We stood before the assessment group with fear on our faces and trepidation in our voices. After three grueling days of being under the microscope to see if we would be given the green light to church plant, the assessors asked the question that might sink our chances, “Why do you feel you are called to be a church planter?”
Have you ever been at a crossroad where the truth may pull you farther from your goals, but giving the answer you know they wanted would help your cause? That is where I found myself at that moment. My amazing wife, Melissa, was nervous the entire church planter’s assessment process. It is hard on spouses because they feared doing anything that would negatively affect the person they loved. Dashing your own dreams is often less painful than hurting the dreams of the person you love. But now this question made me equally apprehensive. But finally I said the truth, “I don’t feel called to be a church planter.”
The expected surprised looks filled the room. After the momentary shock eased, I was asked, “Then why are you here?”
“I don’t feel called to be a church planter,” I repeated. “I feel called to be a missionary. And the reason I’m here is because I believe church planting is the best tool to reach the mission field.”
A few years prior I had seriously contemplated entering the mission fields of Nepal, Israel or Albania. When talking to mission directors a common theme arose; successful missionaries trained locals to reach their community. Locals were far more effective at building the work. Then it seemed God reminded me I am a local in a tremendously large mission field.
Fortunately, assessors recommended us as church planters. God has blessed us with founding 6 new churches during my 19 years of ministry. I can also share that I still believe that church planting is the most effective tool to reach the mission field of North America.
I will not bore you with the dozens of studies that affirm the same idea. But to summarize new churches grow three to five times faster than established churches and reach far more unchurched people in their communities. This is not a knock on established churches, but they rarely match the growth rate of new churches. These statistics are true in all cultures and languages.
From my experience I will share five reasons why new churches have this kind of growth and impact.
1. Membership involvement. When a new church starts it takes every single person from the usually small starting team working hard together to find enough people to start the church. These team members would rarely be offered in an established church the varied ministry experiences, leadership roles and responsibilities they will need to take on for the plant to thrive. I believe Adventist church members are amazing. We too often believe members will not accept being challenged to do God-sized ministry. In a church plant everyone knows survival of the new church requires this kind of commitment.
2. Growth focus. It is easy to get wrapped up in the needs of the members and the upkeep of a church building. Church plants are ministry streamlined and focused on finding new people to join the budding congregation. Honestly, there are some church plants that fail and this is usually where they lose the battle.
3. Community impact. All churches were once church plants. When they started they were most likely built in a way that helped attract their community. Being solid on God’s message while being culturally relevant is exactly what we see modeled in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. However, many churches build ministries and systems that become sacred traditions, even when they no longer serve their surrounding communities. Church plants, when built correctly, focus on ministries that will reach their neighbors in a way that is life changing, compelling and relevant.
4. The big ask. Studies show that when there is an accident bystanders are more likely to step in and help when there is a small crowd rather than a large one. The belief is that with large numbers witnessing an accident each person thinks someone else will come forward to help. With very few people at the scene people realize they are the ones that have to take action. Every church tells their members they should invite friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. to church and their events. The psychology seems to be the same though; at established churches most seem to think the people in the pew next to them will do it. While new churches know they personally have to take action and ask as many people as they can to attend.
5. Miracles are normal. Certainly God works miracles in established churches. But what most people do not realize is how difficult it is to start a new church. Every single ministry system must be developed; new leaders must be trained; a location found; finances raised; and so much more all in a very short timeframe. It quickly becomes apparent that all this will never happen without divine intervention. If you ever thought church planting is too difficult for you; you are right. Fortunately, it is not too difficult for God to work through you to accomplish whatever He desires. A Church plant has no choice but to lean heavily on God’s hand to lead and build His new church. These divine encounters then inspire both the launching team and the new members the reach.
Church planting is not the only way to reach our mission field, but it is the most effect tool we possess. Established churches should embrace the idea that they can increase their reach and effectiveness by supporting new churches. Sending members, leaders, finances, and prayers help tremendously. The more we work together using every means possible to share the amazing love and plan of salvation God has blessed us with, the more the mission community will become our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Steve Leddy is the Church Planting Director for Multicultural Ministries at Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventist