As America’s interest in Christianity continues to decline, many are asking if current models of church expansion remain appropriate. David Fitch’s blog calls on denominations to cease funding of church plants and instead begin supporting missionaries here in the U.S. Fitch asserts that the rising costs of planting a church (his estimate 300-400K) make it a nearly impossible task. Second, as we are now in a post-Christian era here in the U.S., he claims, “it puts enormous pressure on the church planter to secure already well-heeled Christians as bodies for the seats on Sunday morning.” Fitch acknowledges that church planting seemed to work during both the post WWII era (disenfranchised mainline Christians and expanding suburbia) and the mid-eighties (seeker-sensitive movement), but he claims these markets are shrinking and the post-Christian U.S. “has become a mission field of its own.” Fitch’s proposes that church planters be replaced with the traditional tent-making foreign missionary that seek to integrate into society, impacting people for Christ through his/her contacts in neighborhoods, workplaces, and social settings.
I believe Fitch’s post will resonate well with many of his readers. However, I find difficulty not with his assessment as much as with his solution. We certainly find ourselves as Christians in a new era of U.S. history with regard to how our unbelieving neighbors view the beliefs we hold so dear. The general population is unaware of the basic tenets of the Christian faith outside of what is available to them in popular media or from those who appose faith in any supernatural (i.e. new-atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). Acknowledging this regression does not convince me that we should abandon church planting altogether for an alternative solution. The current post-Christian U.S. cultural landscape, over saturation of churches in particular areas, and start-up costs should not solely determine whether denominations should abandon church planting to missionaries for several reasons.
First, the cultural landscape is not an appropriate reason to abandon church planting. The church has been tasked from its beginning to take the gospel to unreached people groups some of which were hostile to its message. I don’t believe Fitch would disagree with this, but his solution reflects this as he suggests that people gather in a community and influence them individually for Christ through gospel living. But what is the next step? Fitch does not explain, but wouldn’t it involve integration into a body of believers, the church? If there is already one locally, then the question is not about church planting, but how to equip the church member to navigate a post-Christian world bringing his/her neighbor to Christ and into a body of believers. Church planting may or may not be appropriate in a particular area, but cultural contexts should not be a factor.
Second, the over saturation of churches has deemed church planting a relic. I would certainly agree that the fragmentation of the church in the twentieth century has been unhealthy to say the least. Churches have been started (planted) on the backs of church members who have been convinced that a particular church down the road is wrong when in fact they are just different. To warrant such expansion, leadership sometimes use terms such as “liberal” outside of their intended theological context and in ways cast a particular church plant as unique from another existing church down the road. Many times both churches are in fact orthodox, both embracing the tenets of the gospel, but now separated by leadership egos and meaningless interpretations of Christian liberties. However there are areas of the U.S. that are not replete with churches that affirm the orthodox Christian teaching, embracing the gospel message. These areas should be explored, cultivated, and planted.
Third, the cost of planting is too high. Is the cost too high or do higher priorities exist in the church that allow for this to be an excuse? What is the overhead of the average church for things that only serve itself such as extravagant buildings with high mortgages or programs that are inward focused instead of outward focused? The church Christian school movement provides one such example. Churches started these schools beginning in the 1970’s through the present and spend tens of thousands of dollars to offset their costs. Such money could provide for church plants across town. Still others build facilities for their membership to exercise or play sports which results in a church existing apart from community instead of thriving in it. Church planting is not a matter of cost, it is a matter of priority with regard to our money. Shouldn’t the church sacrifice for others rather than collect for themselves?
The solution is not to abandon church planting, but to integrate it with the missionary mindset. A church plant is hard work, I know as I have been involved with several over the years most recently as last year. One church plant near me has employed the missionary tent maker approach. They have four seminary trained planters with local jobs, living in community. They have not surrendered church planting; instead adapting the traditional model integrating it with the tent-maker concepts.
The solution is not to abandon church planting, but to educate our churches on gospel centered priorities. Would not gospel centered priorities include expansion of the church and necessarily include church planting in some cases? The U.S. church has been infiltrated by the smorgasbord mindset that only serves itself. A gospel orientation mindset in a church will serve others at their own expense. This translates into less money spent on those in the church membership than the money spent for outreach into the community.
Abandon church planting? Never. We are called to proclaim the gospel which results in the expansion of the kingdom. Church planting was a necessary part of it in Paul’s day as it is in our day.