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Planting a Church? Start With 12, not 50

It’s a veritable fact of sociology: If you start with a crowd (50-100 people in church planting) you can build a bigger crowd with surprising speed (most megachurches start with at least 50-100 people from another church). Because the 50-100 people bring with them already firmly ensconced expectations of what ‘church’ will be, what results will most probably be more of the same. But revolutions start in smaller, intimate groups where people have a presence with each other. The conversations germinate something new and contextual. It takes longer. But it develops something truly interwoven and sustainable.

Jesus started with 12. If we seek not to replicate more of the same, and to truly engage our changing context, we must go the way of Jesus in church planting. Wouldn’t you agree?

This also applies to changing the culture of an existing church. Often, when we are faced with a church in decline, a leader’s first move is to make the church somehow more relevant. Upgrade music, make worship more contemporary, have a sermon series on sex, etc. etc. We can then take the 50 people or so that are left and draw a new larger crowd. Again, this generally produces more of the same, just updated a bit. Often, it fails. Instead, as we come alongside our churches in decline, I propose we should seek out a smaller group (I like the number 12) and begin to cultivate a conversation, pray together, listening for the Spirit in our midst, begin to train in a mutual way of life where we spend most of our time in the daily rhythms of our neigborhood context, and allow the Spirit to slowly ferment something new. This will take longer. This will take many cups of coffee, calling people into this new exciting life together. But when you find 12, together willing to submit to Jesus as Lord in this context, a truly beautiful manifestation of the Kingdom will erupt (eventually—give it five years). At the outset, this will not generate a buzz of excitement that a larger crowd does. But if cultivated well and consistently, I suggest it promises something new springing forth that no one could have predicted.

I call this the “start with 12” strategy. What do you think? How have you experienced this dynamic? Why do we rarely try this in church turnarounds?  

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.