One of the first responses that our core group got to the idea that we were called to plant a new church was “we already have enough churches.”
In small town deep South, this initial perspective is understandable, though mistaken. It is understandable because in a town such as ours, you can, almost literally, see a church on every corner. The list of churches in the phone book (does anybody use those any longer?) is extensive. Local radio and television are filled with announcements from churches — of every sort and stripe — giving details of revivals, conferences, reunions, fundraisers and concerts — of every sort and stripe.
Yet a good portion of the town’s occupants don’t claim any church membership at all. Furthermore, on any given Sunday even more are not in worship services in any church. In areas that are not as gospel-saturated and not as culturally religious as ours, the proportion of “unchurched” is sure to be higher. It is to those non-affiliated, non-attending people that plants are especially suited to minister.
A corollary — or necessary implication — of the “we have enough churches” sentiment is that if there are still people who are not saved and not attending church services (as if such were a novel idea), then they obviously don’t want to be saved and don’t want to attend church services. To this, we need only refer to the words of Jesus, who said that those who are lost, until they are saved, run from the light because they don’t want their deeds exposed. Yet you don’t avoid turning on the kitchen light because the roaches scatter when you do. (Hey, I was once a “roach” myself…still a wretch, but formerly roach-y).
To this objection, we proposed, and propose, the following:
1. Existing churches are homogeneous. That is, in areas with a history of religious influence, churches all tend to look the same. There might be broad categories of difference, such as the lamentable black/white segregation that still exists on Sunday morning, but within those there is much similarity.
2. New churches are more flexible. Not in the sense of being free from the restraints of biblical doctrine and the ecclesiology that naturally flows from its teaching, but in the sense that there are no pre-existing constraints on how biblical doctrine and practice are lived out. There are no brass name plates on the pews and stained glass windows, there is no committee whose age predates the dinosaurs, there is no “way” that “we’ve always done it.” And change can be made quickly, as ministry need demands.
3. Existing churches squelch leadership. What I mean is this: part of the process of making disciples will naturally lead to producing spiritual leaders. If a congregation is not raising up and maturing spiritual leaders, then its discipleship is off-kilter. But a church that is raising leaders must do something with them, i.e., let them lead. Part of the process of making disciples, then, is raising up leaders, some of which will take responsibility in the congregation that trained them, some of which will have no sheep to lead but those in a new (or different) congregation. Planting churches is a natural outflow of an existing church raising up new spiritual leaders.
4. No matter how “friendly”, existing churches intimidate some people. A simple sociological fact is that people tend to congregate with other like people. Those who are unlike them are perpetually outsiders. New churches can’t afford to be clique-ish. Also, some people disdain stained glass, ornate pews, and multi-tier organs…things that small, new, self-supporting congregations typically have little of.
Existing churches obviously serve an important function in the body of Christ. Unhealthy ones should receive intensive care. Yet even healthy, existing churches can’t do all the things that new churches can, are are in part healthy because they plant new churches.