Language of sending is common in evangelical vernacular in recent years. Church planting initiatives rank at the top of the agenda of denominations and networks throughout North America. It’s exceedingly clear that lasting change in the evangelization of North America requires far more healthy, faithful churches than we currently have. But what part does the normal church play in getting us there?
Granted, “normal” is a vague word—loaded with assumptions and baggage. For the sake of conversation, let’s define “normal” based on church size alone and provide a simple metric. The normal church in North America is a church with fewer than 200 people in attendance on any Sunday. Some would go further and suggest that the normal church is far smaller, something akin to an average Sunday attendance of 75 people. But for our purposes the threshold of 250 will suffice. Others note that many of these small churches have aberrant doctrine, anemic leadership, and divisive congregations. This point is hard to argue, yet it’s overly simplistic and naive to suggest that this reality is the only rationale for the size of a church. Thousands upon thousands of these churches—in which the Bible is taught, the gospel is proclaimed, and disciples are made—need to know how to reproduce. Here are a few suggestions.
Die to the Inferiority Complex
The first key for the average church to reproduce is mental. We must die to the belief—stated or assumed—that our normal churches are inferior to a few megachurches and their prominent pastors. We praise God for those in positions of cultural influence and we should pray for them and their flocks, but we must not measure our efforts against theirs. What’s more, we can’t assume that reproduction requires that our church cross some minimum size threshold, budget surplus, or modicum of church health in order to reproduce. All churches can, and should, reproduce.
Recognize Unique Potential
Certainly large churches possess a muscle mass that can make reproduction possible on a grand scale, but the normal-size church should leverage its unique potential to reproduce just as well. Smaller churches can embrace the unique agility and familial culture that is often seen in such congregations. Decisions in smaller churches that are led well can happen far quicker, and the implementation and communication of these objectives can be streamlined to achieve the desired goal. Smaller churches with reproductive DNA can target a location, perhaps an untapped geography across town, and rally their church family to telescope their prayers and effort to that location in a way that’s simply different than the megachurch operating on 12 campuses with 10,000 in attendance each Sunday. Once sent, the church plant and planters can be loved and cared for by the average church with a family ethos that is pervasive among the church itself.
Learn to Collaborate
The reality is that these normal-size churches can’t reproduce alone, at least not with any degree of regularity. They will need other churches to join with them in this venture. This is the beauty of collaborative work: It provides an inroad for normal-size churches to re-envision the type of associationalism that led to the formation of denominations and networks in the first place. Rather than tribalism or brand loyalty, normal-size churches intent on reproduction seek out other like-minded churches for collaborative work that leverages the cumulative strengths of each. One church might target a location, another might provide a planter catalyst, yet another might lead the charge for prayer and evangelism in that place. This type of collaboration provides a quality outworking of the vision of unity Jesus intended for his people.
Experiment with Methods
A lack of surplus may force the normal-size church to experiment with planting methods. Because the church can’t fully fund a planting pastor, purchase a meeting location, or underwrite ministry expenses, reproduction will require a bit of research and development that is largely missing from the church planting conversation in our day. There’s room at the table for both the fully-funded planter moving a team of 50 leaders from a church in the Southeast out West to plant, and there’s also space for a co-vocational planter leveraging an existing business to evangelize an impoverished community across down in the hopes of a church plant developing. It could well be that the normal-size church discovers untapped potential and opportunities for the future of planting out of necessity.
Filter Addition Through Multiplication
Every decision made by a church of normal size matters and influences their ability to multiply. A bit of church growth quickly leads to conversations of building renovations or staffing hires. Normal-size churches intent on reproduction filter each of these decisions through the lens of future reproduction. Could the same size staff team divide the additional workload by developing volunteer leaders rather than hiring a new staff member? Could that financial savings be used to invest in a planter or resident? Could a maxed-out facility provide impetus for setting apart church members and sending them to start a new work rather than assuming growth necessitates enhanced facilities? These are the questions savvy leaders in normal-sized churches must ask if they want to reproduce.
Infuse Missionary Living into Disciple-Making Outcomes
The normal-sized church has the ability to assess and evaluate their congregation in a way that’s virtually impossible in larger environments. Pastors intent on leading these churches to reproduce should develop a clear definition of a disciple of Jesus, infuse missionary living into that definition, and evaluate the church’s overall development toward those stated outcomes. The church should clearly understand that a disciple of Jesus believes the gospel, lives under the Lordship of Jesus, commits to authentic community with other believers, engages God’s Word and in prayer, builds strategic relationships with the lost, knows how to share their story and God’s story, actively declares the gospel message, and knows how to invite someone to trust Jesus for salvation. Far too often, churches prioritize the former aspects of disciples and ignore the latter. If, however, missionary living is part and parcel to what it means to be a follower of Jesus, then we must build churches with reproductive DNA at the micro-level, making it a small leap when we begin to reproduce churches or leaders in a new location.
These six keys do not guarantee reproduction, but they do enhance the likelihood that the average church can be a part of the evangelization of North America through church planting. And it’s clear that they must. We will simply never move the needle on lasting impact with an overdependence on a few megachurches. We need a far-reaching movement of normal churches trusting a supernatural God to do far more than any of us might think possible.
Matt Rogers is a pastor at The Church at Cherrydale in Greenville, South Carolina. He has a Ph.D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Southeastern and an M.A. in Biblical Counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.