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.