Last Saturday I was at the Cardiff Men’s Convention, a day for Christian men. Great day, excellent talks, good worship etc. There were also some interesting round table sessions, where we got to speak with people running churches and missions. The one that intrigued me was the radical church planters. One of those threw out the provocative claim to challenge our thinking: “More church growth comes through church planting than any other form of mission”.
Now no evidence was offered to back this statement up. That is the point of a provocative claim! It is there to make us think of the evidence for or against. I can think of anecdotal evidence.
- My friends in Uganda plant churches in un-churched areas. In a 3-week mission they saw about 1000 people become Christians of who at least 500 have stuck the course in 3 new church plants.
- A missionary to the Congo once told me that when he returned to an area where there had previously been very few Christians, they found around 100,000 new Christians spread between many churches, all desperate for Bibles, training for pastors, and teaching.
- Then there are all the churches that have been planted along the Amazon River, which the Vineyard church documented during the 1990’s.
Clearly church planting can give large scale growth in the Christian church. How does it compare with other forms of growth?
A year ago a student of mine attempted a model of church planting using the limited enthusiasm principle, inspired by a prior visit to Uganda where we saw first hand church planting in action. The resulting patterns of growth gave significant support to the provocative claim. This is a follow-on from the result that revival like growth happens when the reproduction potential of the enthusiasts exceeds a threshold. That threshold is lower if the proportion of susceptibles is higher.
Firstly, a church plant will contain the most enthusiastic members of a church, including people gifted in evangelism. Thus the average reproduction potential is higher and thus growth in the church more likely.
Secondly, there is a higher proportion of enthusiasts in a church plant. This is because such a church is not easy to manage and thus not a good home for those who want to free-ride. If the number of enthusiasts is high enough then a critical mass is achieved which encourages renewal in the church and can bring rapid growth.
Thirdly, as new churches are planted, the susceptible pool keeps widening and thus periodically keeps dropping the revival growth threshold. This again sustains revival growth over a longer period.
Fourthly, if churches keep being planted then they keep themselves fresh and free from institutionalism. According to the congregational lifecycle model, this means there is a longer period of growth before the maintenance plateau kicks in.
One result of church planting is that although, like revival growth, the pattern of growth can be fast, it differs in that the growth is more steady and sustained for longer. Revival growth will burn out quicker, and have less long-term effect. Clearly I have to do further work on this but I think that the provocative claim may be true and more church growth comes from church planting than any other form of mission.
When dealing with the issue of church decline it is so tempting to say “all we need is revival – people on fire for God”. But the work of the Spirit does not exclude strategy. Instead we should say that we need revival AND church planting to save the church (and the nation!). This is the lesson of the Methodist revival. Wesley had the Holy Spirit. There was revival growth and revival was experienced. But they also planted churches, through that generation and later generations. It is the combination of the Spirit and strategy that saw the nation changed and I suspect must be the way forward again.