Plant a church and reap a harvest

Paul did it, and so could you.

Mark Bresee is pastor of the Hamilton Community Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Pastors and church leaders are committed to advancing God's kingdom. When new technology, such as radio, television, satellite, and Internet, comes along, we try to take ad vantage of the opportunities these media provide. However, is it possible that we are neglecting to use one of the oldest and best church growth methodologies?

Paul spent much of his time planting new churches. Church growth expert Peter Wagner believes this is still the way to go: "The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches."1 Lyle Schaller, after extensive research on the correlation between church planting and church growth, says: "The first priority in any denominational strategy should be on organizing new congregations." 2

Research done among Adventist congregations in North America in the 1980s indicates that church planting effectively advances God's kingdom. Roger Dudley and Clarence Gruesbeck note that "between the years 1977 and 1984, the average annual growth rate of all the [Adventist] churches in North America, including new ones, was 2.8 percent. During the same period the average annual growth rate of the new congregations was 31.2 percent." 3

If this is the case, why is church planting not high on the agenda of most church leaders? Four reasons may be noted.

Church planting and pastoral unawareness

First, most pastors and church leaders are not aware of the potential growth opportunities newly planted churches provide. However, in recent years, books, articles, and seminars have been creating a new awareness of the church growth potential in newly planted churches. I became involved in church planting partially as a result of reading Dudley and Gruesbeck's work. I was inspired when I read about the potential new churches had in reaching people. In fact, the North American Division, the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and the North American Division Evangelism Institute have united to conduct a church planting summit called Seeds '96, to be held June 12-15,1996, at Andrews University. (For further information call 1-800-ALL-PLNT.)

Church planting and finance

A second reason church planting is not popular among us is the stress it adds to conference budgets. In an era of cutbacks and downsizing, how can we afford new churches? I believe, how ever, that the real question is Can we afford not to plant new churches? I have served on our conference committees and understand the financial pressures many experience. If we had more churches growing at 30 percent per year, we would have more tithe income to pay pastors' salaries.

Four years ago we planted the Hamilton Community church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Our annual tithe income now is nearly $400,000. Some of that conies from people who were already attending other Adventist churches in our area. However, a significant portion comes from people who were not in church prior to the establishment of our congregation. New churches bring new money.

Further, should we expect conferences to provide paid staffing for very small churches that show little or no potential for growth? Many churches have plateaued at fewer than 20 members. Lay leaders should run these churches. No one should be critical of the faithful pastors and members who have worked for many years to try to move these churches forward, but should we continue to allocate resources where little is happening? We not only need a strategic plan for planting new churches; we also need a workable policy for dysfunctional and dying congregations.

Another way to finance church planting is to start it with someone who is willing to have two vocations for a time. When the Hamilton Community church near Southern College was started, the conference had no pastoral salary to cover the church. However, I was invited to teach in the Religion Department at the college. I did this for a year while we got the church going. Fulfilling both roles was difficult, but it was definitely worth it. When you believe strongly in something, you will do whatever it takes to get the job done.

The truth is we usually have money for what we consider important. Funds to support NET '95 were found. Several church members made some large do nations, conference-held resources were made available, and churches pitched in to make it happen. Even more will be spent on NET '96. If church planting was seen to be absolutely essential, our members, churches, and conferences would find the funds to do it.

Our conference leaders have caught this vision and given approval to a seminary student's dream of planting a church in Atlanta to reach unchurched young adults. These leaders have already given approval to this extra salary in next year's budget. To help get it going they will provide some financial support from conference evangelism funds. Other young adults from across the country are being recruited to move to Atlanta to be a part of this project. Several of us are serving on a "wisdom committee" to guide this exciting venture. This kind of planning and support needs to be taking place in every major metropolitan area around the world.

Church planting and slow results

The third reason some leaders hesitate to become involved in church planting is the slow rate of growth as compared with traditional evangelism. A problem here is the measuring stick. If baptismal numbers are the only measurement by which an endeavor is evaluated, then church planting may not always give the fastest rate of return. Church planting has other significant benefits worth noting.

One is that we can reach certain groups through new churches. For example, the church in the developing countries is experiencing very little success in reaching the unchurched. The reason is the existence of a significant gap between the popular secular culture and our Adventist subculture. Communication experts tell us that in order to communicate effectively, we must do accurate audience analysis and adapt our presentation to that particular group. We have not done that very well in relationship to the unchurched.

A certain segment of the population responds well to our prophetic and apocalyptic evangelistic presentations. We should continue to pursue that group. We are struggling to reach the much larger portion that is uninterested in at best, and totally repulsed by at worst, beasts and dragons and an emphasis on the end of time.

Simply changing our advertising, however, will not solve our problem. If the unchurched were to show up at our church services, many of them would be turned off by the way we worship and relate to one another. In too many cases our services are primarily intellectual events and our relationships tend to be superficial. The unchurched would like to build relationships with people who are transparent, open, and honest about their fears and failures and about who they really are.

Making significant changes in worship, evangelism, and relationship patterns within most established Seventh-day Adventist churches is extremely difficult. Some have succeeded, but many pastors and churches have gone through bitter and painful experiences as a result of trying to change too much. I am one of them. Be fore we started Hamilton, I tried making some alterations in a downtown traditional church, but found it very difficult.

Jesus said it is unwise to put new wine into old wineskins. It is unwise and unfair to ask established churches to make the dramatic changes that may be required to reach certain people groups. Our best chance for making significant progress in reaching the unchurched is through the establishment of new churches specifically designed to reach them.

New congregations can not only be more effective in reaching specific people groups outside the walls of our churches, but also add life to those on the inside. Some members are present "in body, but not in spirit" in their local churches. This is particularly true of many of our youth and young adults. For a variety of reasons their spiritual needs are not being met in the churches they are attending, and they would welcome a new church with a different approach to ministry. This has certainly proved true for us at Hamilton. We have many young adults involved in our ministry who just did not seem to fit in other area churches. Church planting may not always give the fastest baptismal rate, but there are benefits that make it a profitable kingdom investment, especially in the long run.

Negative experiences

The fourth reason some are hesitant about church planting arises because of past negative experiences. For instance, new churches have sometimes been "planted" because a few unhappy people have pulled out and started their own church. Such situations engender friction with conference leaders, leaving negative associations in people's minds about new congregations. Or, when a few families in a remote rural area get together and want a church and a pastor, this adds stress to the conference budget because there is little potential for future growth. These situations, however, highlight our need to be proactive rather than reactive.

We would do well to prayerfully choose the areas in which there is the greatest need for the gospel and the greatest potential for growth. If this is done, it is much easier for us to be involved in choosing leaders of new groups and negotiating the design of the church's ministry in advance. A few strategically planted churches with excellent potential for kingdom advancement will accomplish more than many haphazard groups coming into existence for questionable reasons.

Large cities should receive top priority. They have not only a population base for future growth, but also some Adventist churches from which to form a nucleus. Dudley and Gruesbeck found that churches planted within 10 miles of another Adventist congregation have a much better chance of succeeding than those planted 25 miles or more away from sister congregations.4

Church planting: what should be done

If you want to plant a church or churches, what should you do?

Church administrators should consider making church planting an intentional priority in the field under their supervision. This, of course, needs prayerful thought, even if only one new church is planted every couple years. But whatever one thinks of doing, some thing should be done.

Pastors may not feel led to launch a new church, but no one should be threatened by the possibility that a church may be planted near them. If we will learn to cooperate rather than compete, much more will be achieved and we will all be stronger in the long run.

If a pastor has a burning desire to begin something new, that desire needs to be nurtured. It must be warmed before God in prayer. If the Holy Spirit nudges us to move forward, we can write up a detailed proposal with our vision of what could be, and share it with a representative group of our church members. If they get excited about it, the proposal can be taken to conference leadership, where the dream can be further shared. We need not be discouraged if we are turned down at first. Some have submitted proposals more than once to conference leaders before being approved.

Fiscal concerns will probably challenge all the creativity we possess, but we should not allow that to stop us from being as creative as we need to be in financing the venture. Here it is especially true that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He can open the way.

Once we get the green light, it is advisable to try to get at least 50 people in the core group before opening up to the public. The more there are in the core group, the greater the chance of success. Up to a year may be needed to share the vision and recruit enough people to make it happen. We should try not to recruit too many of the core for the new group from surrounding churches with less than 150 in attendance; they are not large enough to comfortably lose significant numbers from their congregation.

Finally, we just need to do it. Step up and venture out. Give it all we've got, and watch God work. It will be one of the hardest, most rewarding adventures that life could possibly give us.

1. C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1990), p. 11.

2. Lyle E. Schaller, Growing Plans (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), p. 165.

3. Roger L. Dudley and Clarence B. Gruesbeck, Plant a Church, Reap a Harvest (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1989), p. 27.

4. Ibid., p. 45.

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Mark Bresee is pastor of the Hamilton Community Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

May 1996

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