This article by Dr. Tim Keller appeared in GO WEST! Issue 2 Volume 4. read the previous installment.
Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60–80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshiping body, while churches over ten to fifteen years of age gain 80–90 percent of new members by transfer from other congregations.1 This means the average new congregation will bring six to eight times more new people into the life of the body of Christ than an older congregation of the same size.
Although established congregations provide many things that newer churches often cannot, older churches in general will never be able to match the effectiveness of new bodies in reaching people for the kingdom. Why would this be? As a congregation ages, powerful internal institutional pressures lead it to allocate most of its resources and energy toward the concerns of its members and constituents, rather than toward those outside its walls. This is natural and to a great degree desirable. Older congregations have a stability and steadiness that many people thrive on and need. This does not mean that established churches cannot win new people. In fact, many non-Christians will be reached only by churches with long roots in the community and the marks of stability and respectability.
On the other hand, new congregations, in general, are forced to focus on the needs of its non-members, simply to get off the ground. Because so many of a new church’s leaders came very recently from the ranks of the un-churched, the congregation is far more sensitive to the nonbeliever’s concerns. Also, in the first two years of our Christian life, we have far more close, face-to-face relationships with non-Christians than we do later.
A congregation filled with people fresh from the ranks of the un-churched will thus have the power to invite and attract many more nonbelievers into the church’s life and events than will the members of the typical established body.
What does this mean, practically? If we want to reach our city, should we try to renew older congregations to make them more evangelistic, or should we plant lots of new churches? That question is surely a false either-or dichotomy. We should do both! Nevertheless, the above shows that, despite the occasional exceptions, the only broad-scale way to bring many new Christians into the body of Christ in a permanent way is to plant new churches.
To throw this into relief, imagine that Town A, Town B, and Town C are the same size, and they each have a hundred churches of one hundred persons each. In Town A, all the churches are more than fifteen years old. The overall number of active Christian churchgoers in that town is shrinking, even if four or five of the churches get very “hot” and double in attendance. In Town B, five of the churches are fewer than fifteen years old.
They, along with several older congregations, are winning new people to Christ, but this only offsets the normal declines of the older churches. Thus the overall number of active Christian churchgoers in that town is staying the same. Finally, in Town C, thirty of the churches are under fifteen years old. In this town, the overall number of active Christian churchgoers is on a path to grow 50 percent in a generation.2
“But,” many people say, “what about all the existing churches that need help? You seem to be ignoring them.” Not at all.
Find out how church planting helps bolster existing churches in the next issue of GO WEST!. Until then, let us know what you think of Keller’s arguments.
1. Lyle Schaller, quoted in D. McGavran and G. Hunter, Church Growth: Strategies That Work (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 100. See also C. Kirk Hadaway, New Churches and Church Growth in the Southern Baptist Convention (Nashville: Broadman, 1987).
2. See Lyle Schaller, 44 Questions for Church Planters (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 12. Schaller talks about “the 1% Rule.” Each year any association of churches should plant new congregations at the rate of 1 percent of their existing total; otherwise, that association will be in decline. That is just “maintenance.” If an association wants to grow 50 percent plus, it must plant 2–3 percent per year.