The church in America has been on the decline for quite sometime and a new church planting movement is seeking to be the solution. There are some statistics showing they may be succeeding but I fear they lack the main ingredient to make it last. As a "church planter" and person passionate about Jesus and his Kingdom, I would like to express my concerns as well as offer an alternative route. Church planting has become a craze over the past decade or so in the American Church, and I believe for good reasons. The American Church has a problem, a serious problem. How bad is it? A study done in 2007 showed that 4,000 churches close on a yearly basis; only 50% of all churches see at least one person come to faith over a year; 85% of all churches are stagnant or dying; and 1,500 pastors a month are newly unemployed. (1) This is a real problem and church planting has sought to be a real solution.
How successful has it been? In 2010 more churches were started (approximately 4,000) than were closed (approximately 3,500). (2) However, the church is still falling behind as the life expectancy rate for these new churches is only 70%. Many of these new church plants rely heavily on marketing, good PR through service projects and being the cool new relevant church. The overwhelming majority of people these church plants attract are active and non-active Christians. This is a positive thing as many older churches are not inviting to younger generations. I am not sure many of the twenty or thirty-somethings they attract would stay active in a local church, if it were not for these churches.
My fear, however, is their lack of focus on discipleship. I have spent a lot of time visiting and talking with church planters and their churches, I have interviewed several church planting networks, and read even more books on church planting. Very few of them ever speak of discipleship. One church planter told me that he didn't know what discipleship was and had come to the belief that we don't disciple people, Jesus does. He explained that it was our responsibility to plant the church, offer people ways to serve, and allow Jesus to disciple them in the process. This leads me to fearfully wonder if our solution of planting more churches to reverse the decline is only a last hoorah before the bottom falls out.
Who plants and who builds? Jesus is recorded as speaking of the church only twice in the New Testament (both in Matthew, 16:18 and 18:17). In the first instance he says to his disciples, "I will build my church." He was speaking of church discipline in the other instance. On the other hand, Jesus tells the disciples to "go and make disciples" in the Great Commission. I suppose it is up to the interpreter as to whether building and planting are the same, but the manner of discipleship is not. Discipleship is the lifeline or engine of the church. I love the way Mike Breen puts it, "Discipleship is the operating system and the church is the cool app." Out of discipleship flows the church. Discipleship is the vehicle that transports people into Kingdom.
My observation is that too many church plants are seeking to entertain people into Kingdom people. They put way too much stock into the Sunday show. They spend large amounts of resources on marketing, bands, sound equipment, media, sermons, and programs. The problem this creates is that all the time and energy of the pastor and the people is spent "doing" the church service, rather than learning to "be" the church. People rely on post cards to get people into the church. The band, media and sound equipment, which has to be set up early on a Sunday morning, are relied upon to bring the people back next. The pastor spends 20 plus hours a week on a sermon that people forget by Wednesday. And often times their most relational people are too busy putting on programs to get to know people. I am not suggesting these things are bad. Rather, I am saying that church planters may be overloading the cart and inadvertently taking the feet of discipleship out from underneath it. When all these other things must be done, there is not time left for discipleship.
I constantly hear church planters tell me they're tired, stressed and frustrated. This is a discipleship issue. A church planter who has not been discipled cannot make disciples. Apple trees do not produce oranges. A pastor who cannot produce disciples cannot plant a church capable of producing Kingdom people. Though these churches may be entertaining, they will not be sustainable in the Kingdom.
As a "church planter" I began asking myself, is there another way? I believe I have found an answer. Here I have laid out what I see as a problem with the church planting movement I have observed. In the weeks and months to come I want to invite you into the journey our church planting community.