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Sustainable Church Planting

Sustainable Church Planting

He put another parable before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32, ESV)

I am amazed by kudzu. In the American South, there is nothing more potent or invasive in any garden, yard, parking lot, or forest than kudzu. It can reportedly grow up to a foot per day given the right conditions. Every vine that touches the ground can form a new kudzu node, which makes more kudzu, which makes getting rid of it notoriously difficult.

For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was the same way. I think it's part of why Jesus said that He would build His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

The implications of this for church planting are tremendous.

But do we really believe that God's Kingdom has this rampant growth built into its DNA?

The Current State of Church Planting

Allow me, for the next few minutes, to sketch out a high-level view of church planting in the United States and the crisis Protestant Christians are in.

New churches cost $300,000 to $500,000 each. Those are the fundraising guidelines of what you should raise prior to starting a church if you follow the church growth model as your church planting methodology.

Those numbers are quite realistic for a church-on-the-corner style church. You have to pay for facilities and office space, cover staff salaries and insurance, and then various costs associated with materials for ministry. How many staff can be supported, and for how long, on a $400,000 nest egg of initial funding that is supposed to last until the new church becomes self-sustaining? If you have one full-time planting pastor, that funding should last two to three years, at which point you hope to have a regular worship attendance between 150 and 250 people each Sunday (along with a few more support staff!).

The way we plant churches becomes even more problematic when we realize that, across all Protestant denominations, Christians in the United States are giving just over 2% of their income to churches.[1]

This means that your church will have roughly a $100,000 operating budget annually if you have fifty families and individuals in your congregation who earn $100,000 or more per year. It is worth mentioning that the median household income in the United States is approximately $57,617, which is roughly half of what the households in your church would need to earn.[2] During a recent conversation with another pastor in my area, I also found out that the average church size in the United States is seventy people. The problem is that if we can say that fifty households in our seventy member congregation are earning six figures or more annually, we have not started a church; we have started a country club. More realistically, most churches will on average receive less than $100,000 to operate on annually.

But who am I kidding? Who can fund even a solo pastor and all the costs associated with maintaining a church on $100,000 per year?

So to summarize the situation:

  • New churches are really expensive.
  • Protestant Christians are only giving about 2% of their income to their churches, not 10%.
  • Urban churches are going to struggle to make ends meet and pay their pastors a fair wage unless they depart from current giving norms significantly.

But what if I told you that it doesn't cost $300,000 to start a new church? What if I told you that we could do it for $20,000? And in a city like Atlanta?

Jesus planted churches a different way

Jesus had a habit of sending the disciples out two-by-two with nothing. He did this to teach the disciples to depend on God as their Father and provider. In Luke 9 He sends out the Twelve Apostles and tells them: "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics." (Luke 9:3b, ESV). In Luke 10, Jesus then does the same thing again and sends out the seventy-two disciples saying "Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road." (Luke 10:2-3, ESV). He also tells them "And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house." (Luke 10:7, ESV). Instead, they are to stay with the first people who take them into their homes and show them hospitality.

At the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, just after He institutes the Lord's Supper and Judas has conspired with the Jewish chief priests and officers to betray Jesus, Jesus revisits what happened when he sent the disciples out and gives them one final piece of advice on how to bring the news of God's Kingdom to the world. The Gospel of Luke says this:

And he said to them, "When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?" They said, "Nothing." He said to them, "But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors.' For what is written about me has its fulfillment." And they said, "Look, Lord, here are two swords." And he said to them, "It is enough." (Luke 22:35-38, ESV)

What was Jesus getting at here? I think He was teaching the disciples two things:

  1. You must trust God to provide for you, because you do not have enough resources on your own to take the Gospel to the whole world.
  2. The journey is going to be hard and dangers will come (note the sword that He mentions, which was often carried as a protection against robbers during travel!). If you have resources fit for the journey, take them with you.

One of the most encouraging things to me about Jesus and the early disciples is that they were financially poor. It means that anyone can serve God. Anyone can proclaim the Gospel. Anyone can make a difference. Jesus still trained the disciples, but the finances required to be trained were never an issue. They had Him, so in that sense their training was free.

I think a modern application of Jesus' statement to take our moneybags and knapsacks with us may be to work jobs that we are skilled in or to raise some measure of financial support for the journey ahead of time. We should also reasonably plan out how to make ends meet financially as we join Jesus in His mission. We should take leaps of faith in church planting intentionally and with prior preparation, planning, and prayer, but I think that expecting every church plant to have a $300,000 to $500,000 price tag is simply unreasonable and unsustainable.

So how do we get away from the thought that every new church is a half-million dollar project? How do we set better goals for the resources we really need to start churches that are faithful to Jesus? What do we really need to take with us?

A Brighter Future for Churches in the U.S.: A Lesson from the Early Methodists

If we put our trust in the idea that we are a priesthood of all believers in Christ, we do not need pastors to start new churches. To start a church, you only need a group of people who have surrendered to Jesus as Lord, and who are committed to living out the four marks of a church together (which my own denomination describes as follows): (1) the Word of God is preached in
its purity, (2) the sacraments are administered in their integrity, (3), scriptural discipline is
practiced, and (4) loving fellowship is maintained.[3]

What if new churches could start, and then pastors could be brought on board once there are enough people to actually support a pastor and the pastor's family? We have seen this happen before, and it worked.

In his book, The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch mentions that Methodists went from being 2% of the U.S. population in 1776 to 35% of the U.S. population by 1850.[4] They did this by sending out normal people to start Methodist societies in frontier towns all over the place in hopes that churches would eventually start there. Sure enough, churches did start out of the societies - so many that circuit riders had to cover large distances to preach at three or four churches so that those congregations could hear the Bible preached!

I think the brilliance of the early Methodists was that they understood Jesus' call to go, and they went in a way that matched the economics of the frontier and the early United States. It was sustainable. Admittedly, it was also chaotic and risky. Presbyterians, on the other hand, did not take many risks in this regard. They did not grow to become 35% of the U.S. population, or I would be writing about them instead of the Methodists.

One of the key differences was that you did not have to have four years of formal theological training to start a society, which was actually starting a church. I still think training is essential for people who desire to start new churches, but we need to make that training accessible to everyday people.

So what happens if normal people take up Jesus' call to go everywhere? What happens when every apartment complex in a city becomes a potential church plant? I think it will be a new day for God's Church in the U.S.A. --especially in cities.

The chaotic, rapid multiplication and growth of God's Kingdom is built into the Church by God Himself. It is like mustard that grows into a tree over everything else in the garden. It is like a pinch of yeast that leavens ten gallons of dough and can make enough bread to feed 100 people. It is like buried treasure that someone will sell all they have to obtain it.

May we believe that Jesus is that good, and that His Kingdom is that powerful! May we train and send God's people to plant churches again!

May God's Kingdom grow like kudzu.

  1. Ronsvalle, John L., Sylvia Ronsvalle, The State of Church Giving through 2013: Crisis or Potential?. Champagne, Il., empty tomb, inc.: 2015. 63-64. Note that data for a given fiscal year is released roughly two years after the end of the fiscal year in review due to time spent on data aggregation and analysis. ↩︎

  2. U.S. Census Bureau, "Median Household Income in the United States", Sept. 14, 2017, accessed on 06/16/2019 at 10:00am ↩︎

  3. Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Book of Order, 2016-2017 edition, "Essentials of our Faith". iii. ↩︎

  4. Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating Apostolic Movements, Second Edition, Introduction. Grand Rapids, Brazos Press: 2016. 6. ↩︎