New Churches & Evangelism: All Backwards?

October 24, 2012

Planting new churches & evangelism: the cart before the horse

[This is the conclusion of Starting New Churches: Is Our Focus Misplaced?]

“Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.” You can’t read any church planting material without bumping into that quote. Repeatedly. Hey, C. Peter Wagner said it, so that settles it.

Or does it?

The quote is completely woven into the mindset of North American church planting. Suggesting that it’s wrong may be tantamount to evangelical heresy. But wIth all due respect to Wagner (it was through reading his books on healing that I first learned of John Wimber and the Vineyard movement)… I’m sorry. It’s wrong. It’s backwards.

Correlation vs. causation: Get it straight

For everyone who’s ever repeated the quote, I want you to come back with me and remember some basic science. Repeat after me: “Correlation doesn’t imply causation. Correlation doesn’t imply causation.”

Wagner was taught by Donald McGavran, the grand-daddy of “church growth” who used statistical analysis to figure out what “worked” and “didn’t work.” And I have no doubt that statistics show that wherever new churches are planted, evangelism increases. But think about it. When a new church is starting up, what does the core team do?

Well, first of all, they don’t start weekly services right away. They might not have weekly services for months. Instead, the core team is trying to “get out there.” That includes things like:

  • Meeting a lot of people, getting to know their spiritual background
  • Servant evangelism (like free car washes) to demonstrate the heart of God
  • Having a booth at the local farmer’s market, or at the local New Age festival
  • Throwing parties in a neighborhoods
  • Lots and lots of prayer for meaningful encounters

These are the kinds of things the core teams of new churches focus on at first, while they’re “just getting established.” Gee, that all sounds like… evangelism.

New churches shift away from evangelism

Most of the energy gets directed to serving the service.

Unfortunately, once enough people have been gathered, things change. The focus of the core team shifts to putting on a worship service. The more exciting and creative this service needs to be, the more effort it requires from the most creative and dedicated members of the church. The service becomes the nexus. Most of the energy, and even most of the people’s spiritual gifts, gets directed to serving the service. That initial push of evangelism fades.

Eventually, the pastor starts saying, “It’s time to plant another new church.” Why? “Because planting new churches is the most effective evangelism.”


What if it’s not church planting at all that reaches new people? What if it’s reaching new people that reaches new people? This may sound dumb, but… what if effective evangelism comes from your faith community actually focusing their prayers and efforts on evangelism?

Whaddaya think?

Photo by emilio labrador (license)

Jon Reid

Posts Twitter Google+

As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

12 responses to New Churches & Evangelism: All Backwards?

  1. I live in secular New England it seems like every other Sunday someone is starting up a new church here (okay, I’m being a little facetious). For these new church plants, the sending body is always for somewhere in the South or the West.

    Usually, it seems like they follow a formula. Reach out to international students. Reach out to college students. Post lots of big signs on the subway. They’ll have a cool website with pictures of the boston skyline and the new pastor and his family will inevitably be wearing Boston Red Sox hats. (We New Englanders are suckers for that kind of thing.)

    I wish them the best, but part of me wonders whether all of this effort is misguided. I wonder whether these well meaning church planters are asking the right questions. Do they understand or even care why many people in New England don’t go to church? Are they just trying to do church the same old way, except this time with clever, edgy advertising, glossy flyers and a lot of free food?

    I’m totally still figuring all of this out. I’m a west coast transplant who has live in New England for 15 years. I’ve also been a part of a few different churches. Part of what seems clear to me is that there are a lot of people who generally don’t like Christians and who don’t like church. In light of this general feeling, it seems almost counterintuitive how, as you say, new churches often move towards a place where the church service is the nexus.

    • Darren,
      Wow, your third paragraph nails it. A good missionary learns the culture — which usually involves listening to a lot of stories, as well as making cultural mistakes and learning from them. We seem overeager to plant a particular form of church, instead of discovering what following Jesus in that culture might look like. What if we were to really believe that God has arrived on the scene, and that this really is good news for New England?

      As a healthy counterexample, I’m enjoying reading Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist by the senior pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Greater Boston.

  2. Linda L Lanning November 3, 2012 at 4:31 am

    From my perspective, the root of the problem is the lack of real community and relationships in the church. We don’t actually disciple new Christians, we just bring them in & get them to attend services and THAT isn’t what making disciples means.

    • Linda,
      You’re right: if we measure success by counting people who “show up,” then our efforts will naturally bend that way. And as soon as they show up, hey! We’re done!

      But as disciples, our job is to obey Christ’s commands. While I tend to focus on the Great Commission (where things get circular: “teaching them to obey”), it’s meaningless unless we’re actually moving and growing in our obedience to the New Commandment.

  3. Jon, I like your comment about obeying Christ’s commands. That’s what you & Kay taught me to do on a daily basis; get up every morning & ask God to show me/nudge me into being a part of His plans for the day.

    I really thought that Darren’s comment about formula was exactly on target. Why do we care what formula ‘Formula Christianity’ uses to achieve its results in time for the next quarterly business report? Who is this god who just plugs interchangeable numbers into formulas instead of doing unique things through unique individuals? This sounds a lot more like “magic” that “works” on a short term basis, but does nothing to bring the kingdom of God here.
    What does this have to do with the God that you & Kay taught me to know and love? You know, the guy who is ALL about relationships, who delights in his children who get up every morning and ask Him what He wants to do each day and who nudges them into joining Him in a walk that makes each day a unique adventure. This is what you guys taught me that God is like.
    What has so ripped your heart out that you even care about what formula “works”? You can see that it only “works” short-term and that shouldn’t be surprising since it has nothing to do with the real Kingdom of the God that you showed me. You know, the guy with the REALLY looong term goals & plans, the guy who is totally about loving relationships, the one who is responsible for the results & only wants his children to come be in a loving relationship with Him and each other and let Him take care of outcomes.

  4. Jon,
    Wow. I guess I really went off on you there. I’m sorry about that. You aren’t the one I am angry at. What you posted hit a nerve. The lack of community/relationships in the church has been the main focus of my prayers for the last 20 years or so. I keep praying for us to become the body and we keep slipping farther and farther away every year. I read things from John Eldredge and James Wilder who are saying the same thing, but it seems to be falling on deaf ears. At least here in the Midwest. And from what you are saying, it looks like it applies to the West coast as well, & Darren seems to be finding the same thing on the East coast as well. IS there a healthy body ANYWHERE in this country?

  5. Jon,
    It just occurred to me that you & Kay don’t realize how good you are at shepherding the sheep or what it was that you were doing so right in Bloomington. So, from one of your sheep, let me at least say this much. You fed your sheep by being the face of God to us. The food that sheep really need is human faces that are delighted to spend time with them and who like and value them just because they exist. (just like the face of God)
    You took me in when I was an alien and a stranger in town and gave me a place to belong. Other people saw that and were drawn to the presence of God in your home & your welcome kept them coming back for more food. (Something none of us were getting from the “churches” we “belonged” to.) Do you not remember all the things God found for us to do to serve him? It seems that every day was a new adventure. We all grew more into the likeness of Christ as you led & discipled us. We WERE a Church!
    What you didn’t see after you left was that, without you as leaders, we gradually dispersed as a group.
    Do you realize how VERY gifted the two of you are at shepherding sheep? You delighted in the sheep God sent you, helped them find their spiritual gifts and grow into the people God created them to be just by being yourselves and following God on a daily basis. You did it ALL right (not quite perfectly I suppose, but better than I have seen in the 25 years since.)
    So, if the two of you are asking God what to do next now that your children are mostly grown up, I would like to put my 2 cents worth in & cast my vote in favor of asking Him about shepherding His sheep again. There are a lot of sheep out there who need to be fed.

    • Linda,

      I’m glad I didn’t reply right away. That at least is one area where growing older is an advantage. 🙂

      In answer to your question, “IS there a healthy body ANYWHERE in this country?” the answer is yes, oh yes. Many times over. But you won’t hear about them, because they’re not satisfying the itch for “successful = large” or “successful = news-grabbing”.

      Finally, thank you for your encouragement to me & Kay. We’ll see what happens…

  6. Hello sorry long time not caught up with one of your blogs. I like what you say, its about keeping it real with people. Focusing only on a service etc is not reaching out properly. The other week I was visited by some JW’s. The trouble with them is you no sooner have put the kettle on, when they are pulling out scripture and quoting it. You cant be like that with folk-first of all you need to get to know them and make them feel human. Making people go to any service-chant hyms and pretend to shove a smile on your face etc and feel what you dont yet feel-thats what turns people off church and church types. Jesus did not go to church did he, and when he did he was not pleased with what he found there. Matthew talks about for example ‘the law’ but he derides it-its not enough to follow patterns of prayer, services, routine, laws if the heart is not in the spirit of it all.

    • Nicky, I think it’s important to distinguish between “church services” and “church.” The church — the living, breathing agent of Christ in this world — is amazing, and has been given the power to save the world.

  7. Could I ps add- would be good if you’d start to blog on Facebook? Everyone uses Facebook now and its easy peasy to set up-plus enables people to quickly share with thousands of others info/ideas/debates. Just a thought, and if you do both set up on Facebook, please let me know 🙂