A few days ago I found out another church had been planted in the local “big city.” Yes, I say another in mild sarcasm. But in this city of approximately 66,000 people, there are churches everywhere. I just typed in the name of the city and “churches” and google showed a map that had dots all over the place. I can’t drive into this city without seeing Baptist churches, Lutheran churches, non-denominational churches, Roman Catholic churches, Methodist churches, and more. There are churches everywhere. It almost feels like we’re in the Bible belt… even though it’s the good state of Wisconsin, a cheese lovers paradise.
Yes, I’m standing on a soap box today. If you dislike soap boxes, forgive me… but I think this soap box is necessary.
Why, oh why, do people plant churches in locations that are over-populated with churches? Here are some quick thoughts:
First, the Holy Spirit can certainly desire a new church to be planted… even in what appears to be an “over-saturated” location. Obviously I’m not going to suggest that someone should ignore the leading of the Spirit. I’m pretty sure Christians shouldn’t be caught doing that and I’m equally positive pastor-theologian types should avoid it at all costs. If the Holy Spirit is leading someone to plant a church, do it! I’ll talk more about that “if” soon.
Sometimes a local church that meets in a certain location actually outgrows that location and has to expand byway of having a “satellite” location. Thus, in some sense you have “two” churches, even though they may (or may not) operate as one congregation. I’ll leave the debate over the wisdom or intelligence on multi-site churches for later. The point is that sometimes this happens and I’m not going to suggest that it is an automatic fail when it does.
I think these two realities are viable reasons to plant a church in a specific location, even if it seems to be overkill. And by viable, I mean they are good reasons, especially if the reason involves the Holy Spirit clearly leading you to do so (cf. Acts 13:1-3).
But we need to acknowledge that every time we think the Holy Spirit is telling us to do something, he may not be. If we seem to think we’re 100% correct in this area, we are denying the explicit texts of Scripture that indicate that (1) prophecy must be tested (1 Thess. 5:20-21) and (2) we prophecy in part (1 Cor. 13:9).
That’s why I say that you should do it if he is speaking and leading. Not just because you decide it’s a good idea.
And that brings me to the crux of the issue. There are literally hundreds and thousands of churches in some cities. It’s ridiculous how over-saturated some cities are… often because people simply move from one church to another (as is the case in the city I am referring to). Don’t like the style of music? Move to another church. Don’t agree with the direction of the leadership? Move to another church. Want more “depth” in the preaching? Move to another church. It’s great… you can just keep moving to church after church until the church hopping non-committed person’s dream comes true – a new church is planted.
It’s enough to make me sick. Church splits and uncommitted Christians do a disservice to the kingdom of God and are a horrible testimony to the world. Let me say that again: church splits and uncommitted Christians do a disservice to the kingdom of God and are a horrible testimony to the world.
There are obvious reasons to leave a church after communicating with leaders. If the gospel isn’t being preached or if there are significant moral issues at stake, by all means, prayerfully consider moving on in a gracious, respectful, and loving way. But if you are moving to a new church because the music is better or the building is newer, shame on you.
I’ve traveled to a few places in the world where there were no churches in the area (parts of Africa and Asia). I have friends that have been traveling to a remote village in Thailand for the past few years where no local church exists. There are virtually thousands upon thousands of places in the world where churches are needed. And yet we keep planting churches in locations that are already surrounded with churches. That way we can really like the music and really “feel” the worship experience in a way that gives us warm and fuzzy butterflies. Is that how Jesus and the apostles viewed church planting?
Before Jesus was crucified, he said that “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). The whole world… the places that haven’t heard… the places where there is need.
The apostle Paul is actually very helpful in how we can determine whether or not there is wisdom in planting a church in a location. He writes,
“For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience– by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God– so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” (Rom. 15:18-21)
Paul was caught up with a commitment to plant churches where Christ had not already been proclaimed. That’s because church planting is a gospel-centered. It’s not about getting people from other churches to start attending your brand new church that has green grass and more money and a better sound system and shiny guitars. No, church planting is firmly connected to working towards the greater exaltation of God’s glory – making Jesus famous and known by everyone who does not know of his person and work! That is church planting.
And lest I be accused of suggesting that the only viable church planting locations in the world are in the third world, let me tell you a great place to plant churches: think rural. Seriously, there are virtually thousands of countries all over the world that are small and have desperate need for local churches. Sure, your salary isn’t going to be as large as that mega-church you grow in a couple years because everyone leaves their old church to attend yours, but you will be making a difference in the lives of people who don’t have any foundation laid.
And in the rural communities I am thinking of, there are often desperate needs for churches that are faithful to the gospel and faithful to Scripture. Just because there is a church building in a city doesn’t mean there is a church. That’s the flip side of planting a church in an “over-saturated” location… if there is an over-saturation of churches that are not faithful to the gospel or Scripture, obviously church planting is a good idea. But the cities I am thinking of sure have a lot of really good churches… until you don’t like something… then they are all just not good enough, right?
So to whoever is reading this: consider planting a church in a foundationless location. Think small. Think outside the box. Think radical. Think hard and difficult. Think and pray for wisdom… don’t just plant in the city that you like the most or where you think you can scrap some people away from the churches already there.
Some of what I’m writing may seem so ridiculous that you can’t believe this is a real problem. Here’s the sad news: I have had conversations with church planters where these very ideas are suggested on a regular basis. And the sad truth is that it’s largely based on a culture of performance and evaluation that has more in common with capitalism than it does with the kingdom; more to do with judging by what we see and feel than who we know and trust. It can be very bad and have some very serious consequences…
I should state that I’m really excited about the focus in the Vineyard Church Planting Network and Michael Gatlin, the Vineyard Church planting leader. I’m also really excited about the Small Town Vineyard.
What do you think?
*Soap box exit here*
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
“Here’s the sad news: I have had conversations with church planters where
these very ideas are suggested on a regular basis. And the sad truth is
that it’s largely based on a culture of performance and evaluation that
has more in common with capitalism than it does with the kingdom; more
to do with judging by what we see and feel than who we know and trust”
In my opinion this hits the nail on the head… A great rant.
Churches could come together in a large city or suburban community. Pull out a map draw circles of ministry responsibility relative to the churches gifts and abilities. Highlight areas that need churches. Find the members in their churches who live closest to those areas. The existing churches could collaborate together in mission and send 2, 3 or 4 families close to the target zone from each church and have a higher chance of planting a much more sustainable gospel witness in the area.
I think Oscar Thompson talks about this very thing in his book Concentric Circles of Concern, not so much about church planting but relationship. I think what you have presented is exactly how church planting should be carried out.
Brian I will have to take a look at that book. Sounds good.
Can one really steal sheep?
Perhaps “steal” is highly polemic.
On one hand, no… because they are Jesus’ sheep. On the other hand, he has entrusted them to pastors and churches who have a responsibility to oversee their spiritual lives.
I am afraid there are a great deal of new believers (i.e., immature) who float through church after church… and it’s not a good characteristic.
Good point though… because it’s equally important that churches remember that they do not OWN people and that ultimately JESUS is the chief shepherd!
Good stuff here, Luke. One thing to consider, too, is that there are some towns in which it seems like there are plenty of churches, but where that only holds if we are ok with large churches (500+ish) being the norm. In some towns I have researched, any sizable growth in the Christian population or in the commitment level of Christians to churches would require all the churches in town to grow quite large (this is more often the case out West and out East than in the middle, I believe). So, there may be times for church planting in an area with several churches simply because it is not always healthy for a church to be large.
But, I am pretty much in total agreement. The area I am hoping to plant in has about 30% of its population reporting any commitment to a congregation (this number includes people of all faiths, but is primarily Christian). While I wouldn’t mind if a couple of churches wanted to invest in the plant by choosing to send us a few committed people, I dream of reaching both those who are unchurched and dechurched. I can’t imagine wanting to draw away from other churches, though.
Absolutely… had I taken more time, I’d have fleshed out what you are saying here. There most certainly are a lot of cities that have a lot of churches but far more people, thus, church planting may indeed be wise and necessary.
Unfortunately, a lot of church planting is simply done in the name of convenience and under the assumption that certain “methods” and “models” will quickly grow it numerically… with sometimes little care given towards whether there is a cultural necessity for that church…
I wonder if organizations and larger churches should consider the concept of helping revitalize existing congregations as an important work alongside church planting… hmmm… maybe another blog coming on that one…
GOOD STUFF Luke!!
Sounds like some new churches are “stealing” “your” people. Get over it, and have a kingdom perspective, not a territorial one.
Hi “tamnus”… thanks for commenting!
I think you are reading into the intention of this post. In actuality, there are no “new” local churches near where I serve as pastor. The example I used is about 45 minutes away… so your response is actually 100% incorrect.
And while churches and pastors can be “territorial” in their perspective on people, that’s not the point. The point is about planting churches where they are needed rather than where they are convenient or where it is easy or where it appears it will “succeed” quickly.
But thanks for your concern! Although you didn’t actually explain what you mean by “kingdom perspective,” that is most certainly essential! In fact, it is exactly a “kingdom perspective” that leads me to conclude that some of the church planting that happens in many cities is in need of being challenged because it is not coming from a “kingdom perspective.”
The kingdom of God is to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, and then the end will come (Matt. 24:14). There are a lot of regions of the world that do not have churches that could use them, and I think a lot of pastors who are considering church planting should look beyond the trendy “big city” and consider planting in a location that has need of a church that is committed to the kingdom you mentioned.
Hopefully you can try and interact with the thinking of this post a bit more. There’s a bit more than your assumption at work in my thinking. If I took your lead, I could jump to the conclusion that you are the type of person that either starts or attends a church that has the express intent of getting people to leave good churches and to attend your “hip” and “cool” church and that you are not committed to reaching people who are not in local church (i.e., “unsaved”). But that wouldn’t be a very fair assessment because I simply don’t know you…
Maybe next time you could take the time to get to know me and ask a few questions before you jump to such a slanderous opinion. That’s the type of action that fits with a “kingdom perspective”… after all, the kingdom of God is a matter of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). I’m not sure your assumption is very peaceful or creates very much joy.
Furthermore, I’m not sure that a “kingdom perspective” is one that needs to hide behind a screen name. My name is Luke Geraty and I can be reached fairly easy through email, Facebook, or a few other means. I’d love to discuss more of your concerns and interact on actually how important the issue of “territorial” thinking actually is. But it’s hard to do that with someone who makes quick judgments and posts anonymously…
Something to think about, no?
If there are people who dont have a relationship with Christ, then there needs to be a new church plant.
I am curious to know if you have a point of saturation for an area. Is there a level that seems “about right?” Here in Maine we are 3% evangelical which puts us just over the line to be considered an un-reached people group.
I am currently working as a church planting intern in Maine trying to help get people to plant and to help those that are already planting. We certainly come up against many pastors in the cities/towns we start praying for and my jaw drops when I see a church of 300 in a town of 20K say that we should not have any more.
Is this saturation point subjective or objective?
Hey Donald! Those are great questions!
One thing that I want to mention is that I tried to make sure to clarify that there’s no “hard and fast” rule on church planting. If the Holy Spirit is leading someone to plant a church in a community that appears over-saturated, by all means, plant away!
Secondly, I don’t think it’s good for pastors to ever come against a church plant that is happening in their city. As an example, a few years ago a church started in our small community and we tried to bless them and support them as much as possible.
Thirdly, and in relation to your actual point, I think we need to really understand what “over saturated” actually entails. In your example, I wouldn’t call that over saturated. Now if there were like 15 churches of 300 in a city of 20K, it should certainly be a discussion that takes place in the minds of those who are planting. That doesn’t mean it automatically should stop the plant from happening, but that it should be a discussion.
That brings me to the main point I was trying to make here. Church planters should be strategic and their strategy should be kingdom oriented and not success oriented per say. That’s not to suggest that church plants shouldn’t want to be successful at reaching people and all of that stuff but that success needs to be qualified by the kingdom priorities.
Obviously having a lot of church buildings in a community doesn’t necessarily mean that there are a lot of faithful gospel-preaching-and-kingdom-focused-Jesus-centered churches… but if there are a lot of churches that already exist and the community doesn’t have ten million people, maybe a church planter should ask whether there is a significant need for a new church! If the Spirit says, “Yes!”, than by all means plant away! But maybe, just maybe, the Spirit might say, “Hey, that’s a great question. And since I appreciate your desire to plant a church and reach people, let’s go somewhere that has a genuine need.” Perhaps that will lead them to a rural community too!
So I would say that the saturation point is both subjective and objective. It all depends upon what perspective you are coming from.
Of course, I’m just thinking out loud here… 🙂
Thanks for the reply. I hear what you are saying both in the post and your reply, I was looking for a gut reaction from you and you gave me what I am interested in. As i meet with pastor in our area there ins’t much support from 80-90% of them which is unfortunate.
I linked to this post here http://www.mainechurchplanting.com/links-from-the-week-5/
I hope a few people head your way. I am supposed to update this every two weeks but we have a hard time with our scheduling this week.