The true fruit of an apple tree is not an apple but another apple tree.
During the early decades of the nineteenth century, a man by the name of John Chapman traveled hundreds of miles on foot carrying apple seeds to virtually every village and hamlet from Butler, Pennsylvania, to Decatur, Illinois. He was compelled by an unexplained desire to make the nutritious apple available to everyone in America.
Johnny Appleseed, as he came to be known, understood that carefully watering, tilling, and fertilizing the tree in his own yard would not cause his dream to be realized. If apples were to be everywhere, apple trees must be everywhere.
Similarly, the true fruit of a growing church is not just a new disciple of Jesus but another growing church. A huge potential for major church growth in North America lies untapped. A renaissance of church planting can bring it to pass.
Four reasons to plant churches
1. It is biblical. It is the New Testament way for spreading the gospel (Acts 13:1-5). Ellen White urges, "Place after place is to be visited; church after church is to be raised up."1
2. It is efficient. "Planting new churches," says C. Peter Wagner, "is the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven!" 2
Among a small group of people who have committed themselves to expanding God's work through starting a new church, there is an inherent vitality that is often lacking in older churches. That vitality translates into fervent prayer and earnest effort for the lost. For example, between 1964 and 1974, while the United Presbyterian denomination at large was declining in membership, their newly planted churches were growing at an annual rate of 9.8 percent.
Also, Americans often want to be involved in new things. Usually people moving to a new area will not join an older church as readily as a new one.
Nature has taught us that it is far easier to have babies than to raise the dead! In raising the spiritually dead, church growth studies have shown that new churches win backsliders more easily than do old churches. When we realize that within our denomination, for every 40 sheep in the fold, 60 have left, this becomes especially important.
3. It is necessary for denominational survival and growth. Lyle Schaller, author, teacher, and church growth expert, says, "Every denomination reporting an increase in the total number of congregations reports an increase in members. Every denomination reporting a decrease in congregations reports a decrease in members." The Nazarenes conducted a study of their church-growth patterns from 1906 to 1971. They found a close correlation between the number of churches planted and the growth of the denomination. During the times when few churches were started, membership statistics plateaued.
In this connection the history of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Indianapolis and Detroit illustrates an important point. At the turn of the century, Indianapolis had four big well-to-do Christian churches. They appointed a city missionary who planted daughter churches—small, struggling, somewhat disreputable congregations—all over Indianapolis. They met in schools, barns, homes, and storefronts. For a number of years these churches remained rather poor representations of what a church can be; yet today Indianapolis has 57 large Christian churches. All of them own fine properties. All are reputable congregations.
In contrast, the Woodward Avenue Christian Church of Detroit believed that one Christian church in the city was enough. It grew to be a large church of 4,000 members. The preacher was nationally known, a pulpiteer of great power and eloquence. When people went to Detroit, they went to Woodward Avenue Christian Church. The denomination was proud of its great church.
Detroit did not have another Disciples congregation until 1956 because the pol icy was that one strong church in Detroit was enough. Denominational leaders apparently did not want to start weak new churches.
Which city, Indianapolis or Detroit, has the larger number of Disciples of Christ members today ? The comparison is lopsided.
Within Adventism, this scenario has been repeated all too often. Particularly in the large Eastern and Midwestern cities, increasing numbers of people are moving to areas not served by existing Adventist churches. The vast majority of non-Christians and Christians of other faiths will not travel more than 10 or 15 minutes to church each week.
It is a rule of thumb that the first 10 years of a church's existence determines the long-term size of that congregation. Growth after that is less spontaneous. This helps explain why older churches generally grow only with great difficulty, if at all.
My study of Adventist membership in the Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin conferences shows that active member ship in most major cities is the same to day as it was 20 years ago. The only exceptions are the cities in which new churches have been planted during those 20 years. For denominational survival and growth, we must give immediate attention to starting new churches.
4. It develops new leaders, both lay and pastoral. This phenomenon occurs naturally with the planting of new churches. Both in the parent church and in the new church, persons who were previously on the periphery of involvement readily accept the challenge of leadership. Some of the finest leaders I have known held no church office until they joined a brand new congregation.
Planting and growth
The divisions of the world field that are experiencing the highest rate of growth are those that are planting the most churches. Precise statistics for the world divisions are difficult to obtain be cause seven of them have gone through territorial changes since June of 1985. However, as we examine the data that is available, some clear trends emerge.
The Far Eastern Division is experiencing growth at an annual rate of nearly 7 percent. Between 1982 and 1987, the division reported a net gain of 952 churches. South America is growing at an 8.5 per cent rate and has gained 820 new churches. Inter-America has a growth rate of 7.8 percent—and 693 new churches.
By contrast, the church in North America is growing at an annual rate of 1.6 percent, and most of this growth is in our ethnic churches and conferences. During the past five years, North America had a net gain of only 283 churches. And nearly 10 percent of those were planted by the Texas Conference a conference that is a recognized leader in church growth in North America.
Both the Far Eastern and South American divisions have set an aggressive goal of planting a new church every day during the Harvest 90 campaign! Research reveals that in the North American Di vision, the conferences that are intentionally starting new churches are growing much faster than conferences in which church planting is not a priority.
Among non-Adventists, some denominations are growing while others are in decline. The fastest growing denomination in the United States is the Assemblies of God. They are planting an average of 329 new churches in this country every year. By contrast, Seventh-day Adventists planted 47 last year in the United States and Canada combined.
Southern Baptists place a strong emphasis on starting new churches. Each of their six seminaries sends out "praxis teams" that are commissioned to test and work the soil with the objective of planting a new church. Each team consists of two seminary students. Their expenses are minimal. The success of their efforts is unquestionable: 1,200 new churchtype missions were opened in 1986!
The Christian Missionary Alliance Church, through a major church planting thrust, has accomplished what no other denomination can claim in the twentieth century. They doubled their worldwide membership in the 10 years from 1978 to 1987! 6
Liberty Baptist Fellowship has set a faith objective of 5,000 new churches by the year 2000. Their present rapid rate of growth indicates that their vision is being rewarded.
I am convinced that this same kind of vision and planning can bring about major growth for our church in North America and other divisions.
How to plant churches
Virtually everyone agrees that we should be doing it. Without exception, every conference official with whom I have talked would like to start new churches. Many of them feel, though, that the task is too big or too complicated or too expensive. They're not sure how to proceed. They are waiting for someone to break the ice—to demonstrate that it can be done and how to do it.
The primary question I hear is "How can we afford to staff new churches?" I believe that pastors are not the only per sons able to start and staff a new church. With proper supervision and support Humanitas (Taskforce) workers and even laypersons could be successful. The assumption that only full-time pastors can be effective in local church leadership and soul winning stifles the growth of the church. All of our churches would prob ably be healthier without such a high degree of dependence on full-salaried, professional ministers.
In support of this is the fact that in North America, baptisms into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1985 averaged 10 for every active minister while in the Eastern Africa Division, where pastors are few and laypeople must lead out, 132 persons were baptized for each minister! 7 Could it be that greater lay involvement here would bring some of that success our way and make afford able the staffing of new churches?
Note these examples: As mentioned above, the Baptists are starting new churches with seminary students. Some of these churches are eventually staffed with retired persons who donate their time or require less pay than a regular pastor. Other new congregations are pastored by apprentices who work for less than a full salary for two years under supervision. Baptists also utilize "tentmakers"—persons who serve in leader ship of the church while supporting themselves. They receive a full salary only when the tithe reaches a certain level.
I envision a conference or a union hiring a full-time pastor who will supervise the simultaneous planting of three to five new churches. These churches would be launched in cities that have an existing church that is not able to evangelize all of its territory or has plateaued in member ship. The people in the mother church would give their support to the birth of a new church as one of their personal ministries projects.
The new congregations would be staffed by humanitas workers or laymen or even "tent-makers." The salaried pas tor would support, train, encourage, and give direction to the leaders (pastors) of the new groups. Based on what our church is doing in other countries and what other denominations are doing here, I think this idea deserves consideration and experimentation.
Further ideas can be gleaned from Donald McGavran and George G. Hunter Ill's book entitled Church Growth Strategies That Work. Pages 114 to 116 list eight models for launching new congregations (see box, p. 7). In my opinion, at least five of these have potential within the Seventh-day Adventist context and should be given prayerful study by denominational leaders.
I do not have all of the answers, but if we agree that the impact of vibrant, new churches will be positive, all of us—leaders, pastors, and laymen—must accept the challenge and begin searching for answers. Let's get our heads together, pool our ideas, think creatively, pray earnestly, and be willing to experiment. It will not be easy. Having and raising babies, whether those babies are human or ecclesiastic, is time-consuming and often frustrating. To be awakened at 2:00 a.m. and to have to care for soiled diapers are not among a parent's most enjoyable ac tivities. But parents invest the time, prayer, loving concern, and money be cause the final product brings so much joy and glory to God.
Five objections answered
1. Church planting harms the mother church. A concern of many denominational leaders is that starting a new church with a nucleus from a sponsoring church harms the mother church. Cross-denominational studies prove, however, that mother churches quickly return to their prior membership level, and that they are themselves benefited by giving birth to a daughter church. The biblical principle is "Give, and it will be given to you" (Luke 6:38, NKJV). God always replaces what is given for His service.
2. Church planting creates competition between churches. This objection is well answered by Wendell Belew of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Department in an article appearing in Church Growth: America. He states:
"Two churches are more complementary than competitive. Two churches minister to people of two different mind sets, two different cultural inclinations. They will reach nearly twice as many unchurched as one will. We need not be afraid of competition between denominations or local churches. I really do not know of any situation anywhere where one church 'devoured' another by over growing it, unless one of the churches had ceased to witness and had determined not to grow." 8
That similar entities are complementary is illustrated in business. Department stores would much rather be in a mall near many other stores than, be alone somewhere else.
Some groups have eliminated negative competition by adopting the multicampus church model. Members of the mother and daughter groups hold membership in the same place. Having two campuses of the same church assures that leadership, goals, and programs are the same, not competitive.
3. North America already has too many churches. It is true that this continent has more than 300,000 congregations. Churches decorate many a street corner. Consequently, many local church leaders perceive that their community is overchurched.
Dr. Win Arn was faced with this perception during a church growth seminar in Ohio. Before the seminar started, he went to a ministerial luncheon. He was cordially received but found some of the ministers cool to the seminar. "Look," they said, "we have done a good job. We have been here for more than 50 years. We have enough churches. Our doors are open. We have interesting programs. If anyone wants to come, he knows where to find us."
Dr. Arn took the challenge. He called every church in the area and found out its seating capacity. He called the Chamber of Commerce and City Planning Board and ascertained the total population of the area. He found that if every church was packed three times on Sunday only one third of the population would have attended.
With very few exceptions, overchurching is a myth. Eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas, and no urban areas are overchurched.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we see the potential harvest as much more inclusive than our Christian brethren do. We have a mandate to call people out of spiritual confusion and into the remnant, commandment-keeping body. Millions of people are geographically too far away from existing Seventh-day Adventist churches. These will never be won into our present congregations.
4. New churches are always so small and struggling. Most churches start small, but they have to. Small and struggling is not bad. There is a certain dimension of adventure and enthusiasm, of being a pioneer, that is a fantastic motivating force in a new church. All adults start life as babies. Remember the example cited previously for the Christian churches planted in Indianapolis.
5. Church planting involves a high start up cost. Church planting is the most cost-effective evangelism there is. Studies of various denominations demonstrate that it costs $1,833 to win a new member to an old church and $60 to win a new member to a new church. 9 If these statistics are anywhere near correct, they are astound ing!
If new churches are a priority, necessary funds become available. Christians will always give to something to which they are committed, and God will multiply their giving. The Assemblies of' God and Southern Baptists are not richer than we are. They are not deterred or intimidated by costs. Let us not make the mistake of perceiving new churches as a "cost." Rather, they are our wisest in vestment in the future.
Let's do it!
One of the greatest temptations in God's work is to become involved in good things while falling short of the most important. Because it is easier to do other things than establish new churches, this important work has been neglected. The Lord Jesus said, "I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18). The hands He uses are our hands.
In these final days before His return, He calls us to do greater things to advance His work than ever before. Like Johnny Appleseed, let us catch the vision, fill our seed bags, and begin marching through this land planting churches to the glory of God!
"When an interest is aroused in any town or city, that interest should be followed up. The place should be thoroughly worked, until a humble house of worship stands as a sign, a memorial of God's Sabbath, a light amid the moral darkness. These memorials are to stand in many places as witnesses to the truth. God in His mercy has provided that the messengers of the gospel shall go to all countries, tongues, and peoples, until the standard of truth shall be established in all parts of the inhabited world." Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 6, p. 100.
"We all need to be wide awake, that, as the way opens, we may advance the work in the large cities. We are far behind in following the instruction to enter these cities and erect memorials for God." Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, September 30, 1902.
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1948), vol.
7, p. 20.
2 C. Peter Wagner; stated during a class lecture
entitled "Planting New Churches," Nov. 29,
1983, Pasadena, California.
3 Lyle E. Schaller, "Commentary: What Are
the Alternatives?" Understanding Church Growth
and Decline (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979),
4 Ron Iwasco, denominational executive, As
semblies of God, Springfield, Missouri; stated
during a telephone interview, Apr. 6,
5 Nelson Tilton, director of the Church Starting
Department, Home Mission Board, Southern
Baptist Convention, Atlanta, Georgia; stated dur
ing a telephone interview, Feb. 6, 1987.
6 Fred King, director of Church Growth, Christian
and Missionary Alliance, Nyack, New York; stated
during a telephone interview, Apr. 5, 1988.
7 Floyd Bresee, "Rio in Retrospect," Ministry,
February 1987, p. 19.
8 See accompanying box.
9 Quoted in Donald A. McGavran and Winfield
C. Arn, Ten Steps for Church Growth (New
York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 93.