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Missionaries or Church Planters…or both?!

January 10, 2008

A discussion started in response to my posting to church planters in Natomas. I pondered for several days whether to answer in a response, or to bring the discussion back to the main board. For those still reading down to response #29, I will add #30 to some minor issues brought up that I won’t deal with here. But because most people stop reading after a couple of responses, there was one issue that I want to bring back here for discussion and my take on matters.

All I am about to say is cloaked in generalities. I cannot say it is true everywhere, or that there are not notable (and laudable) exceptions. However, there are statistics at the academic level that back up some pretty interesting conclusions about missions and church planting. Before making my own particular viewpoint known, let me just summarize some of the findings in recent years about the growth of the church worldwide and in the United States. And no, I am not going to take time right now to go get out all the books and articles to back up everything. Either believe me or don’t (or do the research yourself).

1. The church outside of the U.S. doesn’t need us as much as it used to. Most overseas (or Third World, Developing World, Flat World, depending on what paradigm you use to describe them) National Churches do not need our evangelism tools, our leadership skills or our theological knowledge as much as they used to. In fact, most overseas churches are usually only asking for money. I am not going to speculate on why that is other than we are the richest nation in the world and perhaps that puts us in a position to help them during this season of the church’s existence. Perhaps that is why the Lord allowed the U.S. to acquire wealth…so the church worldwide could be supported.

2. North American Missions boards are reassigning multicultural workers to North America regularly now: With the exception of Wycliffe Bible Translators and New Tribes Missions (and perhaps YWAM), most denominational boards are relocating many of their multicultural workers. The majority of these are being assigned to Middle East/Muslim countries, but are actually there under assumed assignments. (Please don’t ask me to elaborate as even the continued mention of this is dangerous for them. There are agents of these countries that do Google searches on particular words, which I have chosen to leave out of this paragraph. Let the reader be wary). The other field of re-assignment is here in North America. Cross-cultural workers are being brought home to serve their chosen ethnic group as it finds itself in the United States. Displaced ethnic groups are often much more open to the Gospel here in the U.S. than they were on their home soil. Much fruit has resulted from Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese, Burmese and Cantonese-speaking Chinese outreach programs based here in the United States.

3. Church Planting in some countries has made missions redundant completely. The organization our church is a part of, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, signs a five-year agreement with the National Church in each country we send workers from North America to. When the National Church of that country feels that the church is strong enough and large enough not to need cross-cultural workers, they do not sign the contract any more. During the past two decades, we have left Vietnam, Zaire, Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, and a greater part of the west coast of South America. In many countries in Africa and Asia, as per our contracts, our workers do mostly seminary training and virtually no church planting whatsoever. In Africa, the Independent Church Movement is planting near 300 churches a day. I have no idea what the number is in America, but it is not even close to that. The Catholic Church itself used to proudly declare that South America was a Catholic continent. The recent trips by the Pope to South Am. were made because in the last 15 years the entire population of that continent has turned to Evangelical Christianity (read many issues of Christianity Today in the past year for confirmation of this). In particular, the Charismatic brand of Christianity is growing at a rate many times that of the population in South and Central America. Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Chile are now considered “Christian” nations because the majority of the population are active participants in Bible-believing, life-giving churches. The largest church in the world is in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The two fastest growing churches in the world are in Bogota, Colombia and Santiago, Chile. Nigeria and South Korea are over 50% Christian and most government leaders are evangelicals. In South Korea, 80% of the population attends church (as opposed to 15% last Sunday in America…even in the Bible Belt).

4. The proportion of people who attend church currently is higher in rural/smaller towns than in cities. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons is that there are more churches per capita in smaller towns than there are in cities. Cost has much to do with this. The cost of land to build a church in Helena, Montana would be about $20,000/acre. In rural Kansas, it would be $2,000/acre. In Sacramento, it would be $750,000/acre. In Helena, the church would need 3 acres and the city would allow onstreet parking. In Kansas, it might take 2 acres and the neighbors could park in the field. In Sacramento, the city requires that there be one parking space for every 5.5 people attending the church. So, to build a church in Sacramento, a congregation would need to be about 500 people to afford to build a building. The parking for that amount of people would require 95 spaces. With the building and all its subsequent requirements, the building and parking lot would cost about 2-4 million dollars (depending on how nice the chandeliers are). The land requirement would be 4-5 acres. Adding up the cost of land (3 million) and the building (2 million), a congregation of 500 would need to have 5 million dollars to build. The congregation in Helena might need $800,000 (for the same size group). In San Francisco, there are no new church buildings. The cost for a 500 member congregation would be 10 million at least. That is why churches are now starting in Shoe stores in San Francisco. (There is an awesome book called “The Shaping of things to Come” that tells that story; but I digress). If there are less churches, there will be less people attending church – though it is possible that the churches will get much larger in the cities since there are fewer of them per capita.

5. Church organizations are now using the proceeds from deceased churches to fund new church plants. It is called “church recycling“. I stated in a comment that older churches rarely reach new converts. I said rarely because it does happen. An older church could be defined as more than 50 years old. Here is the statistic that Fuller Seminary and George Barna put together: 80% of new converts came to Christ through the ministry of churches less than 5 years old. Our movement of churches regularly encourages congregations of less than 20 members to consider selling their considerably valuable property, closing the church and using the proceeds to plant new churches. Gateway was a recipient of money from that kind of source when we started.

So after saying all of this, what are my conclusions? This is difficult, because it will not apply to every missions board and church planting agency. But I believe it can be done and is being done all over our country. I am just observing what I see and this is what I think is happening.

1. Because so many people are moving to cities in our nation, that is where the church planting probably needs to happen. Cities such as Seattle, New York, San Francisco and to a lesser extent, Sacramento are in need of more churches. But these churches are going to have to change their vision of what the location is going to look like. Ideas like warehouse churches (e.g. Gateway Fellowship), meeting in schools, meeting in restaurants, theaters and pubs, renting and owning existing buildings, buying older churches that are dying…even having shoe store congregations all need to be tried. In the last example, the owners of the shoe store…its pastors if you will allow…hold bible studies several times a day. The members of the congregation never get to meet the rest of the church. Some people will bristle and say that this model is not “church”, but it is working. Their weakness will, of course, be in the area of large group dynamics. But they will have the small group thing nailed.

2. Working with other organizations. Even within the same denomination, there are often four or more church plants in the same area. In Natomas, there is one denomination that has four different church plants all going at the same time. The same denomination! Another church planting organization allowed a second Natomas Church plant to start because the first one wasn’t over 1,000 members after 3 years (yes, I heard that exact quote from the new church planter). Perhaps some of the groups that are looking to start in a new area could join forces, or existing ones that are too small to make a go of it could combine. Believe me, that would be just as difficult as two restaurants or two start-up companies combining, but I know that it has been done in Seattle.

3. Lay off the suburbs so much. Church planting has absolutely inundated the suburbs until you can’t find a school without a church plant in it in California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona and Florida (notice how the warm states go first). The downtown, the urban areas, the university areas don’t see churches starting as much because those areas are much more mobile, and churches like stability to form. So how did so many come into Natomas, really an urban area? Many of the church plants in Natomas were started with the idea that this would be a “unicultural” suburb. Surprise!

4.The deciding factor for church planting organizations in where to put a church plant should probably be the “churches per capita” statistic. In Kalispell, Montana for instance, there are 125 churches in a county of 100,000 people. That is a church for every 800 people. In the state of Georgia, the figure is one church per 250 people. We have approximately 720 churches for a population of 2 million in Sacramento County. That is one church for every 2,778 people.

Therefore we don’t need less church plants in Natomas and Sacramento. They just need to be more spaced out and more strategic. And someone needs to say, “what about San Francisco”, “what about New York” and “what about Seattle and Portland”? The somebodies that might say that are those that hear the call of God. I will never say that a single church planter heard God wrong in coming to Natomas. I believe any church plant could be successful here. But we must have a unity among us or the Lord will not bring his Presence and power on all of us. I felt God tell me a number of years ago that His purpose is that we all succeed at being one as He and Jesus are one. That has not happened yet, but that is my prayer. Will you make it yours?

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9 comments

  1. Here is a great resource for the other point of view (sorry Mike, but some people do still like the rural places) over at Church Planting Village:

    http://www.churchplantingvillage.net/site/c.iiJTKZPEJpH/b.886239/k.EC9F/Town__Country_Church_Planting.htm
    This site tells about how to get churches going in small communities.


  2. I’m not sure where (or even if) it fits in one of these models but in Everett where my parents have attended an Alliance Church for 30 years and a few miles away, also in Everett was another Alliance church that was experiencing the same thing. Decline. Both churches have been around since at least the mid 50’s and the growth just wasn’t happening.

    So with the blessing and assistance of the District office, Everett Alliance and Beverly Park Alliance sold off their respective buildings and in a joint effort launched Madison Community Church.


  3. Aaron: That is one of the most encouraging things I have read in a long time. Tell your dad a big congratulations from me!


  4. Just curious, where did you get the number 720 churches for Sacramento County, and what brands/denominations of churches does that include?

    Also, it would seem to me that $800,000.00 for a church in Helena and $5,000,000.00 for a church here, is about equal. In other words, given that Sacramento has an economy with lots of wealth (and I assume Helena doesn’t), the obstacles to opening a church in both communities would seem to be about the same; wouldn’ they? I do not know much about Helena, but I can’t imagine that it has the economy and the wealth of this region.


  5. Going by the 2000 census, there were approximately 2,000,000 people in the county. The Sacramento Ministerial did a survey of members and found in 2005 there were 720 churches in Sacramento. That includes churches of all “stripes”, even churches that evangelicals would consider cults. But then, that is also true of Kalispell, the only other city whose statistic on churches I knew to be true (having lived there and knowing the ministerial president personally). The figure for Georgia comes from Christianity Today in 2005.

    Most of the statistics I use come from an article I wrote for CTI on their Opinions section in 2005 which is why I use that year. I guess I could update it, but I’m too lazy

    Also, you are right about Helena. Except that I have found that people in rural areas give a much larger portion of their income to the work of the Lord. Therefore, the onus is upon the city church to respond in kind. They usually do not. If someone has a reason why that is, I am all ears.


  6. Though your point is well taken about the wages being better in California, let me assure you that you don’t make five times as much as we do in Montana. But your land costs 5 times as much, if my sister is correct.


  7. A Wikipedia search reveals an estimated Sacramento City population (probably within the city limits) of 467,343 for 2007. A Google search of churches in Sacramento reveals a listing of 1,500 churches (probably churches of all stripes). Even so, that would be one church for every 311.5people in Sacramento. Of course, I do not know which statistics are more accurate, but I guess the actual number is somewhere between the two.

    As for rural church giving versus urban church giving, my guess is that churches in rural settings are more likely to envelop the whole person—body, mind, spirit, and wallet. In other words, there is little else going on in rural communities, so church becomes the center of human relationships. When a person is so emotionally, spiritually, and physically invested in a church, they recognize the need to make sure the church is financially sound. I think rural believers see the church as a personal living organism, not just another option.

    In the urban world, we have many diversions. And we do not get as deeply connected to people in the urban church because they might move in a year. Also, our subconscious mind knows that if our home church begins to decline or fail, there is a greater number of back-up churches where we can go. And yet, in the urban environment we like to pick a church and proudly call it “our church home.” But we do not come close to experiencing the same depth of connection to a church that many rural believers experience. Our urban loyalty is fickle, even though we might not be able to see it that way.

    Generally speaking, people come to urban environments for economic opportunities, not to simply get by. But since it costs more to live in most urban environments, people find they must work harder and longer just to scrape by; such an environment makes it difficult to be more generous with earnings. I recently read an article about believers in Africa. It noted that here in America we view time as money, but in Africa they view time as relationships. I think the time-is-money way of thinking is more prevalent in the urban environment. Unfortunately, we do not think of it as time-is-money that can be used by the church. Ironically, the rush in our lives created by the time-is-money attitude does not seem to increase our wealth or enrich the number or intensity of our relationships.

    Also, many urbanites are not looking for a deeply rooted home where they can establish a multi-generational connection to the land and its institutions (such as the church). Some are here simply because they find it more exciting than the rural setting. The intense personal struggle to remain financially in the black, the lack of connection to a place, and the multitude of church options, all conspire to prevent greater generosity of giving in the urban church (unless the church happens to be in a wealthy neighborhood).


  8. Well, I looked in the phone book today. When I eliminated duplicate listings, listings for West Sacramento, Woodland, Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln (all of whom are outside of Sacramento County), there were just under 700 churches.

    Sacramento COUNTY has 2,000,000 people. That’s what I was talking about.


  9. Mike

    In your opinion how much does a person/family’s willingness to “travel” to church play into all of this?



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