In 2010, I co-planted a church with a few other men in the Wylie, Texas area outside of Dallas/Fort Worth. For the last two years, I’ve been part of a church that has planted churches in places like downtown Fort Worth. The question is often asked, “Why are you wasting your time planting a church in the Bible Belt?” This question was usually followed up with two common concerns:
- There are already enough churches in DFW, and planting more will simply water down the congregations of existing area churches.
- We need to revitalize all of the struggling churches first, and then worry about planting new ones.
While both critiques have validity, I would answer these concerns in a few ways.
1. Jesus Commanded Us to Make Disciples
We should never say that existing churches are not making disciples, or that revitalization is not needed. This is a common mistake made by those who like the excitement of a new start, or by others who simply don’t want to deal with the grind of working through tough situations. In fact, the second point of this article proves in some regard that revitalization is equally necessary. Revitalization needs to be a fad, too! But the point is that revitalizing and planting are both needed in any context.
Even with healthy, growing churches making disciples, planting a new church puts even more organized feet on the ground in the given context. There can never be enough groups sharing the gospel and living evangelistic lives in any area of the world. Disciples make disciples who make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20), and the higher percentage of disciples living out God’s mission, the higher percentage of opportunities and manpower to spread the gospel. Moreover, beautiful stories like Nathan Lino’s church in Houston and several stories shared with Ed Stetzer sometime ago show that new converts are especially reached by new churches trying new methods.
2. Christianity’s Troubles in the U.S.
People in the Bible Belt are often inoculated to the fact that most people call themselves Christians in this area. The tendency is to disregard whether or not these people simply associate with Christian ideals, or whether they are true followers of Christ. For the first time, a report has claimed that Protestants are the minority religious group in America. Ed Stetzer argues that this stat is a little skewed, arguing that it’s more likely that “cultural Christianity” is on the decline. In any event, we’re seeing that there is a dire need for more disciple-making in our context. Planting churches is an integral part of seeing this occur.
This also means that concerns about “sheep-stealing” must take a backseat to concerns about the lost and the nominal. When a church is planted, we see a few people walk out the back doors of their local church into the front doors of the new kid on the block. It is unfortunate that Christians hop from one congregation to the next, but it’s far more terrifying to know that so many local churches exist and that the Christian population (however it’s statistically defined) is still shrinking. We must continue to place feet on the ground in every context, unleashing gospel soldiers into the battlefield.
3. Church Growth in the New Testament
It’s helpful to look to the New Testament for answers regarding church ministry. Of course, contexts change and methods can be adapted, but there are some principles that do not change. For one, post-Resurrection Christians did not seem satisfied or content with a few local church communities living on mission.
The rebuttal might be that church planting was more necessary in the New Testament era because churches simply did not exist yet. Fair point, but this does not change the fact that Paul spent his entire ministry planting churches and did not stop at some point and say, “Welp, we’ve got some in this region… let’s hope for the best.” No, he ordered that elders be appointed in every town (Tit. 1:5) and was not satisfied with a few people in each town knowing Jesus (Acts 19:10). He was also clear about leaders being raised up to teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). Jesus’s words are still true today, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matt. 9:37).
What Shall We Say Then?
I worked for a 130-year old Baptist church in East Texas that had hit plateaus and valleys numerically for its entire existence, but by all accounts had never been over 200 regularly active members. Does this mean that the church is a failure? Absolutely not! I ministered to and with some of the godliest people I have ever met at that church. What is disturbing is the fact that even in that tiny town, the most established, city-seat church was still not reaching every person in the area.
I often wondered how much more gospel impact could be made if there were just one or two other churches with different models and diverse leaders. Our Jesus is the same, but not everyone comes to him in identical ways. There is room in every context for multiple churches, using several models, all proclaiming the unmatched name of Christ.
The Barna Group says that 3,500-4,000 local churches close their doors every year. If we never plant new churches, we may witness even further troubling numbers. Every church in existence was planted, and every church has its own niche in the bigger story of God. May we never stop until every ear has heard the name of Jesus.
Brandon D. Smith serves in leadership at Criswell College, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He recently edited the book Make, Mature, Multiply: Becoming Fully-formed Disciples of Jesus and is Associate Editor of the Criswell Theological Review. Follow him on Twitter.