Church Plants and Missions: Factors that Affect Success

We need to talk some about church plants. You see, the denominations that are growing the fastest are the denominations planting churches. In fact, back when the Churches of Christ were growing rapidly, we were planting churches (sometimes on purpose; sometimes by splitting). But church planting has dramatically changed from those days, and what worked then won’t work now. We need to learn some new skills.

For the last several years, the independent Christian Churches have been the fastest growing American Protestant denomination — and they are just like the Churches of Christ except they allow instrumental music, cooperate through societies, and plant lots and lots of churches. They baptize believers by immersion, they are led by elders, and they take weekly communion.

We have to start by defining “church plant.” When I was younger, a church plant was accomplished by cleaving off about 100 members from a larger congregation to form a clone of the mother church in a part of town that needed a church because that’s where people were moving to. That’s not what is meant by the term today.

Back in the 1970s, the Churches of Christ experienced the “Exodus Movement.” The idea was to get several core families from a handful of churches to move to an area needing a Church of Christ and found a new church there. The new church would look just like the planting churches. And many of these churches have been successful, although they tend to become refuges for Southerners moving north or west and looking for a familiar church home. Few have been particularly successful at evangelism.

The current model is radically different. The idea is to start small — maybe fewer than 20 people — and build a congregation that reflects the community it’s in. It will not necessarily look like the mother church at all. The members may be ethnically different. They may be much poorer. They may be younger or more single or more racially diverse. But they will look like their community.

Now, church planting is not new, but successful evangelistic church planting is. It used to be that the survival rate was maybe 10%. But missiologists have studied the churches that succeeded and the churches that failed and figured out what works. The success is now dramatically higher — approaching 80% when they are properly prepared and supported in their work.

This is from “Church Plant Survivability and Health Study: 2007 Best Practices,” by Ed Stetzer and Phillip Connor of the Center for Missional Research, North American Mission Board. They studied plants by several different denominations to see what practices really work. Here’s what they learned.

Member Commitment

Those [Baptist General Conference] church plants having a new member class AND a stewardship plan nearly double their annual baptisms while the BGC church plants that did not employ these strategies did not realize such an increase in baptisms.

A statistically significant factor for higher attendance and baptisms among the Evangelical Free Church of America was the use of a church covenant for new members. Within the EFCA church plants alone, mean annual church plant attendance nearly doubles for those EFCA church plants that use a church covenant over those EFCA church plants that did not use this church strengthening strategy.

Asking more of the members produces dramatically better results! Who’d’ve thunk?

Leader Accountability

For instance, Foursquare church planters who met monthly with a church planting supervisor or mentor saw a dramatic increase in church plant baptisms over those Foursquare church planters who did not meet monthly with these individuals. In fact, the increase in annual number of baptisms is around 150 percent during years 1 and 2, and much higher in year 3. When adding in the monthly meeting of a church planter peer group, Foursquare church plant attendance soars far above those Foursquare church planters who did not engage in a similar supervision/peer/mentoring system.

Public Proclamation

When comparing Southern Baptist church plants that met in a school and used mailers to Southern Baptist church plants that did not, mean annual church plant attendance is much higher for the former group. In fact, the increase in church plant attendance approaches 100 percent for most years.

Full-time Leadership

Depending on the church plant year, the Assembly of God church plants whose church planters were full-time, received medical insurance, and felt their compensation was adequate were 4 to 5 times greater in their church plant attendance compared to those Assembly of God church plants without these characteristics present among their church planters.

Public Ministry

There are many indicators for public ministry to perceived needs within the community; however, the mid-week children’s program and block party factors in Assemblies of God church plants were among the statistically significant factors for higher than average baptisms. Mean annual baptisms in Assemblies of God church plants nearly triple when they conduct mid-week children’s programs and have block parties.

Leadership Assessment

Many denominations employ church planting assessment programs for their church planters; however, it is only Presbyterian Church of America church plants who saw a statistically significant difference in church plant attendance when their planters were assessed. In fact, this factor was PCA’s most significant factor for higher church plant attendance.

Full Staffing

Many church plants begin with a fully staffed church planting team prior to the launch of the church plant. Such a church planting team is sometimes compensated financially by resources exterior to the church plant itself. This strategy or system appears to be significantly associated with higher than average attendance among Evangelical Free Church of America church plants. [T]he presence of this staff team system increases church plant attendance among EFCA church plants twofold in year 1 and nearly fourfold by year 3 compared to EFCA church plants not employing this strategy.

Leadership Experience

Church planters start churches with a varied level of experience; however, it appears that church planters with previous experience as part of a church planting team are more effective in growing a church plant. … [T]hose with church planting team experience prior to the launch of the new church plant nearly double their baptisms each year as compared to those without this experience. [C]hurch plant attendance is also twice than that of LN [Leadership Network] church planters with team experience as compared to those LN church planters without such experience.

Now, this is not a magic formula. The shape and methods of a church plant will vary with the location and talents of the plant team. But it’s obvious that some elements matter and matter a lot.

For now, I leave you with this thought: if these are the factors that work in church plants, often beginning with fewer than 20 people, wouldn’t these also be the factors that work in an established congregation? Go through the list and ask: which of these methods are being used at your own congregation — and what might happen if they were tried? Just a thought …

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6 Responses

  1. In my work with Herald of Truth, I visit Cuba a couple of times a year. We especially work with one congregation. This congregation has planted about 20 others since February 2006. They average about 200 baptisms per year.

    They work small towns around their city. They choose a town and begin praying for that town. They ask members to identify individuals they know in that city and also to ask others they know for contacts in that city. Bible studies are established. When the first person is converted, they are told that there will be an assembly of the church in their home the following Sunday. As my friend Tony puts it, “Nobody ever wants to be alone there. They always gather friends and relatives.”

    Surely such outreach isn’t limited to other countries! I think God can help us plant churches everywhere.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. I do believe many of the same “methods” present in successful church plants of 20 members could also be effective when adopted within larger congregations. I think a difficulty, though, is that a church plant has the benefit of many of those attitudes being fundamentally and intrinsically present within those communities of faith. And in many of the already existing congregations we would be attempting to create or adopt these ideas, rather than having them already present in the structural DNA of that group of believers.

    On a slightly different subject, David Watson and CityTeam MInistries, in an effort to aid in church planting around the world, have also come up with a list of what they call “Critical Elements of a Church Planting Movement.” They are constantly monitoring movements to keep tabs on which elements are actually present in each successful (their definition) CPM. Therefore the list seems to be somewhat fluid; the link I provide below gives 20 elements, though I believe I heard 21 at the conference I attended in Rwanda.

    http://www.davidlwatson.org/2008/04/04/church-planting-essentials-critical-elements/

  3. Let me share this thought. Please, I am not being hateful with this idea, so I hope I do not come across that way. I am looking at this from the standpoint of special teams doing special projects.

    In most churches I have seen, there are what I’ll call “healthy” people. This is not just physical health, although that may be a part. This includes mental, spiritual, etc. health. The healthy give their resources to the congregation (time, talent, money, etc.). And their are also “unhealthy” people who require the time, talent, money, etc. of others in the congregation.

    As I read it, church plants send a group of healthy people to an area to start a new congregation and it works well. However, as I see it, given the absence of the unhealthy, the healthy can succeed at almost any ministry. If we pick a team of all-stars, train them, support them spiritually, physically, emotionally, keep them together, give them a united purpose – what wouldn’t work?

    A regular congregation isn’t such a team of all-stars, so I don’t think these practices can be applied in a regular congregation.

  4. James,

    Thanks for the link. It’s good stuff.

  5. Dwayne,

    Actually, many church plants plant daughter churches within 5 years. Their converts are healthy enough that they can continue to grow and even plant other churches. I guess the plants avoid creating a lot of unhealthy members.

    Our problem is we coddle the unhealthy to the point of letting them run the church. The solution? Stop doing it — and run the church for Jesus. Even big churches can do that. They just need to do it gently and with great patience — and even greater persistence.

  6. “We coddle the unhealthy to the point of letting them run the church.”

    Indeed!

    I’ve been chewing on Organic Church by Neil Cole (at Patrick Mead’s recommendation). He suggests that a couple important factors are 1) getting converts involved in ministry immediately — they received the Holy Spirit from God! how badly do they need our curricula and brilliant training? and 2) accepting the truth of the parable of the seed/soils — stop wasting time trying to make bad soil good and get back in the business of spreading good seed.

    #2 is especially hard, but like I said, I’m wrestling with it.

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