Late last year I was invited to speak at a conference on the topic Why we need more churches. It seemed a silly question really. Of course we need more churches. The population’s growing. We’re not keeping up. Denominations are dying. Church attendance is declining. Church buildings are being shut down or turned in restaurants, offices, trendy homes, and even funeral parlours.
But for me, it was and is a real issue. People confronted me with this question a number of times after hearing that we were moving to Darwin to plant a new church. Many were enthusiastic and supportive of our intentions, but others seemed to view it as invading their turf. Some denominational leaders said “We’ve already got churches up there.” One wrote to me and told me not to come because they had it covered. It was suggested we go somewhere else, where new churches were really needed. I met with one local pastor who warned me that the last thing they needed was people from ‘down south’ coming up and planting churches – despite the fact that he, and many other pastors I met, had done exactly this!
We faced the same issue in Canberra when deciding to plant a new church south of the lake. Some denominational leaders believed this would create a ‘competition’ with their churches. We were asked why people didn’t simply leave our church and join theirs, instead of starting another. It’s easy to get excited about new churches, until someone starts one in your neighbourhood.
Let me offer a number of practical reasons (with warnings) for why we need more churches, and then one theological reason.
Practical reasons why we need new churches
- Current churches are not effectively connecting with the Australian population. Some surveys suggest that 65% of Aussies don’t have a personal relationship with a Christian.
We need to be careful here because we could increase the number of churches, remain in a religious ghetto, and still not connect with 65% of our population.
- Existing churches are perceived as irrelevant, out of date, oppressive, self-righteous, and a bunch of other things that keep people disinterested.
It’s not ultimately perceptions or image that matters, but the reality of what is believed and practiced. It’s just as important for established churches to make an impact on people’s lives as it is for new ones. And who’s to say that new churches will be different? New churches could end up reproducing the problems of their founders.
- Someone once said of the church, “It’s easier to give birth than to raise the dead!” It’s true that some established churches will be harder to turn around than the Titanic, so maybe it’s better to leave them to sink and get people out into other boats.
While this is often true, we shouldn’t cop out on the importance of revitalising wayward churches. I think it’s Mark Dever who has spoken of the 2 for 1 benefit of resurrecting dying churches. He sees it as both removing a bad witness in the community and adding a good witness. And it utilises existing resources.
- Geographical reach is an important strategic reason for planting new churches. While committed Christians might travel long distances to come to church, their neighbours or interested friends most likely won’t. This might lead to a city church giving birth to another congregation in a different part of the city, or a country church beginning a satellite church in a neighbouring town.
- Cultural reach is another driver for starting new churches. Some churches will never reach certain subcultures in their community. The language, dress, customs, activities of the church just alienate outsiders. Hence, a church might be planted to reach uni students, or an ethnic or language group, or mining workers, or some other group.
While a church might be created to reach a certain demographic, the church needs to be open to anyone. It could begin with one type of people in mind, and discover the need to keep changing as it comes into contact with different people.
- Urban growth continues in some parts of Australia at a rapid rate. The number of churches is not keeping up proportionally with the size of the population. We can’t depend on town planners to allocate land or facilities for churches. We can’t assume denominations will add another franchise in the new housing development. Christians should see urban growth as creating new mission fields and the need for more churches tailored to connect with people in these centres.
- Of the many churches that exist, many seem to have lost the plot. They’re not what I’d call evangelical, that is grounded in the Bible and focused upon Jesus Christ – his offer of relationship with God and his call on people’s lives. Many churches have competing agendas or no apparent agenda at all. Some appear to be little more than middle-class religious clubs. Others are preoccupied with rituals and out-dated forms that veil the truth of the gospel. We need more churches that are teaching the Bible and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
Mind you, the imperative is also to transform existing churches with God’s agenda.
- There’s a need to plant ‘church-planting-churches’. Very few churches in our country have planted daughter churches. Institutional thinking has left this to the denominations and it doesn’t always happen. If churches are planted with the DNA of planting more churches, then we create a multiplying (rather than simply adding) effect.
- Planting new churches re-energises people to serve. In large churches it’s easy for people to sit in the congregation and watch others do the work of ministry. The new group, or the core team for the new church, will easily see the needs and opportunities for ministry. There tends to be more urgency and importance placed on reaching out to others in new churches. Children’s workers, musicians, teachers, preachers, welcomers, carers, you name it – the new church needs them!
The danger is that burnout often occurs. Many jobs are being filled by a few. The newly planted church needs to establish clear priorities and monitor people’s involvement carefully. Having lots of busy people doesn’t necessarily equal a healthy growing church.
- Planting new churches sharpens the vision for ministry. It requires people to ask the big questions of what are we doing, why, when, where and how? It forces people to get off the treadmill and set a deliberate course for the future.
Once again, it’s important for existing churches to take stock and set a clear vision for their ministry. Planting a new church shouldn’t be seen as the easy alternative to making important changes in the existing one.
- It’s a good thing for the sending church. Planting a new church is always costly, so it helps the sending church to practice generosity. There’s a loss of people and relationships, money and resources, gifts and talents, vibe and comfort. If you’re the ones left behind it’s easy to feel like you’re the ones left behind! So we should see this as a fresh opportunity to grow and change, to step up and get involved, to refocus our vision, and to look toward planting again.
Theological reason why we need new churches
We could brainstorm and come up with dozens more practical reasons why it is important to keep planting new churches. And people already have! But the need for more churches isn’t essentially about pragmatics, strategy, analysis, or the latest trends. It’s not fundamentally needs driven.
There’s a deeper, broader, more profound, theological reason for why we need more churches. It’s at the core of the plans and purposes of God.
The church is at the heart of God’s design for humanity. We were created to belong to the church. It’s key to what it means to be truly human! Now all that might sound a bit weird, and you won’t find it taught in anthropology, psychology, sociology, or biology. You probably won’t even hear it taught in many churches. But it’s in the Bible and it needs to be taken seriously.
Take Ephesians 5, for example, a passage that gets preached at many weddings. It seems to be a passage about marriage, that gives instructions to husbands and wives. The Apostle Paul appeals to Genesis 2, man and woman in union together, as the foundation for marriage. But a careful reading shows something deeper going on…
31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
The profound mystery isn’t the union of man and woman, it’s the union between Christ and his bride, the church. This is the core reality, the primary marriage. Humanity was created for union with Christ. That is, we were made to belong to Christ’s church and we experience this as we place our trust in Jesus Christ and respect his headship.
These ideas, introduced at the beginning of the Bible, find their climax and fulfilment at the end in Revelation 19…
6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
The ultimate event to participate in is the wedding between the Lamb, Jesus Christ, and his bride, the church. God is calling people to be ‘at one’ with his Son, our Lord and Saviour. This imagery highlights the extraordinary importance of being united to Jesus. This is what truly matters. This is the relationship we were made for. This is why the church is so important.
Of course, the church on view here is not St Blogs down the street, nor is it the denomination or institution. The church on view is the gathering of all who truly belong to Jesus Christ. This gathering finds its earthly expression as people give their lives to Jesus and meet together with others who have done the same.
It’s always been God’s plan to gather people to himself. His Son, the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, came to build his church. We see this in the climactic announcement about Jesus’ identity in Matthew 16…
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyonethat he was the Christ. (emphasis added)
Jesus is the promised Christ or Messiah (these words mean the same thing). He came to take on the Messiah’s job description, that is to build his church. Not an institution, not a building of bricks and mortar, not a local spiritual club – but a gathering of people, belonging to God for all eternity. The church is not a social construct. It comes from the heart of a merciful loving God.
Why do we need more churches? Fundamentally, because God is calling people to belong to the church of Jesus Christ. We’re not talking about structures, organisations, denominations, buildings or campuses. We’re talking about the church of God, union with Christ, people coming to grips with what it means to be truly human.
Humanly speaking, this will come about in many ways – denominational and non-denominational strategies, revitalising existing churches, transplanting congregations to reach new areas, pioneering mission to connect with new people groups, people speaking with their friends and family, church planting organisations equipping people to lead new churches, and more.
From God’s own perspective, this is a seriously costly project. Jesus went to the cross and died so as to bring people into his church. Growing the church required the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. The church is deeply precious to God. It’s his treasured possession and therefore needs to be handled with great care. We see Paul encouraging the leaders of the church in Ephesus to take this seriously…
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28, emphasis added)
Planting churches will also mean leading churches. It’ll mean teaching and warning people, loving and caring for people, equipping and mobilising people, serving and encouraging people, praying for and giving to people. Planting new churches should never be seen as the ‘easy option’, nor should it be adopted as the latest fad strategy. It’s hard work. It’s a costly project. It can take a lifetime. It should be embraced with humility, relying on God’s strength, and going about it God’s way, because it comes from the heart of God himself.