By Ken Howard
There are a lot of myths floating around about church start-up…or what some call church plants. What I want to do here is list them, bust them, replace them with facts, and then let you make up your own mind.
While I made an editorial decision not to clutter up the narrative with data and sources, please rest assured that all of the statements of fact in this series based on solid research from a variety of sources. I will provide the sources on request.
MYTH 1 – Church Start-Ups are too expensive. I’m not going to tell you that church plants are cheap. There are significant up-front costs, especially if your context makes it necessary to buy property and build a building. However, depending on the specific context, property and building may not be necessary, or may not need to be done from scratch. And even if they are necessary, there are ways to minimize the costs and share the financial burden, including multi-faith campuses, mixed-use development, community bond financing, and other strategies. Church plants are not expenditures, they are investments.
MYTH 2 – Church Start-Ups drain diocesan budgets of resources needed to help struggling parishes. Church Planters, when appearing at councils to for ask investment in land or a building, often hear a question that goes something like this, “How can we possibly spend what little capital funds we have left on new churches, when existing parishes are struggling to _______ [fix their roofs, pay their rectors, insert excuse here, etc.].” Not to be heartless, but the reality is usually the other way around. Struggling parishes are usually struggling because they aren’t paying attention to their changing contexts or are unable or unwilling to adapt to those changing conditions. Statistically speaking, diocesan resources spent on propping up struggling parishes are generally a case of good money after bad, enabling the struggling parish not to come to terms with its underlying problems. Statistically speaking, if you want to generate resources to aid struggling parishes, the best way to do it is to plant new churches, since if properly financed and built with room to grow, most start-up churches will start returning funds to the diocese within 5 to 7 years, in continually increasing amounts. Church Plants are not just investments, they are good investments.
MYTH 3 – Church Start-Ups are too risky: most Church Plants fail. Actually, about 60% of church startups succeed, which is a better ratio than business startups. This number gets better when you factor out Church Plants that were underfunded, under-trained, or otherwise under-supported by the their dioceses. And if diocese are careful to buy multi-use property right, and construct buildings that can be repurposed, even if the Church Plant itself doesn’t succeed, the diocese will likely be able to sell them at a profit. It’s definitely a risk for the church planter and the congregation (both emotional and potentially financial), but not a significant financial risk for the diocese.
MYTH 4 – Church Start-Ups harm the existing churches around them. Actually, the reverse is true. And I don’t mean that existing churches harm church plants (though they have been known to try occasionally). No. What actually happens when you plant a new church is that it helps the existing churches grow. Here’s how it works: The new church draws people’s attention, people check out new church, many of them like it and stay, and others find it isn’t quite right for them. Maybe they want a higher church, a lower church, a larger church (one they can get lost in). Or maybe they don’t want to set up chairs every week. Whatever the reason, they keep looking, and we often send them to another Episcopal church in the area. In the end, the result for the existing churches is net positive: they gain more than they lose – and the more they are collaborating with the Church Plant, the more they tend to gain.
MYTH 5 – Too many half-empty church buildings already – Church Start-Ups will only exacerbate the problem. It’s hard to know where to begin with this myth. It would make more sense if the reason so many churches were half-empty was because the ratio of churches to people was too high. But with few exceptions, that is not the case. A church glut has never been our problem. All too often, the problem of church membership decline is a lack of attention to a changing neighborhood context or a lack of willingness to adapt to what they learn. Church plants are simply not a contributor to this problem.
MYTH 6 – Church Planting isn’t really an Episcopal “thing.” Wrong. In most dioceses, you don’t have to look that many generations back to find a time when church planting was in high gear, with mother churches planting daughter churches all around them. Church Planting definitely a part of our DNA – we just haven’t expressed very much it for a generation or so. Many congregations in my diocese have birthed as much as four daughter congregations (or are one of those daughter congregations), many as late as the 1950s and 60s, and even a few in the early 70s. My own congregation, a diocesan plant, is the first successful church plant in the diocese in 4 decades.
MYTH 6 – Church Start-Ups are not truly Episcopal – they leave at the first theological disagreement. There is a bit of truth to this. Some Church plants have left TEC over theological agreements. Most of those that left were founded during the time when TEC, jealous of the success of Church plants in conservative, evangelical denominations, tried to replicate them hook, line, and sinker, without doing the hard work of conceptualizing them out of our own polity and theology. Truth is, when dioceses take the time to discern what church planting and evangelism might look like in an Anglican/Episcopal context, they tend to be very schism resistant and authentically Anglican.
MYTH 7 – Church Start-Ups tend to be suburban, big, rich, and white. There is more than a little reverse prejudice in this myth. A large number of church plants do tend to be suburban, but that’s because the most population growth, the least number of churches, and the most unchurched people are. My own congregation faced this prejudice frequently in our diocese, especially when we requested any financial investment. When our diocesan council was considering our building plans, the leader of an inner city traditional African-American congregation, voted against our proposal, literally saying, “We don’t nFeed more new churches out in the suburbs: they’ll only end up being big, rich, and white.” Our congregation was not huge, not rich, and more diverse than many of the parishes surrounding us. And this is typical of must Episcopal Church Plants.
I am indebted to the these friends and colleagues for the following blog posts (including research) on this subject:
- Adam Trambley, in his blog, The Black Giraffe, explains the Church Planting Resolution and shares the vision behind the resolves.
- Susan Brown Snook whose post Treasure to Share: Why Plant New Churches on her blog, A Good and Joyful Thing, makes an strong case for the work of church planting based on the research for her book.
- Frank Logue, in his blog, The Loose Canon, busts five common myth many Episcopalians hold about church planting and offers five truths he has found in 18 years of working with Episcopal church starts: Church Planting Myths Dispelled