The future of church growth may look like its past.
The very first Christians met in homes. The church grew through social networks and intimate interpersonal attachments. It multiplied as believers moved from one area to another starting churches wherever they went. A sea change appears to be underway in the American church returning it to its roots. The megachurch model that began in the 1970s is giving way to church planting and multiplication.
A study from Warren Bird and Dale Travis for the Leadership Network found 83 percent of pastors under age 40 “have a future vision to plant/launch.” The researchers call the findings “astounding” and “a dramatic change.”
Travis is the CEO of Leadership Network.
“When I joined Leadership Network in 1995, senior pastors of larger churches of that era desired to grow a single site and hoped for 3,000 seats in one venue where they could do two Sunday services to meet the demand. Many eventually did. Now when I meet with our Next Generation Pastors LeaderGroups, the dream has changed. Now their question is: How do we add our second and third sites to reach more people? These younger leaders now aspire not for a larger congregation on a single campus, but for a church that reaches more people across a wider geographical stance.”
The researchers consider their findings “big news” because it implies a value shift among younger pastors. It forecasts more reproduction through multisites and church planting, often with a multiplication bias that those new locations will in turn birth still others.
The research also discovered that church planters and campus pastors in their first five years at a church are 2.3 times more likely to have a vision to plant/launch than pastors who have been at the same church more than 10 years.
Bird and Travis have some theories on this finding including:
- This statistic speaks to the fresh thinking that a pastor brings to a newly launched church or campus.
- Newer pastors tend to be younger and younger generations think multiplication before “mega” size.
They also admit that their research sample is focused on growing, thriving churches as opposed to a random-sample group. The growth bias likely influenced the results. Even so, they say the differences are dramatic between aspirations of church planters or campus pastors at a new site versus longer-term pastors.
This wave of young pastors focused on church planting and multiplication will have to deal with a challenge that faces all new startups: sustainability.
Estimates vary widely on the survivability of church plants. A study from the North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention of over 1,000 churches (from 11 evangelical networks and denominations) to discover the factors leading to church plant survivability and health revealed that around 68 percent of church plants still exist four years after having been started.
Church planter Frank Viola believes the average lifespan of a house church is only six months to two years.
And some may wonder if new church plants are simply keeping up with established church closures. Southern Baptist researcher Thom Rainer believes between 8,000 and 10,000 churches close every year.
Numbers aside, many believe new plants are more effective at winning souls. “The church planting study indicates newly planted churches are more effective than existing ones at drawing people who aren’t connected with a church,” said Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research executive director.
“In winning new converts to Christ, church plants are light years ahead of the average church because of their focus on reaching the unchurched,” Stetzer said.
The church has always faced challenges and has always found ways to continue to spread the gospel in a changing world. This latest research indicates that old is new again as church leaders return to the first lesson of growth—by planting churches and multiplying.