In the golden age of planting modern and hip congregations, church planting is becoming a business model instead of a commission from God.
I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And there is one thing for sure; there is no shortage of churches. From Catholic to Protestant, Reformed to Baptist to Pentecostal, Traditional or contemporary, suite and tie pastor or jeans and tattoos. There are drive-in churches, churches built around the hardcore music scene, churches that have hosted the likes of U2, and more. Apparently though, my hometown (and many other cities like it) is still missing something; more churches.
Every time I see another church being planted in my hometown, I can’t help but be puzzled, confused and maybe a little frustrated. Churches exist to reach the lost. And while there are still lost people in overplanted areas, I’m not convinced the answer to reaching them is to continue to over-saturate the area with more churches.
How Churched is your Mission Field?
It’s true. In the last year, several people I know have hopped on board to start new churches in one of the most religious cities in America. Anecdotally, Grand Rapids has once held the Guinness book of world records for the most churches on one street (although this fact has been hard for me to pin down). More reliable perhaps is Barna’s 2015 study on the most churchless cities. According to Barna’s research, Grand Rapids has an unchurched population of only 36%. In other words, around 7 out of 10 Grand Rapidians still go to church. Compare that with the #1 spot of San Francisco where the churchless rate is 61%, and pioneering another church starts making less sense.
(BTW: Flint, where I live, comes in at #17: about 6 out of 10 residents don’t have a church.)
Really, these numbers are peanuts when you look outside the United States. Just look at the 10/40 window, which is according to The Joshua Project is “the rectangular area of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia approximately between 10 degrees north and 40 degrees north latitude.” This small window of the globe is home to 5 billion people; 68% of them are considered unreached. In other words, they haven’t heard the gospel. It was the Canadian Minister and missions advocate Oswald J. Smith who once said:
“No one has the right to hear the gospel twice, while there remains someone who has not heard it once.”
– Oswald J. Smith
Expanding, Not Imploding
I don’t doubt the likely sincere hearts of those who pioneer these new churches, I’m just wondering whether the method is misguided. There is no real question among the church right now of whether the gospel needs to be carried forth, but maybe we need a refresher on where it needs to go.
In the gospel of Acts, we have a clear example of the Apostles fulfilling the gospel to “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jerusalem, of course, was where they were. It’s where Jesus ascended. It’s ground zero for the birth and expansion of the church. But the witness was commanded to go out from just Jerusalem. It must go out to the next town over; Judea. It must go out to the people we don’t particularly care for, Samaria (there was deep ethnic hatred between Jews and Samaritans). Finally, it must stretch every corner of the earth, as the “…gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” (Matt. 24:14).
In other words, yes we need churches in your town. But we don’t need all the churches in your town. We need churches in under-served and under-privileged cities. The church needs to expand to fill the void where the gospel and redemptive communities don’t richly exist.
Open For Business
If we are to ignore the mandate of the Gospel to expand, we’re in danger of making church planting into a business model instead of a kingdom model. Worth noting is a prominent podcast that recently followed a fledgling church plant from inception to completion. Although the show was from a non-faith perspective, it offered some valuable insights to the growing boom of Evangelical churches being planted in the US.
First, they observed that the church planting models of most of the major church planting networks in the US borrowed much from the Silicon Valley playbook of tech startups. The major plan was to get startup capital, write out a business plan, build a team and launch out into the brave unknown. It’s not a sin to have a plan. But it could be dangerous to leave out the leading and instruction of the Holy Spirit, who was present at the birth of the church in the first place.
Next, these church planting models seemed to be designed to bloom in affluent or rapidly gentrifying areas. Areas where new converts would be middle or upper class Americans who would be readily able to contribute financially to the church’s growth. In the podcast, one pastor who decided to plant in a low income suburb of Philadelphia found that this model was quickly falling apart because of the high percentage of people living in poverty. In Flint, I have found this to be the case too. I’ve seen conventional church planting fail in a city with a 47% poverty rate.
Right Place at the Right Time
These poorer areas desperately need life giving churches in them. Maybe we should ask ourselves if the middle east needs another missionary before the Bible Belt needs another pastor. Maybe your inner city needs another church before your quiet little suburb does. Maybe we ought to bless ourselves with some brokenness to see where the gospel really needs to go, even if it’s uncomfortable, or even a sacrifice. Early American Evangelist C.T. Studd once said: “Some want to live within the sound Of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, Within a yard of hell.”