Let me just say it right up front: All the research shows that church plants grow faster and better than older churches. In fact, studies show that, on a per capita basis, churches less than 3 years old reach on average at least three times as many people with the gospel.
In a time when some are suggesting that as many as 80% of our existing SBC churches are plateaued or declining, this fact bears significant examination.
Why are fledgling congregations, with only a handful of people and extremely limited resources, able to see conversions and baptisms at such a higher ratio than older churches do? Here are six of the possible internal reasons:
1. Vision. Church plants start with a positive vision of what God wants to see happen in a community or among a people group. This vision serves as a directional aid for the new congregation and a filter for all activities they provide. The vision is clearly articulated in ways that enable others to “see” it and be attracted to it. As a result, initial members want to do their part to turn it into reality. When churches lose their “vision” of what God wants to do through them, they often drift—simply “doing church” from week to week.
2. Focus. New churches realize the obvious: they can’t do everything and be a “full-service” church providing all kinds of ministries to the people around them. Out of necessity, they are forced to be sharply focused on “the basics” of evangelism and discipleship, usually in a very streamlined way (often one-on-one). This sharp, simple focus may actually be one of the more significant yet overlooked keys to congregational growth. (Ironically, the compulsion to provide additional ministries and services may directly correlate to the stalling of growth as a new church matures.)
3. Budget and Time Priorities. Because of this vision and focus, new churches are able to build their budget and calendar around the needs for evangelism and discipleship. Some church planting writers have suggested that initial budgets should allow for more than 50% of their income to go directly to outreach! Virtually all of these writers suggest at least 25% of the monies in their first year or two be used in this way. Calendaring is dealt with in the same way (of course, with few people already “churched” in their congregation, this is easier to do). How can they allot so much of their time and money in this manner? The answer is obvious: Church plants have very few “fixed” expenses (which often keep existing churches from actual ministry opportunities).
4. Relational. Church plants are people-driven. They are not focused on programs or procedures or structures. Instead, one of their great strengths is the attention and care they can provide to each person who comes their way. Part of this is because of the small size of the original fellowship, part is their limited (and usually informal) organization. In other words, they have very few administrative concerns (committees, meetings, etc.) and even fewer people to deal with them. As a result, the congregation is able to focus its attention on newcomers and the unchurched.
5. Family. Let’s take the last point a step further: structurally, new churches function more as a family than a business. They hold “family meetings,” rather than business meetings. They make decisions by consensus or default, rather than election. They are influenced more by family-systems thinking, than by corporate, organizational thinking. They treat each other as participants in family life, with needs, dreams and abilities, rather than as shareholders, who vote with their wallets and attendance, but often are asked to do little more.
6. Need to Succeed. Finally, let’s state the obvious: Church plants realize their future ultimately depends on their success in reaching others with the Good News. If people aren’t reached for Jesus, finances sooner or later will dry up, partnerships will dissolve, and vision will fade. Recognizing that the very survival of the congregation depends on reaching others has its own “built-in” motivation. Churches with assets and long histories can easily forget what is so obvious to new churches: If we’re not growing, we’re dying.
These are just a few possible reasons church plants grow so effectively. While some of these elements may not seem feasible or even compelling to existing congregations, each of them still merits our attention. The question is not “What are we doing?” but “Why and how should we do it?”
The answer we give to this question will have far-reaching—maybe even eternal—ramifications.
Published August 27, 2020