The Changing Landscape of Church-Planting

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IntroductionPerson Holding A Green Plant

My purpose here is to offer some thoughts about the changing landscape of church-planting, in light of the ever-changing cultural context of US cities. There are three factors that contribute to this changing landscape.  1) Increasing secularization 2) Changing sensibilities regarding social interaction that cause people to move toward the city. 3) Sociological realities that prompt people to move out of the city.     


I. Increasing Seculariation

Barna research reports that 50% of Americans are post-Christian.

36% of Americans report themselves to be practicing Christians (This includes Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Charismatics), while 40% report themselves as non-practicing Christians. One obvious implication is that there are fewer people filling pews.  If only 36% of the population self reports as “practicing Christian,” then number of “evangelical practicing Christians” is small. As many regions and urban centers of the country are more secular than the national average, the number of evangelical practicing Christians decreases yet again. Couple this with the fact that millennials who identify as “practicing Christians” attend worship far less frequently than the previous generations,  and it becomes clear that the ministry landscape has indeed shifted. 


II.  Changing Sensibilities concerning Social Interaction.

Due largely to advances in technology and travel, the world is a smaller place than it used to be. There has been a major shift in the way most of us think about space, time, and how they relate to social interaction.

Richard Florida was on to something fifteen years ago when he wrote about the rise of the creative class. “The key difference between the Creative Class and other classes lies in what they are primarily paid to do.  Those in the Working Class and Service Class are primarily paid to execute according to plan, while those in the Creative Class are primarily paid to create and have considerably more autonomy and flexibility than the other two classes to do so……“But the sacrifices we will make for money are very different from those once made by Whyte’s organization men.  Very few of us work for the same large company or organization for life, and we are far less likely to pin our identity or sense of self-worth on whom we work for.  We balance financial considerations against the ability to be ourselves, set our own schedules, do challenging work and live in communities that reflect our values and priorities….“Because we identify ourselves as creative people, we increasingly demand a lifestyle built around creative experiences. We are impatient with the strict separations that previously demarcated work, home and leisure.”

What Florida attributed to the “creative class” is more and more the norm for growing numbers of people. In previous generations a person’s identity centered more on their work, and therefore they were more willing to live in one place, drive to work in another and go to worship in yet another. This is no longer the case.  This generation wants to live, work and play all in close proximity. The millennial generations’ preference for integration is visceral. There is a well-documented and growing demand for integration and therefore people moving toward the city.  This was not true even twenty years ago when the movement was out of the city.


III.  Sociological realities that cause people to move out of the city.

Anyone who has sought to establish a self-sustaining congregation in a major urban center realizes that other social factors are also in play.  Namely, although growing numbers of people desire to live in the urban core, few are willing or able to make the necessary sacrifices to do so over the long haul.

Factors contributing to the difficulty to remain in the city include:  1. Affordability. The urban core may be affordable as a single person sharing space in a high-rise condominium but the financial options drastically decrease with marriage and children.   2. Space. In the urban core the relationship between cost and space are at a premium.  For the same amount of money people can afford a lot more space elsewhere.  3. Education. Educational options for children in most cases continue to lag behind the aspirations of the parents who want to live there.   4) Safety.  It’s no secret that crime rates are higher in the urban core.  5) Family. It’s certainly possible to raise children in the city but more difficult.  The interface of the above realities cause people to leave the city because they are no longer willing to make the sacrifices necessary to remain.

These factors produce an “inside-out” phenomenon.  People move into the city and back out again.  Therefore, Tim Keller says the city is vital for three “crucial” reasons. 


a. Cultural cruciality.

“In the village, someone might win its one or two lawyers to Christ.  However, if you want to win the legal profession, which will influence all lawyers, you must go to the city, where you will find the law schools and the law journal publishers—the key institutions of influence in that profession.”  Indeed cities are usually the cultural centers for business, art, entertainment, media, government, etc.  Furthermore, for the reasons stated above there is simply a greater movement of people into and out of the city.  And therefore in the city, potential connecting points are multitudinous.  Also in the city people of different ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds live in closer proximity thus the opportunity exists for diverse congregations that become “sign-posts” of the Kingdom.


b. Global cruciality.

“In the village, someone can win over the single people group living there, since rural areas are often sociologically homogeneous.  But if you share the gospel in a city, you can reach dozens of different national and ethnic groups.  Indeed, you can reach them through one language-the linqua franca of that place.  The gospel then travels back into many different cultures through immigrants who return to visit or remain in their homelands.”


c. Personal cruciality.

In the village, people live in a culture that tends to resist change and is more conservative and traditional.  However, because diversity and mobility of the cities, urbanites are more open to new ideas—such as the gospel!  The pressure and diversity of the city environment make even the most gospel-hostile people open to new ways of thinking and living.” 

I would add this also challenges some of us to consider whether our faith is simply assent to the traditional values of the majority culture or real Biblical faith.  So movement out of the city is:  1. City to new exurban neighborhoods.  2. City to suburb. 3.  City to small town.  4.  City to City.  5. City to World. 


IV.  Church-planting implications for: 

A.  Denominational Mission Agencies and Church-Planting Networks. 

Obviously, these trends have major implications for what it takes to establish new flourishing congregations in urban contexts. But you must remember these are trends that DO NOT reflect every context!  Different regions of the country vary greatly.  Individual cities have great diversity and varying patterns of social interaction. Some US cities, for example New York City, have experienced some form of this pattern for the better part of two centuries. Other cities more recently, and in still other cities these patterns are just beginning. So when it comes to church-planting models there is “no one size fits all.” We have to be very careful not to assume what model works in one city or region will necessarily work or is the best model for another region.  This understanding is paramount for denominations and national mission agencies.

However, based upon the ever-changing context that I have sought to outline, we must be willing to adapt our church-planting models.  For all the reasons discussed above, the traditional model of church planting is increasingly volatile and ineffective.  New realities including the difficulty and length of the work simply exhaust many planters. A somewhat less volatile model IS for a local church to hire new staff in order to plant. This approach is also less expensive because of the ability to share people and resources.  This alone makes it less volatile.  However, this model is dependent on some source of church planting expertise from either inside our outside the group.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve personally observed a church decide they are going to plant another church which is the right thing to do.  But for whatever reason they don’t seek the collective wisdom of the body of Christ.  So they grab an eager person and throw him out there.  In this case, the volatility is almost as great as the traditional model.

An even more effective model in our culture is for the church planter to develop “missional DNA” that is reproduced in leaders and small groups from the outset.  This approach begins and builds the initial plant already with the DNA of multiplication.  In this model these “missional” small groups eventually become new churches


1) More geographically specific and therefore more effective in developing a holistic vision of place and therefore reaching millennials for Christ. The sad fact is that most evangelicals drive past their neighbors on their way to worship.  Parish size must shrink geographically if we are to win our neighbors.

2) Millennials are more likely to commit to a more intimate group of friends on mission together than what they perceive as the “institutional” church.

3) Easier to replicate and reproduce the “missional” DNA of the existing group.  Otherwise the planter has to start-over from beginning.

4) Less volatile because it involves committed leaders with the same vision reproducing in a more geographically specific area.

5) Far less expensive.  Again for the reasons discussed above we need to learn to operate with fewer financial resources and less volatility. Parishes likely begin initially as house churches that expand as numbers and missional engagement with the community grow.

6) Doubling-down on prep time and therefore costs.  The same pastor/planter can preach the same sermon and administer the sacraments in different locations at different times.

7) This model provides small church feel with large church resources.  As things progress you are able to provide large church resources and training but with specific local application and effect. It also provides a selection of worship times and locations important to millennials for the reasons described above.

8) This model is dependent on an initial experienced church planter who is also a catalyst for Gospel-movement.

9) In this model you staff based upon Gospel growth (support the growing family and movement) rather than to initially produce or maintain it. This model relies on the centrifugal power of the Gospel and therefore it is “gospel-movement driven” and depends largely on reproducing lay leaders.  It is also dependent upon adding support staff including other ordained preachers and worship leaders.  Most congregations can manage three to four additional worshipping sites with the right staff configuration.

10) A plan for some of the sites to become congregations who create additional sites should be part of initial vision.  This realization would require God to provide additional catalytic movement leaders.   

B.  For Urban Churches and Urban Church Plants. 

Remember the following statistics characterize those moving into cities. 1) Less likely to attend worship (See discussion above).  2) Less likely to drive long distances to worship. 3) More likely to relocate. 4) Less likely to give financial resources. 37% of attendees in church plants are considered “low-income” compared to 17% affluent.  Millennials and gen-X’ers have less money due to earner age and life-style choices.  5)  More time necessary to reach unbelievers.

Therefore urban church planters must: 

1.  Adjust expectations concerning numbers in worship. A phrase that I’ve often heard repeated among church-planters is, “You have to have people to get people.” But if there are fewer people to select from and the people you have are more likely to snow ski with their friends two or three weekends a month; even worse relocate (!), then the time it takes to establish a self-sustaining and reproducing congregation is greatly extended. Therefore not only must the  expectations of planters be adjusted.  Expectations of attenders and funders concerning numbers and the time it takes to become self-sustaining must also be adjusted.   The number of people attending worship can’t alone define success. 

2. Rethink the timing of launching a public worship service.  The numbers you gather don’t necessarily correlate to consistent numbers in worship.  This has always been true but it is even truer today. Also, don’t be fooled by the first few Sundays.

3. Invest less time on front-door approaches and more time in evangelism and discipleship- investing in “missional” leaders and small-groups.  This becomes even more difficult once you have launched a worship service because you now have a weekly sermon to prepare and a myriad of other details to take care of. 

4.  Prepare to “stick it out in place.”  It takes longer to reach people. Therefore the geographical size of parish must also shrink in order to embody “faithful presence”.

5.  Adjust model for church multiplication. As an urban church planter, personally I have spent sleepless nights fretting over the loss of key people caught in the “inside-out” sociological phenomenon described above.  Somehow I realized in the slug that this phenomenon shouldn’t be viewed as an obstacle but rather an opportunity.

This realization is the basis of the model described above.  But this requires the urban church plant to:  a) Establish of Gospel DNA.  How?-by preaching and teaching the life-changing centrifugal power of the Gospel and then replicating it in development of leaders.  Then the normal sociological “inside/out” movement described above can be harnessed for the formation of new worshipping communities. b) Demonstrate Kingdom Selflessness.  An urban church-plant must not only be aware of the sociological realities described it must be willing to embrace it as a significant way to establish and spread God’s Kingdom.  Because, St. Pats has existed in the urban core of both Greeley and Denver, the number of people we have sent to other places with a holistic view of the Gospel is astounding.  To do this without fainting requires us to realize it is not our gospel or our church.  We do not exist simply to feather our own nest but to participate with God in the expansion of His Kingdom. c) Do the things necessary to impart to your “spiritual children” and congregation the value of Kingdom expansion.  Actually publicly pray for them and celebrate as a congregation their sending elsewhere. Early on I viewed every departure negatively. Part of the reason was that I didn’t fully understand my context and the other reason is more sinister.  I was attempting to build a monument of success for myself.  d) Pay attention to your “spiritual children”, especially those God calls to preaching and teaching.  Look for creative ways to empower them and remain connected.

C.  For Suburban Churches.

Acknowledge the vital importance of helping sustain a missionary presence in the urban core of our cities.  For the reasons I’ve described it is the most vital mission field of our cultural moment.  Many of your own children live here. Many will move back out of the city. As the Church, if we fail to reach the young people who are the future of our country there will no longer be a faithful remnant to populate suburban churches.  In fact, we need to realize that the US is a mission field deserving the same if not more attention than any other place in the world.  Yes, it is more challenging to reach but it is necessary or eventually the funding source for international missionary activity will dry up.  You should send money and resources downtown in order to send money and resources elsewhere. For “destination churches” sometimes the best Kingdom choice isn’t to keep adding staff and programs to retain people.  The Kingdom question might be, “How do we harness Gospel DNA in order to establish worshipping congregations in other areas of our city where little Kingdom presence exits?”


V.  Conclusion.

Ultimately, it can’t be ignored that recent decades major sociological shifts in US culture. Hopefully, we are able to recognize these shifts and offer a more effective model of church planting. One of the major implications for various entities tasked with church multiplication is that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” model for church planting. However, as urbanization continues to increase in our country and the world I believe older models of church planting will be increasingly insufficient to meet the task at hand.  May God give us His wisdom and power as we all seek to be faithful to the task He has graciously given us.   

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