Why I Don’t Understand Church Planting…


What if this were the starting point?I once visited a city in Illinois that had an intersection of two large roads that formed four corners and had a megachurch hunkered down on each corner. Four cathedral-sized church buildings. Four different denominations. Four XXXL parking lots.

I didn’t understand then, and I still don’t.

What constitutes church planting in the United States baffles me. The four churches at that intersection were built at different times, so at some point some group of church planters said, “Despite the fact that there is already a gigantic church right across the street, we’re going to plant a better one.”

When I read the Scriptures, it seems that churches were planted where no church previously existed anywhere nearby. Perhaps having only one “brand” of church back in those early boom days of the Faith made all the difference, but the fact that we have about 10,000 brands of Christianity within the collective Church shouldn’t be a factor. If I plant a church right across the street from another church because I believe that my brand is better, then I’m not sure that should be labeled church planting. It’s more like the competition between McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s. Same burger; slightly different flavor.

You’d be hard pressed to build a church in America that wasn’t already in another church’s backyard, but it can still be done. I’ve got to believe a lot of inner cities are lacking in good churches. Same for some of the most rural/backwater areas of the U.S. Problem is, most bright, shiny church planters don’t want to plant churches in those places. I guess that’s because they lack the Starbucks needed to get a church planted. I mean, how is one supposed to do demographic studies and plot marketing campaigns when one lacks access to a decent latté and a (free) Wi-Fi signal?

I can see how a church plant in a remote area that may only draw twenty families or so can help the Body of Christ grow, even if that growth is not explosive. There wasn’t a church at all in an area and now there is—seems like a positive step forward. That’s the way they’re doing it in overseas nations where revival burns hot. You don’t see rival churches springing up to split communities into factions. The community IS the church, and vice versa.

But here, it seems to me what some church planters do is more akin to fostering envy. Their new church is hotter. Their new church is cooler. Their new church meets a felt need not addressed by the church across the street. So people in that community shuffle from church to church. Or the new church plant sucks completely dry some older church that wasn’t quite as hip. And the church planter gets a pat on the back for doing a fine job moving people from Them to Us.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people who are genuine born-again Christians in this country continues to drop. Meanwhile, the number of people attending church on the weekends falls off a cliff. More new churches than ever, and yet worse results.

What really troubles me is that you don’t need the Holy Spirit at all to start what passes for the average church plant here in the U.S. You just need a clever marketing campaign. In fact, if one of the challenges on the TV show The Apprentice were to start a church that had a hundred regular attendees within six months , I suspect the contestants would have no problem doing so, even if not a single one of those contestants was born again.

How sad is that?

You want a real test of God’s power? John the Baptist, by the Holy Spirit empowering his ministry, helped restore a dead nation to life. This is one reason why Jesus said there was no prophet greater than John.

In that same way, where are those people who call themselves church restorers? Any hip market researcher can start what passes for a church, but how many of them, without the power of God, can walk into a dead church and breathe new life into it? Honestly, if this country has 300,000+ churches and no genuine revival in the vast, vast majority of them, how many church plants are going to change that reality?

What if we put more emphasis on church restoration than church planting? What if we commissioned people to go out and breathe new life into cold, dead churches?

That requires more than just a $10,000 marketing budget, folks. That requires the power of God to raise the dead.

Obviously, being a church restorer is ridiculously hard work. It may mean walking into Mt. Forlorn United Methodist Church in downtown East Nowhere, with its pockets of  gray-haired seniors and smattering of families with small children, and asking the pastor, “What can I do to help make this a vibrant, effective meeting of the Saints of God?”  It may mean laboring in forgotten fields, fields that don’t generate the buzz that leads to getting your face and mine splashed across the front of Christianity Today. It may never pay anything, never lead to a pastorate, never amount to anything that profits the flesh. But it may be exactly what God desires of a person destined to make an enormous difference within the church landscape in America—and ultimately, for His Kingdom.

I’ve had church planters attempt to explain all this to me—the need to plant a church right next to an existing one, the need to plant it in a highly visible suburban area with high traffic—yet their responses always seem to be missing something.

I’m not writing this to break the backs of church planters. I understand their zeal. It’s just that I have these questions and no one seems to have a answer for them that makes any sense.

73 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Understand Church Planting…

  1. Dan,

    Your comments are right on. When I moved to Denver, I essentially became a church “restorer” because I inherited a dead church (about 10 people) and a large debt left behind by the old pastor before the church asked the denomination to take it over because it could no longer pay its bills.

    We focused on the rebuild as a new “plant” but the reality over 7 years was we had to change the church name and move it elsewhere because of years of instability. We are just now at the point where we are anonymous again and can start the process of rebuilding and adding new families. The old debt is gone and a new vitality inhabits the congregation.

    It will be interesting to see what the next 10 years affords the church.

  2. John Burns


    As usual, you are right on target. Your questions are indeed exposing. The truth is that it is “easier” to start a new church than to breath new life into an old church. It’s hard work pastoring old church with all of their old problems. So it’s “easier” to just start from scratch. How many “church planters” will trust and obey God enough to perform a miracle in raising an old church to new life. This is indeed the exclusive territory of God – creating new life from the spiritually dead. The truth is, we can’t do it. As you said, we can’t park our laptops at a Starbucks and develop a marketing plan. Church “restoration” requires more time on our knees and less time in a comfortable couch in Starbucks. It requires fasting and not sipping lattees. It requires relying on God, and not on Peter Drucker. It requires faith and obedience.


    • John,

      I’ve got to think that the people of the world see a church failing, then another one taking its place, as evidence that “Christianity doesn’t work.” (If I were a lost person, I think I would.) How much confidence does that instill that we offer the only way?

  3. Hey Dan,

    Very nice post. I’m one of those guys serving and planting where there is no church. It is high in crime, abuse and anything else you can imagine.

    I totally agree with you that most of what we see is believers moving from one church to another and so there is really no substantial multiplication going on. I have purposed to tell believers who come out and serve with us, not to leave where they currently gather. My prayer is that as they serve with us, they can take that back and energize their own congregation.

    I desperately want to see God, change the heart of someone who really does not believe and has no affinity for church.

    thanks for the post,


  4. It bugs me whenever I hear someone talking about planting a church and it turns out that the plant will be in a new, hot, affluent suburb that already has several (smaller, older) churches nearby. It’s as if the McMansion owner doesn’t want to rub shoulders with the original (often rural or penturbian) inhabitants, and the church planter caters to that exclusivism.

  5. Christopher Lake


    One of many things that I admire about my former pastor, Mark Dever, is that he (by the power of God’s Spirit and the faithful preaching of His word) helped to bring a very much *dying* church to healthy, vibrant life. In fact, I would say that Capitol Hill Baptist is perhaps now one of the healthiest churches in the nation, if not the world! They do encourage church planting but *not* (from what I could tell, as a member) at the expense of church reform. In fact, Dever’s ministry, 9 Marks, has much to do with reform in already existing churches.

  6. I have to say I completely disagree. Here’s a real world example

    I live in a town, Ann Arbor, MI with over 100,000 people and less than 10 evangelical churches


    By your logic, I should be content to attend one of those 10 churches, and expect it, and the other 9 evangelical churches in town, to each have over 10,000 members to reach the entire town.

    Or, I could attend one of the dozens of churches with which I have serious doctrinal differences, expecting to change a church’s course that was set long ago. There’s no way I’m going to put my family in a church where I cannot fully affirm what the church teaches, preaches, and believes.

    It’s unfortunate that there are so many caricatures here. The average church plant has 100 congregants after 4 years, so getting in it for the glory and fame isn’t very realistic. And there is an increasing emphasis on planting in urban areas, places where most churches abandoned long ago. I’m going through the application process for the Acts 29 Network, and one of their big focuses is reclaiming the city, and not just the suburbs, for Christ.

    I’m also of the opinion, which may be wrong, that some “churches” should be allowed to die. If they do not proclaim a crucified Christ who rose and offers repentence, are they a church? If they see no need for evangelism, for telling others about the good news, are they a church? If they keep out anyone who is even slightly different than they are, are they a “church”? A true church will never fail, but there are a lot of pseudo-churches in American that have long ago abandoned God and their closing would be no different than the local Moose lodge closing its doors.

    • sean.b

      I think that this comment definitely hits much more on target than this post. Something about that post didn’t settle right with me….I think it was the complete lack of willingness to give any ground. It sounded almost self-righteous, although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be. And you even brought up a few good points, but it seemed to be very lacking in understanding…

      • sean.b,

        The post doesn’t give much ground because too few people are asking the legitimate question of “Why are we building another church in a place already saturated with churches?” That’s a question too few church planters and the churches/ministries behind them are willing to ask. It attacks the very justifications of the people behind the plant.

        Why is it that so many church plants are springing up in the latest hot, new, wealthy neighborhood, but next to none are going up in crime-infested, poorer neighborhoods? They spring up like weeds around the latest chic shopping center, so why not around centers of urban blight?

        Let’s stop lying to ourselves here.

    • Chris,

      I followed your link expecting to see a small list of churches mentioned. But that’s not what I found (as I stopped counting at 45 and that was not even halfway down the list).

      Which leads me to wonder what your definition of an “evangelical church” is. If you consider only 1 church in 10 in Ann Arbor to be worthy of attendance, then I’ve got to believe that perhaps your standard is too stringent. Those other 90 percent can’t be that far off theologically. I know; I’ve studied churches. If they are that off, then you are living in the most heretical city in the United States.

      A story:

      When I was going to Wheaton College, it always amazed me how little the student body experimented with visiting Christian denominations outside the one they grew up in. If a student had gone to a Presbyterian church at home, they went to a Presbyterian church at Wheaton. But why? Because the Presbyterians were better than everyone else?

      If anything, my own experiences have shown me that it’s not so much the faith tradition that proves a church healthy or not, but the quality of the people in that church. And that transcends denominational lines. It may very well be that the folks in the Lutheran Church are a much more loving group than those in the non-denomination Evangelical church that would make your list of 10. What then?

      If anything, seeing that list of churches on your blog proves the point of my post. It sure doesn’t seem to me that Ann Arbor needs another church. It may simply need the existing ones revitalized by people filled with the Holy Spirit.

      But I don’t live in Ann Arbor, and it may indeed be a hotbed of lousy, godless churches. Still, from your own list, it sure seems as if there are enough churches there that it doesn’t need another one.

      • Andrew

        Those other 90 percent can’t be that far off theologically.

        Maybe where you are from that might be accurate. But I’m thinking 90%+ would most certainly be excluded from the Biblical definition of Church. Which by definition Preaches the Gospel and practices the ordinances of Baptism and Observance of Lords Supper. Or the leadership of the church could never be found to meet the basic qualifications of elders/deacons.

        In my experience the recent book “Christless Christianity” by Horton accurately describes the vast majority 90%+ of the churches I’ve visited.

        If anything, seeing that list of churches on your blog proves the point of my post.

        How two people can see the same list and come to opposite conclusions is what makes us human I guess. After looking through the list I would think 10 tolerable churches would be very generous.

        It sure doesn’t seem to me that Ann Arbor needs another church.

        Maybe. If it was your sister that was becoming interested in spiritual things and you wanted to recommend a church in her local community I bet you would be VERY hard pressed to find one. Once you have her visit a couple (dozen?) and she tells you about this great book she got at the church bookstore titled “Your best life now” or how the sermon was on “Deed not Creed” you’ll have the urge to plant a church.

        If you are a pastor considering your calling to Ann Arbor maybe you would be in a difficult strait deciding to reform or start a new one though.

  7. Bernard Shuford

    Definitely a perspective I, have not given due consideration to. It has often seemed to me that planters are seeking freedom to “do it the coolway” rather than doing it God’s way. Doing it like NewSpring will definitely attract a lot of people. It’s probable that some will be saved, so I rejoice that the Gospel is preached.

    So where’s the balance?

    • Bernard,

      Some church planters are seeking to do it the “cool way,” and some are seeking it do it their way. And that can be a problem, too, in that their way may not be God’s way, but a way to bring themselves glory. I’ve seen that too.

      It just seems to me that if the main point is to get the gospel out, why are so many church planters trying to plant churches in high visibility areas already filled with churches? Why not out in a place where there are no churches (or very few), out in those places off the beaten path where the chance of gaining acclaim for being the hot church planter isn’t going to happen?

      I can’t remember the last time I ran into some young church planter who was thrilled to be planting a church in the middle of Nowheresville, Wyoming. No, when I hear those folks talk, it sure seems like the majority of plants are near some tony new suburb near a big city.

      CHURCH PLANTING IS A SUPREMELY VITAL COG IN GETTING THE GOSPEL ESTABLISHED IN UNDERSERVED AREAS. Why then are we so often trying to plant in an area that is already served?

      • I am a church planter thrilled to be planting a church in Mattawan, MI. If you blink you will miss it. We have seen many lives transformed by the gospel and we have a great sense of unity with the other struggling churches in our community. We don’t all agree on every point of doctrine, but we work together to see Christ exalted. I have to travel to get to a Starbucks . . . I think there are many others out there plugging away in small towns and rural communties but you just only ever hear about the rapidly growing fast-tracked suburban church plants, BECAUSE they are successful and huge after just 6 months.

        I feel like you are caricaturing church-planting and church planters, most who have sacrificed any sense of stability and have stepped out in faith. Quit kicking the workers and find a real enemy . . . and then love them!

  8. Justin

    I agree with Chris. I live in Dallas the most churched city in the US, but a city that leads the nation in crime. By this logic, we should forget this city and its suburbs and plant only in the north, north east, etc. Cities and suburbs need Gospel-centered churches and that may mean setting up shop across the street from one that is centered on good deeds but no Jesus or Jesus and no good deeds. Or it may be a liberal church that lost its way or a “fundy” church that forgot the Gospel. We should saturate the cities and subs with churches that believe and embody the Gospel, and most of our cities are lacking in churches of such stature.

    • Justin,

      Your comment is the perfect example of why we need church restorers, not church planters.

      Dallas doesn’t need another church plant. Dallas needs its churches revitalized. And that’s tougher, less glamorous work. It’s one thing to build a house, and quite another to remodel it completely within the framework of the existing floorplan WHILE still living in it. Honestly, how wasteful is it to always be abandoning a house to build another one when the existing house gets a bit run down?

      • Brian H.


        I enjoyed most of your post but this comment is bit off the mark. I’ve been in a dead church and seen a minister try to revive it. I’ve seen other ministers try to revive dead churches. The one thing they got for their efforts was burned out, ruined marriages, demoralized spiritual lives and a disgust with so-called Christians.

        I’m all for planting churches. I’d like to plant about 100 of them right here in the Dallas suburbs. However, I want to plant micro-churches that meet in nursing homes, pizzerias, Starbucks, etc. I don’t want to figure out a marketing plan while sitting inside of Starbucks, I want to enter people’s lives, especially the unchurched baristas. If there are 21 people in my local Starbucks, statistically speaking, 16 of them will be unchurched. These people need reached.

        We can’t wait for spiritually dying people to enter spiritually dying people before we reach them for Jesus. We need to be out there. We should be doing incarnational church planting, not attractional church planting. You sound like you’re against the “attractional” model. I don’t think church planting should be market driven. But sometimes it helps attract some unchurched or never churched people. More likely, these churches will attract people from the church down the street.

        Some churches should die. It took me a long time to believe that. But after seeing how much damage dying churches can do in the lives of ministers who want to help re-vitalize these churches, my mind and heart changed. I used to be into market driven churches and have since left that mindset to focus on people, taking them the gospel, dismissing the idea of having a new big church building. We have a new church plant, it’s a church of small groups. More people should do it or be involved with one, but it’s a hard sell. Most ministers don’t understand what we’re doing, but the unchurched seem to understand. I guess that matters most.

        Thanks for sharing your passion. I pray that you’ll one day be an advocate of incarnational church planting, if not an advocate of all new church planting.


        • Brian,

          My biggest issue is that people don’t have to start a new church to do any of the things you mentioned. Existing churches can do all those things.

          A previous commenter talked about reaching out to prostitutes and drug addicts. My question is: Why does that need a new church? Can’t such a thing happen as part of an existing church? ISN’T it supposed to happen in an existing church? That commenter said that there were churches already in those areas. Well, who is going to light the fire in those churches so that they do the work?

          • Brian H.

            Hi Dan,

            Again, love your passion. It seems you don’t understand. Most existing churches aren’t doing these things because they don’t want to do them. You try forcing them and the people in these churches treat you in one of two ways

            1) like you’re a piece of dog doo
            2) like they actually like you to your face and talk about you behind your back and tune you out entirely, especially if you’re the preacher.

            I’m glad you’ve never experienced these things or at least the way you respond to people like me with my thoughts on the matter, as if you have never experienced them.

            The things you wish the existing church would do just won’t get done because many people in dying churches believe they own the church, as if it were their own child that was crucified on the cross.

            Please listen to what some of us are saying. In this post, you seem to discount people that have had experience with those people who won’t change. I’ve seen a life ruined by such people and heard of many other stories of people leaving ministry because of churches that YOU say we should be working at and revitalizing. Sorry man, it may work sometimes, but I’m not going to do it.

            Kudos to you and your tough skin and the family you might want to sacrifice on the altar of church revitalization, but most people don’t want to offer that sacrifice. I feel very strong about this subject and there are many others that do who will never see your blog post because they’ve stopped paying attention to anything slightly religious. .

            Please read a book called Mad Cow Disease to get some idea of burn out. Talk to my friends about their experiences and ….

            Aww, forget it.

            Peace to you man,

            • Brian H.,

              I DO understand, Brian. Really, I do. It’s because my passion is for churches to be all they can be. And I myself have experienced every rotten thing that prevents them from getting there. Nonetheless, I believe they can get there, even ones that some would say are too far gone. It’s because I serve a God who can raise the dead, even a dead church.

              There’s a cultural thing going on here that some forget. You go to churches on the Asian continent and, for the large part, they don’t die. Why? What are they doing right that we’re doing wrong? If the answer is always to abandon ship when the going gets rough or the fire dies down, I don’t see how that’s an answer, especially when those churches in Asia keep on keeping on. So what is fundamentally broken in Western churches that we can’t keep going and are forced to reinvent the wheel all the time?

              Burning it down and starting over seems ludicrous when so many non-Western churches never get to that point. If there’s something inherently broken in how Westerners do church, then planting more new churches is not going to stem that disease. Too few people are willing to explore the reasons for the pandemic of failed churches and church plants that are vital one day and dead a decade later.

              Someone has to ask those questions or else we’ll never get answers.

  9. Christopher Lake

    I should add, in clarification, to my above comment, that I am definitely *in favor* of planting new churches *in certain circumstances.* If a church has lost its grip on the Gospel to such a degree that it cannot, or will not, be reformed, then that “church” should die. It is also true that some areas lack a healthy, Bible-believing church, and in that case, churches should be planted.

    However, there are many churches in which the Gospel is still preached, and where the members still believe the Gospel, but the church is not necessarily doing all things from a *Gospel-centered perspective.* In the case of these churches, what they need is *Biblical reform,* if at all possible, rather than death. It can happen. It happened in the life of my former church, Capitol Hill Baptist. By the time that I got there, it was a strongly Gospel-centered, doctrine-rich, warm, evangelistic church, but just eleven years earlier, the church was on the verge of closing its doors. I am incredibly glad that the members of CHBC, including its main preaching elder, Mark Dever, did not let the church die.

  10. Charlie

    Okay Dan, you kind of raised my hackles today.

    Our church, Portland Eastside Foursquare, has a strategy of planting rather than infinitely expanding and building bigger buildings. We are in Portland, Oregon, which is one of the most unchurched cities in the United States. Thus far our plants have been targeted in Hispanic communities, struggling urban neighborhoods, and, believe it or not, the city dump in Managua, Nicaragua, which now supports a thriving congregation with over 200 new believers who are shepherded by a very dedicated Nicaraguan pastor and his wife.

    We hope to plant hundreds of churches, not to be the newest or slickest fad in American Christianity or to compete with the church next door, but to see the kingdom of God expand into places where it currently has no reach. Is it more noble to build bigger and bigger barns to hold in our burgeoning crop of souls?

    Please don’t generalize church planting to the point where the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. Church planting can be a powerful tool in the expansion of God’s rule if it done wisely.

    • Charlie,

      I am extremely supportive of people who plant churches in places where there is no church. I’m more critical of those who see a need to pile-on, who seem blind to the fact that churches already exist that are serving a community, who see those other churches as deficient because they aren’t their churches. That’s pride and envy at work, not the mission of the Church to reach the lost. Sadly, that mindset occurs commonly.

      I know many people trying to reach Hispanic communities right now. That’s great! More power to ’em. But many of those people are duplicating effort because they are trying to do what established ministries are already doing. And they are doing so for the wrong reasons, the reasons I just mentioned in the previous paragraph.

      As to Portland, the fact is that Portland isn’t unchurched because it lacks churches; it’s unchurched because Christians in that city have been shirking their duty to get out and evangelize their neighbors. End of story. And it’s not just Portland. That’s true for places all over the U.S.

      In that way, a church plant can be a cop out. It offloads the bulk of the work of reaching people onto the backs of the church planter and his team. It provides an excuse for people in the existing church to keep on NOT evangelizing. It can become counterproductive. The very people who were doing the bulk of that heaving lifting in the old location leave to plant a church, and what is left stagnates, resulting in a zero sum game. The majority of people at the old church can remain asleep because they comfort themselves with the knowledge that they sent someone out to plant a church. Meanwhile, the community around them keeps going to hell.

  11. don

    Amen. I think that the reason that the denominations are declining despite church plants is that people are suspicious of “religion” in general. What increases this suspicion is when the church planters purposely “change names”. This implies that they don’t want you to know what they believe. If the name is straightforeward i.e. UMC, I can google it and see anything I want to know about a particular denomination. Not so if the name is “House of Praise”, “Church of the Eternal”, etc. The Seventh Day Adventists are notorious for doing this especially when advertising their “prophecy” seminars – no one knows what they’re walking into. If churches can’t be transparent (translated – they lie alot), why on earth would someone walk into that church. Quit playing these games! And no, we don’t need more church plants, we need to knock the walls down! If this is not done, most people who feel uncomfortable in a “mega church” will never, ever come to know the truth and walk into a church. I have never understood the reasoning that somehow people are just going to wake up one day and walk into the nearest church, which may or may not be a cult, and give their souls to Christ!

  12. diana

    I have read a few comments about letting churches die if they don’t want to change and be “restored”. Dan made a very good point that it takes much more work to restore a dead church than to plant a new one. The work would be on our knees in prayer and loving our neighbor as ourself. Planting a new one across the street from the dead one does not need the Holy Spirit’s life giving power that raises the dead to life. We all were once dead in our sin similar to some of the dieing, small churches we see. It takes a powerful move of the Holy Spirit to raise a dead one to life as it does to raise a dead church to life. Do we not think that this is His will? To raise those lifeless churches to new life? One of the reasons that I have become so disallusioned with church in general is because it seems in many places that I have been it does not even take the Holy Spirit to make the place a church. All of the functions can be carried on without Him there at all. However, a dead one cannot come to life again without the awsome power of the lifegiver. Certainly there probably comes a time to “shake the dust off of our feet” if the Lord’s message is not welcome but we can move on to another lifeless place instead of putting up new buildings or buying some great band equipment or getting a great new, hip name for a new gathering.


    • diana,

      If you look at churches in other countries, they force themselves to work through their internal issues rather than allow factions to form which ultimately split or kill the church. We tend not to do that here. Our mentality is too often, If I don’t like something here, I’ll go somewhere else. That yields no growth. People are not forced to deal with problems in a mature way; they simply leave.

      As to your comment about the mistake of doing things without relying on the Spirit, you will get no arguments from me.

  13. First, let me say that I greatly appreciate the post. I think you raise some great questions that we all need to consider. Also, many church planters, just like many pastors hired at existing churches, do not have gospel-centered intentions or motivations. I am encouraged that this discussion is taking place. With that said, I would like to comment on a couple of statements.

    “It just seems to me that if the main point is to get the gospel out, why are so many church planters trying to plant churches in high visibility areas already filled with churches?”

    In response to that, I would say that you answered your own question: to get the gospel out. Many existing churches aren’t even preaching the gospel, much less reaching the community with the gospel. Also, I agree with an earlier comment that sometimes it may be best for an existing church to die, if it is not doing the tasks given to the church by Christ.

    In response to the argument for revitalizing existing churches rather than planting, that task is much easier said than done. In order to revitalize a church around the gospel, the leadership of that church has to want to be revitalized and gospel-centered. It is impossible to change a church that does not see the need for change. If all churches wanted to move toward changing anything that isn’t biblical and gospel-centered, then I would agree that church planting would be scarcely needed.

    However, in America, I do not think that it was a stretch for Chris to state that 90% of churches have abandoned the gospel. They may not have abandoned by way of public profession, but they have by way of practice. I recently moved to a new city and visited at least 20 different churches over the first several months. I found two churches that would have been significantly changed if you forced them to remove the gospel from their Sunday worship.

    Again, I am not questioning your motivation for your questions. I agree that we need to ask those questions. I also agree with your main points to a great degree; however, I think you are assuming that existing local churches are fulfilling the God-given role of the church and/or they are willing to change where they are not fulfilling this role. Unfortunately, most churches are just poor representations of the gospel and are very satisfied with their current state. I pray for reform within those churches, but I cannot subject my family to such teaching and practice while I fight an uphill battle with leaders who view me as the enemy for even questioning any current policy, practice, or tradition. Also, those two churches, out of the twenty-plus, were both planted within the last few years.

    • Drew,

      A church that appears on the surface to be resistant to change can still be changed by the presence of godly people doing the right works within the church’s midst. I firmly believe that. A handful of people can make a huge difference. It’s much harder for one or two, but even then it is still possible. Light casts out darkness, even if it is a little light. Fire likes to spread. Bring genuine fire and it is hard to keep it contained.

    • Drew,

      One point to add…

      My experience has been that when a church has genuinely loving people in it, the possibility to correct major issues, even doctrinal ones, goes up significantly.

      I also think a lot of churches deemed “gospel-less” are not as bad as we paint. Too often it becomes a case of “battling Gospels,” as the “apostate” church may think that service to the poor ranks high on the list of what is the Gospel, while you might think that great preaching is a better representation. That’s not an issue of which Gospel is right, but one of individual perception. Fact is, you may need to realign the way you think about the Gospel as much as the other folks do.

      But most people don’t want to hear that. Most of us think that we have reached spiritual perfection, so entertaining the idea that we may be missing a big chunk of the Gospel doesn’t sit well with us. It’s easier for us to cast stones at the other guy and call his church apostate than it is for us to admit that we may have a limited view of the full Gospel.

      Trust me, the older I get, the more I realize that this is the case time and time again. It’s forced me to be less critical of those ministries that don’t look like the kinds that I cherish.

      • Gav

        Hi Dan….Love your blog, its very challenging to read at times, esp. the 12 sayings of Jesus one 🙂 ….anyway…..
        Speaking as a newish type christian who found it VERY daunting to walk into a strange church with the typical settings that you find in a church: –
        Dont you see a need for a new church plant in an area where there are alot of churches, small country town for example, but they are all essentially the same and there are cultural barriers to people who may be thinking about God but the typical church doesnt allow for this demographic or cultural barrier?
        For example, I hear of some great stories of churches being planted around Australia not typical of the traditional church setting, cafe style is one of them, churches that started from child minding or playgroups in another.
        So rather than asking the question of is there another church nearby, maybe we could ask questions like are there people that are not being reached and how do we reach them……Is the a need here? I’m certain its the same logic you are using but slightly different.

        Anyway, I wouldnt dare challenge some one like you so God bless and thanks for your blog.


        • Brian H.

          Gav, you’re a newish Christian? You have more sense than most church leaders I know. May God bless you as you try to live more like Jesus each day and help others know Him.

          I’d love to to learn more about you if you ever care to contact me. You can do so through my website.


  14. I definitely appreciate your zeal for reforming existing churches and bringing back to life, what appears to be dead. Whenever this does happen, it is a great representation of what the God does in the life of each person who grew up going to church without ever being truly regenerate. While I definitely believe that church planting is one of the major ways God is choosing to grow his church right now, at the same time, I think we can all learn something from your passion for the revitalization of existing local churches.

  15. Pingback: ‘What constitutes church planting in the United States baffles me’ : Church Leader Links
  16. David

    I think there is a difference between resurrecting the dead and beating a dead horse. I’ve seen dying churches that are full of faithful people, and I’ve seen dying churches full of self-centered charlatans. The latter is more common that the first.

    There are places that need a church. Planting churches there is needed. But I think what most communities need is not a new plant, but a little uprooting and burning. I think existing churches with “Ichabod” burned over their doors need some discipline.

  17. It’s hard work to breathe new life into an existing church – especially one where a large number of members couldn’t inflate the balloon of a spiritual respirator by themselves, but certainly wouldn’t want the Holy Spirit to provide mouth-to-mouth when they’re certain that they’re doing just fine, thank you, by themselves.

  18. Jonathan Hunt

    Great post. It is indeed more restoration that is needed rather than planting in many cases. However the sheer difficulty of this can be underestimated. I know of church planters who visited every church in an area here in England, and found several ‘ideal’ sites, a decent building, an evangelical basis, but could NEVER get anywhere because of the complacency and negativity of the four or five members in each place. I dare say these places will die.

    I also know of success stories, of course.

    I am in a ‘restoring’ situation personally and it is H-A-R-D. You cannot do what you want when you want (i.e. yesterday!!) you have to listen to those who were there before you, you have to be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove, you have to accept people visiting you, looking at the current situation and walking out again because they have no vision. It is really, really tough sometimes, because you know what you believe the church should be, you know you are aiming for that, and you know that if you were ‘there’ already they would join the work…

    But when the wheels begin to creak into motion, as slow as that may be, it is a great encouragement.

  19. Charlie Sattgast

    I still feel like this discussion is pretty heavily weighted on one side of the argument. Let’s take the church plant where I serve as an example for a moment. We targeted a neighborhood in Portland that was the epicenter of drug dealing and prostitution in the east metro area. We purchased an old motel, called the Flamingo, that rented rooms by the hour and was the biggest crack house in town.

    We renovated it, now run it as the Portland Airport Quality Inn and Suites, hold church on the campus, and have seen numerous people who used to do drugs and turn tricks in the neighborhood turn to Jesus. After six months we got a letter from the Portland Police saying that we had accomplished more in that neighborhood in six months than they had been able to do in twenty years. We also house a one-year recovery ministry called Freedom House on the campus, and daily we get to watch the lives of these men transformed by the power of God.

    Are we in competition with the other churches in the surrounding area? We have attracted some people from other congregations, which is inevitable, but we are reaching a unique segment of the unchurched population of Portland that other churches weren’t reaching.

    We just planted another church in an area of high need in Southeast Portland, and they are beginning to touch lives that weren’t attracted to existing churches. I have to admit I’m a bit puzzled by the tone of a lot of this discussion. Through church planting we’re seeing the leaven of the kingdom effectively spread in Portland. Is there something wrong with that?

    • Phillip


      Your work sounds great, I would love to correspond with you. We are serving in a similar context here in Arkansas.

      Email me when you can.

  20. Bernard Shuford

    Charlie – I LIKE your kind of church planting. In one respect, we’re talking about an entirely different mentality, but there are some very valid points on both sides.

  21. Charlie Sattgast

    Good question Dan. The difference is that we came in and bought the hotel where most of the drug dealing and prostitution in the area were happening and started to reclaim the neighborhood from within the former epicenter of vice and destruction.

    We still play nicely with the other churches in the area. God knows there are plenty of people for all of us to reach and then some. We aren’t trying to be in competition with them, and they don’t see us that way either. Besides, there is a reason Baskin-Robbins has thirty-one flavors of ice cream. Some people like chocolate chip mint and others like burgundy cherry. Our church is a better fit for some people, and another church in east Portland will be a better fit for others. I’m not sure God is that upset with us.

    I have a friend in Guatemala City who has had a church growth strategy for decades build around planting. They built a building that holds 700 people, and when they reach 600 they take about 250 people and start another congregation somewhere in the city. Over the years they have reached thousands of lives that probably wouldn’t have been touched if they had just tried to erect bigger buildings.

    Thanks for letting me banter this around with you.



    • Charlie,

      You came into your ministry from the outside because you were motivated to. Why is it considered impossible to motivate the church people that are already there?

      If there’s a church across the street from where all the prostitutes hang out, why plant a new church? Why not go into the existing church and motivate them to work with you to reach those prostitutes? That’s all I’m asking.

      • A lot of times I think it’s simply because you can’t lead someone who doesn’t want to be led and doesn’t recognize your call. Seriously, if I walk into your church and tell you that it’s not meeting a perceived need (that you have perceived) will you recognize my leadership?

        That’s why the feel good idea that “all churches should work together” doesn’t work. Sure there are sometimes a lot of personalities issues, personal issues and just flat out pride involved, but there really is an issue of purity and separation that God has built in as a mechanism of His true church… and why they are to be a local body of believers.

        Only part of it is the trying of the pastor/leader/member to make sure that they meet God’s qualifications for leadership.

        I wouldn’t recognize your call or your perceived need if you walked in off the street into my church anymore than you would if I did the same to you.

        As far as wresting control of a church from a pastor who disagrees with you, I would rather not stand in those shoes when I stand before God.

        I am with you to a point… 5 baptist churches within 2 miles of each other (a common site in the south in my travels) probably didn’t all arrive due to Christian unity and God’s perfect will, but restoration takes place where restoration is desired. It’s never forced.

        • Bob,

          We’re not all that interested in cooperating with “the other guy.” We like our own brand too much. I see that all the time. Most joint church ventures are done almost begrudgingly. We need to lay down that pride and selfishness. It’s the full-fledged Kingdom that matters, not my wishful, often selfish view of it.

          • Dan, you’ve seemed to avoid really answering the question by posting a truism. “the other guy” is sometimes John Mark, sometimes Paul, sometimes Barnabas and sometimes Jezebel. There IS right and wrong and God does use different personalities to contact and reach different people. To me it testifies the greatness to God to overcome the sinfulness of man.

            Despite the cartoonish and simplified answer you offered, it isn’t as simple as laying down pride and selfishness.

            It’s rather naive to believe that if there were one church on the four corners instead of four churches on the four corners that the one church would have 4 times the membership.

            I don’t have time (as I am getting ready to leave right now) to answer more in depth, but like I said, I agree we can do better certainly, but God definitely does prune the branches of his orchard.

            • Bob,

              You look at where revival is in the world, especially in Asia, and people are sticking with the same church, not jumping around. And when they plant churches, they do it in places where there is no other church. David Wayne had an interview with an Evangelical Georgian/Russian pastor who is stunned that we Americans, when our churches encounter some tough times or downturns, just give up and start something new. He says that where he is, you’re born, live, and die in the same church, even when that church is a growing church—and they are growing. That forces you to grapple with internal issues that would cause most American churches to toss in the towel. Our mentality of slash, burn, plant is not a healthy one spiritually. In many way, I believe it contributes to the shallowness of American Christianity.

          • One other thing, before I go. The numbers support that a new church sees more salvations and baptism’s so every church plant isn’t just shuffling Christians.

          • Bernard Shuford

            Lotsa pragmatism to that, tho, Bob. Just because something “works” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s what we’re supposed to be doing.

            This post, to me, is more about the mentality that makes church planting necessary than it is about individual church planters or whether planting churches is always right or wrong.

            I believe that planting churches is necessary. HOWEVER, I also believe that MANY churches need to get off their patooties and do some of the same things that church plants are doing. AS WELL, I believe that many church plants are doing things that are Biblically questionable or even unsound, in the name of “well, it gets results, doesn’t it?”

            • Bernard.

              Like you note:

              1. Fix problems and lacks. Learn character, perseverance, and genuine community by persisting and working through those problems and lacks. Don’t burn down a church and start a new one.
              2. When a church is growing enough to expand to a new church, put it where there’s no other church or else find a better solution.

              Seems simple enough to me!

    • Hello Charlie, I am down in Salem, Oregon and have watched from a distance the creative, intentional and effective impact you have made in lives in NE Portland!! Way to go! I was involved in helping a new Foursquare church plant deconstruct a nearly brand new High School in a Boise Cascade owned company town that was being shut down and moved piece by piece down to a vacant area in Salem. I served as Elder and Mission director there for years and now I am involved in running a Community Development foundation that is beginning to partner with church planters in urban and inner city areas to “plant” a community and neighborhood center first, and then let a vibrant, healthy church naturally grow out of the fruit of the lives impacted at the neighborhood center. Designed to be installed on a school campus (or city park) with our grant and sponsorship funding, the neighborhood center first “adopts” that school and the surrounding neighborhoods and then with very little slick strategic planning, relys likes crazy on the Holy Spirt to inspire them as to how to live and serve incarnationally as part of the fabric of the community.
      Let me know if your new church plant in SE portland might be interested in exploring this different approach, it would be fun to collaborate with you guys! contact me through website http://www.csdcouncil.org Bless you! Joe O’Connor – JoeO@csdcouncil.org

  22. Charlie Sattgast

    Point well taken. If there was another church across the street it might be more of a concern. But there isn’t. Our plant is strategic in targeting a neighborhood where there was no church, but there was a cesspool of sexual trafficking and meth dealing.

    I’m not disputing your analysis of the existing church and its need for revitalization. I’m simply trying to balance the argument with fact that there can be very compelling reasons to plant, even in a city like Portland that already has churches.

  23. I linked to your post because, as a church planter, I am glad to be challenged. We are planting a church in a place with an empty boarded up church and a methodist church with about 6 members all over 60. They have no pastor. I tried to work with the methodist church, started at the Superintendent for the local area and he presented the idea of us, a new church planting coming into their building and possibly even combining congregations. The problem is that in my rural small crossroads community, animosity runs deep. The 6 folks aren’t interested. Eventually they will die off. God DOES indeed plant where other dying plants exist. It’s called crop rotation (in farmers terms) but that isn’t what we see many times. We see people split off for selfish reasons.

    It’s a strange dynamic certainly. I get what you are saying… the “American entrepreneurship” of moving off to start something new whenever we want can certainly be a weakness to the church. I also agree that the power of the church, as intended by God, is diminished when we get “Fast food Christianity” that is “served up YOUR way.”

    Before modern times, many small communities had ONE church and had to work (biblically) through their struggles. People couldn’t just pack up and drive to the next town over for services, so the mechanism was built in for addressing and facing problems. I believe it’s why many of the old time denominations were so much more biblically based and conservative at the time because convenience didn’t allow for grouping of like minded rebels or even saints for that matter.

    The church actually had the ability to address sin in it’s members… how many churches do that today? Not many, because those folks will just go somewhere else.

    Well, I just wanted to say that I agree with a lot of what you’ve said and there certainly is a “hip” wind blowing that is busy attracting the “new and exciting” and drawing folks from other churches… but many times, it’s not because the church planter WANTS those folks, it’s because of the people themselves.

  24. the answer to you question is…because most people do not want to be the church, they just want to go to a place where we feel accepted and in control…..most do not want to give their lives over to the Holy Spirit, they just want to continue doing their thing and be as comfortable as possible while doing it. you are looking at buildings and people that go to these buildings, you are not really looking at the church of God….or maybe you are and wondering why you do not see what you think you should see happining in the groups that are meeting in places already called church. you know the answer, the church is moving out of the buildings. the Holy Spirit is not found in a building. like you said the body is going to the people that need the body and it has nothing to do with planting a building, but, it has to do with planting Love and seeds. think out side the box…or the building. the Holy Spirit is moving, He does not stand still and wait and wonder what is going on…He moves in and through you. you and me and everyone that continues to give their life to God. He is in our every moment, in our home, our community, our world, everywhere we go, in the grocery store, driving the car, talking to a neighbor…and in the places you were looking, all those places need God in and through you. all those places need the church.

  25. Dan, I stumbled upon your post and I’m very glad that I did. You’ve put into words what I’ve been struggling to say. I greatly appreciate your thoughts and willingness to say maybe we’re doing it wrong.

    My husband and I left a megachurch that we were traveling 45 minutes one way to attend and made a intentional move back into our community and joined a church near our home. We couldn’t get over the fact that we were driving past our neighbors every Sunday to attend worship in another community. We believed that God provided our home for us so why didn’t we believe God wanted to serve in a church in our community. Well we were very comfortable where we were – great worship music, great teaching, great small group community, great missions opportunities (everywhere but in our community). As we felt God work on our hearts, we knew He was calling us to be missionaries within a church. We were called to a new mission field and it was in an existing and well attended church. It wasn’t dying in number but spiritually it is dying. The plenty of work going on but there is not much transformation. There is not much attraction of the outcast, the “sinner” but there is plenty of transfer from one church or another. We spent three years there and struggled to find a place of service. But we influenced our Bible study class and teacher significantly and benefited from the best teaching of our lives. We needed that time, that season, to move on to where God is leading us now. We didn’t leave out of disgust or hurt or envy. We left with God’s firm sending on a new mission. And He has sent us to a dying community of believers that is beginning to see new life and a refreshing that is powered by God. It isn’t driven by a marketing plan or a demographic study of needs in the area. The need is simple – people need Jesus. And while most probably can’t even see it happening, we do. During our three years at the other church, we prayed and prayed for God to send church planters for us to work with in a new work in our area. We knew better but we didn’t know how else to pray. We knew there didn’t need to be a new work started. We knew that there needs to be a reviving work started. If God can resurrect this church, which I believe He is doing, then He can do it in the other churches in our city too. And if other believers see the work He is doing, what more inspiration do they need to truly seek His work within the church they attend.

    There are so many underlying issues as to why churches decline and do not grow or only transfer people around from church to church. That isn’t the point. The why doesn’t matter. How are you going to change it matters. You can’t force people to reach out to other people groups. You can’t force people to be mission minded or even Kingdom minded. You have to share the Gospel and allow God to work in the lives of people. Until the hearts of the people are turned to God, there is no point in trying to reach anymore people.

    Dan, thanks again. I could talk on and on about this. My husband and I very passionate about this very subject. You have helped give me some new insight to celebrating the Resurrection this Sunday!


  26. Ha, “Church Restorers”, I’ve always called them “Church Waterers”, but I’m just glad someone else is thinking the same thing. I’ve been trying to restore a 200 year old presbyterian church for the last 2 and half years now as head of Education/Young Adults/Outreach/endless random other titles. Probably only fifty more years ago–just enough to get rid of that generationally-bred dysfunction.

  27. Mike

    After reading the post and all the comments. I have been in a rural church for over six years. I love the people, but they have been doing church the same way for years and do not feel they need to change. This is the same set up in most rural churches. That is why so many churches have split because they could not agree. So on one hand, we need church plants to reach the unchurched because the unchurched do not want to come to a church where people are set in their ways. On the other hand, we do need pastors who can handle the tireless effort to help churches turn around. Due to the fact not every pastor is built the same. Not all pastors can handle the years it will take for a dying church to change. As for both of the situations, it takes the Holy Spirit to raise a church from the dead and the same Holy Spirit lead someone to start a new church. America is the new mission field. The church should be helping each other. It is going to take every believer to rise up and do something.

  28. i have come back to this because of an email updatd.

    and after time, i am seeing things differently.

    people and sin was… and is the problem.

    if we are not focusing on Jesus, what are we focusing on?

    things that are wrong,
    our needs,
    controling others,
    being strong,
    being forceful,
    making things happen,
    wanting things quickly

    if we focus on Jesus, what happens?

    there are still problems, but we are led in a different way.

    it has been centuries of many people not looking to the Holy Spirit.
    and we now have many people that see the church as it is…here…now…on earth….not perfect anywhere in the world.

    and what do people expect? perfection…for someone to fix it.

    the only way is people looking to Jesus through the generations as we all wait for His return.

    one way Jesus

    what does that mean to….. you?

    every person ask them selves if they are willing to….. follow.

    can anyone name the fruits of the Holy Spirit?

    and self-control

    how do these fruits come to us?

    one way


  29. Abby

    Why do we have to have so many places of “Worship” ?
    With the advent of the Internet and other interacting systems, the funds and energies devoted in constructing incredible structures for .. Worshiping.. appear to me to be useless.
    I am certain that many go to the various … “Places of Worship”, just to prove to others their false love to our Master.
    Our Lord is everywhere, Our Lord knows all we do and certainly the best way to prove to Our Lord that we follow OUR LORD ORDER to help others and not to waste our surplus that Our Lord has given to us.
    “Helping others” means to give sensibly to our fellow human being, encouraging and not forcing others to follow the life style that is mentioned The Books.
    We spend enormous funds not only in constructing, but also in maintaining those places of “Worship”, that in time they will return to rubble.
    I am certain that my idea to do away with this incredible waist of funds, I am aware that I will be shot dawn by the hierarchy, as they do not like to loose or replace their very comfortable pads, with a simple sit over a rock. I believe that most of the Prophets where addressing their people in the open, plus the Books are easy to understand, and perhaps to easy to manipulate.
    In summary one should consider how many people we could help instead of wasting funds to create what our Master did not require or requested us to do.

  30. The chief sign of a living faith is the desire to worship God.

    The Holy Spirit calls us, gathers us, and sanctifies us in true faith.

    We want to worship, hear the Word, and recieve the Supper.

    And be with our brothers and sisters in Christ to support them and comfort them in their lives.

    That’s why God create churches.

    The devil would love nothing more than for us to forego all that.

  31. Abby

    You can worship GOD, by following his orders, helping people, you can still form gropus that can meet in any environment, there is no need to spend enormous amount of funds to be with others.
    By the way God did not create any church, we did that, for this reason they do not last! The devil si more than ever in the Churches, just think of the false teachers.
    I was passing my comments, as I believe in helping people where ever they maybe, without asking nothing in return, life is too brief, what I have I must share with the more unfortunate, the church just like to accumulate and give very little in return. I love to spend time with people that share my love for my only Creator.
    We all have different point of view, I must respect yours.

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