In the classic film Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays Mr. John Keating, a first-year literature teacher at Welton Academy, a hundred-year-

Old Ivy League prep school for young men. The four pillars of Welton are chanted in unison at their first assembly, “Tradition! Honor! Discipline!

Excellence!” On the second day of class, Mr. Keating asks one of the students to read an excerpt from their textbook Understanding Poetry by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. explaining meter, rhyme, and figures of speech. Pritchard suggests a system for plotting “a poem’s score for perfection” using horizontal and vertical graphs to reveal whether the poem is “truly great.”

Mr. Keating interrupts the student, shocking the class with the following monologue:

Excrement.

That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard.

We’re not laying pipe.

We’re talking about poetry.

How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand?

“Oh, I like Byron. I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it.”

Now, I want you to rip out that page.

The students look up at him in disbelief, then look around at each other to gauge the appropriate reaction. Keating continues:

Go on!

Rip out the entire page.

You heard me. Rip it out.

[He raises his voice] Rip it out! Go on.

Rip it out!

As you read this textbook, I want to hear the sound of ripping. Much of what has passed as church planting instruction doesn’t make the grade when boots hit the ground. Much of what is taught on planting in seminaries and classrooms could be likened to studying poetry with J. Evans Pritchard’s metric versus being carried away by the passion of the apostles when planting churches. Mr. Keating urges the students to keep ripping straight through the entire introduction:

“Keep ripping, gentlemen! This is a battle. A war. And the casualties could be your hearts and souls. . . . Be gone Mr. J. Evans Pritchard!” I would like to see much of the church planting curriculum that has been taught to planters move to the history department to be studied as what church planters used to do. Keating assures the students, “It’s not the Bible. You’re not gonna go to hell for this.”

Finally, he looks at them with that gleam in his eyes, “Now, my class, you will learn to think for yourselves again.”1 Much of what we believe about church planting is because we’ve inherited a system that is built on something that no longer works: the church growth movement. Even as the church is sinking in the West, it continues to cling to this failed movement like a lifesaving ring made of iron. Much of what is called church planting is really church growth packaged as an ecclesial business startup.

According to data from Pew Research studies conducted in 2012 to 2019, only 65% of people polled in America identify as Christians. In 1990, 85% identified as Christian; this statistic marks a 20% decline in thirty years. Perhaps even more concerning is that from 1990 to 2001, the number dropped 4% in eleven years, maintaining a similar drop of 3% from 2001 to 2012, but plummeting by a drastic 12% during the last seven years. If this trend continues, the Christian population of 167 million in this country will continue to drop drastically.2

Against this backdrop, Lifeway Research conducted a study in 2014 concluding, “More than 4,000 new churches opened their doors in 2014, outpacing the 3,700 that closed, according to estimates from the Nashville-based research organization based on input from 34 denominational statisticians.”3 Although I don’t question the quantitative figures they received, I question whether the qualitative data ruled out the possibility of multiple denominations claiming the same church plants in reporting their data. Every year, networks and denominations report that they’ve planted a certain number of churches, but many of these new church plants may be a part of multiple denominations.

When multiple denominations fund the same planter, they slap their sponsorship sticker on the church plant like a NASCAR race car. If more than one network or denomination reports the same church plant, the figures of churches planted become skewed and unreliable. Despite Paul stating, “Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others” (2 Corinthians 10:15), it is still standard practice to throw money at a planter boasting credit for their work. Church history, however, demonstrates that the church often thrives when it appears to be failing.

In Transforming Mission, David Bosch summarized Kraemer, who claimed that the church was born in crisis and in danger of being swallowed up, and that, in this tension, it “has always needed apparent failure and suffering in order to become fully alive to its real nature and mission.” The problem, Bosch says, is that the church is so seldom aware of the danger under which it lives, “And for many centuries the church has suffered very little and has been led to believe that it is a success.” Any “success” that the church has seemed to enjoy in any century has been an abnormal period for it, and therefore provided an illusion of what success was, but in the current post-modern crisis, Bosch exclaims, “Now, at long last, we are ‘back to normal’ . . . and we know it!”4

CHURCH PLANTING VERSUS CHURCH STARTING

Much of what we call church planting in North America is actually church starting. The first difference between starting a church and planting one is that church starting begins with the church itself as its goal. This goal of starting a church can be translated to renting a large space, gathering a large crowd into it, and reaching “critical mass” so that the church can sustain financial stability and provide a paycheck. When boiled down to basics, what has been accomplished is a “pop-up” church that appears on Sundays and disappears the other six days of the week. In other words, church starting amounts to little more than starting a Sunday service. Here are the six crucial steps to church starting:

  1. Raise funds (usually hundreds of thousands of dollars).
  2. Recruit enough people to ensure critical mass.
  3. Brainstorm a catchy church name (branding is crucial).
  4. Design a sexy logo (branding is everything).
  5. Rent a building.
  6. Advertise, blast, and promote on social media and hope it’s enough to fill the building on launch day.

 Renting a building, creating a website, designing a logo, and inviting people to a phantom church that exists only in our minds is an unusual practice. I’m not against raising funds or recruiting launch teams. Both can be helpful if your goal is church starting, but they aren’t as necessary in church planting as we’ve been taught by our own ranks of “J. Evans Pritchard” experts. Much of our fundraising and attempts at reaching critical mass mask the truth that we have attempted to strip all risk out of the endeavor in order to ensure “success.” But if “success” is measured by filling a room, we aren’t defining it the way Jesus or Paul did. Jesus emptied them on purpose and sent the crowds packing. Church starters may have “success” in filling a room, but at the cost of even greater loss.

  • What if gathering crowds occurs at the cost of mission?
  • What if the large amount of expense it takes to start a church comes at the expense of making disciples?

If we invest everything in a Sunday service at the expense of mission, then everyone loses, particularly those outside the church. The church is in its current rut because we’ve learned to “do church” in a way that ensures no one ever really has to engage with the gospel at all. This is more than mere semantics. Church starts have stripped out the need to make disciples who, in turn, make disciples. At its very foundation, church starting undermines the very thing that makes church planting successful. 

Further, I would contend that church starting is what is failing today, whereas church planting will continue to thrive for years to come. The amount of investment one must put into church starting is both financially excessive and heavy in terms of human resources with very little ROI. Church planting, on the other hand, can be cheap or even free.  

REFORMISSION

Why does this church starting model look so different from what Paul did? 

Paul never rolled up on a community with his hip church name, sexy logo, rental agreement, and flashy website and called it church planting. Nor could anyone remotely conceive of him participating in that method of operation. In that case, why would we?

In Church Planting in the Secular West, Stefan Paas identifies the church growth movement as the scientific stream in evangelical church planting theory that comes from the Western emphasis on “empirically tested methods and developing research programs” that view numerical growth pragmatically.5 If it produced results (i.e., church growth success), it should be adopted. The founders and advocates of this movement were largely concerned with church growth as produced by evangelism, and they unhitched church structure from the rig. As a consequence, discipleship all but vanished; unlike generations before that had gone to “community churches” that were small, yet intimate, a new generation emerged that preferred large, impersonal church systems that enabled mass attendance but not disciple making.

In Jurassic Park, chaos theorist Dr. Malcolm observed that, often, innovation in form overtakes sustainability in function, remarking, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”6 Ever the realist, Malcolm also quipped, “Change is like death. You don’t know what it looks like until you’re standing at the gates.” Proven by church history, what was produced from this shifting of gears was a church that exhibited, according to Jim Packard, “a faith 3,000 miles wide, but 1 inch deep.”7 Science only establishes the veracity of a theory after experimentation demonstrates it to be reproducible and predictable. Statistics demonstrate that our “scientific theory” of church planting based on results no longer produces the results from the church growth movement of the ’80s and ’90s. In any scientific experiment the environmental conditions must be right, and what worked during the age of modernism petered out over the advent of postmodernism.

Churches operating in the church growth paradigm are reported by denominational  leaders to be over 90 percent in decline. Rather than attempting to reproduce the effects of the church growth movement, leaders should be seeking to reproduce the predictable results of implementing first-century practices. Without first-century practices, we will never witness first-century results.


 [1] Sam Chan, Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 187.

[2] Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 22–23.

[3] Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Survey: Non-Attendees Find Faith Outside Church,” USA Today, January 23, 2008.

[4] Peyton Jones, Church Zero (Colorado Springs: Cook, 2013), 177–79.

[5] Rick Warren quotation taken from Gene Wilson and Craig Ott, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principals and Best Practices for Multiplication (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), vii. 

[6] John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2000), chapter 3, Journal Entry Monday, 1.

[7] Alan J. Roxburgh, Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 21. 

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