Zeal for Church Planting

Posted on September 19, 2012 by Dr. Jerry Rankin in Rankin Connecting

The passion for church planting in America continues to gain momentum, apparently driven by a zeal to re-create the church to be culturally relevant. I have participated in two local training events focused on church planting, attended by a cadre of young church planters as well as representatives of established churches who are giving renewed priority to starting new work.

Church planting has always been the watermark of overseas missions. Missionaries go to proclaim the gospel to a lost world and rejoice when people come to faith in Christ and are baptized. Unless they are gathered into a congregation or fellowship, however, there is little hope of growth, discipleship and spiritual maturity. A local indigenous church becomes a nucleus of ongoing witness in a village or community that goes beyond the work of a missionary. If spiritual vital, it has the potential for reproducing and multiplying as its members extend its witness to other neighborhoods.

But church planting has languished in America. No one would declare even the Bible belt of the South to be over-churched, but churches tend to want to grow their own congregation rather than relinquish dedicated members to start new ones. Outside the South, cultural traditions and spiritual indifference has created formidable barriers to church planting efforts. Yet more and more Americans are “unchurched” even where there are churches on every corner.

In my own relatively small town there are six Southern Baptist churches and others of every conceivable denomination, yet I am aware of current projects to start three new Baptist churches. The Southern Baptist Convention reports hundreds of new churches started each year, yet the net growth in total churches is miniscule. What that reflects is the fact that many churches are dying.

It is a fact that newer and smaller churches grow faster than older and larger churches. There is a younger generation of God-called pastors who are uninterested in stepping into pastorates or staff roles in established churches and maintaining programs primarily designed to serve members and their families. Massive resources are expended on carrying on traditions and ministering to the redeemed with little outreach and community impact.

Many smaller, historic churches are in the midst of extensive housing developments and areas of demographic growth but more interested in maintaining their sweet, little fellowship and family power structures than changing to reach new people around them. Formerly large, inner-city churches with massive facilities are dying congregations with a few hundred grey-haired worshippers or less gathering faithfully in a relatively empty sanctuary.

Seminaries have been noticing a trend for sometime of students being uninterested in accepting calls to pastor dying churches or even larger, growing congregations that report few baptisms each year. “I’ll start my own church, thank you,” seems to be the attitude of those who have no desire to conform to the time-consuming demands of a traditional church. They want to make a difference in their community, impact our culture and reach the spiritual needs of people who are not inclined to attend a church just because it is there.

It is unfortunate that many established churches see new starts as threatening or competitive. Others recognize the trend and are starting satellite congregations. We need to recognize that new forms of doctrinally-sound ecclesiology are needed to change the pattern of decline and evangelize our increasingly secular society. One group is creatively seeking to establish “missional communities” in apartment complexes and unchurched, ethnically diverse areas. Planting new churches is an encouraging trend for extending God’s kingdom, but they are churches that won’t look like what we have been used to in the past.

4 Comments on “Zeal for Church Planting”

  1. The Ultimate Reunion | Down Home in Mississippi

    […] over recent weeks has resulted in neglect of our postings, but I hope you will read the new blog post this week on the phenomenal trend of church planting in America. I will resume the Friday devotional postings with a series of reflections on the prayers of Paul. […]

  2. Wayne Smith

    Hi Jerry,

    In most states, we have too many church buildings and not enough ‘body of believers’.

    God Bless,


  3. David Herndon

    One of the trends I see here in the West, is that when a congregation goes from being a “plant” to an “established” church, (2-3 years), the planter leaves to start another. One of the reasons is that they do not know how to pastor. It is easier to get a new group of people together than to become involved over the years with a larger group. The time it takes to invest in people’s lives to impact them and transform a community is time a lot of younger planters simply do not want to spend. I have both planted churches and been a pastor, serving in both missions and in re-starting dying churches. In my current church, which is 45 years old, my tenure of 9 years is the longest. Take away myself and one other pastor of 8 years, the average tenure was less than 20 months. Is it more attractive to start another church? Yes – especially since that is where the funding goes to. The hard work is being done by less and less. In our state, over 50% of church plants will fail within 3 years. I can’t believe it is good stewardship to continue church planting the way we are. Perhaps if existing churches were strengthened and discipled, they would start churches instead of denominational entities. Maybe their investment in those works would lead to more lasting results.

  4. Heath Lloyd

    Dr Rankin: Thank you for this article. As the pastor of an older, established Southern Baptist congregation, in a rural setting, I assure there are many lost people who need Jesus — all around us. The challenge is get God’s people onto His agenda to see lost people saved.

    One of my fears is that “method” may be seen as important as, or more important in some cases, than “message.” The attitude of “we are so far from traditional you won’t even recognize this as church” may be more important than the holiness of God and the faithful proclamation of His Gospel.

    I pray that God will use men called to plant churches to His glory — and that He will be supreme, not man’s method.

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