Why Church Planting Should Not Be Funded

In a rather “accidental series,” I’ve written an evaluation of the church planting movement, followed by my thoughts on why your church won’t be able to find a pastor, and then gave some instructions on how to start a home church. Each of these articles had the common thread of the dismay over the condition of the church in our day. Now I’d like to complete these thoughts with a further word about church planting. I am convinced that the church planting movement, with all its failures, has been responsible for much of the sickness of the church today, and those who care about the health of the church should avoid the funding of church planting efforts, especially through networks and denominational agencies.

How did we get here?

I think we have seminaries to blame. Somewhere, a generation ago, the seminaries and her professors grew an animosity for the local church, and thus for the “establishment pastor.” Perhaps this animosity grew because it was the pastors who sat on the Board of Trustees, and it was the board members who refused to allow the seminaries go as leftist as the professors would have liked. Or perhaps it was because the churches themselves were “back woods” and not “academically sophisticated,” so the professors grew to dislike the local church. Their dislike could be seen in their lack of involvement (seminary professors and their students often make some of the worst churchmen) and it could also be heard in their comments in the classroom, comments which betrayed the cloaked animosity.

Over the years, more and more of the graduates captured the spirit of their professors and went a step farther, deciding before they ever got out of seminary that they would never pastor an established church. Rather, they would leave that old barge-of-a-church behind and start a sexy-speedboat-of-a-church and quickly change the world.

And, truthfully, that’s exactly what happened.

The way it was

Prior to the 1980s, there was no church planting movement. This movement was birthed in the 1980s, and Willow Creek and Saddleback are the now-aging grandparents of it all. These two churches wowed every young preacher. They went from zero to thousands of attendees, all within a decade. Seminarians jumped ship from the old barge and began to go out by the hundreds, then thousands, to plant new churches across America. I would venture to say that the largest churches in America today did not even exist 30 years ago.

But up until that time, as I’ve mentioned in my previous article, churches were planted by churches, and the DNA of the “daughter church” was the same as that of the “mother church.” And, even more striking, there were no church-planting networks or agencies. In that day, the mission boards for American denominations that had been tasked with missions in the United States did very little in church planting. For example, the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (an agency dissolved in 1997) was an agency that jointly funded literally thousands of missionaries who were serving life-long careers working with Native Americans, rural populations, urban neighborhood centers, campus ministries, and much more. The Home Mission Board had missionaries with long-term strategies for reaching the unreached language groups of America and strengthening struggling churches. Today, the North American Mission Board (successor to the HMB) doesn’t have long-term missionaries (almost 100% of the “missionaries” are actually church planters, jointly funded for two to three years), doesn’t have a Native American outreach, doesn’t provide long-term missionaries to language groups, and does very little in rural America. The emphasis of NAMB is large-city church planting, and over $78 million of its $127 million budget goes to this effort.

Churches can be started without funding

I am convinced that church planting can be more effectively done without large-scale funding. Here’s why-

First, if churches are planted in homes and with a sponsor church, there is very little funding needed. The ministry will start as a home Bible study, which can literally be done for free. The best churches will be churches started by laymen and women, not by a carpet-bagger church-planter.  What little expenses do come up can be covered by those in the home Bible study.

Second, when the home group gets large enough, it can call and pay for its own pastor. The sponsor church can, if needed, provide some short-term assistance. The pastor can also work some extra hours in a side job, or he can raise support from friends, family, and associates. (Incidentally, don’t be fooled into thinking that agencies like the North American Mission Board fully funds church planters: they raise their own support, and NAMB gives them an additional stipend).

Third, outside money is going to give a false sense of security and strength to the new church. Why do so many church plants fail after two or three years?  Because that is when the funding stops! Rather than proving the need for more funding, this actually proves the need for less funding. The funding that is being given is an artificial mechanism that is moving the new churches ahead of where they can sustain themselves and then the rug is pulled out. The funding gives artificial strength, and so the church planter signs leases, buys equipment, and hires staff–then is unable to fulfill the obligations when the funding stops. If the funding never happened, the church would be much more wise in its commitments.

But what about those places where a home Bible study will never happen without a church planter being moved from another location? Honestly, I’m skeptical that these places exist in America. As someone who was raised in a Bible-belt environment, I used to hear about all those northern states that had almost no Christian witness. Now that I’m more well traveled and am out of the SBC bubble, I realize that what they meant was that those northern states don’t have very many Southern Baptist churches. They do, however, have very strong evangelical and fundamentalist churches whose ministries rival anything that can be found in the Bible belt. As I’ve now traveled outside of the SBC, I’ve found that there are some fabulous pockets of believers in every region of the United States.

What goes wrong when you fund church planting

In short, here’s what goes wrong:  we perpetuate a system that isn’t working. It isn’t working because so many churches fail (after huge financial investment) and the churches that do succeed are very often (possibly most often) aberrant to the values and ideals of the founding church.

Furthermore, when you fund a church plant, especially when you have little to no design of the church DNA, you are funding the spiritual / Biblical demise of the broader church. If the church fails, it was probably because it was artificially propped up by outside money and was never sustainable in the first place. If the church succeeds, it will either be a “welfare church” that continually seeks another financial partner in order to keep afloat or a pragmatist church that continually seeks another new fad to keep new bodies (and their bucks) coming in the door. Neither is something you want to be part of.

What about the places that can never support a pastor but need one? There are two solutions. First, pastors can be either bi-vocational or can pastor several churches at once (a proven strategy of a bygone era). Second, the denominational entities that are spending over $78 million in church planting can shift their strategy and place career missionaries in these areas. Sadly, however, the career missionary in the United States is virtually non-existent, largely because all the funding has gone to church planting, and most of that funding will have nothing to show for it in just a few years.

Consider this example

I live in Northern New Mexico, a place that has had 500 years of catholic missionary activity (which could arguably be considered some of the most successful missionary activity in history). Yet, in these 500 years, it has never had a strong non-catholic presenceNorthern New Mexico is filled with small mountain villages that have no non-catholic churches whatsoever. Even in many of the larger towns (i.e.: more than 1,000 residents), it would be very difficult for a fundamental or evangelical Bible-teaching pastor to ever survive in a church planting setting. If someone invests in church-planting here, using any kind of modern planting strategy, it will almost certainly fail.

Thirty years ago, there were long-term missionaries who lived here and worked with Native Americans or Spanish speaking populations. These missionaries translated scripture to the Tewa language or hosted home-based Bible studied in a dozen or more towns. All of these works have completely stopped, and agencies like the North American Mission Board have absolutly no strategy nor design for sending missionaries to areas like mine. The only model that will work in my area is a career missionary model, and nobody is doing career missions funding. The career missionary to hard-to-reach areas has been replaced by church planters being sent to America’s biggest cities (cities that are also home to America’s biggest churches).

What you can do

Here is my suggestion. With your missionary dollars (whether given individually or through your church), make sure you are supporting long-term career missionaries, not short-term church planters. The short-term planter can (and does) raise his own support, when needed, or can be funded through the church plant itself or by the sponsor church.

By forcing this missiological shift, you will strengthen missionary work in missionary areas like mine, and you will stop the flow of money into the endless cycle of church-planting-failure or success at the cost of doctrinal embarrassment.