Today’s guest post is from Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.
In my research role, I’m always taking in data and observing practices and trying to note patterns and trends. This is challenging and fun at the same time. I also see it as informational, as noting trends help churches and Christians see what is current, what practices are working or not working, what we are dealing with, where we are, and where we are headed.
Today, I’m looking at 5 Future Trends of Church Planting. If you’re a new planter, first starting the process, or still praying it through I hope this is helpful to you. (It’s also worth checking out the Church Planter Candidate Assessment tool. It’s “a statistically validated online assessment instrument which helps potential church planters and their respective organizations identify areas of established strength and other areas needing development as they prepare to plant a church.”)
Thom Rainer has stated, “Trend prediction is both an art and a science.” The science is the data and the art is the practice. And by putting the two together we can see current trends and predict future movement.
With culture seemingly changing at the speed of light, church planters (and those who train and support them) cannot be over-aware of the trends new churches will face.
Here are five things we are seeing now and will continue to see as we move further along in the 21st century post-Christian America.
Each trend has a brief caution—not to indicate that I do not affirm much of the trends—but to acknowledge possible unintended side effects to consider.
1. Becoming more technical and strategic.
When I planted my first church in Buffalo, NY, there were no church planting assessmentsfor me to take or boot camps for me to attend. In fact, not many resources were available on the subject of church planting. But that has certainly changed over the past 25 years.
Now there are myriads of books, articles, websites, networks, associations, and denominations putting out information on church planting. If you plan on planting through a network, association, and/or denomination you must prepare yourself to be assessed, trained, coached, and mentored. I am grateful for the strides many have made to invest in church planters and help prepare them for the challenges that they will face. However, I have two particular cautions associated with this trend.
First, “A horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory comes from the LORD” (Proverbs 21:31, HCSB).
Church planting is a spiritual endeavor, not only a technical one. The techniques and strategies that go into preparing and training one to plant are only tools and principles that are meant to equip and aid a church planter; they are not meant to be an idol or a savior.
Second, people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (2 Samuel 16:7, paraphrase).
Assessments are great tools to indicate one’s skill set and giftedness, but they should not be the spiritual litmus test of whether or not one has the call of God on their life to plant a church. There are biblical qualifcations and a spritual call that both matter.
2. Becoming more urban.
It’s not a secret anymore that people are moving to cities. And the migration to cities has led to an urban church planting mission’s strategy among many evangelicals. In my own denomination, NAMB (North American Mission Board) has launched a SEND strategytargeting key cities throughout North America to concentrate its church planting efforts.
Tim Keller is also a big proponent of targeting cities with the gospel through church planting. As a result, Redeemer City to City was created as a missions arm to facilitate church planting efforts throughout the cities of the world. When it comes to evangelicals being urban-centric in their mission’s focus, the thinking goes like this, “Reach the cities, reach the world; reach the cities, influence culture.”
I fully believe in this strategy and actively support it. The only exhortation I would offer is not to be so urban focused that gospel church planting is suctioned out of smaller cities, towns, and communities. There are still areas outside of major urban centers and their metroplexes that are in desperate need of new church plants and church revitalizations.
There is no reason to be either/or on this issue. It’s both/and. I’ll be sharing more about rural church planting in an upcoming post; just know I also fully support prioritizing urban centers.
3. Becoming more modular.
Just as there are different styles for preaching, such as expository and topical, there are also different styles or methods for church planting. Check this series where I outlined five common models of church planting.
Since there are various models to choose from—models that are accompanied with their own resources, proponents, books, conferences, strengths, and weaknesses—church planters have the option of choosing the one that best suits their style, giftedness, context, and resources.
One of the cautions we must keep in mind with regard to models is that they too are only a tool, not something to place one’s hope in.
4. Becoming more bi-vocational.
A challenge that has always existed in planting churches is resources, or the lack thereof. This challenge existed in the Apostle Paul’s ministry, and it continues to exist today. Many church plants and planters are vocational, which means they are funded by a denomination or network (or both) and personal support. However, in recent years the need for a planter to be bi-vocational, or a tentmaker, has increased.
There are two particular reasons for this. First, many denominations and networks embrace more of a shotgun approach to dispersing funds. While a shotgun makes a large impact, in some cases the impact doesn’t go as deep. As a result, many church planters are supported, but are in need of having additional support. And if they are not able to raise the additional support that is needed, they are left with the only alternative—getting a job.
Second, in some cases, due to the difficulty of the context, many church plants struggle to become self-sufficient years into existence. I have said before that if a church cannot become self-sufficient in at least five years then a bi-vocational strategy is almost certainly the best approach.
To help this trend and aid future church planters for bi-vocational tentmaking, I would love to see more colleges and seminaries have educational tracks that equip potential church planters with a theological and missiological foundation as well as a vocational platform.
And, one small caution—we can’t do bivocational church planting and expect the pastors to act like the vocational ones. Training will need to be online, relationships maintained in new ways, and more.
5. Becoming more diverse.
The North American racial and ethnic landscape has dramatically changed over the last few decades. The influx of immigrants and their migration to North American cities has led and will continue to spur the need for church planting efforts to embrace and enact diversity—especially for a church planting effort to be effective in urban and diverse settings.
Some church planting networks have been created to champion multiethnic church planting and development, including Rebuild and Kainos, while existing networks, like Acts 29, make becoming a “radically diverse crowd” a core value. We will continue to see a rise in more multiracial, multicultural, and multiethnic church plants in the coming years.
The only caution I will note comes from Derwin Gray, a multicultural church planter himself, who worries leaders may have a tendency to support diversity for pragmatic rather than theological reasons. As a result, Derwin asserts, “We shouldn’t long for racial [or any form of] diversity—we should long for the proclamation of Jesus, which creates ethnic diversity. The Apostle Paul didn’t start one church for Jews and one church for Gentiles in the New Testament. The Gospel brought people together.”
Only a gospel-centeredness with a missional posture will create authentic, God-glorifying diversity. We must keep in mind diversity isn’t the goal of the church, but a manifestation within a church striving towards its goal. (For more on diversity in the church, read “Segregation and the Church: From Where We’ve Come.”)
Have you seen these trends in church planting as well? What other shifts have you seen taking place?