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Study suggests new view of church plants

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Denominational growth in America has reached a plateau and in many cases has declined, but one would get the wrong idea to think the evangelical church is dying in the United States. A new study finds just the opposite.

Dallas-based Leadership Network in cooperation with the director of LifeWay Research have uncovered what they describe as striking changes in the number and type of new churches started in the United States that promise profound cultural implications for the future.

“While much of the North American church is in decline, a surprising number and increasingly diverse group of new churches are being started in innovative ways,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“These churches are causing many Americans to reconsider churches they have rejected and to re-think what church is,” Stetzer said. “I anticipate that as cultures change, through the inevitable shift of time, migration and other means, even more churches will be born that reach people from these new cultural contexts.”

The “State of Church Planting USA” study was based on interviews with more than 100 leaders from a range of different denominations, 200 church-planting churches and some 45 church-planting networks. Stetzer, who headed up the project, said the results surprised him in many respects.

“Church planting has grown in its scope, diversity and impact,” Stetzer said. “North American churches, networks and denominations are making church planting a growing priority. Such emphases push the church closer toward a movement — where churches plant churches that plant churches across North America and the world.”

Dave Travis, managing director at Leadership Network, observed, “Most church-planting studies tend to look at either a very narrow slice of church planting or developments on a global scale. In commissioning this study, our goal was to review the current state of U.S. church-planting efforts and begin to assess what today’s reality means for the next generation of planters.”

Key findings of the six-months-long effort include the following:

1) Interest in church planting is growing rapidly. The pace of church planting has accelerated dramatically in recent years. A simple Google search on the term “church planting,” for example, now returns over 1 million hits. While only two mainstream books were published on church planting from 1996 to 2002, no fewer than 10 have been released in the last five years, with several more on the horizon. Equally important, church planting has become a preferred ministry option, with denominations and individual churches reporting that many of their “best and brightest” leaders are pursuing church planting as a primary ministry focus.

2) Local churches and church-planting networks are driving the trend. Historically, church planting has been a denominationally driven activity. Today, much of the initiative is centered at the local level. Many of the country’s most vibrant congregations see church planting as one of their central purposes. “Church-planting networks” — loose affiliations of churches that may or may not be tied by denomination but do share a commitment to launching new likeminded congregations — also are at the forefront of the movement. As a result, denominational offices increasingly are taking an equipping role rather than directing local congregational efforts.

3) “Affinity” strategies dominate. Church planters once based their efforts on geography, with a goal of placing new churches in “unserved” communities and areas. However, as Travis noted, “Through this study, we learned that most successful church planters today are specialists who emphasize a particular style of worship or a specific demographic. For example, they may exclusively plant house churches or ethnic churches — or perhaps build purpose-driven, seeker or missional churches. And the trend toward specialization is likely to continue as more tools and resources that serve specific types of planting strategies are developed.”

4) Survival and success are markedly greater than realized. Observers have long assumed that most church plants fail within the first year — as many as 80-90 percent by some estimates. Research reveals a very different picture, suggesting that 68 percent of the roughly 4,000 churches planted each year are still functioning four years later. These new churches may not yet be self-sufficient, but they otherwise are alive and many are thriving.

What do these results mean for the future of the U.S. church? Travis said he is hopeful “that this study and the growing number of outstanding church planting conferences and resources will inspire a new wave of planters in the years ahead. That would be very good news indeed. Launching vibrant new congregations is often a more feasible and more fruitful strategy than attempting to revitalize struggling congregations.”

In the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board holds the assignment of resourcing church-planting work. In 2006, Southern Baptists started 1,458 new congregations, more than half of which were ethnic or African American. For resources and more information about Southern Baptist church planting work, visit NAMB’s church-planting website at www.churchplantingvillage.net.
Compiled by Chris Turner, media relations manager for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. The four-part “State of Church Planting USA” study and a podcast interview with Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research and Dave Travis of the Leadership Network can be downloaded at www.leadnet.org/churchplanting.

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