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LifeWay Research Study Reveals Church Planting in U.S. is Bigger Than Previously Realized


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Nashville, Tenn. (Vocus) November 15, 2007

Denominational growth in America has reached a plateau and in many cases has declined, but one would get the wrong idea to think the evangelical church is dying in the United States. A recent study finds just the opposite.

Dallas-based Leadership Network, in cooperation with the director of LifeWay Research , has uncovered striking changes in the number and type of new churches started in the United States. These developments promise profound cultural implications for the future.

“While much of the North American church is in decline, a surprising number and increasingly diverse group of new churches are being started in innovative ways,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. “These churches are causing many Americans to reconsider churches they have rejected and to re-think what church is. I anticipate that as cultures change, through the inevitable shift of time, migration, and other means, even more churches will be born that reach people from these new cultural contexts.”

The “State of Church Planting USA” study was based on interviews with more than 100 denominational leaders (representing dozens of different denominations), 200 church-planting churches and some 45 church planting networks (The four-part study including a podcast can be downloaded at www.leadnet.org/churchplanting). Stetzer headed up the project and reported that the results surprised him in many respects.

“Church planting has grown in its scope, diversity and impact,” Stetzer said. “North American churches, networks and denominations are making church planting a growing priority. Such emphases push the church closer toward a movement – where churches plant churches that plant churches across North America and the world.”

Dave Travis, managing director at Leadership Network, observed, “Most church-planting studies tend to look at either a very narrow slice of church planting or developments on a global scale. In commissioning this study, our goal was to review the current state of U.S. church-planting efforts and begin to assess what today’s reality means for the next generation of planters.”

Key findings of the six-months-long effort include the following:

1.    Interest is growing rapidly. The pace of church planting has accelerated dramatically in recent years. For example, a simple Google search on the term “church planting” now returns over one million hits. And, while only two mainstream books were published on church planting from 1996 to 2002, no fewer than 10 have been released in the last five years, with several more on the horizon. Equally important, church planting has now become a preferred ministry option, not a consolation prize – denominations and individual churches report that many of their “best and brightest” leaders are pursuing church planting as a primary ministry focus.

2.    Local churches and church planting networks are driving the charge. Historically, church planting has been a denominationally driven activity. Today, the picture is quite different – with much of the energy centered at the local level. Many of the country’s most vibrant congregations see church planting as one of their central purposes. “Church-planting networks” – loose affiliations of churches that may or may not be tied by denomination but do share a commitment to launching new, like-minded congregations – are also at the forefront of the movement. As a result, denominational offices are increasingly taking a subordinate role – equipping rather than directing local congregational efforts.

3.    “Affinity” strategies dominate. Church planters once based their efforts on geography – the goal was to place new churches in “unserved” communities and areas. Today’s church planters are much more sophisticated. As Travis noted, “Through this study, we learned that most successful church planters today are specialists who emphasize a particular style of worship or a specific demographic. For example, they may exclusively plant house churches or ethnic churches – or perhaps build purpose-driven, seeker or missional churches. And the trend toward specialization is likely to continue as more tools and resources that serve specific types of planting strategies are developed.”

4.    Survival and success are markedly greater than realized. Observers have long assumed that most church plants fail within the first year – as many as 80-90 percent, by some estimates. Research reveals a very different picture – suggesting that 68 percent of the roughly 4,000 churches planted each year are still functioning four years later. These baby churches may not yet be self-sufficient, but the congregations themselves are alive and many are thriving.

What do these results mean for the future of the U.S. church? According to Travis, “I am hopeful that this study and the growing number of outstanding church planting conferences and resources will inspire a new wave of planters in the years ahead. That would be very good news indeed. Launching vibrant new congregations is often a more feasible and more fruitful strategy than attempting to revitalize struggling congregations.”

Leadership Network has created four free reports that summarize different aspects of this groundbreaking study:

    Church Planting Overview
    Who Starts New Churches?
    Funding New Churches
    Improving the Health and Survivability of New Churches

All can be downloaded at www.leadnet.org/churchplanting. A 25-minute podcast interview of Dave Travis and Ed Stetzer is also available as a free download at www.leadnet.org/podcasts.

About LifeWay Research: LifeWay Research is a department of LifeWay Christian Resources and exists for the purpose of assisting and equipping church leaders with insight and advice that will lead to greater levels of church health and effectiveness. Additional studies can be found at www.lifewayresearch.com. Contact Chris Turner, media relations manager, LifeWay Christian Resources, to arrange an interview with Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research.

About Leadership Network: Based in Dallas, Texas, Leadership Network is a non-profit public charity that fosters church innovation and growth in furtherance of its far-reaching mission to identify, connect and help high-capacity Christian leaders multiply their impact. Church planting is one of many areas in which the organization works. For more on Leadership Network, see www.leadnet.org , www.halftime.org and www.successtosignificance.com or contact Rick Long at 1.800.477.6698 x102 or rlong @ sourcepub.com.

CONTACT:

Chris Turner, Media Relations Manager

chris.turner @ lifeway.com

(615) 251-2307

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Interview: LifeWay Southern Baptist teacher David Francis about Sunday school, the strong program, by Peter Menkin

Interview: LifeWay Southern Baptist teacher David Francis about Sunday school, the strong program, by Peter Menkin

In a letter via email, LifeWay’s David Francis, Director, Sunday school, Discipleship, Church & Network Partnerships, LifeWay Church Resources, supplies a response to this writer’s inquiry regarding Southern Baptists, the Sunday School Church.   He responds in part to questions asked of Sharon Ely Pearson of the Episcopal Church in her earlier interview. The answers themselves provide a context for his statement. But note his email carries this quotation: “As God works through us . . . We will help people–through churches–know Jesus Christ and seek His Kingdom by providing biblical solutions that spiritually transform individuals and cultures.”   The questions with answers are found below this email letter, an informative and full reply that has the mark of inspiration and spontaneity:   The email letter: Sunday school remains a strong program of ministry in Southern Baptist churches. On a typical Sunday in our denomination, about 6 million people will gather for worship in SBC congregations. About 4 million will attend Sunday school, or two out of three worshipers. My estimate is that these folks will attend one of more than 400,000 Sunday school classes. Well over half of those who attend one of these classes, typically meeting on Sunday mornings before or after a worship service, will be adults.

In an analysis I conducted with Eric Geiger, co-author with LifeWay President Thom Rainer of the popular book Simple Church, we found that in a sample of the SBC’s most vibrant churches, over 87% operated Sunday school–or its functional equivalent by another name–as the critical “second step” in their church’s discipleship process. 50% of these groups simply called the program “Sunday School.” The rest used a different term, although I would agree with one of the comments made in response to the Episcopalian article that most of the folks still just call it “Sunday School” regardless of any new, official, cool name!

The other 12.5%? Those churches’ primary “Step 2” strategy was off-campus small groups–at least for the adults. This is a shift in Southern Baptist church practice, to be sure. Nevertheless, Sunday school remains very strong.

In terms of broader “faith formation,” the term preferred by your Episcopal source, Sharon Ely Pearson, Southern Baptist churches have traditionally operated another program ministry to help members grow more deeply in their faith, defend its doctrines, and equip themselves for ministry and missions.   This program is typically called “Discipleship” or “Discipleship Training.” That name has evolved more than “Sunday School.” It was originally “Baptist Young People’s Union,” then “Training Union,” then “Church Training,” then “Discipleship Training,” and now typically just “Discipleship” or some name that includes the word, such as “University of Discipleship.”   Typically, the occasion for “Discipleship” offers a variety of elective options. That occasion has typically been on Sunday evenings, before an evening service. In some churches, the occasion is Wednesday evenings. In others, these elective courses are offered at various times throughout the week.   The important thing to note is that in terms of “faith formation,” this program ministry represents sort of a “third step” in a discipleship process where worship attendance is step 1 and a Sunday school class or small group is step 2. Hope that makes sense! Or provides you some ammo for a probing question!

Part of our assignment at LifeWay is to provide curriculum materials for both Sunday school and Discipleship groups. Our full name is LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, and we are governed by a Board elected by the convention, and are therefore an SBC entity. We enjoy a broad base of customers from many denominations, however.   LifeWay also operates a chain of LifeWay Christian Stores and produces Bibles and trade books through our B&H Publishing Division, along with the products and services offered through the division where I work, LifeWay Church Resources.       The Interview: Is salvation individual, and if it is how the congregational or Church experience does enter into the experience and faith formation process? In what way does LifeWay introduce a concept of individual salvation and the salvation of the congregation and Church?

Salvation is individual for Baptists over against a “covenant” understanding of salvation held by those in some faith walks (such as the Presbyterian Church in which I was raised!). Here is a link to the article on “Salvation” from the Baptist Faith & Message, a statement generally agreed to (but not a creed that is binding on) by Southern Baptists.Jerry Vogel, Director of Childhood Ministry Publishing at LifeWay, wrote: “Salvation is definitely an individual response/decision. The church experience for children should include some type of small group learning experience. LifeWay resources begin at birth to lay the foundation upon which God’s Spirit can work and draw each child unto Himself in a personal relationship.    These concepts from birth through Preteen are represented in our Levels of Biblical Learning document showing the natural progression of learning precept upon precept by children. Significant adults in the church congregation provide the environment of unconditional love and trust building needed for children to begin their faith journey.   A well-planned scope and sequence provided in LifeWay childhood resources (continued throughout all of LifeSpan, providing foundations for salvation for all focus age groups beyond childhood) helps guide teachers along a balanced journey of creating learning environments for children to “hear, know and do” God’s Word.)”

Note: The Levels of Biblical Learning document Vogel refers to is quite impressive, and is a great visual depiction of how LifeWay approaches 10 basic biblical concepts from a developmental view.  

Together, these documents illustrate our approach to “Faith Development.” We have similar guidelines that guide our approach to students (youth) and adults:

How is Sunday school Christian oriented? That is student and teacher?

Sunday school teachers must be Christians. The students need not be. That includes adults. We promote Sunday school as “open groups practicing open enrollment.”   I have coined a five-word definition of an open group: “Expects new people every week.” An open group is an intentional mixture of believers and unbelievers, Baptists and non-Baptists, veteran and “rookie” church-goers. In fact, any person can enroll in any Sunday school class at any time, without making any obligation–to become a church member or even a Christ follower.   The way I say it is “Enrolling in Sunday School does not make you a church member or obligate you to become one.” I also have a five-word definition of this concept of “open enrollment:” You can belong before you believe.” Even if you never choose to believe. These principles are two of the distinctive of how Sunday school is practiced in many Southern Baptist churches.

What new directions are taken with students, re previous decades? Please speak to the new wave experience of Cell Groups.

I actually “debated” LifeWay’s small groups specialist, Rick Howerton, in a live on-line format recently on the topic “Sunday School vs. Small Groups.”
The number one challenge for the small group movement is the question, “What do you do with the kids?” Or, more seriously, at least from the standpoint of faith development, “What do you do meaningfully with the kids?” LifeWay has a brand new resource, Small Group Life that attempts to address that question.   In addition to inexpensive Bible study guides for each participant, who are flexible enough to be used either every week or every other week, free online helps are available for Bible-centered activities with the kids–written in such a way that a teenager can execute the plans–that connect conceptually to the material being studied by the parents. Samples available here. 

Does praise of God enter into the equation of Sunday school? What component does this hold in the formal Curriculum?

Music has historically been an important element of Southern Baptist Sunday Schools. Back in the pioneer days of the Sunday school movement, when Sunday Schools met many places where there was no organized church or formal worship/preaching experience, Sunday Schools conducted “opening assemblies,” where participants gathered together before going to their individual age-group classes. Singing was an important part of this “general assembly.”   Fewer and fewer churches continue this practice today, but some do. In terms of curriculum, all of LifeWay’s Sunday school materials for preschoolers and students include music as an important element. Preschool music is available as a separate resource, a CD-ROM that includes additional teaching materials as well as music.   My wife and I teach pre-K kids in our church. Yesterday, we began a unit on prayer. I put the CD in the player and set it to repeat a song about thanking God. After hearing it all morning, the kids were ready to sing it when we gathered for “large group time” to hear the Bible story. In LifeWay’s curriculum materials for elementary children, the music CD is included in the Leader Pack. Words to all songs on the CDs are printed in the back of the leader guides. LifeWay’s innovative curriculum for youth, KNOWN, includes an mp3 playlist: 

Music as well as serial dramas are a feature of LifeWay’s DVD-driven youth curriculum, called Fuel.