C. Peter Wagner has famously called church planting “the most evangelistic strategy under heaven.” Ed Stetzer (and SBC Life, The Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention) agrees. Most importantly, the apostles agree, since they took Christ’s Great Commission and started churches throughout the known world. Thus, I agree as well. Furthermore, the worldwide data is hard to argue with. Who won’t give thanks to the Lord for His goodness in saving people through the vehicle of church planting?
However, there are some other questions that need to be answered concerning our strategies for church planting. Anecdotal evidence and experience seems to indicate that the strategy applied to the Deep South may very well have helped to create some current problems and may be producing long term ramifications that the church will come to regret.
I have spoken with a pastor of a local church in the Deep South that says, on the whole, most of the church planters in his area fall in to one of three categories: 1) men who were unable to find pastorates in local established churches, 2) former pastors who were forced out of the congregations they were leading, or 3) men who believe that their unique giftedness and perspective means they should be in church leadership–despite their current congregations’ unwillingness to endorse or employ them as leaders. This pastor is very reluctant to participate in church planting ventures where these types of candidates will be leading the planted churches—and I understand his hesitation.
I am curious: to what degree, if any, have you found this to be true? Is there a reward structure within SBC church planting efforts to reward with church planting dollars those who can’t find or maintain employment in established churches (I realize some–maybe all–of these men have justified reasons) and those who are not willing to submit to the training of their local church because they can “do church” better? How do we, in seeking to be good stewards of God’s money, help to make sure that we’re supporting Biblically qualified pastors to plant churches? What might the long term consequences of placing unqualified or under-qualified pastors over church plants look like?
I was told of one “church plant” in the Deep South that was created when members of an established church forced out their pastor of several years in a way that was underhanded and thoroughly sinful. This pastor then realized that he was called to plant a church in the same area as the church he was forced out of. The plant received Cooperative Program funds and launched. The launch leadership and membership consisted almost entirely of current and former members and leaders from the church that initially forced their pastor out.
In days gone by we would call that a church split, no? Yet now the new church is called a “plant,” financed by giving from established churches, and held up as a model of evangelism. Again, anecdotally, this same plant being lauded as a model of evangelism by the state convention has experienced quite a bit of growth but a significant portion has come from the former church and transfer growth from other congregations. In the area being discussed there is already a large number of nominal Christians who attend whichever church is seen as the hottest in the community at that particular time (largely determined by which church has most recently built a new building). Inadvertently or not, this new plant feeds into this church-hopping problem by encouraging more of the same.
How common do you suppose this kind of scenario is?
We should also ask what this kind of church planting does to the laity involved in the movement. It would seem that, in the example above, there is a core in the membership of the established church that is radically unhealthy. However, have we as Southern Baptists served people by underwriting their choice to passively allow their pastor to be voted out, then encouraging them to leave the congregation to start a new church? Wouldn’t the wrong-headed members in the existing congregation be helpfully (in a spiritual sense) rebuked by a majority vote in opposition to their coup? What does this type of depart-and-plant approach train the church members who left for the plant to do when controversies arise in the new church being planted (as will inevitably happen)? They’ll just leave and start another church; and when they do, they’re simply carrying out what we have justified and taught them to do.
Finally, in the Deep South, there are churches on every corner. It has often been noted in areas thoroughly saturated by established churches that there simply aren’t enough pews for everyone in that area if everyone decided to come to church on a given Sunday. Fair enough. That point is overly simplistic however. That problem can just as easily be addressed by helping churches build auxiliary buildings to hold the excess on the day God decides to grant that all members of the community want to come to church at the same time. The crux of the issue is whether or not the best strategy is to plant a new church. Is it possible that the money should be directed to (or kept within) established churches with leadership desiring to bring change to their congregation but feeling they lack the resources (ironically, in part, brought on by their need to be found faithful in giving to church planting)? Could those established congregations leverage existing buildings, resources, and relationships in the community to see a harvest of new and healthier disciples if we provided resources akin to what we provide church plants? Is anyone asking the question or have we simply assumed that worldwide church planting sets the worthwhileness of planting new churches for every specific location in the world, regardless of particulars?
I suspect these questions need to be asked of the heartland of Southern Baptists. It goes without saying that planting in un-churched areas or areas without a Baptist witness is a good idea. It apparently goes without saying that it is a good idea to plant in areas already saturated by evangelical and Baptist churches. I’m not so sure this should be the case in the latter. More questions must be asked and answered when we plant churches in the Deep South near other established churches.
What are your thoughts?
 Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1990), p. 11.
 Ed Stetzer, “The Most Effective Evangelistic Strategy under Heaven,” SBC Life, September 5, 2013, The Most Effective Evangelistic Strategy Under Heaven.