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Is there really a need for new churches in the US?

November 28, 2011

In many neighborhoods and communities in the United States it can seem that there is already a church on every street corner. Why in the world do we need to start new churches? Are not many new churches already being started? Should we not focus on ensuring the health of churches that are already existing?

The answers to these questions lie in straightforward observation of the basic statistics. The United States is the largest post-Christian nation on earth, and the fourth largest unchurched nation immediately after China, India, and Indonesia. In 1900 there were 28 churches for every 10,000 Americans but in 2000 there were only 17 churches for every 10,000 Americans. No county in America has seen a decrease in the unchurched population over the past decade. 64,000 communities have absolutely no evangelical church present. In fact, churches of all denominations see 72 churches per week cease to exist. These same denominations plant around 24 new churches per week. This means the North American church sees a net loss of 48 churches per week. If this rate of decrease continues we will see the absolute extinction of Christianity in North America within this century.

Now many try to make the case that perhaps larger churches are merely outcompeting smaller churches in a way that will be healthy for the Kingdom in the long-run. Perhaps the focus needs to be on helping smaller churches become more like their burgeoning neighbors.

While admittedly many smaller, dying churches are unhealthy, one problem with this theory is that it relies on an assumption of a basic kind of health in American mega-churches. In reality, while the market-share of mega-churches increases in North America drastically every year, half of all churches in the United States had no conversion growth whatsoever last year. In fact, growth of evangelical churches as a whole is a pathetic 2% which is not even outpacing population growth. This means we are not even reaching our children with the gospel! If the mega-churches are healthier than small churches, their influence still isn’t enough to have an evangelistic impact.

Another problem with this theory, however, involves the actual fruit of the mega-church movement. One study shows that mega-churches of an average size of 2856 saw on average 112 people come to Jesus over five years. Micro-churches of an average size of 51 (many of which are new church plants) saw on average 32 people come to Jesus over five years. This means that while there are many things mega-churches do well, in fact so much better than other churches that they are cornering the market on North American Christianity, one of the things they do not do well is evangelism. The micro-churches (read this church plants) are 1600% more effective evangelistically!

Simply put, the most effective evangelism strategy on earth is church planting. If we are really serious about reaching the lost in North America we must be passionate about planting churches. The last time the focus of the Church shifted so drastically towards a mega-church church model was the building of the great cathedrals in Europe right before the colossal collapse of Christianity in Western Europe inebriated by its own boredom.

In conclusion, perhaps it is more helpful to think of church planting in terms of saturation. The Lausanne Congress in the 1970’s set the international saturation goal to consider an area to be “churched” as one church per 500 people. Currently the national average is one church per 909 people. So, even if all of the current churches were perfectly healthy, we would still nearly need to double our number of churches in the United States just to be a truly saturated missions field. Granted, in some counties of the United States (particularly in the south) we have achieved saturation. In some northern and urban counties, however, the numbers are even more startling than the national average. In the Chicagoland area, for example, Christians of all denominations would have to start over 11,000 new congregations to reach the saturation goal.

What is your local church doing to help reproduce itself? What species of organism can truly be considered healthy if it has no plan for reproduction? Indeed, starting new churches will be challenging and costly. Everything Jesus ever asks us to do in obedience to him is. Starting new churches, however, is the best gage for the health of an existing church, and the best way to ensure that the church’s ministry impact will be broadened and exist well into the future. Please, for the sake of Jesus’ Kingdom, encourage your local church to be involved in church planting, and find a way for yourself personally to become engaged as well.

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