A friend of mine recently shared a stat that indicated that non-Christians are far more likely to visit and attend church plants (new congregations) than established congregations. Pulling from this articleby Tim Keller, she relayed that only 2-4 for every 10 visitors to a church plant came from established con
gregations while something like 8-9 for every 10 visits to established congregations come from other established congregations. In other words, church plants attract more new Christians and fresh faces than established congregations, who tend to nurture their own and somehow be uninviting to the uninitiated.
Armed with this knowledge, church planters then no doubt are confident that their church model is the right one. They are lean and mean and tend not to resemble more traditional churches in worship style, architecture, and headaches. They are not “trapped” by their model, but can freely preach “life change” with Jesus. They probably do not have a fully-developed committee structure and the culture of “that’s the way its always been done” doesn’t exist yet. They may not even have a “membership” roll or a council/vestry/session/board of elders. They probably rent space,and this suits their culture of being lean and unburdened in the way so many traditional churches are. They probably look at pastors like me and feel sorry for me, for I am, in fact, burdened with traditional worship, committees, a large (and old) building, and even the occasional “we’ve always done it that way” reminder. (Although I am blessed in that I rarely hear that anymore.)
This confidence that they have the right model – because it is the one that brings in all the new Christians and doesn’t just serve the desires of mature Christians – can lead to a kind of antipathy to traditional church structures. There can be an unspoken competition between the two models and the church planters are pretty sure they’re on the right side of the debate. They will be the ones that make an impact and form full-fledged followers of Jesus while the established churches are spending thousands on plumbing leaks and being distracted with committees and structure. They will be the ones that achieve “changed lives” while we will muddle on with a model that doesn’t change lives but may even contribute to endless cycle of sin and forgiveness. No life change there!
But if and when there becomes a triumphalist spirit among church planters – lay and clergy – they should quickly adopt a spirit of humility. Because, without trying to sound like a patronizing jerk, I can quite easily say that you will become me one day, if you are blessed by God. In fact, isn’t that obvious? You may want to remain lean and mean, but if you are blessed with church growth, you will quickly see the model of minimalism and lax standards that works when you’re small won’t work as you grow.
You will have members that want proper tax forms for their giving. You will need a property that is your own and isn’t shared, and that alone will eat up more of your time than you can imagine. You will, if you’re lucky, attract older members who need more pastoral care than young families who are just trying to survive their own chaos. You will need a committee structure because the phone call that used to get stuff done doesn’t work anymore and you need accountability and the ability to delegate. And you will see larger and larger percentages of your offering going to things like insurance, mortgages, lawn care, utilities, and infrastructure support, things you tried hard to avoid at one point in your ministry.
And then, the worst thing of all will happen. You won’t know when or where or why or how, but you will become an established congregation. Egad! And you will see that more and more of your visitors are from established congregations. Remember all those “new Christians” you were so proud of nabbing early on? Yeah, they won’t visit you anymore. Because you’ll lose the vibe of new, fresh and friendly and become “established”. No, they will be visiting the church plant down the road, the one with the cool church planting pastor who dresses as casual as you used to and who detests structure as much as you used to. And you will say to yourself something patronizing, like, “One day, he’ll see what it means to grow a church and disciple people.”
And again, that’s if you’re lucky. So many church plants, like new restaurants, end up not taking hold. So you will only get to appreciate my headaches, my structure, and my traditions if you’re lucky enough to survive the first 5-10 years of your plant.
Now, I’m not saying church plants aren’t wonderful. God bless those who take on such a ministry! Truly. If the data is right, they do clearly attract new Christians, and that’s obviously critical work for the Kingdom. I just hope that church planters are able to refrain from certainty – or even smugness – while they do their work, and that they do not embrace an attitude of hostility towards established churches. Because if all goes according to plan, they will adopt my problems in short order.
There still remains the question of why church plants – rather than established congregations – attract new Christians. That is really the critical question to answer. And I’m afraid I do not have a good one. It is probably sociological more than anything. Nervous seekers probably get a sense of ownership and order within an established congregation and they realize it will be hard to make inroads there unless there is clear expressions of hospitality and invitations to participate from the congregation. Some established congregations are better at that than others, and those that are not hospitable should certainly be taken to task for it. Those same seekers might appreciate the free and non-judgmental spirit that comes from church plants that meet in school buildings and have contemporary music. The threshold for entry is probably much lower and it may be easier to slip in, but also slip out if the fit isn’t right.
That kind of barrier is probably common to all social interactions, though. If you go to a party and you don’t know anyone but they all know each other, it can be intimidating. But if no one there knows each other, it’s easy to relate. If you’re the new member of the team in sports or at work, it’s hard to fit in for a while. But if its a startup and everyone’s new, there’s an ease of transition.
The point is that church plants, if successful, will end up having to take on all the things they wanted to avoid in the early days. And when they do, they’ll become the next traditional church that visitors will pass by. So enjoy the days of getting all those visitors! For one day they will drive by your church, too, and you’ll be tempted to be bitter that your established church seems to have lots of headaches and not as much of the new joys anymore. But don’t be. It’s a wonderful thing to serve consistent, “old” church members who have long ago given up looking for the new and appreciate the faithful.