Every year, about 4,000 churches are planted in the U.S. And every year, about 3,700 churches close.
Currently, we are only adding about 300 churches per year. This is not enough to keep up with population growth, much less the growing needs of the unaffiliated.
We need to triple church planting within the next five years. It’s that urgent.
New Churches Needed by 2050
416,000 ChurchesKey assumptions: (1) New churches average a 68% success rate. (2) Ratio between churches and Christians stays at 1:680. (3) The US population grows to ~400M by 2050.
Church planting is near an all-time low in American history, and we expect church closure rates to increase within the next ten years. Which means we need to plant more churches right now.
Churches Started Per 1 Million ResidentsBased on start dates of 92,677 churches in the United States
In the decade after WWII, there was a large spike in church planting in the United States. The current lifespan of a church, however, is 80-120 years.
This means that church closure rates will likely increase in the next 10 years, creating an even greater need for new churches in America.
Church Planting Rates Need to Rise Quickly
For church planting to double or triple in the next thirty years, the American church as a whole—Evangelicals, mainline denominations, the Catholic Church, African American churches, charismatics, and others—needs to plant between 8,000 and 11,000 churches per year.
Desired Church Growth
What about church revitalization?
Church revitalization has been raised as a potential solution to complement planting. Revitalization can mean many things. If revitalization means bringing in new staff members and resources into an existing church, that looks a lot like a church plant. For our purposes, we would consider that effectively a church plant.
Revitalization can also be a renewal of a declining congregation with the same leadership and members. That is a worthy mission for those whom God calls to it, and we hope that all churches will be continuously renewing. While research is thin, what we have found suggests that success rates of turning around a declining congregation is in the single to low double digits. There seems to be a natural lifecycle for the majority of local congregations without a substantial infusion of new leaders, resources, and members.
This does not mean that we are opposed to seeing efforts made to help older congregations grow; quite the contrary. We are encouraged by all these efforts. Given limited finances, time, and leadership, churches will have to make prudential judgements of how to steward those resources best for God’s glory.
Why are new churches important?
Church plants that launch daughter churches within their first five years average twice as many weekly attenders as churches that do not replicate.
New church plants are usually more effective at reaching the lost: 42% of members at successful church plants were previously unchurched.
We used to be really good at church planting in America.
Learn about the fascinating (and wildly successful) history of the earlier church-planting efforts in America.Read more
Exponential Church Planting in America: Methodists, Baptists, and African American Churches in the 19th Century
While a doubling or tripling of church planting rates may seem to be a remarkably high figure, it is actually much closer to the typical experience of American churches in the 19th century. Church planting was a common feature of the American church. The Methodists and Baptists, and later after the Civil War, African American churches, were each important in informing our understanding of rapid church expansion.
At the start of the 19th century, American Methodism was a rounding error in the American religious landscape. Despite the remarkable impact of disciples of Wesley in the mid-1700’s like George Whitefield, it was not until the end of that century that Methodism took hold in earnest in the United States. “In 1776 the Methodists were a tiny religious society with only 65 churches scattered through the colonies… In 1850 there were 13,302 Methodist congregations, enrolling more than 2.6 million members—the largest single denomination, accounting for more than a third of all American church members.”1 These were not small churches either—the Methodists were averaging nearly 200 members per church.
Baptists saw similar growth. “[Baptists] claimed to have numbered 35,101 in 1784, to have grown to 65,345 by 1790, and then to 172,972 by 1810.2 By 1850, they had grown to over 20 percent of all religious adherents (which was roughly two thirds the size of the Methodists), and bigger than Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists combined!
The same can be seen in African American churches after the Civil War. In less than 30 years after the Emancipation, over 2.7 million out of 8.5 million former slaves were Christian. One denomination, the American Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, tells this story. “From a modest 20,000 members at the beginning of the Civil War, the church had grown to nearly 400,000 by 1884, and to over 450,000 by 1896.”3
How did these new entrants come to dominate American Christianity in a few decades? In each of these movements, the key was unlocking large numbers of church planters and missionaries that required few resources. With a message that emphasized repentance, a personal conversion experience, and strong formation through small group meetings, it was a powerful combination.
To recruit that many ministers, not one of the movements mentioned above required formal seminary education for new ministers during their high growth periods. They all recruited from the people groups that they were trying to reach. Most pastors “were bi-vocational, often entirely unremunerated.”4 In the AME Church, while the notion of an educated clergy was emphasized beginning in the mid-19th century—with educational efforts aimed at basic literacy and comprehension in fundamental subjects like geography, arithmetic, and history—it wasn’t until the close of the century that Bishop Daniel A. Payne was able to establish a formal seminary. By that time, the denomination had already founded a number of colleges.5
For Methodists, the local “class presidents” were mentored by the circuit riders, who were in turn mentored by the Methodist bishops; Asbury himself was famous for his recruiting of Methodist ministers. The class leaders were probably closest in concept to today’s small group leaders, though many also functioned at the local pastor. “‘Many, if not most, of the early itinerants began their careers as class leaders.’ As a result, the denomination remained responsive to the people despite its hierarchical structure, and the average Methodist congregation was a model of ‘congregationalism,’ with control residing in the hands of the adult membership6.”
The Baptists were famous for their “farmer-preacher” model, recruiting gifted laymen to enter the ministry. In fact, if anyone wanted to preach, you had to be selected by your congregation; and, even if you were selected, in most cases the only way to find an open pulpit was to plant a new church! This created a strong supply of tested, apprenticed preachers who were eager to establish their new congregations.
During the Civil War, established AME clergy and church members in the North—often serving as chaplains accompanying Northern troops—moved into the collapsing states of the Confederacy to evangelize former slaves in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Texas. This Southern missionary effort capitalized on the already-present slave plantation preachers (as well as black preachers authorized via white Methodist congregations) to launch AME churches in the South.7
The rapidly growing church movements also actively sought ways to reduce the resources required to reach the lost. The church planters had limited resources (the Methodists and Baptists often faced resistance from established churches who viewed them as competition, denying them access to facilities and advertising; the same impact was felt by former slaves across the country, even in the North). They used houses, barns, camps, and even saloons to get to the lost. Camp meetings were effective, and also less expensive. Church buildings came, but later. Pay was low—well below the established denominations—and most of the local leaders were unpaid volunteers. Itinerant preachers allowed the best preachers and teachers to scale while still grooming local talent. Between the innovation in facilities and low cost labor, these new denominations were able to quickly recruit, train, send, and support ministers into the field, fueling their growth.
1 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 55-116.
2 Also see, John H. Wigger. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005). Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, Chapter 3.
3 C. Eric Lincoln & Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 47-75.
4 Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird, Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
5 Dennis C. Dickerson, A Liberation Past: Explorations in A.M.E. Church History (Nashville: A.M.E. Sunday School Union, 2003); Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp. “The Church in the Southern Black Community” (http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/intro.html).
6 Roger Finke, The Churching of America, as well as, John H. Wigger. Taking Heaven by Storm.
7 Dennis C. Dickerson, “Our History” (https://www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history).
How Can I Help?
Doubling or tripling the rate of church planting from 4,000 new churches (net 300) to 8,000 - 12,000 per year will require significant focus and new interventions on several fronts. For a deeper exploration of ways to take action, download the report.
- Pastors and
- Funders and
Is our church called to plant a church (or churches), especially churches that are multiplying?
How can my church vision-cast to recruit and unleash more church planters in the near future?
Can my church be a source of training or apprenticeship for future church planters?
How can I create a small group or multiply my existing one?
How can I contribute to a church plant, whether financially or through volunteering?
Am I called to help plant a church?
How can I catalyze funds and resources to recruit and unleash more church planters of all backgrounds?
How can I help increase and strengthen multi-platform and virtual training offerings for church planters?
Can I invest in mixed-platform apprentice models for training pastors and church planters?
How can I contribute resources to the necessary funding for church planting?
Can I participate in creating an online hub or app-based approach that pulls several of these pieces together to mobilize church planting?