Should American Christians Abandon Church Planting?


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.

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4 Comments

Filed under Community, Current Church Trends, Spirituality, Theology

4 responses to “Should American Christians Abandon Church Planting?

  1. Ryan

    I agree with you that there still is a place for church planting. However, you miss part of what Fitch is saying. He’s not saying that the people reached by these missionaries in America will not be involved in a church, it just isn’t a church in the way we traditionally see church in America. In a sense, Fitch is advocating church planting through missionaries, but avoids the term church planting because it is synonymous with traditional forms of church. As he says, “I believe that you put three or more quality leaders together in one place for ten years you will have a new expression of the gospel i.e. a church in each context.” You asked, “But what is the next step?” You assume it is joining up with a traditional church. However, they are already a church. They don’t need to join a traditional church. You seem to think that Fitch is suggesting an individualistic evangelistic endeavor. If you recall, he suggests starting this church with a group of three or more leaders. From the beginning, it is a church. He actually has a lot to say about this. You can check out a sampling of some of his somewhat recent posts about this topic: http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/are-you-a-church-yet-the-necessity-of-each-community%e2%80%99s-political-manifestation/; http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/the-important-task-of-cultivating-missional-rhythms-in-a-community/; http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/on-teaching-a-d-min-seminar-and-blogging/; http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/excuses-seminarians-make-for-not-getting-a-%e2%80%9creal%e2%80%9d-job/; http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/five-overreactions-that-kill-the-community-navigating-community-in-the-post-evangelical-backlash/; http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/james-mcdonalds-lost-vision-for-the-body-of-christ/.

    On your third point about church spending priorities, I think Fitch would agree with you, which is part of why he says we should stop planting chuches (in the current models used by denominations), because they expect these same wrong spending priorities to be involved in the churches they plant, such as the facilities, etc… It seems that you and Fitch really aren’t that far off in your thinking on this. You just have a little different view of the Church. You seek to plant traditional churches with some missional aspects, Fitch seeks to plant missional churches.

  2. You are right in that Fitch and I would probably agree on more things about the church moving forward than we would disagree. Perhaps, I am just uncomfortable with scrapping a whole concept when perhaps adaptation is what is needed, on the other hand I do believe that it is difficult to turn thinking in large denominations that hold the purse strings. I understand what you are saying about missional churches versus traditional churches with missional aspects. However how would you define their differences?

  3. Ryan

    Here are some of what I would say are some of the differences. Of course, these are generalizations, each local expression of the church seems to be a little different.

    1) In traditional churches with missional aspects the emphasis is still on doing things at the building and on Sunday Morning. For missional churches, the emphasis is more on living life together and being the church outside of a church building throughout the week.

    2) Traditional churches with missional aspects still tend to see Christian ministry largely through programs. Mission is seen as a program, or as something accomplished through programs. Missional churches tend to see Christian ministry largely through rhythms of life; such as missional rhythms, community rhythms.

    3) Traditional churches with missional aspects tend to (unintentionally) create passive attendees. The main form of expressing a person’s faith is seen as attending Sunday morning services (maybe unintentionally). Missional churches tend to create active participants. Everyone tends to be more involved on Sunday mornings and throughout the week.

    4) Traditional churches with missional aspects tend to have a more hierarchical structure; with a Senior Pastor, maybe some other staff, elders, deacons, deaconesses, board and committee members, volunteers, and pew sitters. Missional churches tend to have a more flat structure. (Again, this helps encourage greater involvement)

    5) In traditional churches with missional aspects the Pastoral Staff are often seen as professional ministers offering goods and services (pastoral care, preaching, officiating rites and ceremonies, leading programs) to the congregation. In missional churches there tends to be more lay leadership. The Pastors (probably more than one, and probably no full-time Pastors) are more likely theological resources and permission givers (encouraging lay people to lead or do ministry).

    6a) Traditional churches with missional aspects tend to spend a lot of time and money on facilities/programs/staffing, etc. Missional churches don’t, allowing them to be more flexible with time and money for ministry.

    6b) Traditional churches with missional aspects still spends a lot of time and resources on attractional type ministry, focused on drawing people to the church facilities to listen to a speaker and/or band. Missional churches tend to spend a lot of time and resources going out and building relationships with the unchurched and bringing them into the family of God.

    Hopefully that’s helpful in thinking about some of the differences between a traditional church with missional aspects, and missional churches.

  4. I would generally agree with you distinctions between traditional and missional churches. However this leaves me a bit confused, how did you arrive at the conclusion that I would seek to plant traditional churches with missional aspects instead of missional churches? I mentioned that 1) pastors should have more of missionary tent-maker approach having jobs in the community; 2) that traditionally churches have focused on programs (example I gave was Christian schools) instead of pushing those resources back out into the community. In your reply above, You added the word “church” but Fitch does not say that. He says, “The goal here is NOT (I REPEAT NOT) to have self-sustaining church organization in three years. It is to have three to four leader/leader couples working together with jobs each that can offer 15 hours of labor to work together to organize and form a gospel expression way in their context.” However a “gospel expression” and a church are not necessarily the same thing. I don’t want to put words in Fitche’s mouth, he did not say church. I believe the church certainly is an expression (or should be) of the gospel but certainly not the only expression. That is the point of my article, if he means expression of the gospel in the form of a missional house church, then I wish he would say it. Also, there are church plants by denominations (granted not as many as there should be) that are less interested in mortar and brick and more interested in planting churches that fit the style of the church planter and the community for which he desires ministry. They are outwardly focused unlike their denominational counterparts. You can find examples in the SBC (http://missionalchurchnetwork.com/missional-and-the-sbc/ also http://www.edstetzer.com/missional/ also http://saidatsouthern.com/on-being-a-missional-church/) and the PCA denominations (http://www.oneancienthope.com/One_Ancient_Hope/One_Ancient_Hope__A_Missional,_Evangelical,_Reformed,_PCA_church_in_Iowa_City.html).