When I worked with a state judicatory, we made church planting a priority. Unfortunately, our success was limited. Only two of the churches we helped to launch survived and only one of those is growing. Fifty percent failed despite considerable effort and financial investment. Another twenty-five percent did not launch for various—and valid—reasons. (This doesn’t include at least two groups that I “talked out” of trying.) As a result, I know a great deal about what doesn’t work in starting new churches.
Despite this track record, I am still a proponent of new church starts. Churches and denominations that are not starting new churches will become increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century. We must continue to call out church planters, help them develop relevant ministry models, and equip them to succeed in this role.
There are a number of lists of reasons to start new churches. David T. Olson of the Evangelical Covenant Church provides one in his book The American Church in Crisis. Let me mention just five of his “Top 10 Reasons to Plant Churches” and comment on them.
1. “New churches lower the age profile of the American church, increase its multiethnicity, and better position the whole church for future changes.” Just having the desire for starting new churches exhibits an openness that attracts young leadership, ethnic leaders, and innovative approaches.
2. “New churches provide synergistic benefits to established churches.” There is a feedback loop in church planting that encourages and strengthens established churches that are supporting them. Unfortunately, too many established churches and their leaders fear that new church starts will siphon off present members and deny them potential new members. The first is likely to happen, but the second is not.
3. “New churches provide a channel to express the energy and ideas of passionate, innovative young pastors.” The only way that we will engage “ministry entrepreneurs” is to offer them places of service where they are free to innovate, learn, and serve.
4. “New churches are the research and development unit of God’s kingdom.” Just as new churches engage creative young leaders, they offer the opportunity to try new things that would not be attempted in established churches for fear of failure.
5. “New churches are historically the best method for reaching each emerging new generation.” New churches have a rough, “out on the edge” feel that is attractive to those who desire a fresh approach to the church and the Christian life.
What are the key factors in starting a new church? Here are some that I believe are essential:
First, a visionary leader with a passion for the task who is willing to go the second and third mile to make it happen.
Second, a team of committed leaders with varied gifts who will gather around the visionary leader to grow the church.
Third, a location and/or context that fits the vision for the new church.
Fourth, a teachable spirit and flexibility among the leadership group so that they can learn from their experiences.
Fifth, a commitment to pray and seek God’s leadership in the life of the new fellowship.
Despite the challenges involved, we need to be starting new churches. This is not for everyone and should only be attempted after much prayer and discernment. It is not an easy task, but it is an essential one.