Church Plants: So You Want to Start a Church? Part 4

Let’s take a fairly concrete example. Here in Tuscaloosa we have several hundred congregations of various stripes. There’s a congregation for every imaginable taste. We even have one large Baptist Church that has three Sunday morning services: organ music, symphony orchestra, and rock band.

No one congregation has become a megachurch (2,000 members), but there are several churches in the upper hundreds and a handful in the low one thousand membership range. 

Several church plants have recently been founded around the city. Most are struggling, small congregations meeting in movie theaters, but a few are doing fairly well. Not a one teaches a theology or uses music or methods found only there. Not a one has visited our church and asked our blessing on their efforts.

You have to wonder why, in a nation filled with largely unchurched cities, with millions who are complete strangers to the gospel, someone in some city far away from here, with no consultation with the local congregations, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and sent a planting team of well-trained, highly motivated missionaries to plant churches here? Is that really the best use of God’s resources?

I guess it’s like the old “I Love Lucy” episode where she lost a ring. Ricky found her searching for it in their apartment, even though she’d lost it somewhere else. He asked her why, only to have her reply, “The light is so much better here!”

And, yes, it’s not hard to build a church in Tuscaloosa, because there will always be enough sheep to steal from other churches to make up a decent sized congregation. And it may well be that a given plant helps some people re-discover the joy of Christianity. And there may be some very real conversions. But was it really necessary to for these bright, energetic, well-trained church planters to start a brand new church to reach the lost? Couldn’t that be done working with one of the hundreds of existing churches? Are we already divided enough?

You see, as I read my Bible, dividing the body of Christ is wrong, and so you’d better have a really good reason to create a new congregation. I’m not sure planting a church in a garden of churches necessarily makes the grade.

Indeed, a very large, mega-church from another city has recently “planted” a new campus here in town. They preach Baptist theology, making them one of three or four hundred Baptist Churches in town. They do not provide a new denominational flavor at all.

They have an excellent praise band and they have excellent preaching (via video). And they’ve stolen countless sheep from other congregations in town. They are very popular with University of Alabama students.

As I’ve said before, I am morally opposed to multi-site congregations adding campuses in different cities. How can the elders in Birmingham have the Tuscaloosa community on their hearts the way a Tuscaloosa church can? Why are they reaching to Tuscaloosa when there are so many lost souls in Birmingham?

Well, I presume, because they want members who are college educated Southerners (their target audience). They are picking the low-hanging fruit, which is anti-gospel. They should be  using their vast talents and resources reaching the hard-to-reach in Birmingham (and God knows there’s a need!) rather than the easy-to-reach in Tuscaloosa, 60 miles away.

You see, the congregation seems to have adopted a business paradigm, that is, they compete with the local churches by providing a better product and so build up a large membership base of largely already-converted believers. They do a very good job of providing small groups and a worship experience, but they don’t do anything substantively different from many other congregations.

They might argue that their success proves their legitimacy, and that would be a very consumeristic, free-enterprise source of mindset. Success proves nothing, or else we should be worshiping Satan, who is having quite a lot of success.

No. What they’ve proven is that a non-denominationally labeled Baptist Church with excellent preaching and music can draw a very large crowd. They’ve not proven that their members are best led by leadership largely in another city. And they’ve not proven that the same good couldn’t be accomplished just as well through existing congregations.

If there was this huge unmet need in Tuscaloosa, why plant a new, competitive church? Wal-Mart would never ask such a question, because it’s part of a competitive economy that thrives by out-competing and shutting down its competitors. Such thinking among Christians, however, is anathema.

If our motivation were love, rather than competitive success, why not sit down with a local church and offer experience, talent, and even money to help them grow using the same techniques? Why is the very first, default, unexamined assumption that the best way to grow the Kingdom of God is to go into competition with the Kingdom of God?

I don’t get it.

How very arrogant to presume that your church offers something so special and better that you can justify stealing members from other churches to build a new congregation and to thereby divide the Kingdom one more time?

There’s a price to be paid for the creation of every new congregation because every new congregation is a division — unless you’re the first church in your community. There are, I’m sure, good reasons to create a new congregation at times. But there’s always a cost.

You see, when a church splits, we call it “division” because there’s now a new congregation and much less fellowship and cooperation than once was the case. Many (not all) church plants also produce reduced fellowship and cooperation among existing Christians because they subdivide the same pot of existing believers among a larger number of congregations.

Is it always wrong to plant? No, but we rarely pause to even ask whether it might be wrong in this instance. Does anyone pause to ask whether the benefits of the plant outweigh the disadvantages? Does anyone measure the harm caused to existing congregations? Does anyone measure the harm done to the Kingdom in that community caused by increasing the total cost of doing church by loading one more church’s worth of overhead onto the Kingdom?

Many plants in fact do a great job of converting the de-churched, re-kindling the fire of the Spirit in people who grew up in the church but lost their zeal. This is great, but is it really necessary to create a new congregation to do this? Many plants even convert the un-churched, who are total strangers to Jesus. Praise God! But is it really necessary to create a new congregation to do this?

Yes, in some areas and in some cities, yes. Absolutely, yes. But I’m confident the same church planting team with the same money could often have been an even more effective outreach team for an existing church.

Imagine the benefit of combining the resources of an existing church with a paid-for building, a staff with decades of experience in counseling and mentoring and converting, a membership that has walked with Jesus for many years, together with an outreach team of bright, young, zealous, evangelistically minded Christians — who choose to help grow a church rather than planting a church. Why is that never done?

My point isn’t to oppose Kairos or Mission Alive. I’m a big supporter of church plants and church planting organizations — in the right setting, for the right purpose. What I oppose is planting thoughtlessly, indeed, using a competitive, free enterprise model, that is, a Darwinian model, rather than a model built on love, submission, and accountability.

That means there needs to be some serious soul-searching and conversation before a church is planted in the midst of a garden of existing churches. Motivations should be carefully considered and examined. The local church leadership should be consulted.

Prayer is, of course, critical, and needs to ask the right questions. The question shouldn’t be just “Where should I plant?” but also “Should I plant or should I work within an existing congregation?”

For a planter, that’s a scary question because it’ll provoke some very hard conversations and decisions. But that’s why it’s important. The decision isn’t easy and so it shouldn’t be automatic. Think before you plant. Your actions affect others in the Kingdom, others whom you must love and submit to.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to Church Plants: So You Want to Start a Church? Part 4

  1. JES says:

    The only problem with what you are saying is that in my 66 years in the church, no one would accept “outside help”; they were the ones that were right, and the “others” were just going to Hell for leaving!!! What choice does that leave?

  2. That attitude is good only for manipulating people to stay and maintain the status quo. The alternative is to identify that thinking and reject it. As to what the ones who remain say about those who leave, I am reminded of my surprise one day when I met a long-term CoC preacher and missionary at a large charismatic church. He had left the CoC about ten years after I did. He observed rather sheepishly, “Yeah, I know what they are saying about us, because I remember what we were all saying about you…” 😉

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