A Lesson from Gardening: Why Church Planting Isn’t Always a Good Idea

By their fruits you shall know them.
Y’shua bar Yoseph
(Matthew 7:16-20).

By Ken Howard

Church planting isn’t always a good idea.

I know that may be a shock to some of my church planting friends and colleagues, especially those who believe that church planting is a “silver bullet” for growing the church.

But it’s true. Sometimes planting a new church is a bad idea.

And I say this as a person who loves starting congregations, who has started two congregations and consulted with dozens of others.

I’ve come to this realization over time. In part, it evolved over 25 years of studying church growth and church meta-demographic trends. But it crystallized during a discussion with a congregant at my last church who was a certified Master Gardener, while he was planting a flower garden at the church.

He told me that perhaps the most common and most detrimental mistake made by new gardeners is over planting: too many plants, too close together. The thinking is “how can there be such a thing as too many flowers?” But according to this former congregant, apparently there is such a thing.

If you put in too many plants and overcrowd your garden, several bad things happen.

Overcrowding creates competition over resources, which leads to nutrient deficiencies, which makes all the plants in the garden weaker, which leaders to diseases and pests, resulting in sparser foliage and fewer, smaller fruits.

Overcrowding results in lack of sunlight, which forces plants to expend energy on competing for sunlight rather than focusing on flowering, resulting in sparser foliage and fewer, smaller fruits.

Overcrowding robs the soil of the moisture plants need to survive. Increased watering doesn’t help because it stays on the top leaves and doesn’t make it to the soil. Leaves get fungus while the ground stays dry, weakening the roots and making them prone to root disease, resulting in sparser foliage and fewer, smaller fruits.

Because of the adverse conditions it creates, overcrowding encourages weeds, which are more hardy than domesticated plants, grow faster in adverse conditions, and make all of the above problems worse, creating a vicious circle, and  resulting in (you got it) sparser foliage and fewer, smaller fruits.


Do you see the analogy here?

For similar reasons, starting new congregations, if not done wisely and with great care, can create similar problems for the other congregations in the garden in which we all labor.

Those who hope to grow the church often point to the proven fact that new congregations grow faster than older congregations. This is true. And this is good. Unless the growth of the new congregation comes at the expense of the older congregations in the area.

A church planter colleague once boasted to me that his new congregation was “growing like a weed.” Which was true. And it would have been good, except that he was competing with all of the surrounding congregations, rather than collaborating with them: competing not only for resources but for people and cannibalizing the local population (as marketing professionals say). And nobody likes to be cannibalized.

So where’s the wisdom here? How do dioceses and other judicatories take advantage of the faster growth of new start congregations without weakening the surrounding congregations in the local garden? Here are a couple of rules of (green) thumb:


Cultivate What You’ve Got, Plant Where You’re Not (But Need To Be).

What You’ve Got. If you discover an untapped missional opportunity in an areas where you already have existing congregations, it’s better stewardship to invest in redeveloping or expanding the ministries of the congregations that are already there than it is to start a new congregation.

Where You’re Not. Meanwhile, if you identify an untapped missional opportunity in a community in which you currently do not have a presence, good stewardship demands that you invest in starting a new congregation, rather than ignoring the opportunity.


Don’t Overcrowd the Garden

The 15-Minute Rule. Research shows that the vast majority (around 70%) of your membership/regular attenders will come from within a 15-minute drive time. Remarkably, the percentage remains relatively constant whether the congregation is in a urban, suburban, or rural setting.

If Possible, 15-Minute Spacing. If you can, make sure that any new congregation you plant is at least 15 minutes away from all existing same-denomination congregations in the area. Closer spacing invites competition with the existing congregations and cannibalization of neighborhoods, unless…

In Not Possible, Differentiate Species. If you must plant a new congregation within a 15 minute drive time, make sure that they are clearly focused on a different population segment than the existing congregation, and they all understand that they must collaborate with each other so that they don’t undermine each other. Because competition ultimately harms everyone, both congregations and their neighborhoods.


Remember, “A wise gardener is a happy gardener.”

Happy gardening!