Why I am not too excited about church planting

  • Church signI recently drove around Phoenix on a Sunday morning. Every couple miles I came across a sandwich board sign that said something like this:

    • New Life Church, meeting at Canyon Springs Elementary
    • Abundant Life Fellowship, meeting at Zuni Middle School
    • The Rock, meeting at Thunderbird High School. 

    Just about every public school auditorium in Phoenix is rented to a “church plant” on Sunday morning. These are in addition to the hundreds of traditional churches that call greater Phoenix home.

    It’s an article of faith among Evangelicals that we should plant more churches. But something within me asks, “Is this really the best way to reach the world?”

    I don’t want to cast a shadow over one of the few bright spots in evangelicalism today. But I’ve got to admit that I’m not very excited about modern church planting, for a number of reasons:

    1. Everyone’s planting the same church. I’ve visited half a dozen young church plants over the past two years. And they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. See if this lineup sounds familiar:

    • Approximately 15 minutes of praise music, played by a rock band.
    • A projector, sound system and stage lighting
    • A separate nursery and children’s program concurrent with “big church”
    • A 25 to 40 minute sermon delivered by a young, informally dressed man
    • An offering, plus maybe a sacrament (communion, etc.)
    • A closing song or two, also led by the rock band.
    • Service length: between 70 and 90 minutes.

    Beyond this there are little variations: a video clip here, a testimony there. But the look, feel and even the doctrine of these church plants are virtual carbon copies of one another. We haven’t had this much conformity in worship since the days of medieval Catholicism.

    2. Church planting is very expensive. I recently spoke to a planter at a men’s conference. He confided that his denomination had budgeted $125,000 a year to get his congregation off the ground. With local giving, he expected to expend almost $175,000 a year to establish his church plant. He also told me that more than 70% of plants failed within two years.

    3. Church planting is labor intensive. Truckloads of stage gear, chairs and childcare infrastructure have to be set up and torn down each week. It’s a ton of work and key volunteers can burn out easily. It’s easy to expend all your energy on logistics and have little left for loving people.

    4. Church plants are built upon the foundation of one overworked man: the church planter. And the church will live or die based on his character, his work ethic and most importantly, his ability to captivate an audience with his sermons.

    These four facts lead me to ask the following questions:

    • If all church plants are offering virtually the same product, why don’t they cooperate instead of compete? Why don’t they pool their resources and their people to drive down their fixed costs? They could save lots of money buying one sound system instead of two, one set of nursery furniture instead of two, one rental facility instead of two, etc.
    • A church plant will require about ten thousand man-hours of volunteer labor in its first year alone. Instead of devoting those hours to setting up and tearing down, what if we spent ten thousand hours discipling people? Put another way: what if the church planter invested most of his time in people, instead of logistics and sermon preparation?
    • And speaking of the church planter, where did we get the idea that God builds a congregation on the back of one overworked man? Where is the team concept modeled by Jesus and Paul?
    • And finally, why are we planting so many churches when our existing churches are emptying? Most church buildings are owned debt-free. Many of these churches sit empty 160 hours a week. And they’re half-empty on Sunday. Why don’t existing congregations allow new churches to meet in their paid-off buildings at alternate times? (We’re already seeing this as ethnic congregations are using existing churches for Sunday afternoon services.)

    If we’re planting 4,000 churches a year at $125,000 per congregation, that’s half a billion dollars per year going into church planting in America alone. Seventy percent of that money is going into churches that won’t exist in 24 months. Church plants will consume  40 million volunteer hours this year. Couldn’t these vast resources be more profitably employed for the Kingdom?

    Am I saying we should stop planting churches? Not at all. There will always be a need for new congregations. But here’s the big question I’m asking: Is there a better way to establish new congregations? And the bigger question: is there a better way organize Christians and grow disciples than church planting? Comments are open.

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    April 10th, 2013 | David Murrow | 76 Comments |

About The Author

David Murrow

David Murrow is the director of Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reach more men and boys. In his day job, David works as a television producer and writer. He's the author of four books. He lives in Alaska with his wife, three children, three grandchildren and a dachshund named Pepper.

  • Jim Trebilcox

    Some of the initial points David makes are so valid. I am an old “fuddy-duddy” an ancient relic and I struggle with the casualness of some of the these “new” churches. I do not like the “7-11″ music (7 words 11 times or reverse that for some real meaning). I get very ill when I walk into a church and see a drum set en-capsuled by plastic shielding, with guitar stands all around. I watch with exasperation while a long haired kid on a guitar goes up and down on the scales shaking his head as if in a trance; and I ask myself is he really praising the Lord or just showing off, and why don’t I feel led to praise? I came from an era where you dressed nicely for church. After all, if you were going out to dinner with someone special, you would dress in your best wouldn’t you; so is time with Christ and fellow Christians so less important? And why is the “worship leader” next to the pastor in importance to worship? I spent a weekend with a “worship leader” and all he could do was complain about how poor other “worship leaders” were.

    But, again, I am an old “stick in the mud” who has to wonder am I so far behind the times to think that no one ever turned their lives over to Christ with drums and guitars, informal dress and “watered down” sermons. What would happen if the “pastor” talked about hell?

  • David

    What an insightful article about pietism versus confessionialism. There church are using worship, which is a time for the believers to gather, and is to focus on worship of God, as a means of evangelism, the focus is not on worship of God, nor on gathering the body, but on reaching out. And they all seem the same because their confession, what they believe, has become subordinate to their expression, what they do. Let worship be worship. Let outreach be outreach. And remember that the acorn has to grow into the mighty oak. It is not hatched all at once.

  • out3rbanks

    “where two or three are gathered in His name…” is an often misapplied verse as it is here.

  • Kevin Edelbrock

    The new model of the denomination is “Multi-Site”. It pools resources pretty well in terms of HR and the teaching is the same since it’s on video

  • Rick

    Just saw Eric today and yesterday at one of our area trainings. For the record, he (and I) would probably take issue with some of the characterizations here. I’m for you and your message David, but I’m dubious that you’ve got your pulse on the larger scope of church planting. I’m well aware of the clone churches you describe…but I’m much more acquainted to the many men I help shepherd that have planted a diversity of churches in a diversity of contexts. Let me know if you want to be introduced to some of them. I’m serious, by the way.

  • Rick

    This is an urban myth. It is EXTREMELY expensive to do satellite campuses in many/most models that are employed.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    Please let me know about these innovative plants. I’ll happily be proven wrong!

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    What evidence do you have to back up this claim?

  • Joy Wakefield

    Wow, some unnecessarily harsh comments on what I thought was a decent point. The church in many ways has not always been good at efficient strategy and organization. It’s one of my personal pet peeves as a natural administrator and someone who went to business school. We waste all kinds of opportunities – some of them that could help fund church work while building relationships. And yes, also a pet peeve about why we spend tens of thousands on electronics because people can’t remember the words to songs…. And because this is the way it’s been for a while, it will continue to be like that. We hire people who went to bible school straight out of high school to be pastors and we don’t separate preaching ministry from administration a lot of the time either – we have haphazard administration, pat mission statements, spread ourselves thinly over a lot of areas, etc. We could take a lesson from the church in Acts that part of ministry is efficient organization and administration, which is why in addition to the disciples, administrators were appointed. I think the idea now is that leadership is more about how spiritual or bible-knowledgeable you are rather than seeing the equal value and importance of being good and shrewd stewards or wise as serpents.

    I’m all for singing actually, and I think it’s place has always been important because I would argue the church should very much be promoting art and talent and giving it a place to thrive. Great artists used to be raised and trained in the church and much of art and music history is church history. I find it sad that we have lost so much of that. I also would point out that we use songs because we remember songs, and the whole point of singing and worshipping was to empower better meditation and memory of concepts. There’s also something glorious about being part of a song or even listening to it (have you ever been to the Messiah?). Studies have shown music improves peoples’ moods too and makes them feel happier (just an added plus). I also find another thing pretty cool – when you go to other places with different languages and they use translated songs and then you get to sing along and there’s something awesome about that (not trying to promote Hillsong imperialism for the record haha).

    Thanks for posting.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    Thanks for your insightful comment Joy. You should write a guest blog post for me some time…

  • Arnold Nel

    Good afternoon David,

    Thank you for the thought provoking blog on Church Planting, yes I agree with you – church planting needs to be done differently – how about doing it the Biblical way? I see in scripture that the “Apostles” went and planted the churches and then once established handed it over to the local elders who they had groomed. Church planting should be done as a team and not singular by “a called man of God” who battles the odds and struggles the first 5 years(if not failed within the 1st 2 yrs) to raise up leaders and ordain elders to carry the load of leadership in being the shepherds to the people.
    The other interesting thing is that everyone wants to plant churches within the first world context, why not in the third world? My wife and I planted Lusaka Family Church 5 years in Zambia Africa(really 3rd world) and I would do it again, but differently. I refer to an organisation Dynamic Church Planters International who have an excellent track record in planting churches around the world and I would follow their guidelines the next time God calls me to plant a church.

    I trust this subject will lead you into a greater discussion resulting in a possible book?
    warm regards with blessings

    Arnold Nel
    Lusaka Family Church
    Zambia

  • http://www.facebook.com/eldergreg Elder Greg Madden

    I would be interested as well Rick.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eldergreg Elder Greg Madden

    Nick, that was my “bemoaning s” good sir! LOL! One thing about having it at a bar is that is a lot of states’ bar’s cannot be open on Sundays (Blue Laws) at all. But I’d have no problem with it, but the owner might when he starts loosing all his customers! :-)

  • Charles Page

    Challenging post–What a contrast to Milawe Africa–where I am going with my 14 year old son this summer–
    Two by two–house to house–person to person–a group of ten everyday people–can start about 15 churches in about a week.
    Why can’t that work in the US?

    Maybe, we need to rethink our “event” focused churches and get back to a more relational gospel.

    The challenge for me is learning how to share my faith effectively within the cultural context that we live in. But there is a way–let’s pray we find it.

  • Rick

    For clarity sake, “innovative” is your word, not mine. I specifically chose the word diverse. To be blunt, I find that there’s very few “innovative” models that actually work in practice. Plus, technique and methods are surface issues. The larger issues are under the hood. Churches that actually preach Jesus’ gospel is the most glaring weakness of the cookie-cutter church. But I digress.

    Dave…if you would like to take this offline, I have an event where I’d be glad to introduce you to a wide-array of men that have planted in a diversity of locations that look very different from church plant to church plant. I’m not trying to be coy. I just don’t want to come off as promoting an event via your comments section. If need be I’ll find a way to cover your costs for the opportunity to introduce you to some good men doing a diversity of works. Because like Eric (Creekmore), I enjoy promoting your work and would like to see you meet and support the work of church planters that you might not be aware of…

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    Thanks, my email is david@churchformen.com. Let’s keep talking!

  • Marta

    I understand where you are coming from–my question to you is–when Jesus was walking the earth; He planted the seed of love all around the world where he travelled. What a better place to build a Church building where anyone when ready walks in and hears the message/s meant for the individual and in turn the receiver will past it forward. Even though it is expensive to build these Churches, I feel it is a worthy cause and money should be the last thing to focus on except to help with the construction of said places of worship. We also need to pray for the seed that is planted reach others–and in turn attract others by the glow on our faces and in our spirit the peace and joy; hopefully others will want to explore this avenue of love, peace, and harmony which will lead us all to the abundant life God wants for us. We have lost the sight of the most important thing–the material world gets us interested in things that have nothing to do with our spiritual journey. Without God we are nothing and with God we all whole and stand tall. The longer in the search of a personal contact with our Creator, the greater our lives will be and we will shine above the rest. Then God will gift us with our desire and what we deserve all because we love Him above everything and everyone. First God and the rest is up to God-His will and on His time. The more Churches the better the chance of grounding people back to the best offer ever. A life! Amen!!!!!

  • Pingback: Alert: New Church Coming to Town | Holy Soup

  • David

    The underlying question is whether church exists as a place for unbelievers to come and be converted, or whether the service is a place for the church, that is, the body of believers, to gather in praise to God, and to receive from Him in Word and Sacrament. Is the place of evangelism within the walls or without?

  • Joel Stoddert

    I generally agree with your article, David, but TJ makes a valid point. When you refer to singing-sermons-sacraments-socializing model, you almost echo passages in Acts & others in the New Testament which speak of the church gathering for fellowship, the breaking of bread, the apostles’ teaching & prayer. And we see the early church baptizing, & there are references to singing as well. I agree completely with your call to be imaginative in how we do worship, but with parameters set by God’s Word, not our creativity.

  • Dan Roseman

    I’ve been a campus pastor for a multi-site church for the last 2.5 years, just stepped down. We spent $250,000 just getting it off the ground … and we spent that much so that we could be cheaper than our first satellite campus. Satellites aren’t any cheaper than church plants and video venue can be a VERY tough sell to the community.

  • Mike Logan

    I agree. The lack of unity in the church at large is extremely frustrating. It’s a shame that we can’t seem to get on the same page theologically so that we can also unite financially and organize ourselves by geographic location. I’m guessing that as the “heat” against Christians slowly gets cranked up, we’ll find ourselves uniting more & more and dropping the petty disagreements that have divided us for so long in the body of Christ.

  • Daniel

    Wherever we decide to gather and do church….Preachers should realize that The way to the Tree of Life has been opened again. Reveal Christ from the scripture to people and hearts will start burning again, and lives will be transformed (i.e. Jesus on the Road to Emmaus/ why the 2 deciples where transformed?)
    We’ve been fead for too long from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” which mostly brings laws, forms, traditions and really – death. We should not play church but should preach and reveal Jesus Christ our resurected Savior, His righteousness -the only righteousness that qualifies men before a holy and perfect God, – from the Word of God…

  • MikeeK

    Church planters who think they are going to reach God haters with a cool service are missing the point of the Bible.

  • MichaelCarl

    I can’t tell you how glad I am to read your critique:

    1. Everyone’s planting the same church. I’ve visited half a dozen young church plants over the past two years. And they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. See if this lineup sounds familiar:
    Approximately 15 minutes of praise music, played by a rock band.
    A projector, sound system and stage lighting
    A separate nursery and children’s program concurrent with “big church”
    A 25 to 40 minute sermon delivered by a young, informally dressed man
    An offering, plus maybe a sacrament (communion, etc.)
    A closing song or two, also led by the rock band.
    Service length: between 70 and 90 minutes.

    One of the criticisms given to me is that no one will want to go to a liturgical church. But I said, ‘Why do we want to do the same thing everyone else is doing?’

    If you notice I’m wearing a collar, the church I was essentially ordered by God to plant (against my will I might add), is in the CEC. We’re sacramental-liturgical as well as evangelical. So we do a full liturgy, even though we do have contemporary praise music.

    I would appreciate prayer. We’re in the fifth year of this plant and I enjoy it, albeit it is a financial strain.

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    Everybody! Pray for MichaelCarl.