My wife and I, with five other couples planted a church in 2002. In the weeks before we began, two friends took me aside separately to admonish us, “don’t we already have enough churches in Spokane? Do we really need more?”
There are at least two reasons why their question was wrong. First, there are about 450,000 people in our metropolitan area but only about twenty percent of the population attend church on any given Sunday. We live in one of the most unchurched counties in the United States.
Of those who attend church at least half are either Mormon or Roman Catholic. That means that about ten percent of the population will attend a Protestant church on any given Sunday, but only about half of those (5% of the total population) are evangelicals. The others are liberals of one kind or another. Yes, there are a lot of churches in our area, but all of this points to one profound truth. We need more church plants!
But there is a second reason we need more church plants. Of the 100 to two hundred evangelical congregations in our area, many are at the end of their useful lifespan and are either becoming liberal or closing their doors. They need to be replaced.
Studies show that the average life of a local church is about eighty years. In his book, American Church in Crisis, David Olson notes that 3,700 American churches close their doors every year, but only 4,000 get planted. Because a considerable number of the new plants don’t survive, there is no gain. Instead, there is a net loss.
Therefore, besides the small number of evangelicals, a second reason to plant churches is that God has designed a unique form of “spiritual obsolescence” into the existing churches that necessitates the constant planting of new ones. This spiritual obsolescence doesn’t just apply to churches but to every Christian institution.
A Classic Example
John Harvard graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge in the 1630s. Seeking to escape religious persecution under King Charles I, he joined the Puritan migration to Massachusetts Bay.
The records show that in 1636 he donated “777 Pounds and 400 academic volumes” to start a university for the training of Puritan ministers in the New World. Harvard’s original Rules and Precepts read, “The main end of the scholar’s life and studies, is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life. Therefore, to lay Christ in the bottom is the only foundation of all sound knowledge and harmony.”
For its first 75 years Harvard pursued this heavenly mandate. It was primarily a Divinity school for the education and preparation of Congregational ministers. Gradually the college added other academic disciplines. By the time of the American Revolution, 140 years later, it had morphed from a college to a full-fledged university creeping towards unbelief and secularism. It had already cast off its founder’s vision. Today Harvard is the seat of New England secularism and is aggressively opposed to the gospel.
How often is this the case? We have all witnessed it. The University of Southern California, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, and Duke University were all founded by 19th century Methodists to impart a biblical worldview. But today that original vision and purpose is long abandoned.
So short is the spiritual vibrancy of most Christian organizations that the Methodists might have set the record. Founded by John Wesley during the Great Awakening of the 1740s, they maintained a vibrant gospel witness until about 1920. This might be a denominational record.
In the same way, we can all point to churches with beautiful facilities, that once housed thriving congregations, with only a handful of elderly now attending.
In the last half of the nineteenth century Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle was the world’s largest evangelical church. It pulsated with gospel life. Today it is a mere shell of it’s former glory. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Westminster Chapel is its twentieth century counterpart. Since Lloyd-Jones’ retirement in the late 1960s, it too has fallen upon hard spiritual times.
“Churches typically plateau in attendance by their fifteenth year,” notes Ed Stetzer, “and by about thirty-five years they begin having trouble replacing the members they lose. Plus, the more established a church is, the older the average age of both its pastor and its people, often far older than the surrounding community.”
Sadly, many churches have large congregations bustling with activity, but in many cases are spiritually dead. In the hustle and bustle of a thousand good works they have lost the centrality of the gospel. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he addressed Laodicea?
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:15–17).
Religious activity does not equal spiritual life. In fact, it can unintendedly cover up the absence of spiritual life.
The manufacturing world uses the term “planned obsolescence” to describe the policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing. It is achieved by frequent changes in design, refusal to inventory spare parts, and the use of materials and technologies that eventually become obsolete. The result is that the old product needs to be replaced, and that means new sales.
God has designed something similar into the church. With only a few exceptions, Churches, if they go on long enough, lose vital contact with the gospel and then slowly begin to wither and die.
In some cases, these churches can be revitalized. But this is only possible when a significant percentage of the congregation loves the Bible, loves the gospel, and wants to be humbled by the knowledge of their sins enough to call a pastor that will challenge them.
However, in many cases the church is beyond revitalization. That is because the gospel is a fragile flower. It quickly wilts under the heat of human pride. One manifestation of pride is the desire for respectability. But there is nothing respectable about the gospel. The gospel aggressively attacks our feeling of respectability. It reduces everyone, ditch digger and heart surgeon, to the same level at the foot of the cross.
The desire to simultaneously believe the gospel and think that God loves us because we are good, will always assassinate the former. Belief in the gospel and belief in my goodness are incompatible. That is because the gospel is inherently humbling. Should an attempt be made to revitalize a church when the majority are in this condition, it will result in all-out war against those preaching the gospel. At best there will be a church split. At worse the new pastor will leave badly bruised and discouraged.
Here is how the slow progress of spiritual obsolescence works. Filled with zeal for the gospel, and the salvation of souls, a pastor plants a church. The conversion rate is high. Many baptisms occur. Gospel joy permeates the congregation.
But eventually, he dies, retires, or moves to a new congregation. New leadership replaces him. Sometimes the new leader continues the original church planter’s mission, and gospel clarity continues for multiple decades. Sometimes he shares only some of the original pastor’s gospel clarity. At other times he shares none of it. Either way, eventually the local church returns to the dust from which it came. Hopefully, many decades pass before this happens.
I am aware of only two churches that have maintained a gospel witness for at least two hundred years. One is Park Street Church in Boston. The other is Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh, Scotland. I am sure there are others of which I am not aware, but the important point is that this is rare.
All of this begs a crucial question. Why does God allow churches to eventually decline this way?
It is not because God doesn’t love churches. The local church is God’s battle tank. It is his ultimate spiritual weapon. Through it God defeats his enemies in time and space. God has burned his bridges. He has no tool for the dissemination of the gospel to the world but local churches. God loves local churches.
It is not because God does not want us involved in local churches, or similar Christian institutions. Just the opposite. God wants us actively serving Christian institutions.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25).
So then, why the short shelf-life of local churches?
In addition, God has no animus towards large churches. As long as they preach the gospel from a posture of need, he will use them. Human sin, not size, is the problem.
The reason for the decline is simple. We turn churches, and other Christian institutions, into idols. The normal human tendency is to look to them to provide what only God can—security, meaning, and identity. The human temptation is to trust any large prosperous human institution. That includes churches, seminaries, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, etc.. But that is not God’s plan.
“Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land” (Jeremiah 17:5–6).
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146:3).
Because we are sinners, we quickly slide into idolatry. We quickly trust the material and the human. Because it is contrary to human nature to heed the warning of Jeremiah 17, God withers the organizations of men and injects spiritual life into new ones. If he continually imparted fresh life to the same organization over many generations it would become so large, effective, and powerful that we would be tempted to worship it rather than God. In the inimitable words of the great Puritan, Thomas Watson:
“What we make our trust, God makes our shame. The sheep run to the hedges for shelter, and they lose their wool; so we have run to second causes to help us, and have lost much of our golden fleece; they have not only been reeds to fail us, but thorns to prick us.”
I recently attended a church plant that was less than a year old. On a good Sunday they have 80 in attendance. On a bad Sunday 40. They meet in a grade school gym. They are able to squeak just enough money from their budget to pay their pastor a modest salary and cover the rent. These people are needy. They need God and they need new converts. They need everything, and so they cling to Christ in a desperate way that people in more established churches may not do.
The tower of Babel is a good example of this principle. God commanded the descendants of Noah to disburse. They were to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1). Instead, they hunkered down in Babel and built a city to “make a name for themselves” (Gen. 11:3-4). So, God disbursed them. Small, decentralized institutions depend upon God. They turn to God.
It was the same when the Jews entered the Promised Land. God gave them no centralized government. God was their king, and as needed he raised up judges to mediate his rule to them.
Even the Kingdom of David only lasted less than 400 years, and the last 300 were mostly spent in spiritual futility. They had died spiritually decades before the Babylonian armies carried them off.
It is the same in the New Testament. Jesus left no large structured organization. Instead, he blew Life into the apostles and scattered them on mission. It was five hundred years before the church centralized into something resembling Catholicism today. In the meantime church government was local and decentralized.
In the same way, God has established the duration and border of every nation state (Acts 17:26). He has stamped an expiration date on it. (That includes the U.S.). Only the Kingdom of God is eternal and ever growing (Dan 2:44).
God does not want us taking ultimate shelter in human institutions. He wants to bless his people, but he can only bless those whose trust and confidence is himself.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7–8).
All of this means that we are in desperate need of church plants, and the need will never cease. We need them because the current number of churches are insufficient to evangelize the masses. We need them because we are not planting enough to replace those that are dying. They are dying because God has inserted a form of planned spiritual obsolescence into the DNA of each local church. None will prosper forever.
“The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations,” notes Tim Keller, “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.”
In conclusion, let us not be discouraged. Instead, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 10:38). The old saying is still true. God has no grandchildren. Every Christian must enter God’s family through a personal encounter with God the Father. We cannot rest on the labors of previous generations. We need, and always will need, fresh church plants.