How Church Plants Have Drifted From an Evangelistic Focus

Is church planting still the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven?

I’ve been planting churches since 1988. My first church was planted in the inner city of Buffalo, New York, among the urban poor. I worked bi-vocationally as an insulation contractor and planted the church on the weekends. I was 21 years old and didn’t know what I was doing, but God worked through it all.

The church planting world has changed substantially since then.

In 1988, church planting in most denominations was driven by people who couldn’t find another ministry job. Since they couldn’t find a place to work, they went out and tried church planting. There were a few denominations that were exceptions, but on the whole most denominations operated in that way.

Over the years, church planting has in many ways become the preferred ministry venture for many of our most entrepreneurial leaders. This preference for church planting is a significant change from just a few decades ago.

This kind of church planting emphasis has largely been concentrated inside of evangelicalism because entrepreneurial leadership has not often been welcomed or engaged inside mainline Protestantism, both for structural and theological reasons.

But as church planting has shifted into this pattern, denominations that did not welcome the entrepreneurial leader have struggled with engaging in the church planting shift.

A Brief History

About a decade ago, for a research project, I read every book in the English language published on church planting since the mid-1950s. I’m not the final authority on all things church planting, but I do know a good amount about the history.

Before the late 1980s and mid-1990s, for the most part churches planted churches, rather than entrepreneurial individuals. When there was a need for a church in some area of the county, a church somewhere else would send out a group of its members to start another of those churches where there was a need.

For example, if the Assemblies of God thought, “We need a new church on this side of the country,” then an Assemblies of God church from a nearby town would be engaged to send out some people and a church plant would be created in the area that needed it.

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However, there was a significant shift in the 1980s (that was fully implemented in the 1990s) to a systems approach, focused on the church planter, in church planting. Churches were shifted from the front seat to the back seat, individuals were empowered, and often denominations and networks took their place at the steering wheel.

Denominations and networks would create systems to raise up and deploy entrepreneurial planters.

From the mid-1990s onwards, the entrepreneurial planter has reigned supreme. The created systems define how a church planter should operate and churches are often in the back seat. Over the years in this system, we have gotten very good at church planting. We have built church planting systems that eventually have become an industry.

If you have asked me in 1988 what the industry of church planting is, I would have told you “There is no industry of church planting.”

But that’s not true today. Today, there is a remarkably robust industry of church planting.

The Industry of Church Planting

The fact that there is an industry of church planting bothers some people. They see it as sinful. I think it’s just normative, which mean it can be sinful, but may also be helpful. However, I do think there are things to remember.

Capitalism has come into our church planting endeavors. Since there was a need, businesses started to appear.

For example, we have Portable Church Industries or Church in a Box now. We have companies that make tools to help you manage your church plants. Businesses will take care of a church plant’s marketing and advertising.

For better or for worse (probably for better AND for worse), church planting has become a multi-million-dollar business.

When this large of a business comes along, it exists and creates in order to make things more effect and efficient. And it has.

There are far more tools for effective and efficient church planting around than there were in 1988. But the end result is we have found ourselves locked into some unfortunate realities.

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In other words, turning church planting into a business has some unintended, but probably predictable, problems. I could list many of them, and I would not be surpised to see some others opine on this article and do just that.

But, either way, there is truth to the fact that:

“The gospel came to the Greeks, and the Greeks turned it into a philosophy.
The gospel came to the Romans, and the Romans turned it into a system.
The gospel came to the Europeans, and the Europeans turned it into a culture.
The gospel came to America, and the Americans turned it into a business.”
(unknown source)

Unintended Evangelistic Consequences

So, yes, much could be said here, but I will focus on the evangelistic issue.

Several years ago, our research found that church plants are getting larger and growing faster, and yet are simultaneously reaching less people for Christ. As the economic community has come along and capitalism has entered into our church planting ventures, we’ve become better at gathering a crowd.

But perhaps we have relied on that too much.

We’ve grown too comfortable. Our church planting capacity has grown, but our evangelistic impact has not. We haven’t been reaching more and more new people with the gospel. The evangelism impact is actually declining.

The danger is here that some who oppose church planting may jump on this reality. I will point out that church plants are still far more evangelistically effective than established churches. (And I’m for more evangelistcally effective established churches, so let’s not get distracted by that.)

My point is this:

Peter Wagner is widely quoted as saying that church planting is the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven.

It is—if it is intentionally evangelistic.

Church planting leaders and church planters need to ask (and answer): How do we make evangelism at the heart of the church planting endeavor?

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer is the editor-in-chief of Outreach magazine, host of the Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast, and a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He currently serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Naperville, Illinois.

He is also regional director for Lausanne North America, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by and writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. He is the founding editor of The Gospel Project, and his national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.