Why Plant Churches? For Market Share or to Proclaim the Gospel?
In short, enthusiasm clings to Adam and his descendants from the beginning to the end of the world. It is a poison implanted and inoculated in man by the old dragon, and it is the source, strength, and power of all heresy, including that of the papacy and Mohammedanism. Accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil. Smalcald Articles, III, VIII, par 9-10.
(This article was originally published on January 28, 2012. It has been updated and cleaned up a bit)
Earlier this week a church planting team from our LCMS District came to our congregation to talk about entering into a partnership with our congregation in Nashville, Tennessee. Situated smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, home to the Christian music industry, our congregation is centrally located along what many have termed “church row.” We are one of the smaller churches along this stretch of road in Nashville, but we are growing. Nashville and Davidson County boast a population of approximately 620,000 people, 600,000 12 years earlier. In 2000, there were approximately 591 congregations with 297,312 members. When the statistics are adjusted for children, the figure jumps to just over 400,000 (Source: Association of Religious Data Archives). In 2007, the estimated population was 620,000. The number of churches climbed to 853 and church membership saw a slight increase to 304,238 (Source: Social Explorer using ARDA numbers). You can throw a rock and hit a large, mega, or brand new church in Nashville and its surrounding counties. I may be a little color blind when it comes to distinguishing the colors on the demographic map, but the numbers show pretty close to 50% of the adult population claims membership in a church in Davidson County, the geographic home of the Music City, and more than 60% when children are factored into the equation. So why plant churches when 262 new churches yielded only a slight increase in claimed membership over a 7 year period in Nashville? The answer may surprise you.
The presentation revealed District statistics showing that congregational membership declined by 3.1% between 2004 and 2009. The “market penetration” for LCMS congregations in Nashville is .09% of the population, that is one tenth of one percent of the population of the city of Nashville is LCMS Lutheran. One church in the Nashville Metropolitan area has recently closed and is merging with another church in an adjacent county. That leaves three LCMS congregations in Nashville with a Sunday morning attendance of 551 churchgoers any given Sunday (less during football season). This coincides with an overall decline in Synod membership (not a phenomenon unique to Lutheranism). A healthy church, we are told, is a growing church, one that is outward looking and “missional.” If the numbers are declining or stagnating, the congregation must be looking too far inward and only receiving transfer members from sister congregations. The congregation must not be doing something right. All of that needs to change if we are to survive as Lutheran churches in this market. The numbers do not lie — declining numbers means a sick and dying church. We need to abandon what we are doing in those churches, scrap the model and try something bold, something new! Let us revitalize a congregation by partnering with it to plant a new church, and give the people something to do. This will stimulate excitement among a stagnant, declining congregation, giving it purpose and direction. And we will do that by planting large churches — MEGA churches!– congregations with average attendance of 500 members or more any given Sunday. That is the stated goal and charge of the District. Apparently, success has been demonstrated in other church plants within the district with phenomenal “conversion growth,” and in reaching the “dechurched” and “unchurched” thus increasing “market share.”
The numbers do not lie. We are committed to doing whatever is necessary to reach the “dechurched” and “unchurched.” Growth and market share.
What does this Mean?
As any good Lutheran, we have to ask the question: “What does this Mean?” We cannot simply accept what is handed to us, or look through rose colored glasses and see what we want to see. Our theology drives us to the Cross where we cling to Christ. The mission of the Church leads from the Cross — it is the Cross — and Christ builds His church, the body of believers on earth, through His Word and Sacraments. Jesus, in commissioning the office of the holy ministry among His apostles, teaches: “When you are walking in the works I have established for you, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to walk in the ways of everything I have imparted unto you. And always keep in mind, I am with you in these things, doing and completing the work.” Paul, the preeminent Apostle to the Gentiles, cuts to the core of the proclamation of the Gospel: “For I resolved to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” and “For the word of the Cross if foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”
So what does looking at the place of Lutheranism in the Bible Belt in this manner mean? What is the message that is being conveyed? On the most basic level it means that numbers and market share determine how and where we plant churches, not the Word of God. The numbers show that the LCMS is underrepresented as a church body within the Nashville and Davidson County geographical area and in the wider Bible Belt. Therefore, we need to get our share of that market. God is leading us to this market. It follows then, that numbers determine the measure of the success, the health and vibrancy of a congregation. And if other plants are experiencing such growth, surely God’s Will is being done. For the numbers show how greatly He is blessing these efforts. And we do have metrics in place to ensure that the church plants succeed. But what about the Gospel? Where is the theological justification for planting big churches? Where does Scripture reveal that numbers are the measure of success for a local congregation? Where does Scripture reveal that we are even to measure our success? While these may sound like rhetorical questions, the response given is usually along the lines of “surely you cannot argue that the Gospel is not the driving force behind our presentation. After all the message was conveyed to a group of Christians, by Christians. We all know the Gospel, we do not need to make it explicit in the presentation, it is implied. That is a given.” Put another way, “We are all Christians here, so how can you call into question whether we are concerned with the Gospel?”
Make no mistake, proponents of church planting are serious, dedicated individuals. Their sincerity is not questioned. And true, their hearts and intentions are in the right place and convey a desire to do the work of the church — Kingdom building. Yet when the message delivered to potential “partners” in church planting is all about numbers, growth, market share, penetration rates, when the talk is of going after segments of the market such as men or 20 and 30 year olds, when the only passage of Scripture mentioned is “To whom much is given, much will be expected,” what conclusion can be drawn but that a theology of glory is at work? This, in my opinion, is the more fundamental problem — we no longer trust in the sufficiency of the Word and the Sacraments to do what the Triune God promises it will. Scripture is no longer sufficient for us, but church growth and the lure of the emergent church methods are.
There is a panic in declining numbers. The rugged consumerism of American Christianity (which has infected Lutheranism) is at stake. God needs our HELP!! Say it ain’t so! I wish I could. I have heard it preached from the pulpit of the urgent need to have we sinners “go out” and reach lost and condemned sinners and apostate sinners in an effort to generate support for mission and planting. And let’s be clear with what and who we are and call a thing what it is: we are nothing less than sinners or damned sinners. We are not dechurched or unchurched. We are sinners whether we wallow in our unbelief or we are self-secure in our baptism — we all are in need of our Savior’s saving mercy and grace. Let us not forget those facts. And so, to rally the army of baptized sinners, to mobilize us for action, an urgent call to action is issued. From the pulpit. The message usually goes something like this: “You have been so blessed. You are saved. You have been given so much — You have Jesus. But those people out there who would never step foot in our church, who would never feel welcome here, they do not have Jesus. And they are dying because you are not out there sharing the love of Christ.” The gospel that is conveyed is this: “Jesus died so that you can……
stand on your own two feet …..
share the love of Christ…..
proclaim His excellencies….
go tell others….
(fill in the blank).”
Is that the Gospel? You are saved, but others are dying because YOU won’t go out and share the Gospel with them! You are saved, you do not need Jesus anymore, but others do…. now go and DO? Working within your vocation is no longer enough, you must be intentional in order to demonstrate that you truly are a fully devoted Christ follower.
The Law says do this, and it is never done. Grace says believe, and it is already done. Our do, is Jesus’ done.
Now do not get me wrong, Christ has prepared works for us in which we are to walk. But it is always His work, His mission, all of which He works through us. And it is not because of declining numbers that these things are done in and through us, but because of who Christ is, because of who He has made us to be. It is so ironic that the focus of church planting in our District should be on numbers. For it is not about making “de-churched,” apostate sinners or “unchurched,” damned sinners “churched” as if that would solve the problem of declining numbers. It might be a temporary fix to swell the numbers, but what about their souls? What happens when the mega church methods do not produce disciples, but a revolving door of unsatisfied consumers searching for depth and finding none? Isn’t that the experience of the Willow Creeks and Saddlebacks or, better yet, our own Pointe churches?
Our sinful flesh always wants to make the life of a Christian into something we do. The Word is never enough. And yet, it is never about what we DO for Christ — my works are never complete and will always be incomplete works — conversions, market penetration, turning of sinners none of it depends upon me. Last time I checked, Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the the Trinity, and all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him. I am pretty sure He does not need anything we have to give. Rather, it is about Christ’s commission to His apostles — to His Church — to make disciples through Word and Sacrament ministry. It is about serving our neighbor in love. It is about being a neighbor to those we find unlovable! There is a reason Christ sent the Spirit into the world, He who calls us by the Gospel. For the Spirit calls us, draws us into Christ. On earth, the visible manifestation of the Body of Christ is the church catholic. It is here, gathered around word and sacrament that Christ washes us in Baptism, cleanses us, makes us holy, and presents us to God who declares us good. Christ continues to feed us and the Spirit to strengthen us and preserve our lives in the universal, unified body of believers, not one that is geared only toward some “de-churched” or “unchurched” unbelievers. In the Body of Christ we are all one, without distinction. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.
When a presentation about church planting is devoid of any reference to a Scriptural basis supporting the “Why,” when no theological basis is offered, when the Gospel is to be taken as the assumed basis supporting the “Why” and the actual words used convey the law and works of man, when phrases such as “Kingdom building” and “extension of the Kingdom” are used, when marketing and church growth principles are the focal point of the conversation, it can only do one thing — point to the work of man, what I must do, and away from what Christ has done and IS DOING through His Word and Sacrament. That this is true is confirmed by the stated charge and goal to build big churches, worshipping 500 on average every Sunday. So faith comes by numbers, and numbers by the work of man. I am sure that there will be those who will say, “You’re splitting hairs,” or “What’s the big deal?” And maybe I am. However, I trust that the Word of God and the Sacraments will do their work, that it is sufficient. The Word does not focus on numbers. Nor does it center on the sinner. Rather, the Word proclaims Christ crucified for the sinner and raised for the sinner’s justification. The Word is about what the Triune God has done and is doing in Christ for the life of the world. Certainly we use those first article tools of the created world that God has given us in service of the Gospel, but we do not trust in those tools to build God’s Kingdom. Rather, we trust in the Grace of God Alone working through Christ Alone, creating receiving Faith Alone in the sinner, as revealed in the source of life Scripture Alone, for the Glory of God Alone, not for the glory of man.
Soli Deo Gloria!