In my research role, I’m always taking in data and observing practices and trying to note patterns and trends. This is challenging and fun at the same time. I also see it as informational, as noting trends helps churches and Christians see what is current, what practices are working or not working, what we are dealing with, where we are and where we are headed.
Thom Rainer has stated, “Trend prediction is both an art and a science.” The science is the data and the art is the practice. And by putting the two together we can see current trends and predict future movement.
With culture seemingly changing at the speed of light, church planters (and those who train and support them) cannot be over-aware of the trends new churches will face. Here are five things we are seeing now and will continue to see as we move further along in 21st-century, post-Christian America.
Each trend has a brief caution—not to indicate that I do not affirm the trend, but to acknowledge possible unintended side effects.
1. Becoming More Technical and Strategic
When I planted my first church in Buffalo, New York, there were no church-planting assessments for me to take or boot camps for me to attend. In fact, not many resources were available for church planters. But that has certainly changed over the past 25 years.
Now there are myriads of books, articles, websites, networks, associations and denominations putting out information on church planting. If you plan on planting through a network, association and/or denomination you must prepare yourself to be assessed, trained, coached and mentored. I am grateful for the strides many have made to invest in church planters and help prepare them for the challenges that they will face. However, I have two particular cautions associated with this trend.
First, “A horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory comes from the Lord” (Prov. 21:31).
Church planting is a spiritual endeavor, not just a technical one. The techniques and strategies that go into preparing and training one to plant are only tools and principles that are meant to equip and aid a church planter; they are not meant to be an idol or a savior.
Second, people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (2 Sam. 16:7, paraphrased).
Assessments are great tools to indicate one’s skill set and giftedness, but they should not be the spiritual litmus test of whether or not one has the call of God on their life to plant a church. There are biblical qualifications and a spiritual call that both matter.
2. Becoming More Urban
It’s not a secret anymore that people are moving to cities. And the migration to cities has led to an urban church-planting mission’s strategy among many evangelicals. In my own denomination, NAMB (North American Mission Board) has launched a SEND strategy, targeting key cities throughout North America to concentrate its church-planting efforts.
Tim Keller is also a big proponent of targeting cities with the gospel through church planting. As a result, Redeemer City to City was created as a missions arm to facilitate church-planting efforts throughout the cities of the world. When it comes to evangelicals being urban-centric in their missional focus, the thinking goes like this, “Reach the cities, reach the world; reach the cities, influence culture.”
I fully believe in this strategy and actively support it. The only exhortation I would offer is not to be so urban focused that gospel church planting is suctioned out of smaller cities, towns and communities. There are still areas outside of major urban centers that are in desperate need of new church plants and church revitalizations.
There is no reason to be either/or on this issue. It’s both/and. I’ll be sharing more about rural church planting in an upcoming post; just know I also fully support prioritizing urban centers.
3. Becoming More Modular
Just as there are different styles of preaching, such as expository and topical, there are also different styles or methods for church planting. Check this series where I outlined five common models of church planting.
Since there are various models to choose from—models that are accompanied with their own resources, proponents, books, conferences, strengths and weaknesses—church planters have the option of choosing the one that best suits their style, giftedness, context and resources.
One of the cautions we must keep in mind with regard to models is that they too are only a tool, not something to place one’s hope in.
4. Becoming more Bivocational
A challenge that has always existed in planting churches is resources, or the lack thereof. This challenge existed in the Apostle Paul’s ministry, and it continues to exist today. Many church plants and planters are vocational, which means they are funded by a denomination or network (or both) and personal support. However, in recent years the need for a planter to be bivocational, or a tentmaker, has increased.