Study: Unprecedented Growth Possible in Next 30 Years

church planting

In America, the fields are ripe for harvest but there aren’t enough churches to meet people’s needs. That’s the key finding of a report titled “The Great Opportunity,” commissioned by the Pinetops Foundation. During the next three decades, it predicts, America’s church planting rate must double to maintain current levels of churchgoing. Reasons include the high rate of church closures, continued population growth, an increase in unaffiliated worshipers, and a wave of young people leaving Christianity.

“The next 30 years will represent the largest missions opportunity in the history of America,” the report states. “If we return to retention and evangelism like we saw just 20 years ago, more people will be saved than during both Great Awakenings, the African-American church growth after the Civil War, the Azusa revivals, and Billy Graham outreaches—combined. The numbers are just that big.”

Beginning as a countrywide listening tour, “The Great Opportunity” gleaned insights from a wide variety of pastors, theologians and other leaders from a variety of denominations. People’s responses focused mainly on current needs rather than on how to grow the church during the next 30 years. Sensing that the church’s “fruitfulness in America was not what it once was or could be,” researchers started conversations about “how we might do better in that mission.” In the process, they countered arguments that the American church could benefit from some pruning, noting that “a contracting church is very unlikely to be a fruitful church.”

Church Planting in a Shifting Religious Landscape

Although 4,000 new churches are launched in America annually, a staggering 3,700 churches close each year. Meanwhile, the U.S. population is expected to top 400 million by 2050. By the same year, the number of unaffiliated believers in America could nearly double, from 17 percent to 30 percent. And an estimated 35 million young people raised in Christian homes will walk away from the faith. The return to church that typically occurs when people begin their own families will be “more than offset by departures” from Christianity, the report warns.

The projections aren’t all bleak, however. “If we can return the church’s retention back to Gen X rates, we will see over 16 million more youth begin or continue a life with Jesus,” the report says. For that to happen—and for the religious needs of an increased population to be met—America must “at least double the annual rate of church planting from 4,000 new congregations to over 8,000 per year over the next 30 years.” That requires church planting rates that were common in this country until the 1930s.

Diverse and efficient strategies for beginning congregations are required, too. “The church will need to find new models for lowering the cost of planting while increasing the number of leaders who reflect the increasing diversity of urban populations, all without sacrificing historic orthodoxy,” the report says. “We must engage in a culture that has a substantial portion of its people who no longer think the church is relevant to them, or increasingly, are ignorant of Christian context and language.”

Church Planting’s Growth Mindset

The average church has 186 worshipers each week, yet the median number is only 75. By contrast, “the average well-trained and equipped church plant will grow to an average of 250 weekly participants within four years,” according to the report. And about 42 percent of the congregation will consist of previously unchurched people, including many who were previously unaffiliated. Because of that, the report concludes: “New church plants are perhaps the most effective method for reaching the unchurched.”

The “planting” congregations also benefit: “New church plants that launch daughter churches within their first three to five years average twice as many weekly attendees compared to those that do not replicate.”

To reach the target of doubling U.S. church plants, “The Great Opportunity” offers five recommendations:

  1. Vision casting to recruit and unleash more church planters. This includes looking beyond seminary graduates and focusing on the concept of a hub church that “plants tens if not hundreds of smaller churches.”
  2. Increasing and strengthening multi-platform and virtual training offerings for church planters. Long-term success rates double when planters receive at least a month’s worth of instruction. Digital and cross-denominational training will be key.
  3. Investing in mixed-platform apprentice models. Thanks to video technology, successful church planters can mentor a large number of rookies.
  4. Catalyzing the necessary funding for church planting. Crowdfunding and matching-funds program can help cover the estimated $1 billion needed to plant more than 200,000 churches by the year 2050.
  5. Investing in an online hub or app-based approach that pulls many of these pieces together to mobilize church planting. The Internet and mobile apps can pinpoint geographic needs, match church planters with ideal locations, and more.

Free Church Planting Resources Now Available

Based on findings from “The Great Opportunity” report, church-planting organization Stadia is now offering free services. These include coaching, fundraising training, bookkeeping, document prep and post-launch support. Since 2003, Stadia and its partners have helped launch almost 300 U.S. churches and almost 200 global churches.

Justin Moxley, Stadia’s partnership development executive, spoke with ChurchLeaders about the need for church planting—and some of the challenges involved with the process. “I think church planting is just about as hard as it has ever been,” he says, but “the need continues to grow and grow and grow.” He adds, “Every one of us should be a part of church planting. The question is what role should we play?”

A changing cultural landscape ensures that church planting will never be boring. “There are new expressions of the church that constantly need to be telling the true, same Gospel story,” Moxley says, “just in a way that [unchurched people] can understand and that they can grasp.”Top of FormBottom of Form

The implications of U.S. church planting and growth reach far beyond America’s borders. “It would be a great loss to the world if the American church failed to steward its domestic mandate well,” the report warns. But overall it maintains an optimistic tone, expressing confidence that the church can not only grow but thrive.

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Stephanie Martin
Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 26 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.