Within months of its launch, a new Montreal church plant named La Chapelle was moving to two services to accommodate almost 700 people attending the young Quebecois congregation.
In terms of growth, La Chapelle stands out among church plants, and it certainly stands out among churches in the Montreal Cosmopolitan Area. Very few churches in the city surpass an attendance of fifty.
But according to the North American Mission Board, La Chapelle also exemplifies some important trends among church plants—including exceptional evangelistic fruitfulness.
There's another phenomenon this church has experienced. Last year they baptized more than seventy people, a nearly astronomical number for this post-Christian city.
As one of few French-speaking Evangelical churches in an area where French-speaking churches are mostly Catholic and declining, La Chapelle is addressing the needs of a religiously-jaded community.
Pastor David Pothier said he attributes the response to the church's willingness to shift its methodology while maintaining the timeless message of the Gospel.
"A major factor is truly that we have a vision for a church for unchurched people," said Pothier, who leads his church as part of Send North America: Montreal. "We are constantly driven and focused on reaching people. We do and think of everything through that lens.
This type of evangelistic fervor is neither new nor isolated to Montreal.
In 2013, two Cleveland, Ohio, church plants—Forward Church and City of Hope Church—baptized a combined 118 people. Greater Boston Christ's Mandarin Church, a church plant in Quincy, Massachusetts, baptized twenty-one.
All three of these churches have fewer than 200 in attendance and are less than two years old. They represent a widely observed phenomenon among new church starts in North American communities: church planting can lead to a greater emphasis on evangelism.
Perhaps these plants make non-believers feel welcome because their church culture is still forming. Or maybe momentum of a missional startup gets the evangelistic blood pumping for the core team.
Whatever the reason, baptism numbers from the SBC's Annual Church Profile (ACP) suggest a connection between church planting and evangelistic effectiveness.
Class of 2010
According to the ACP, among churches that started in the last three years (2010–2012), there were 9.2 baptisms reported for every one hundred members. Among all other congregations, 2.2 baptisms were reported per one hundred members.
Southern Baptist churches in the class of 2010 reported 3,394 baptisms last year. That equates to about one baptism for every twelve people attending a church plant compared with one baptism for every fifty people attending an established church.
Churches started in 2010 are experiencing some other encouraging signs of life in addition to higher baptism rates:
- Of the 943 churches Southern Baptists planted in 2010, 91 percent (856) continue to meet.
- 2010 church plants saw a membership gain of 20 percent in 2012 over 2011. This is while membership across all SBC churches declined 0.66 percent.
- Worship attendance is also growing among church plants. There was an 11 percent increase in 2012 compared to 2011. At the same time, across all SBC churches, worship attendance fell 3 percent.
- Church plants started in 2010 continue to give more—through the Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon, and Annie Armstrong—each year. Total missions giving for churches that reported was $2.9 million.
Revitalizing Established Churches
Established churches that assist in starting churches also experience growth as a result of an outward-facing ministry mindset.
Pastor Kim Grueser at Pittsburgh Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said his church thrived from the early 1960s through the 1990s as they started a new church almost once every two years.
In his research of the church's history, a marked decline in baptisms and attendance began when the church started to focus resources on building a new facility.
"When I arrived in 2007, this congregation had shrunk to about forty people and its survival was threatened," Grueser said.
But as the church began planting new congregations, it once again showed signs of life.
Through the work of one of the many multiethnic leaders at the church, PBC baptized more than a dozen Vietnamese within the first two years of Grueser's arrival.
"We were able to refocus our attention back on the DNA of why God put us here and stir again that desire for church planting," Grueser said. "That's what saved the church."
From 1950 to 2011 Southern Baptists baptized an average of 379,711 people annually. In 2012, baptism numbers dipped more than 13 percent off that average. This was the worst drop in sixty-two years.
"We've been talking a lot about declines in baptisms for years," said Al Gilbert, vice president of evangelism for the North American Mission Board, who is facilitating the national Pastors' Task Force on Evangelistic Impact & Declining Baptisms to address the continued decrease in baptisms among Southern Baptist churches. "We need to determine how to really own this problem and to respond to it holistically and Convention-wide."
The group continues to dialogue and meet. A report is forthcoming.
"Southern Baptist leaders are concerned," Gilbert said. "Our baptismal trends are all headed in the wrong direction. With a burden to impact lostness in North America, we must pray and think through what we can and should do to turn around this decline.
"We need to address evangelistic impact on two fronts: the established churches and the expanding church plants. The established churches are seeking to understand how to become more externally focused and train every member to be active in sharing their faith. The expanding church plants are seeking to position a Gospel presence in a new place and multiply Gospel impact by reaching new people."
From Pothier's perspective at La Chapelle in Montreal, these signs of life have resulted from willingness to change in response to the needs of the surrounding culture.
"It's a constant process of changing our methodology to reach more people," Pothier said. "Every church has a culture. Our culture is to have a church where unbelievers feel welcomed. It's a privilege to serve God during this time in Montreal. It’s a period of possibilities, and I love possibilities."