Why Plant a New Church in the Bible Belt?

by Jeff Lawrence May 13, 2015

I heard it again. This time from a pastor who remarked that we don’t need church plants because we have great churches here. This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this claim, and it won’t be the last. It’s a good reminder that we must continually cast the vision for why new churches are needed in the Bible Belt.

The pastor’s statement reveals both a general lack of understanding of church planting and a specific lack of awareness of the changes taking place in many cities. If Christ’s church is to be all she’s designed to be for the next generation, we need as many churches, pastors, and people engaged in the planting of new churches as possible.

Tim Keller will go down as one of the most influential church leaders in our generation. His take on church planting? Keller writes:

 “The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for 1) the numerical growth of the Body of Christ in any city, and 2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else–not crusades, outreach programs, para-church ministries, growing mega-churches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes–will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting. This is an eyebrow raising statement. But to those who have done any study at all, it is not even controversial.” [1]

As I explain to others the heart of church planting, here are some ideas I’ve found to be helpful.

Every Church Was a Church Plant

This acknowledgement is important to demystify some confusion about church planting. What about the church where you grew up? Yes, it was once a church plant. The church you now attend? Yep, church plant. The church led by the pastor who made the comment above was also a church plant, and I imagine that someone at the time didn’t think it was needed. Yet the years have shown how that church has been a tremendous blessing to our city.

We Need to Add a Megachurch Per Month

Bible Belt cities mirror the rapid growth of major cities around the globe. A Guardian newspaper article in Great Britain states, “According to the United Nations, almost 180,000 people move into cities across the world every day. That is nearly 5.5 million people a month, or a new San Francisco Bay Area being created every 30 days.” [2] It seems ludicrous to think that our current slate of churches are poised to minister to the 180,000 people per day moving into our cities.

While the global stats are overwhelming, the cities of America’s Bible Belt are experiencing similar shifts that are the localized versions of these global trends. These changes impact rural and mid-sized towns as well as large urban centers, and the church will have to adjust to meet the needs of each of these communities.

A recent article in The Oklahoman claims that Oklahoma City area, where I pastor, is growing by 1729 people per month.[3] Yes, per month. How will the church keep up with population growth? Numerically, we need to add nearly a new megachurch per month just to keep up with all the new people moving into the area. Add into the equation the hundreds of thousands already here who do not know Jesus, and you start to get a sense of the burden we should feel for planting new churches.

I first heard this phrase, “add a megachurch a month,” from Bruce Wesley, lead pastor of Clear Creek Community Church, a church of 5,000+ which celebrated it’s 20 year anniversary not long ago. His region—the Houston area—is growing by about 2500 per month, so Bruce and Clear Creek Community Church are seeking to empower a church planting movement that continually sees new churches launched in order to increase the gospel reach into this huge metroplex. We need more pastors of established churches with eyes to see these needs and a gospel-compelled passion to launch new churches.

New Churches are the Best Way to Reach Unchurched People

Studies reveal that the average new church gains 60-80% of its members from unchurched people. Churches that have existed 10-15 years or more gain 80-90% from people who transfer from one congregation to another. [4] This data backs up Keller’s claim above regarding the centrality of church planting to gospel mission.

I’m not against established churches. I’ve been doing ministry for nearly twenty years, almost all of that time has been invested in existing churches. And let me state the obvious: each church plant will become an established church. We share the same mission, but the ministry works itself out in different ways. Each church needs to enjoy and maximize the ministry God has given her. Our cities need both.

The “Bible Belt” is Loosening

For the first time in 200 years, Bible Belt states have seen a decline in the percentage of people attending church. This doesn’t mean we need to panic, but it does argue against the idea that we only need new churches in other parts of our world.

A friend pastors a church in an area where the church has been greatly marginalized. In a recent conversation, he mentioned to me that only 11% of the people in his city go to church. Obviously, new churches are needed in his region. But it does not follow that towns where 22% of the people attend church do not need new churches. Both places need new churches. A hungry person who only eats one meal in ten needs nourishment, but so does a hungry person who has two meals out of ten. Both are hungry for more.

Biblical mandate and practical experience both point to church planting as the primary way that Christ’s kingdom advances. We need more biblical, healthy, gospel-centered, people-loving churches, not less.

Footnotes:

[1] “Why Plant Churches,” by Tim Keller.

[2] Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church, by Justin Buzzard and Stephen T. Um. If you want more statistics and more clarity on this topic, I’d encourage you to pick up this book.

[3] The Oklahoman, titled “OKC’s rise in population rankings reflects job growth, official says.”

[4] “Why Plant Churches,” by Tim Keller.