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.
Chris Turner, Media Relations Manager
chris.turner @ lifeway.com
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