Church planting is top priority

Americans are in the grip of a passion for starting or “planting” new churches. The movement is among the most active and passionate in American Christianity and includes a variety of denominations and faith traditions. The push promises to shape not just religious life, but society as a whole, as new congregations work to influence and assist the communities around them.

Certainly, this is not the first era in which church planting has been intense in the U.S., but rather it is part of a cyclical pattern. And the current effort is not limited to our borders; Christians are busy planting churches throughout the world – at times secretly, as in China, but elsewhere as well. The drive to start new churches at home affects this nation in a way that evangelism abroad does not, though, and it bears special notice.

Church “planters,” as they are called, are Johnny Appleseeds, hoping the seeds they sow will mature into trees to feed many people. Planters focus more on people than on buildings. Church plants commonly meet in coffee shops, schools, office buildings and hotels.

This latest movement inspires ambitious plans: Some institutions have goals of planting thousands of new churches. Planters envision new churches spawning other new churches that spawn still more new ones in a viral progression. The motto of Lake Ridge Church in the Atlanta suburb of Cumming, Ga., is, “Our vision is to glorify God by planting a missional church that will eventually plant other churches.”

Church plants can include a number of features:

  • Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, burning to spread the gospel and win converts, contribute most church plants, especially big Baptist churches that can sponsor new congregations and train members to launch them.
  • Mainline denominations plant churches in hope of boosting and diversifying membership and shifting their focus away from the maintenance of shrinking churches.
  • Church planters come to their task from a variety of backgrounds. The movement depends heavily on players from outside the traditional hierarchy, including lay leaders and parachurch organizations. Many church planters are ordained clergy or lay leaders with denominational support. Others are entrepreneurs weary of or at odds with institutional religion.
  • Most plants are in suburbs, though planters don’t always use demographic research to scout locations. Research might identify the direction of urban growth so a church can buy property and wait for the suburbs to reach it.
  • Many planters focus efforts on ethnic or immigrant communities — particularly Latinos, Koreans, East Indians and Africans. The Episcopal Church, for example, has begun numerous Sudanese churches. GenX leaders often begin urban, multicultural plants, following the “emerging church” model that embraces spiritual questioning, new forms of worship and youth culture.

Why it matters

New church plants have the potential to reshape U.S. churchgoing and affect the communities churches are locating in, whether they are new suburbs or urban areas previously abandoned by churches. Scholars say that most recent church growth is within the few largest churches, but the planting movement also is built on the premise of stimulating huge growth, albeit through the creation of many smaller churches.

Background

Articles and publications

Tips for reporters

  • Consider a story comparing a new, small church with an example of the other big phenomenon in church growth – megachurches.
  • The planting movement is fun to cover because of the fervent passion and expression of many lay people and clergy involved. Their pioneering enthusiasm is charismatic; stories of new beginnings, as young churches with high ideals take off, make excellent coverage and they highlight interesting trends in contemporary religion – evangelism, grassroots religious leadership and the exploration by Protestants outside structural conventions.
  • Little is known about church planting from an academic perspective, so it’s early for a definitive overview. Still, reaching several national leaders representing a variety of views may help give a bigger picture.
  • Planting is difficult work, requiring unusual individuals with superb social skills, great passion, resistance to failure and the charisma to attract and hold a community. Parachurch organizations and planting mentors help enormously with training and financial and moral support. Consider profiling a new planter and a mentor who are working together, or writing about a group of would-be planters going through training, then re-visit them in a year.
  • Church plantings are also called church “starts.” “Multiplication” is another term used. Many churches approach the subject through offices on growth. Most denominations have a church planting office or research office asking, “Where can we put new churches? Where’s the growth? Where is our population moving to?” Consider calling these growth experts at the national offices of denominations that interest you to learn how your local churches fit into their plans.
  • Consider focusing on the trend in using lay planters to begin new churches by finding such church starts locally and talking with national experts about what you find.

National sources

Individuals

  • Van Kicklighter

    Van Kicklighter is associate executive director of the church planting team for the Illinois Baptist State Association. He previously worked in church planting with the North American Baptist Conference.

  • Todd Hunter

    Bishop of the Anglican Church. Leader of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO), a church planting movement designed to develop leaders committed to planting. Former president of Alpha USA and Vineyard USA. Hunter has been involved in church planting and leadership development for many years.

  • C. Kirk Hadaway

    Author and researcher C. Kirk Hadaway is director of research for the Episcopal Church Center. He has written widely on the subject of church growth and also worked with the United Church of Christ and Southern Baptist denominations.

  • Donald E. Miller

    Donald E. Miller is a professor of religion and sociology at the University of Southern California and executive director of the school’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. His books include Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium, for which he looked at “new paradigm” churches, in particular three megachurches that began in Southern California.

  • Scott Cormode

    Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. Ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Formerly served as George Butler Associate Professor of Church Administration and Finance as well as assistant dean for institutional research at Claremont School of Theology. Can discuss church growth.

  • Scott L. Thumma

    Scott L. Thumma is a sociology of religion professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where he also directs the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. He studies megachurches, nondenominational Christianity and congregational trends.

  • Gary Scheer

    The Rev. Gary Scheer is vice president relationship manager at the Solomon Foundation in Englewood, Colo. He previously was senior minister at Victor Valley Christian Church in Hesperia, Calif. Scheer coaches and mentors church planters.

  • Ed Stetzer

    Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as executive director of the school’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He was formerly the executive director of LifeWay Research, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. He blogs on a variety of subjects related to American evangelicalism for Christianity Today.

  • Joe Samuel Ratliff

    The Rev. Joe Samuel Ratliff is pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston. He is co-author of Church Planting in the African American Community. Contact him through his executive assistant, Vernastene J. Davis.

  • Uriah Kim

    Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Hartford Seminary’s Center for Faith in Practice. He can discuss movements and trends in Korean-American Christian churches.

  • Charles Ridley

    Charles Ridley is professor of counseling psychology at Texas A & M University. Previously, he has taught at Indiana University and the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also licensed psychologist and Fellow of the American Psychological Association.

Parachurch organizations

Parachurch organizations are quasi-denominational national or regional networks that represent new forms of institutional cooperation. “Paras” usually work with, not for, denominations. They play a critical role in screening, coordinating, training, financing, supporting and mentoring pastors and lay volunteers. Some are not-for-profit; others are conventional businesses.

  • Wikipedia definition and list of parachurch organizations

    Includes extensive list of parachurch organizations around the world.

  • Stadia: New Church Strategies

    California-based parachurch organization that finds, trains, deploys and supports church planters. Began as the Northern California Evangelistic Association. It aims at a “church multiplication movement” through regional networks of church planters. It is affiliated with the nondenominational Christian Churches and Churches of Christ movements. Stadia’s goal is to build 5,500 new churches by 2025.

  • Passion for Planting

    A church-planting support ministry begun in 2002 by planters from New Life Christian Church in Centreville, Va. The nonprofit provides organizational resources, consulting and project management services for newly formed churches.

    Contact: 703-817-0601.
  • Church Plant Media

    Web company based in Oklahoma City, Okla. that works with church plants.

Churches

Most denominations and many churches have offices of church growth. Here are a few:

  • Vineyard USA

    Has network of over 1,500 churches worldwide. They work alongside existing local churches to help reproduce and plant new Vineyard churches. Michael Gatlin is the national church planting director.

  • Missionary Church USA

    An evangelical church committed to church planting and world missions based in Fort Wayne, Ind.

  • The Alliance (C&MA)

    Based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Claims membership of over 4 million people in 13,609 churches in 81 countries and territories including more than 2,000 churches in the United States. Contact Rev. William (Bill) W. Malick, director of church multiplication ministries.

  • North American Baptist Conference

    Has offices in Lombard, Ill. and Roseville, Cali. Family of churches in the U.S. and Canada. Church planting is an emphasis.

  • Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation

    Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) involved in recruiting, equipping, and nurturing new church planters and emerging leaders, with the goal to help these leaders start sustainable new congregations of all expressions. The church plants are diverse, with Hispanic, Asian, Haitian, African-American and Anglo members. Contact Rick Morse, vice president for mission initiatives in Indianapolis.

  • EFCA Start

    Part of the Evangelical Free Church of America responsible for church planting. Operations divided into 17 districts which support 1,500 congregations across the United States. Based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Cheryl Townsend Gilkes

    Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She is an expert on black churches. She has written widely, including If It Wasn’t for the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Orbis Books, 2000).

  • Edward P. Harding Jr.

    The Rev. Edward P. Harding Jr. completed a new church start for the Presbyterian Church — Prince George’s Community Church in Springdale, Md., in 2000. He was formerly pastor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Mass.

  • Manuel Ortiz

    Manuel Ortiz, professor emeritus professor of ministry and urban mission at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa. Has focused his work on multicultural churches and the religious lives of American Hispanics.

    Contact: 215-887-5511.
  • Donald Paul Sullins

    The Rev. Donald Paul Sullins is a former Episcopal priest who was ordained into the Catholic priesthood in 2002. He is an associate professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and has written about church switching and patterns of Protestant affiliation.

In the South

  • Daniel Montgomery

    Daniel Montgomery founded and serves as the lead pastor for Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Ky., a church plant. Sojourn began as an attempt to reach people who were falling through the cracks in more mainstream churches. It officially launched in September 2000 using rented space and has expanded to include multiple campuses.

  • Mark Nelson

    Mark Nelson is district superintendent and team leader of the Missionary Church Florida Church in Auburndale, Fla., an evangelical organization that looks to multiply clusters of churches throughout Florida that can work together.

  • Judith R. Blau

    Judith R. Blau, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has written about the expansion of religion and church membership in the U.S.

  • Milton J. Coalter

    Professor Milton J. Coalter is the librarian at the Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va. Also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. He has written on the decline and growth prospects of mainstream Protestantism.

  • Tom Jones

    Tom Jones is the executive director of Stadia: New Church Strategies, a parachurch organization that finds, trains, deploys and supports church planters.

  • Penny Long Marler

    Penny Long Marler is a professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., with interests in the relationship between church and society and religious change. She has written about measuring growth in church attendance.

  • Matt Jones

    Matt Jones is director of new church development for North Alabama Conference for the United Methodist Church.

  • Aubrey M. Malphurs

    Aubrey M. Malphurs, senior professor of leadership pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. He wrote Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century: A Comprehensive Guide for New Churches and Those Desiring Renewal (Baker Books, 2004).

In the Midwest

  • Daniel V. A. Olson

    Daniel V. A. Olson, associate professor of sociology at Purdue Univeristy. Specializes in sociology of religion and has written about church growth.

  • Darren E. Sherkat

    Darren E. Sherkat is a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He studies the intersection of religion, family and politics, and he’s working on a book about marijuana legalization.

  • Donald A. Luidens

    Donald A. Luidens, professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland, Mich. (affiliated with the Reformed Church in America), has followed the evolution of denominations and denominationalism in the U.S.

  • Gary Rohrmayer

    Gary Rohrmayer, president and executive minister of Converge MidAmerica, overseeing its business and ministry interests that supports regional church planting and ongoing care of its partner churches.

  • Rodney Harrison

    Rodney Harrison is vice president for institutional effectiveness, dean of online education, director of doctoral studies and associate professor of Christian education at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. He is a veteran church planter, having started churches in Minnesota, California and the Dakotas.

In the West

  • Bob Hyatt

    Bob Hyatt is a pastor and elder at the Evergreen Community (Motto: “Life’s short, why not apply for an extension?”), a church plant that was founded in 2004 and which meets in a pub in Portland, Ore. Evergreen believes it is important to give the “unchurched” and the “formerly churched” a place to belong before they believe. Hyatt is a megachurch escapee who says American churches that get bigger and bigger foster a culture of church consumerism and neglect individuals. One of the great attractions of planting a church, he says, is creating and sustaining a real community.

  • Robin D. Perrin

    Robin D. Perrin, professor of sociology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. Specializes in sociology of religion. Has written numerous articles on religion including “Examining the Sources of Conservative Church Growth: Where are the New Evangelical Movements Getting Their Numbers?” for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1997.

  • Arlene Sanchez Walsh

    Arlene Sanchez Walsh is an associate professor of church history and Latino church studies at Azusa Pacific University in Azuza, Calif. She is an authority on Latino evangelicals. Her books include Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self and Society (Columbia University Press, 2003).

     

  • Laurence R. Iannaccone

    Laurence R. Iannaccone, (pronounced “YAWN -uh – cone -ee”) director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics and Society and professor of economics at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., is a leading authority internationally on the economics of religion. He heads the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture and developed the Consortium for the Economic Study of Religion.

    He has written about measuring church growth.

Related source guides