Failures in Church Planting

churchBeginning a blog with a disclaimer about lack of expertise is a sure-fire way to suggest that basically everything that follows is utterly useless. It basically means “I have no clue what I am talking about, but I am going to talk anyway.” When I say, then, that I am not a church planter all those involved in such work will be inclined to immediately dismiss me. I get it. But maybe I can encourage you to read a bit further. I am not a church planter, but I am not completely clueless. I have helped out with three different church plants, two of which were extremely successful and one of which was a complete flop. In addition to that I have read widely on church planting and church life, been through several church planting workshops, and served as a church consultant. That, of course, does not make me an expert on church planting (not even close), but it doesn’t make me completely clueless either. Maybe, then, the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider can be useful to those involved in church planting.

Church planting is all the rage these days, but the success rate of church plants is not particularly high. A number of missiologists have argued that 80% of church plants will fail within the first three years. There are a number of reasons for their failures:  lack of leadership and oversight, lack of clear vision, insufficient funding, disappointment within the core group, lack of evangelism. If I might suggest, however, another possible impediment to success it would be a lack of imagination. A great number of church plants, I am convinced, are bound by the models and traditions of church that they are familiar with. Unable to think imaginatively they become determined to duplicate other church models no matter how unrealistic. Church planting often suffers from a lack of creativity.

The “success” of certain models of church life become the ideal for young planters. Planters are often convinced that they must have traditional buildings, full-time staff, and a host of programs in order to be successful. They are convinced of this partly because they have seen it work elsewhere and partly because they have no clue what an alternative model might look like. But not every model is easily reproducible, especially for small churches. So one church plant I worked with hired a full-time pastor before they had even officially gotten started. Their low-income, however, was not enough to support him and eventually he resigned and took another church. The other two churches didn’t hire a full-time pastor until they were more grounded and established, one church waited over three years to hire any staff members, to this still not supporting a full-time senior pastor. Where they were able to break from tradition these two churches found more success than their counterpart.

Not only are traditional models difficult to reproduce, but it’s important for planters to remember that they are not necessarily the definition of success. Big is not always better or healthier, but we often think a church plant is successful when it has “the numbers” – that is lots of people in attendance. Obviously every church wants numerical growth, especially evangelistic growth, but while a house church can’t host 500 people it can still be a healthy growing church. It may even be more ideal for a community  to have a group of house churches than a large ecclesiastical center. Traditional models of church are not synonymous with success. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, two actual church planters, have wisely observed how the changing landscape in the west calls for new models of ministry:

We have a notion of what a “successful” church is, and this involves a certain level of staff, programs, and activity. Church planting feels like it will involve letting this go, moving from success to lack of success. We must not be driven by sociology or accommodate to our culture. But we need to take into account the new missionary situation in which we find ourselves. In the UK, broadly speaking, 1o percent of the population attend church regularly on a normal Sunday; 10 percent are fringe members, attending once every couple of months; 40 percent are “dechurched,” having lost contact with church within their lifetime; and 40 percent have never attended church apart from the occasional rite of passage. This new missionary context requires new approaches. Church planting cannot involve uncritical replication of existing models. Church planting should be at the forefront of new ecclesiological thinking. (Total Church, 95)

The new missionary field in which we find ourselves at this stage in history calls us to rethink how we plant churches. The post-Christendom context in America means church needs to dispense with some of the expectations of Christendom. It means we need to think outside the box of tradition.

It’s not that traditional church models won’t work anywhere, but we should admit that they simply won’t work everywhere. And if 80% of church plants are closing within the first three years, then we should at least consider something different. Planters, let’s dream about what it would look like to reshape church along Biblical boundaries and to pursue imaginative and contextually applicable models of church planting. Take it as the simple advice from a knowledgeable outsider.

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