Church planting as growth strategy: Is it effective?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the North American Division emphasizes the strategy of planting new churches. No thorough research in the Church, however, has investigated the claim that church planting is a highly effective evangelistic strategy.
We initiated this study to encourage careful examination of the effects of planting new churches on kingdom growth in the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This study is not intended to provide thorough research comparing the effectiveness of evangelistic strategy, nor to offer conclusive inferential statistical data supportive of conclusions that may be applied across North America.1 This is an examination of experience in one conference alone. However, we hope this inquiry, within its limitations, will support investment in extensive quantitative research among a broad sample of North American Division conferences.
We approached this study with the assumption that determining the initial fellowship attachment of a new member would be informative regarding the role of a new church plant in the evangelistic process. Our position assumes an association between joining and the ministry activity of a particular church.
We selected the New York Conference (NYC) as the context of this study for several reasons:
1. The Adventist Church has a long history in its territory;
2. It is a conference characterized by old established churches;
3. There has been minimal effect of immigration patterns on its territory or church growth;
4. The conference experienced a significant change in growth history in the decade of the 1990s;
5. In 1993 the conference listed church planting as one of its action steps to accomplish growth in a vision and master plan for 1993-1998 titled "To the Glory of God";
6. During the second half of the decade the conference implemented a church planting strategy, beginning church planting as early as 1995;
7. The NYC provides an observable model in which planting rural churches, Caucasian churches in urban settings, Hispanic church es, and African-American churches occurred simultaneously;
8. No major metropolitan area public evangelist effected the growth history of the conference in the years 1994-1999; and
9. The conference accompanied church planting with equal emphasis on pastoral and lay church ministry development, as well as public evangelism.
For these reasons we believe the NYC offers an opportunity for comparison of church planting with the productivity of other evangelistic activity.
The research methodology included these steps:
1. We compared the growth of the New York Conference with like conferences in the North American Division in two selected time periods, 1990-1992, the first three years of the decade during which no church planting activity was occurring, and refer to it as the early period, and 1997-1999, the last three years, which we refer to as the recent period;
2. We identified persons making decisions for baptism in the years 1990-1992 and 1997-1999 in the New York Conference;
3. We examined the church planting strategy of the conference;
4. We surveyed new members baptized in the two selected time periods to discover sources of interest, retention, their initial local church attachment, and the dynamic of new church plants in their evangelistic decision; and
5. We surveyed pastors in the New York Conference to discover attitudes regarding church planting as an evangelistic strategy.
The context of the New York Conference
The New York Conference consists Of that portion of the state of New York lying north and west of Columbia and Greene, Sullivan, and Ulster Counties. The population of the area in 2002 (the time of this study) was approximately 5,730,000.
The 2001 General Conference Yearbook of the Seventh-day Adventist Church lists 60 churches and a membership of 4,796. Several church groups and companies add to the number of congregations. Twenty-four pastors served the members of the conference at the time of this study.
We identified 16 new groups, companies, or churches planted in the years 1994-1999.
The NYC in the years 1990, 1991, and 1992 averaged 112 baptisms a year. Later in the decade, in the years 1997, 1998, and 1999, the second selected time period, the average had grown to 198. We included professions of faith in all calculations.
During the decade of the 1990s the membership of the conference was negatively affected by migration. Regardless of the adverse effect of the migration, the membership grew from 4,426 in 1994 to 4,745 in 1999, reversing a trend of declining membership. There was a net loss by transfer of letter in the same time period of 46.
We examined the kingdom growth rate in order to remove the factor of transfers of active members by letter, thus revealing conversion growth. Kingdom growth rate is calculated by taking the number baptized in a one year period, subtracting the apostasies and missing, then dividing by the beginning membership of the year.
In the period of 1990-1992, the kingdom growth rate of the conference was below the North American Division (NAD) rates. The KGR (kingdom growth rate) was 1.5 percent, -.7 percent, and .7 percent in the NYC, while it was 2.8 percent, 2.7 percent, and 2.7 percent in the NAD in 1990, 1991, and 1992. In the years 1997-99 the kingdom growth rate in the NYC had changed to match or exceed the NAD. The KGR was 2.5 percent, 3.1 percent, and 4.9 percent in the NYC, while it was 2.6 percent, 2.4 percent, and 3 percent in the NAD in 1997, 1998, and 1999.
A survey of the growth patterns of the New York Conference in the 1990s reveals excellent conversion growth rates in the latter part of the decade. Although the Upstate New York region experienced population con traction and economic recession, the conference experienced a reversal of years of membership decline, and had significant tithe growth, a measurement meaningful to some who examine growth characteristics.
The church planting strategy of the New York Conference
The conference voted a formal church planting strategy in February 1997 that had been in preparation for over a year. Implementation of church planting activity had actually begun as early as 1993—the reality which led the researchers to compare the first three years of the decade and the final three years. The strategy contains the following vision statement:
"We see newly planted churches in our large municipal areas, unentered counties, and among distinct people groups. These churches are attracting people who would not be discipled in existing churches of the New York or Northeastern Conferences. They are healthy, growing churches that attract new people by the proclamation of the Adventist message and joyful, spiritual worship. Catalytic, visionary leaders initiate and lead these new churches with the support of the Conference."
New Member Survey findings
We administered a survey of 11 questions that solicited information concerning respondents' length of time in the church, the name of the pastor who baptized them, the church they were currently attending, and their attendance patterns. It also asked for basic demographic information such as gender, ethnic background, education level, and age group.
The questions pertaining more specifically to church planting asked them which church they joined when they became a Seventh-day Adventist, and what the most influential factor was in their decision to join the church.
A total of 223 usable responses were received from the surveys sent out to new members baptized or received into membership by profession of faith during the years 1990, 1991, 1992 (the early group), and 1997, 1998, and 1999 (the recent group). The number of respondents who fell into the early group, 1990- 1992, was 93, representing 42 percent of the total respondents. The number who fell into the recent group, 1997- 1999, was 130, representing 58 percent of the total respondents.
It is important to remember that the recent group correlates with the time period in which new church planting was occurring in the conference. The recent group, 1997-1999, can be further divided into two sub groups, those who were connected to one of the new church plants at the time of their baptism or profession of faith, and those who were not.
The first finding relates to the per cent of additions to the church correlating with one of the new church plants. The number of respondents from the recent group who were connected to one of the new church plants was 32, representing 25 percent of the 130, while in the early period, prior to church planting (1990-1992), virtually all evangelistic growth came from the activities of established churches.
During the years 1997-1999 we estimate that 250 established Adventist members were instrumental in the formation of the new church plants, about 6 percent of the members of the New York Conference. These members were involved in 25 percent of the conference evangelistic growth.
The second finding relates to biological growth, the addition of new members from the families of established members.
Respondents were asked to indicate from a list of choices a factor they considered to be the most influential in their decision to be baptized or join the church by profession of faith. Their options were "a friend," "spouse/family member," "Bible studies with a group," "Bible studies with a pastor or other individual," "public meetings," or "other."
In a few instances, respondents circled more than one choice, but rarely more than two. When this happened, we decided to include all of their choices in our calculations, based on an assumption that the respondent was having difficulty deciding between two or more factors, as to which was the most influential.
The influence of a spouse or family member as the primary factor in a person's decision to join the church was considered to be biological growth; since the factor was within the home or family circle. This usually involves more of a passive witness by the church member, as he or she lives out their Christian life in the presence of their family. An argument can be made that these incidents should be registered differently. However, the determination was consistently applied in the analysis.
In the early group, 52 percent of the respondents indicated the biological factor to be the most influential in their decision to join the church. Among those from the recent group who were not connected with one of the new church plants, 34 percent chose the biological factor, and among those who were connected with a new church plant, 31 percent chose this factor.
This suggests that in the recent group, the passive witness that naturally occurs among families of church members, now accounted for a small er percentage of the evangelistic activity, not because it had declined but—as indicated by the sheer increase in numbers of baptisms in the recent period—the other more active forms of witness increased significantly. The variation in the case of new church plants was small.
The third finding relates to the life of personal witness of members. Two factors that must certainly be considered as indicative of church members who are actively involved in intentional witnessing activities are "friend" and "study with a group." These factors suggest that the respondents who chose either of them as the most influential factor in their decision to join the church were subjects of relationship with one or more church members prior to baptism.
A difference was discovered to exist between those who were connected with a new church plant and those who were not. The most influential factor of "friend" was selected by 11 percent of the respondents in the early group.
When we compare this to the respondents from the recent group who were not connected with a new church plant, we find the number slightly lower at 10 percent. However, among those in the recent group who were connected with a new church plant, 16 percent chose "friend" as the most influential factor.
Moving to "study with a group," again 11 percent of the respondents in the earlier group chose this as the most influential factor. The number dropped to 6 percent among the recent group, who were not connect ed to a new church plant, while among those who were connected to a new church plant, it was 13 percent.
When these two factors are combined under the heading of friendship evangelism, we found that 29 percent of respondents from the recent group who were connected with a new church plant, were influenced by this type of activity. In contrast, only 16 percent of those from the recent group not connected to a new church plant, and 22 percent from the earlier group, fall into this category.
We found a higher correlation between involvement in intentional witnessing activities and new church plants.
One final finding relates to "public meeting." While one would expect that this factor would play a significant role in the evangelistic growth of a conference, our study indicates that it played a minor role in the New York Conference.
In the early group, only 4 percent of the respondents chose this as the most influential factor. In the recent group the numbers were 11 percent for those not connected with a new church plant and 16 percent for those who were. This number parallels the increase in personal witness. One possible reason for this parallel is that public meetings are more effective when church members are more actively involved in intentional witnessing activities.
Analysis of the growth characteristics of the conference and the data gathered from the survey indicates a relationship between increased lay ministry activity, evangelistic growth, and church planting.
Findings of the Pastoral Survey
We administered a survey of nine questions which solicited information concerning respondents' ministerial role with the New York Conference, as well as specific years of service.
It also asked basic demographic information such as gender, ethnic background, education level, and age group. The questions pertaining more specifically to church planting asked if the ministers had ever been involved in or observed church planting in their district, whether or not, in their opinion, church planting made a contribution to evangelistic growth, and the degree of contribution they felt it made.
Pastors were also asked to rank, based on their own feelings, the five evangelistic activities of church planting, giving personal Bible studies, inviting friends to church, public evangelism, and small group ministries, according to their contribution to evangelistic growth.
A total of 25 surveys were received from the 32 sent out, representing a return rate of 78 percent.
The first significant trend to note is that every respondent who indicated he or she had been involved in church planting, 17 in total, also indicated that they believed that church planting activities contributed to the evangelistic growth of the conference. Among the remaining respondents who had not been personally involved in church planting activities, 75 percent of them (6 out of the 8) indicated that they also believed that church planting activities contributed to the evangelistic growth of the conference. Out of the 25 respondents, 2 felt that church planting made no contribution to the evangelistic growth of the conference.
When the demographic information was analyzed we found no variations in any particular sector.
The group of 23 respondents is made up of 16 pastors, 3 volunteer lay pastors, and 4 salaried (fully or bi-professionally) church planters. They represent every age group, with 8 falling between the ages of 25-39, another 8 between the ages of 40-54, 5 between the ages of 55-65, and 2 over the age of 65. They also represent a variety of educational backgrounds with 2 indicating some high school, 4 indicating some college, 7 who were college graduates, and 10 with post college training.
The degree of contribution sited by the 23 respondents varied between the three choices of "minor," "aver age," and "significant." There were two who left this question blank on the survey, leaving only 21 usable responses to analyze. From this number there were four who chose "minor," eight who chose "average," and nine who chose "significant."
One final area to consider is the result of the question asking respondents to rank the five evangelistic activities mentioned earlier. In connection with this question, there were 19 usable surveys from among the 23 respondents. These indicated that they felt church planting made a contribution to evangelistic growth. Of these 19 respondents, 9 placed church planting among the top 3 spots. When numerical values were assigned to the rankings (first = 5, second = 4, third = 3, fourth = 2, and fifth = 1), "giving personal Bible studies" scored the highest at 71, "inviting friends to church" was next at 61, fol lowed by "public evangelism" at 55, "church planting" scored slightly lower at 51, and finally, "small group ministries" at 47.
It is important to note that 3 of the 4 unusable responses were ones who had indicated they felt that church planting had made a "significant" contribution to the evangelistic growth of the conference. Had these responses been able to be included, it's likely they would have increased the score for "church planting."
The investigators feel the sample base, given its geographical and quantitative limitation, should not be approached with the intention of extrapolating a verifiable comparison of evangelistic methods. The responses do suggest that while value is seen in church planting, it is not viewed as significantly different in value when compared to other more traditional and proven forms of evangelistic strategy.
Does a relationship exist between planting new churches and evangelistic growth in the context of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America? The discussion should continue, and further research is needed. This single project does suggest a relationship to the objective observer, and provides to the more subjective observer evidence that indeed church planting is an effective evangelistic strategy for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.
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1 The researchers believe the nature of the inquiry and the context of the sample itself lend to discovery from analysis of relationships, and less to discovery from calculated inferential tests of significance.