NASHVILLE (BP) — A steady increase in attendance has been the overall trend among African American churches planted prior to 2012, LifeWay Research learned from “the first research project of its size and scope,” as researchers described it, “to measure characteristics distinctive to the African American context.”
The average first-year Sunday attendance of 37 doubled by the fourth year among the 290 African American church plants in the multidenominational survey aimed at identifying characteristics of healthy new congregations.
Worship attendance, new commitments to Christ, community demographics, church culture, facility usage, promotion and outreach, and church sponsorship and funding were studied in the project.
“This research has described in detail African American church planting today,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “More importantly, this research has begun productive conversations among church planting leaders across the U.S. about how best to train and equip new African American church plants.”
Stetzer added that large national studies on church planting have been conducted in the past, “but it would be wrong to assume that national factors are the same for every sub-population of church plants.”
The survey identified three characteristics that had the most positive impact on worship attendance, which were present in more than two-thirds of the churches: delegation of leadership roles to volunteers; leadership training for new church members; and a plan of personal spiritual formation for the church planter.
The study found worship style impacts attendance. The most common worship style used by African American church plants was blended, cited by 45 percent of those surveyed, followed by contemporary gospel, contemporary and urban contemporary, ranging from 12-14 percent. However, church plants with a more distinctive style, urban contemporary for instance, had higher attendance than churches using a blended style.
The average number of new commitments to Christ for the first year of a church plant was 16, LifeWay Research found. The average number of new commitments peaked in year three at 20 and then remained at 12 or higher for the remainder of the years measured.
The study identified two characteristics that stood out as having a positive impact on new commitments to Christ and were present among more than two-thirds of the churches: door-to-door evangelism (75 percent) and the establishment of a new member class (68 percent).
Six characteristics were shown to impact both worship attendance and new commitments to Jesus Christ:
— Church planter compensated for their work (52 percent of the new churches).
— Weeklong boot camp or basic training provided for the church planter (42 percent).
— Church planter worked 60 hours a week or more on the church plant during the first two years of existence (39 percent).
— A sponsor or mother church permitted the plant to meet in the sponsoring church building (32 percent).
— The plants had their own facilities during the first five years (20 percent).
— The church plant incorporated a contemporary worship style (13 percent).
On average, African American churches were planted in communities that were largely made up of the following ethnic groups: African American (42 percent), white (35 percent), Hispanic (13 percent), African or Caribbean decent (4 percent), Asian (3 percent) and other (3 percent).
The survey asked church plants to select what ethnicity or race they specifically sought to reach in the community around the church. About two-thirds (68 percent) of churches focused on reaching African Americans. More than 80 percent of church planters said they also intentionally sought to reach a cross-cultural or multiethnic audience.
Church sponsorship and funding
The LifeWay Research study found 48 percent of new churches were sponsored by another church. Among the sponsoring churches, 79 percent provided active prayer support while 53 percent provided mentoring to the church planter or church planting team, researchers noted.
“A sponsoring or mother church is often a crucial aspect of successful church [plants] for obvious reasons,” said Carl Ellis, assistant professor of practical theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas and a consultant on the research project. “The fewer burdens a church plant has to carry in the initial stages, the greater is the likelihood that the new church will succeed.”
The primary funding sources for African American church plants were core members (84 percent), affiliated denominations (62 percent), the church planter or church planting team (49 percent) and the personal financial support network of the church planter (44 percent). The study also found 36 percent of church plants received funding from one or more sponsoring churches.
The average amount received by church starts from outside sources was $21,818 in the first year. Average dollars received from members or attendees in the first year was $33,301. During the first seven years, outside funding declined 44 percent, while dollars from members or attendees grew 211 percent, the research found.
Among the African American church plants surveyed, 29 percent were self-sufficient by their first year. Half achieved self-sufficiency by the fourth year and 60 percent by year 10.
Many church planters received support other than financial during their first years. Sixty percent said they received church planter mentoring, coaching or supervision, and training for themselves or their team.
The project indicated 55 percent of planters received church planting training prior to starting a church. But only 16 percent received specific training on the dynamics of the African American context prior to planting. Sixty-nine percent said they would benefit from that type of training today.
Two-thirds (69 percent) were bivocational the first two years of the plant’s existence. Despite so many having a second job, 63 percent of church planters worked 40 hours a week or more at the church plant. Slightly more than half (52 percent) received some financial compensation for their work as a church planter, but only 38 percent of them termed the financial compensation adequate to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families.
The majority of church planters arrived on the field as a single staff member. Only six percent of the church plants had a paid, staffed team of more than one person to start the church.
Church planters from more than 20 denominations and several non-denominational churches participated in the study. Almost half (43 percent) were started since 2007. Most of them, 94 percent, still exist. Among the churches that closed, lack of financial support was the most common contributing factor.
Stetzer expressed appreciation for the study’s sponsors and their interest “to measure the reality of African American church planting today.”
The North American Mission Board (SBC), Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, Mission to North America (PCA), Assemblies of God, Path 1 (United Methodist Church), International Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Foursquare Church were among the sponsors who received study results at the biannual meeting of the Church Planter Leadership Fellowship in August.
Carol Pipes is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).