Go and Plant Churches of All Peoples
Fifty years ago, if you said evangelism in a word-association game, you would probably get back Billy Graham. Crusade evangelism dominated the American church's ideas about reaching out. When First Baptist Church members decided to share the gospel with their neighbors, they looked to see which evangelist could come to town.
Thirty years ago, crusades began to wane, and personal evangelism came to dominate our thoughts. A church that wanted to reach out would typically offer a class on how to use the "Four Spiritual Laws" or Evangelism Explosion to witness to friends and strangers.
Crusades haven't disappeared, and churches still teach personal witness. But today, church planting is the default mode for evangelism. Go to any evangelical denomination, ask them what they are doing to grow, and they will refer you to the church-planting office. I have talked to Southern Baptists, General Conference Baptists, the Evangelical Free Church, the Assemblies of God, the Foursquare Church, the Acts 29 network, and a variety of independent practitioners and observers. I quit going to more because they all said the same thing: "We're excited and committed to church planting. It's the cutting edge."
Frustration with other methodologies has something to do with this trend. Despite many tales of triumph and huge resources mobilizedthink of the "Here's Life America" campaignit's hard to trace an overall difference. "North America is the only continent in the world where the church is not growing," says Eric Ramsey of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board (NAMB).
Biblical rethinking also fuels the conviction that church planting is the ideal way to fulfill Jesus' Great Commission. "It's apparent in the Great Commission that we are to make disciples through the avenue of churches," says Scott Thomas of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting organization affiliated with Seattle's Mars Hill Church. "The whole Book of Acts offers that model."
Acts 29 churches view planting as essential to the nature of the church. They expect that at least 10 percent of every offeringincluding a church's first offeringwill go toward church planting. They join an increasing number of church leaders who see Western individualism as sub-Christian. Aren't disciples made in the context of community?
Perhaps most important, studies show a consistent difference between old and new churches. George Hunter of Asbury Theological Seminary says, "Churches after 15 years typically plateau. After 35 years, they typically can't even replace those [members] they lose. New congregations reach a lot more pre-Christian people." Those who study churches say established congregations tend to turn inward, no matter how hard they try to resist the trend. But new churches must look outward to survive. Richard Harris, vice president of NAMB's church-planting group, says that established SBC churches report 3.4 baptisms per 100 resident members, whereas new churches average 11.7. It's not hard to conclude that more new churches would lead more people to Christ.
Gary Rohrmayer, director of church planting for the Midwest Baptist Conference, told me of a 1,200-member church that planted a church. The new church quickly grew to 200, but in the same time period, the 1,200-member church grew to 1,600. Seeing that the established church had actually added more members, leaders wondered whether they should put their resources into expanding their own ministry instead of planting another church. When asked how many adult converts they had seen in that period, however, they named eight. The new church had about 100. "You [tell] me whether you should start another church or not," Rohrmayer says.