Continuing from last issue, Timothy Keller answers the question, Why Plant Churches?
If we briefly glance again at the objections to church planting in the introduction, we can now see the false premises underlying the statements. Objection A assumes that older congregations can reach newcomers as well as new congregations, but to reach new generations and people groups will require both renewed older churches and lots of new churches. Objection B assumes that new congregations will reach only currently active churchgoers, but new churches do far better at reaching the un-churched, and thus they are the only way to increase the “churchgoing pie.”
Objection C assumes that new church planting will only discourage older churches. There is a possibility of some initial discouragement, but for many reasons new churches are one of the best ways to renew and revitalize older churches.
And a final objection assumes that new churches work only where the population is growing. In actuality, they reach people wherever the population is changing. If new people are coming in to replace former residents, or new groups of people are coming in even though the net population figure is stagnant, new churches are needed.
New church planting is the only way that we can be sure we are going to increase the number of believers in a city, and it is one of the best ways to renew the whole body of Christ. The evidence for this statement is strong—biblically, sociologically, and historically. In the end, a lack of kingdom-mindedness may simply blind us to all this evidence. We must beware of that.
FINAL NOTE: HISTORICAL LESSONS
If all this is true, there should be lots of evidence for these principles in church history—and there is!
In 1820, there was one Christian church for every 875 U.S. residents. From 1860 to 1906, U.S. Protestant churches planted one new church for every increase of 350 in the population, bringing the ratio by the start of World War I to just one church for every 430 persons.
In 1906 over a third of all the congregations in the country were less than twenty-five years old. As a result, the percentage of the U.S. population involved in the life of the church rose steadily. For example, in 1776, just 17 percent of persons in the United States were categorized as “religious adherents,” but by 1916 that figure had risen to 53 percent.
After World War I, however, especially among mainline Protestants, church planting plummeted for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons was the issue of turf. Once the continental United States was covered by towns and settlements, with churches and church buildings in each one, there was strong resistance from older churches to any new churches being planted in “our neighborhood.” As we have seen above, new churches are commonly very effective at reaching new people and growing during their first couple of decades.
The vast majority of U.S. congregations peak in size during the first two or three decades of their existence and then remain on a plateau or slowly shrink. This is due to the factors mentioned above: they cannot assimilate new people, or groups of people, as well as new churches can. However, older churches have feared the competition from new churches.
Mainline church congregations, with their centralized government, were the most effective in blocking new church development in their towns. As a result, the mainline churches have shrunk remarkably in the last twenty to thirty years.
What are the historical lessons? Church attendance and adherence overall in the United States are in decline. This cannot be reversed in any other way but the way it originally had been so remarkably increasing. We must plant churches at such a rate that the number of churches per 1,000 in the population begins to grow again, rather than decline as it has since World War I.
Do you agree? What action will your congregation take?