Theological differences aside, there are few things that divide evangelical and oldline Protestants more so than church planting. While Evangelicals practically require the birthing of new congregations as the sign of a healthy church, oldline Protestants almost completely ignore the practice. It is even possible that some oldline Protestant decline can be traced to a failure to establish new congregations.
Over on Episcopal Café, blogger Jim Naughton recently asked the question: “Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church plant more churches?”
Arizona Episcopal Priest Susan Brown Snook sparked the conversation by pointing out that in 2012, the entire Episcopal Church planted just three congregations. To place that into perspective, since its formation in 2009, the relatively small Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) — which reports one-eighth the attendance of the Episcopal Church — has planted 488 new congregations. My understanding is that most of the other oldline churches are in a similar state – the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) planted a total of four congregations in its most recent reporting year.
It isn’t too surprising that an oldline church would plant less than a newer denomination: oldine churches often have established congregations in most communities (Episcopalians had 6,667 parishes and missions in the most recent reporting year of 2012, while the ACNA reports 926).
The Episcopal Café piece displays a mentality of decline: Naughton writes of the importance of closing existing churches so that resources can be re-directed to promising church starts.
“I don’t think we can plant more [churches] until we close more [churches] freeing up assets and energy,” Naughton suggests. “But closing and merging parishes requires a bishop to spend a lot of political capital, so I can understand why many avoid doing so.”
“But I am also wondering whether the church–perhaps rightly, in some instances–is hesitant to plant more congregations because most traditional congregations are in decline.”
On the contrary, starting new churches first will probably help the existing churches in the same community. Pastor Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church notes: “studies have shown that if there is one church per ten thousand residents, approximately 1 percent of the population will be churchgoers. If this ratio goes to one church per one thousand residents, some 15 to 20 percent of the city’s population goes to church. If the number goes to one per five hundred residents, the number may approach 40 percent or more.”
In short, a rising tide lifts all ships. In Northern Virginia, I’ve long observed a flurry of successful church planting activity, even as the largest congregations – such as McLean Bible Church – continued to grow.
I would also take issue with Naughton’s assertion that the resources freed up by church closures will enable more successful church starts. Studies on church plants show that, over the long-term, larger sums of money devoted to new church starts do not correlate with a substantially higher level of success. If you recruit entrepreneurial young church planters, it might even be to their benefit to be bi-vocational, where they may be more likely to interact with potential future parishioners.
The idea that for one congregation to succeed, another (or two – or three – must fail) is a zero-sum view of church growth. In my own immediate area (D.C.) we’ve seen some examples of this mentality. In the mid-2000s, a large evangelical Episcopal parish, The Falls Church, sought to plant a new congregation in the city of Alexandria.
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, of which The Falls Church was a part, had a policy that new churches could only be planted if the neighboring parishes in the same deanery gave their permission. With about half of Alexandria’s existing Episcopal parishes in decline, The Falls Church was unable to secure support in the deanery for planting in Alexandria. The existing parishes were concerned that a new evangelical parish would siphon away parishioners, and they didn’t want competition.
After departing the Episcopal Diocese, the Falls Church did formally plant Christ the King (CTK) Anglican Church in Alexandria – which recently celebrated its 7th anniversary and has an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 175.
Now, CTK is about twice the size of the closest Episcopal parish, St. Clement, which reports an ASA of about 80 persons. But did establishing a plant nearby pull from St. Clement’s membership? Probably not. The two churches appeal to different groups, and I’d be surprised if there was any movement between them. While St. Clement did report a drop of about 30 persons from its ASA between 2007-2008, its numbers have been stable since, even as CTK has more than doubled in size.
New plants don’t usually siphon significant membership off of existing parishes – instead, they offer a lower barrier to entry, evangelizing new congregants or attracting recent transplants from out of town.
“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,” says Keller. “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.”
Yet in the Episcopal Church there is significant pushback against the planting of new churches. Since late 2006, when The Falls Church and several other congregations departed the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, there have been no new churches planted in that diocese. In a 2010 address, Bishop Shannon Johnston observed that many in the diocese were “quite ‘gun-shy’” about new congregations and that it was “no surprise” how church planting ranked last in a survey about diocesan priorities.
Earlier this year I wrote about how the Episcopal Church has faced a staggering decline of 40 percent in baptisms over the past decade. With the absence of hardly any new Episcopal churches, maybe we know why: new churches baptize more people.
Church researchers Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird describe in the book Viral Churches that established Southern Baptist churches baptize 3.4 people per 100 resident members, while church plants average 11.7 per 100. While SBC and Episcopal congregations are different creatures, it isn’t too much of a leap to suggest that some of the oldline Protestant decline can be traced to a failure to establish new congregations. That’s something to think about.