A quarter of a century ago I moved to South Carolina in response to the call of the largest Baptist body in that state. Baptists of various tribes in South Carolina lacked a commitment to starting new congregations. I was asked to change that situation for at least one Baptist tribe.
After eight months, much research, and long hours of thinking, praying, writing and developing strategies, I went to my boss and suggested that for Baptists in South Carolina it was a Parable of the Talents situation. We were the largest Christian group in the state. Half the state was unchurched; yet I could not presume on their spiritual situation. The unchurched numbered at least 1.8 million, or about 50 percent, of the population.
Our goal should be to start 500 congregations during the next 15 years. After my boss picked himself up off the floor from the shock, he began to ask questions. You see, this organization of over 1,700 Baptist congregations was only starting five to six new congregations per year, and that equaled the number of church splits.
As we began to talk with congregations around the state about the possibility of sponsoring a new congregation, we met with expected resistance. It was hard to turn around the culture of a 165-year-old denominational organization. The typical response of pastors was that any new congregation within three to five miles of their church would hurt the growth and attendance at their church.
Unfortunately, as a young buck in my mid-30s, my answers were not necessarily holy ones. I indicated that if we started 500 new congregations that reached an average membership of 300, we would involve in new congregations only 150,000 people. The other 1.65 million people could be reserved for existing churches to reach.
Ouch! Not a kind answer.
Perhaps you wonder: Are there good reasons to start new congregations?
There are some bad ones for sure. A few include:
1. The denominational organization needs more loyal, contributing congregations
2. The total number of congregations and their average participation is declining.
3. A large number of people connected with congregations are mobile, moving into communities without a church of their denomination, and they are joining congregations of a different denomination.
However, these can be balanced by some good ones:
1. Various areas are growing and new congregations are needed to provide an ongoing Christian faith experience for new residents.
2. New congregations are needed that can cross racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, lifestyle, geographic and generational barriers for which existing congregations cannot adequately provide a response.
3. The overall mission of the denominational tribe needs additional capacity to live into the full kingdom potential God appears to have for this tribe. It is necessary to renew and expand the core to be able to adequately extend and deepen the ministry in response to a God-given vision.
4. The launching of New Testament congregations is the ultimate expression of being missional rather than attractional. One aspect of missional efforts is that we care more about the other than ourselves. To launch a new congregation means we want a new Christ-centered faith community to develop as God would uniquely lead them.
5. New congregations are like new babies in a family. They add an intangible sense of excitement and energy, and represent the forward movement of a positive legacy. New congregations are a learning and renewal experience for existing congregations.
Almost 30 years ago one of my life and ministry mentors, Lyle Schaller, taught me the principle that for a collection or movement of congregations—some would call this a denomination—to sustain vitality and vibrancy it must launch a number of new congregations each year equal to at least three percent of the number of congregation it had in its movement at the beginning of the year. I pass this principle on to you and hope you will embrace it.