Is this blog anti church planting? By no means!
In what is often regarded as the landmark paper on Church Planting, Tim Keller says that “if we want to reach our city, should we try to renew older congregations to make them more evangelistic, or should we plant lots of new churches? That question is surely a false either-or dichotomy. We should do both!” (Keller 2002). We concur. By a variety of means, Christians must work both to plant new churches and to grow existing ones. Church planting has some advantages. Working with existing congregations, with people gifted by God, and with resources and facilities, also has advantages. A both-and approach is the most strategic.
In my own Sydney Anglican context, a good deal of thought and resources have been devoted to church planting, particularly since the turn of the century. Specialist organisations and departments have been set up to foster this work – we are thankful to God for these. There are blogs, conferences and dedicated staff to co-ordinate this work. This is great. It must continue, and even accelerate.
At the same time, at a macro level, more focus could be given to encouraging existing churches. This conviction has been one of the factors that has contributed to the establishment of this blog. Several factors could be noted, including some concerns that I have for the future that lead me to the conclusion that investment in church planting should be maintained alongside an investment in assisting existing to churches:
- Existing churches contain large numbers of Christians who are gifted by God. They should be involved in God’s work in the world, right? Some will be suitable to be part of church planting teams, others will be better suited to building existing congregations through evangelism and the use of their gifts. Either course has its challenges and difficulties, but just as Paul sought to become all things to all men so that by all possible means some may be saved, so too ought Christians strategically work on multiple streams and strategies, simultaneously.
- Established churches are blessed with land and buildings. In my Sydney context, real estate is among the most expensive in the world. Even if suitably sized land were available, it cost many millions of dollars to acquire and develop the facilities to operate a church facility.
- The implementation of any strategy is hard work, including church planting. In June 2015, a report was completed into the effectiveness of church planting in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. It noted, consistent with the anecdotes of many, for example, that school based church plants had the lowest average attendance of plants; struggled more with long term member exhaustion; and the difficulties of long term sustainability without property.
- Quite apart from challenges of meeting the significant requirements of car parking and complying with the requirements of public buildings, local Councils are gradually making it more difficult for any religion to develop land for the purposes of worship centers.
- With shifting attitudes in the West to the place of Christianity in society, at some point in time, there are likely to be restrictions upon churches such that they will not be able to meet in public places. Several congregations have struggled in this very area in recent years. Already there is a growing discrimination against those who wish to uphold a traditional view of sexuality and marriage, such as evangelical Christians. (Microsoft Corporation, for example, has added sexual orientation to its discriminatory list. Organizations considered to be discriminatory cannot participate in its generous not for profit scheme (though Microsoft currently exempts religious organizations)). At a minimum, to rely solely on such an approach is a risky strategy.
- Society is shifting from the shopping village to the shopping mall. The mall provides a comprehensive range of specialized offerings under one roof. Some local shopping villages have found a boutique niche. Others have died out. Many local churches have struggled to adapt. Those that have been able to develop into regional churches have been able to offer multiple ministries in a way that smaller churches often struggle to offer. Yes, part of this consumerist trend is disturbing. Nonetheless, it is the increasing reality of the culture of the West that we are here to win. It seems only logical that more churches will need to develop in such ways if more groups in the city are to be reached. The desire, for example, of a parent to go to a church where their children will be effectively nurtured as a Christian is understandable.
- The cost of hiring suitably trained clergy makes it challenging (though not impossible) to seed fund and sustain smaller church plants, particularly if they don’t grow past their infancy stage. The economies of scale that many established churches can build on can carry some advantages.
- The establishment of some larger churches of scale can be an effective base for recurring and strategic church planting. The impact of a group of, say, 70 leaving a large church of, say, 500 is far less than a group leaving, say, 100.
It should be noted that there are some wonderful advantages with church planting. For example, they often see higher rates of new people; they can energise Christians desiring to serve in something new; and indeed it can be much easier to start with a new culture than undergo the work of culture change and shaking outmoded traditions.
This brings us back to where we started. Both the planting of new churches and the growing of existing churches is important. Each has pros and cons. And either, under God, are a good strategic choice that may be adopted under different circumstances. With lots of resources to support church planting, this blog has been developed for the benefit and encouragement predominantly of existing churches.