Ever since C. Peter Wagner declared church planting as the greatest strategy for the spread the gospel around the world (1990), church planters have taken up the banner of what is no doubt one of the most obvious results of making disciples in the book of Acts. Indeed, Tim Keller writes, “The continual planting of new congregations is the most crucial strategy for the growth of the body of Christ” (2012). Pick up any church planting text these days and you’ll hear similar remarks. In fact, Ed Stezter and Daniel Im go so as far as to say, “We are most like Christ when we join him in the mission of reaching the unchurched by planting new churches” (2011, 26).
Recent data draws into question the notion that church planting is in fact the most effective evangelistic methodology for fulfilling the Great Commission. The decline of church membership and average attendance in the US church juxtaposed to the increase number of churches and population since 2000 suggest a US church lacking in evangelism and discipleship. This essay will examine data from 1950 to 2020 that seem to lead to a conclusion which does not support the long-standing maxim claimed by Wagner, Keller, and others. The article concludes with a call to a path forward in rethinking church planting. Among the considerations are new church planting metrics, de-emphasizing Sunday morning, and a shift to movemental ecclesiology.
The Birth of Modern Church Planting
In 1990, Wagner boldly declared in his Church Planting for a Greater Harvest: A Comprehensive Guide that research from 1960-1990 clearly indicated that church planting is “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven” (1990, 11). Wagner identified 12 “good ways” to plant churches which he claimed resulted in a greater harvest. He divided them into models of modality and sodality. Modality models were the result of one church planting another church. The models Wagner believed worked were: hiving off, colonization, adoption, and accidental parenthood.
These four models ultimately gain autonomy from the parent church. Additionally, satellite model, multi-congregational churches, and multiple campus model were models which continue in relationship with the parent church. Sodality models were the result of outside organizations planting churches, either denominational or parachurch organizations. Sodality models included: mission team, catalytic church planter, founding pastor, independent church planter, and apostolic church planter (Wagner 1990, 59-74). Space does not permit a fair treatment of these models. Nevertheless, Wagner did not commend one over the other. Rather, taking a pragmatic approach, he agreed with a Rick Warren aphorism, “If you’re getting the job done, I like the way you’re doing it” (Wagner 1990, 59).
Wagner, coming from Fuller’s School of World Mission (1971-2001), no doubt built on the work and observations of Donald McGavran, the father of the church growth movement. In 1970, McGavran identified three types of church growth. First, biological growth results from the birth of children in Christian families. Second, transfer growth results from demographic shift of Christians from one church to another. Finally, conversion growth results from non-Christians placing their faith in Jesus Christ and are added to the number of the church. He concludes that conversion growth is the only form of church growth which can spread across all segments of society (1970, 87-88).