Since the last nationwide study of U.S. church plants released in 2007, church-planting leaders have had to help their new church planters navigate constant changes in technology and communication shifts in the American culture. However, in light of all the possible trends they could have asked us to explore in our 2015 research project, the most common request we heard from them was: What is happening in our churches? (This study looked at 843 church plants that were started later than 2008 and were still in existence at the time of the study.)
Even with church planting gaining in popularity and available resources, denomination and network experts across the U.S., Canada and Australia describe an uneasiness about what kind of life transformation is happening behind the large launches and increases in worship attendance. So, in addition to asking about attendance numbers, we asked planters to tell us more about who those attendees were.
First, we asked planters to estimate what percentage of their people were: (1) completely unchurched prior to their involvement with the church plant; (2) unchurched for many years; (3) part of other existing churches (transfer growth): (4) born into the church plant (biological growth).
Only about one-third of surveyed church plants had a majority of the congregation who had been completely unchurched or had been unchurched for many years. The church plants that were being intentionally evangelistic on an ongoing basis were much more likely to have a majority-unchurched congregation. Even among church plants, quite a few indicated minimal evangelistic activity since their launch.
Next, we asked about new commitments to Christ. Churches vary widely in how they describe “decisions” their members make (e.g., professions of faith, recommitments, baptisms, conversions, confirmations, etc.). Avoiding labels altogether, the survey asked planters to estimate (for each year) the number of “new, first-time commitments to Jesus Christ through your new church work since it began.”
The results show that church plants reporting higher numbers of new commitments to Christ each year are those that:
1. Prioritize both a public and a digital church presence.
2. Emphasize strategic outreach after the launch.
3. Invest in their leadership pipeline among members.
4. Regularly communicate the vision and commitment to plant a daughter church.
However, across all plants, the average number of new commitments per year begins to taper off after year three. In the first year of a church plant, it takes, on average, 12 weekly attendees for each new commitment to Christ (a ratio of 12-to-1). Unfortunately, the number of weekly attendees for each new commitment to Christ increases each year, with a ratio of 13-to-1 in year 2, 15-to-1 in year 3, and 18-to-1 in year 4.
In the midst of celebrating all of the good and exciting work happening in church plants, the sobering reality from the survey is that two-thirds of the church plants have mostly connected with people who were already a part of a church and, overall, church plants are decreasing in evangelical effectiveness with each year they are in existence.
Lizette Beard is project manager for Lifeway Research.