I join most of Christendom in celebrating the spread of the gospel through the planting of Bible believing churches—whether Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Non-denominational or of any other affiliation. But when it comes to the type of church plants I wish to financially support through the Cooperative Program and special offering gifts, my strong preference is to establish churches profoundly committed to the traditional practices and beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention.
By this I mean churches committed to a “Billy Graham” type of salvation doctrine, a congregational type of polity, a view of God’s love that is unconditional, a view of the atonement that is unlimited, and a mission strategy that prioritizes the harvesting of souls in regions receptive to the gospel while still seeking to push back the frontier of lostness in regions that are not at all receptive.
Recent reports that Southern Baptists are planting more churches but experiencing fewer converts are troubling on many levels, not the least of which is the distinct possibility that we are measuring our progress using an inappropriate metric. Are we really better off if we plant four churches with 25 in attendance than if we plant one church with 100 in attendance? Is our commission to make as many disciples as we possibly can or to start as many churches as we possibly can?
Has our laser focus on starting new churches actually produced the kind of results envisioned when we restructured our North American Mission Board to become primarily a church-planting network? Starting new churches was never the goal, but was simply the means to the end of making more disciples. But if we are not truly making more disciples, should we not reevaluate our strategy in order to determine if there is something about our current approach we may be missing?
I am certainly familiar with research over many years indicating that new churches reach people at a faster rate than established ones. Logically, this still holds true, even in areas saturated with an artificially high number of church plants generated by an intentional and strongly funded strategy. Generally, the church planting pastor will have fewer committee meetings to attend, fewer worship services to plan, fewer weddings and funerals to perform and fewer hospital visits to make. Until you have gathered a congregation, evangelism is pretty much all you have to do all day long. It only stands to reason that you will reach people at a faster rate.
However, with regard to our historic strategy of starting new churches to produce greater evangelistic effectiveness, a few questions arise. Is it not true that all our research pointing to the great success of church planting in producing evangelism was gathered during time periods in which new starts were primarily located in areas quite receptive to the gospel? Is it not also true that at no time in our history have we ever attempted such an aggressive number of church plants using such a direct and intentional approach targeting certain geographic areas? Since this is a new approach, perhaps some of the established research is less than applicable.
On the one hand, planting new churches is something we should clearly celebrate. “Look how many churches we are intentionally planting for the kingdom!” But on the other hand, if we are not reaching more people through the planting of all of these churches, we should think critically about this fact and logically ask why. Is it possible that we are placing in our urban cities a greater number of church plants than has ever been experienced by the Spirit-led spread of the gospel in earlier periods of time? Is it possible that too many of our churches are being planted in the wrong locations if our goal is to reach the greatest number of souls for Christ?
Another worthy question concerns the type of churches we are starting in these urban areas. Some have referred to them as Starbucks churches or Hotel California churches. I do not pretend to understand all that is meant by such expressions, but I think people are trying to capture the vibe of a small, cool, edgy, somewhat more socially liberal approach to reaching a more northern and urban demographic. Such churches do not typically embrace what one might call Southern Baptist culture. They almost always shun the term Baptist in their name. It is fair to assume that they are not starting many church choirs or WMU groups. Placing great emphasis upon these types of churches may not be the best way to build our denomination.
While we may need one or two churches like these in each major city, we should think long and hard before planting a dozen or more, especially when the same resources could be applied to suburban church plants in receptive areas that might produce more evangelistic fruit and reach more people for the kingdom of God.
Many more questions exist about the prevailing theology in such churches, along with the existence of various co-sponsoring organizations outside of Baptist life that may actually exert greater influence upon the church planting pastor’s vision and ministry than his connection with the Southern Baptist Convention. These and other concerns have been expressed before, will be expressed again and can simply wait for another day. For now, it is more than enough for us to contemplate the fact that Southern Baptists are starting more churches and seeing fewer converts. That alone should tell us it is time to go back to the proverbial drawing board. Perhaps we can modify our strategy and make many more disciples in our church planting.