Church planting is in vogue today, and that is a trend for which I am grateful to God. But statistics indicate that thousands of churches go out of existence every year in America. Far more churches flounder with declining attendance and inadequate leadership. In some cases, it may be more strategic for church planters to invest their time and resources in revitalizing these existing congregations.
Church planting and church revitalizing share the same goal: to see a God-glorifying church established where it does not currently exist. Both strategies aim to reach communities with the gospel and both share some difficulties. But each strategy carries with it some unique opportunities and challenges. In this article, I will lay out some of the relative advantages and disadvantages of starting a new church from scratch (planting) over against revitalizing an existing congregation (replanting).
THE RELATIVE ADVANTAGES OF CHURCH PLANTING
1. A new church has no personal baggage (though it will if you give it some time).
An older pastor once advised me, “Plant a new church. That way, no one can ever oppose you by saying they were there before you were.” There’s truth in that statement. If you have a clear and unique way that you want to do church, it can be easier to start from scratch. You can do things the way you want to do them, and if people don’t like it, they will stay away. That can make a pastor’s road much smoother.
2. New churches can do a good job of reaching new residents of a community.
Someone who is new in town may be more attracted to a ministry where he or she can get in on the ground floor and quickly become an important part of the church’s life. In addition, existing churches aren’t always socially flexible; they can have difficulty accommodating shifting demographics and embracing different kinds of people. A new church might better adapt to people from different socio-economic backgrounds. This is particularly strategic in locations where the population is growing or changing rapidly.
3. New churches tend to have evangelistic energy.
New churches usually have a period at their inception in which everyone involved understands the mission of the church and is committed to their role in it. In a church plant, there are no established patterns that curtail energetic and creative outreach. There's no institutional machine that needs to be fed, no programs that need to be maintained for the sake of the long-term members. The church understands that it won’t survive unless it reaches out to the community.
THE RELATIVE CHALLENGES OF CHURCH PLANTING
1. New churches can encounter significant logistical difficulties.
Most church planting models require the planter to coordinate a lot of logistics with relatively little man-power. In many communities it is difficult to find a place to meet. Once a location is found, the planter still has to pay for it, establish programs and procedures (like children’s ministry or welcoming visitors), and get volunteers to set up and tear down Sunday after Sunday. That can be a prohibitive burden on a small gathering of people who don’t have a longstanding commitment to the church. After all, you want your core group to spend its precious time doing the work of ministry, greeting visitors, showing hospitality, teaching children, and evangelizing the neighborhoods.
2. New churches can have less credibility in the community.
Established communities are sometimes suspicious of new churches. A church plant (especially one with a goofy name?) will have to work hard to gain credibility in the community. People who are not familiar with evangelical Christianity (especially people from a Roman Catholic background) are often surprised that someone can just hang out a shingle and start a new church. In the eyes of some people in the community, you will be a cult until you prove that you are not.
THE RELATIVE CHALLENGES OF CHURCH REVITALIZATION
1. Dead churches are dead for a reason—there will be opposition.
There’s usually a good reason why a church needs to be revitalized. Churches often dwindle in size and effectiveness because of a traumatic event or years of poor leadership. As a result, church facilities and programs may be in ruins—not to mention the spiritual state of the congregation itself. In these cases, there will be much to overcome and tear down in order to move the church forward. This process is often very painful. If a church was already inclined to do the things that healthy churches do, it probably wouldn’t be dying. Finding a struggling church isn’t a problem. Finding a struggling church that wants to change and grow is much more difficult.
2. Existing churches sometimes have a bad reputation in the community.
While it’s true that new churches sometimes suffer from a lack of name recognition in the community, that can be a good thing. The reputation of older churches often works against their revitalization. It could be that the church you seek to revitalize has a reputation in the community for some past moral scandal, or racism, or institutionalized unfriendliness. If that’s the case, the pastor who wants to revitalize the church will have to work hard and be patient in order to change that impression in the community.
THE RELATIVE ADVANTAGES OF CHURCH REVITALIZATION
1. Revitalization provides a kingdom two-for-one.
Like church planting, revitalization efforts establish a new gospel presence in a town, but they also remove a bad witness. If healthy churches make a positive statement about the gospel to the surrounding community, dying churches send out the negative message that “Jesus and his people are irrelevant. Keep driving.” When a dying church comes back to life, the watching world sees a vibrant and dynamic witness for Christ where formerly there was an anti-witness.
2. Revitalization encourages the saints in the dying congregation.
Many of the members of struggling churches are faithful believers who are deeply committed to their congregation. They have hung on through lean times. They have shown up Sunday after Sunday even though very little was happening. Jesus loves these sheep, but they usually do not have a pastor who cares for them. When a church is revitalized, these saints are often encouraged and shepherded in a new way. Their faith is refreshed and they are encouraged anew as they serve the growing body.
3. Revitalization enables us to harness resources for the gospel.
Many dead churches are sitting on a treasure trove of resources (land, money, equipment) that can be leveraged for the spread of the gospel. Those resources are just sitting around idle, doing almost nothing for the kingdom. As a matter of good stewardship, evangelical churches interested in planting should consider revitalizing as well. And let’s be honest, if we don’t revitalize these churches, they will most likely fall into the hands of liberal churches, mosques, or condominium developers.
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
So should you seek to plant a new church or revitalize a dying church? It depends to some extent on your gifts, temperament, and opportunities. But before you plant a church in a community, it might be worth your time to investigate whether there are any dying churches in the area that could use your help.
Mike McKinley is the senior pastor of Guilford Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia. He is the author of Church Planting is for Wimps (Crossway, 2010), and Am I Really a Christian? (Crossway, 2011).
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