Those of us who grew up in times and places when making business out of faith was associated with swindlers and charlatans may feel somewhat out of place in the contemporary religious landscape in North America. This is due not only to the popularity of ministers who preach a thinly disguised marriage between God and mammon. Even among those who oppose the “prosperity Gospel” the success of a given ministry is still couched in the language of dollars and attendance. Entrepreneurial virtues are encouraged and a “more money equals more ministry” mindset is prevalent.
In a Christianity Today article published last fall, researcher Ed Stetzer aptly summarizes this reality. He notes the trend toward the “entrepreneurial church planter.” Americans, he argues, have turned the Gospel into business, just as Greeks turned it into philosophy. Capitalism has permeated church planting endeavors, creating a multimillion-dollar industry.
“There is a fine line between tailoring church to people’s needs and making church a commodity. In church planting this line often gets blurred.”
I spent 10 years working as church planter and strategist in the United States. I have met and enjoyed friendships with multiple church planters, church planting missionaries and church planting strategists. Their selfless dedication has been an encouragement to me during and after I was directly involved in this challenging ministry. My church planting years also played an important part in my spiritual and theological formation. Among other things, I learned the value of creativity and perseverance, qualities that are much needed in theological academia, of which I am now a part.
Broadly speaking, church planting has important strengths. Church planters tend to be more evangelistic and open to fresh forms of outreach. These qualities are needed at a time when older forms of ministry are no longer as effective as they were decades ago. I have seen strong churches planted where there were none and existing churches revitalized. Multiple lives have been changed by those church starts and restarts.
At the same time, I have become increasingly aware that hard questions need to be asked of American evangelical church planting. Stetzer points out that since the 1990s entrepreneurial church planters have reigned supreme. How has that worked out? In 2017 Christianity Today reported on the membership dynamics of Southern Baptist Convention. The headline noted: “Hundreds of New Churches Not Enough to Satisfy Southern Baptists.”
Perhaps due to the focus on church planting as the cornerstone of evangelism, the number of churches grew in the previous year. But all the other significant numbers have been in decline since 2003. The SBC in 2017 was down to the lowest number of baptisms since 1946, the lowest membership since 1990, and the lowest worship attendance since 1996. As Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has put it, the SBC “is in the midst of a decline that shows no signs of either slowing down or turning around.”
“Evangelicals should move away from the commonly held assumption that church planting is the best way to reach the unchurched.”
The church planting industry may be undermining evangelism in two ways: (1) when it makes a commodity out of the Gospel message, which is in substantial tension with consumerism, and (2) when it sucks resources from other important forms of ministry.
Many evangelicals understand church planting as a means of conveying the timeless truths of the Gospel. The truths remain the same, but the means of conveying them must be tailored to the audiences so that they are understood and accepted. Hence the need for entrepreneurial church planters. By themselves, entrepreneurial values are not bad, but there is a fine line between tailoring church to people’s needs and making church a commodity. In church planting this line often gets blurred. When offered multiple choices of churches trying to tailor ministries to people’s tastes, Christians begin to look at houses of worship as consumers rather than disciples.
What seems to be largely unacknowledged is the link between the message and the way it is conveyed. Could it be that, coupled with the overall consumerist environment, entrepreneurial church planting has pushed the church into a game that it cannot win? Could it be that by pushing church planters to act in consumerist fashion, we have unwittingly undermined their message and, more importantly, the message of the Gospel which stands in pronounced tension with consumerism? Unfortunately, my decade long experience suggests that the answer to both questions is yes.
“There should be no sacred cows in the reassessment of evangelism strategies, including church planting.”
The church planting industry created substantial financial incentives to plant churches, but it came at a price of disincentivizing other forms of evangelism and ministry. If the industry has become good at anything, it is in the fundraising needed to support its efforts. Even so, funding is limited, so generous funding for church planting often squeezes out resources needed for other forms of ministry. These funding priorities can, and do, create incentives to plant churches where other forms of ministry would be more appropriate and effective.
The needed reassessment should begin with determining what ministries best fit the particular contexts. To that end, evangelicals should move away from the commonly held assumption that church planting is the best way to reach the unchurched. Stetzer may be right in saying that church plants are still far more evangelistic than established churches. However, given that the growth of the number of churches coexists with the overall declines in membership, baptisms and attendance, it is difficult to justify continuing such a supreme emphasis on church planting.
Instead, we should create venues where those in leadership can listen to people who are directly engaged in field ministries. These conversations should not be limited to church planters or even to pastors of existing churches. We can learn much from lay people; they tend to spend more time in the field than many pastors or church planters do. After listening carefully, leaders should take appropriate steps. More likely than not, these steps will include shifting funding priorities from church planting toward creating and supporting networks more fitting to given situations.
Church planting is an appropriate form of outreach in some, perhaps many, contexts. But every good thing can be overdone. There should be no sacred cows in the reassessment of evangelism strategies, including church planting.