I just received in the post my latest edition of The Briefing which contains an article by Richard Coekin arguing (as he has done for a long time) that planting is the most effective strategy for making disciples and reaching the lost. I would love to see a bit more of a two way discussion on this. It seems the runaway planting freight train has gathered unstoppable momentum – like Grandma and Apple pie – you just shouldn’t question it. But I’m not so sure. Don’t mishear me – I’m pro-planting if the context and conditions are right. But I’m not sure that planting is the only or even best solution in every case. And I’m not sure that planting is necessarily the most effective way to make disciples and reach the lost. Coekin gives four reasons why planting is better for evangelism and discipleship. Apparently it’s well established, but I’m not sure how you quantify something that is really qualitative at core. These are:
- Planted churches are more urgent about growth. But large churches too can be urgent about growth as the New Frontiers gang have shown. Sure, some are stuck in their ways, and are happy to plateau, but many thriving growing churches are thriving and growing precisely because they’re serious about growth in numbers and depth.
- Planted churches adapt to their culture better. Large churches too work very hard at being relevant, accessible, and attractive. That’s why they’ve grown large – because they are.
- Visitors feel more comfortable in a plant rather than trying to fit in to long established traditions of larger churches. But aren’t we talking about certain types of larger church here (whisper it – “Anglican”). Newer large churches have grown because they work crazy hard at attracting, welcoming, retaining, and integrating new people. New people get a warm welcome and excellent follow up in churches that have managed to grow large. Further, many visitors perceive a safe anonymity in a larger church – slip in at the back and no-one will notice (actually they will notice, but you’re over the threshold then).
- Younger outsiders may be more persuaded to try a new church. Yes, and they might equally be persuaded to try an exciting and vibrant large one.
Of course there’s an excitement and energy about new plants, and they do tend to grow fast but there are a few other factors to be aware of:
- What happens after the first five years? This is when plants grow fastest – everyone’s excited and works hard, but the honeymoon will end – what then? Do you plant again? And then five years later do the two churches plant again into a town, then five years later four, then eight, then sixteen. Is there a saturation point?
- What about the ‘mother-kirks’. How do they feel? What’s it like to have your guts ripped out every five years – when all the best people move half a mile down the road and you’re left to pick up the pieces. Anecdotally I know some get pretty cheesed off with this fairly quickly.
- Should the church be involved in more than evangelism and disciple making. Plants spend all their money supporting a pastor-teacher – they simply never get big enough to support a larger staff team with specialists. That’s firstly a lonely call on the pastors, and secondly means that a church never runs debt counselling centres, or community projects, or crisis teams etc etc. You may not think that’s what the church is for – actually part of the answer to some of this is working out what you think the church ought to be doing in the world.
- What happens to plants that fail? How does it feel to be shut down after a few years? What are the unintended consequences of an aggressive planting strategy?
And finally here’s a few thoughts on things large churches can do that small ones can’t:
- Have a large community influence or footprint. Larger churches, because they can afford specialist staff and programmes, have a significantly larger impact on local communities. One church I know ministers to women who are regularly referred in by health visitors, social workers, etc. Again, you may not think the church ought to be involved in that sort of thing, but that church is improving it’s community, bettering individual lives, providing a plausibility structure for the gospel, and seeing these kinds of folk come to Christ.
- Resource the wider church. Without larger churches some of our favourite conferences and courses would never arise.
- Maintain standards of excellence in various midweek and Sunday programmes – excellence honours God, inspires people, and is attractive to outsiders.
- Provides sustainable means and modes of service. People can serve in one or two areas, be trained and equipped, and not feel like they have to do everything all the time.
At the end of the day these are just thoughts. I have some limited experience in both environments and I’m still learning the ropes, but it would be good to see some of this stuff debated rather than dismissed, for the sake of the mission and glory of God in our nation.