called, gifted, and skilled planters, but that is only one part of the equation. An overemphasis on the planter focuses on the hubris that develops in the planter about their new congregation and is a predicter of the decline of the congregation either between seven and fourteen years after it is launched, or 18 to 21 years.
The longer period is if the founding vision is clearly God’s empowering vision for the congregation and is deeply held. The shorter period is if it is a franchise approach copying someone else’s model and a unique vision is not encased in the DNA of the congregation. Or, it can come about because the congregation is formed out of conflict or the leaving of a group from another congregation.
The focus on the church planter also leads to a silo approach that does not understand the synergy in a movement of diverse churches at various places in their life cycle who can be blessed by, challenged by, motivated by a church planting movement. It is like a new baby coming into a family, but not allowing or wanting the family to be blessed and even changed by what that new life represents, or to ask for the power of the extended family to bless the new baby. It is actually a selfish approach.
As a result, when church plants are divorced from existing churches, an increasing number of existing churches become plateaued and declining. It may actually result in a decline of the denomination or an older network. In my denominational family—Southern Baptists–we are seeing that pattern now.
Multiple reasons keep church planting efforts from using an approach that builds capacity and develops sustainability. Among them is that it is harder and takes longer. However, during an era of collaboration, it is over the long term a superior approach.
(Look for more posts later.)