Have you ever wondered exactly how many churches are in an area? I have often wondered that so recently I undertook the task of collecting a record of churches in Georgia, about 10,000 total, and plotting them out in a heat map.
Click here to see the result.
I’ll continue to develop this visualization to make it more useful and interactive. If you are interested in helping out or have any suggestions, questions, or comments feel free to contact me. If you want to donate to this project in order to see it expand (hosting is cheap but not free), feel free to send a donation.
Here are the arguements against the current trend of church planting I’ve tried to elucidate in my previous posts. I’ll collect them here to provide a handy centeralized reference for future forays into this subject.
- Modern church planting is not found in Scripture
- The market for new churches is oversaturated.
- It is irresponsible and wrong to simply abandon failing churches.
- The supply of pastors exceeds market demands and it is wrong to continue adding to this surplus in human capital.
The move to focus on church planting strikes me as a massive welfare to work program for the newly minted pastors that SBC seminaries are churning out by the busload. All those pastors need to find jobs in order to pay off their student loans and make a living. The only market with a demand for their skills are the church businesses. And since there aren’t enough existing churches to meet the supply, in fact the demand is decreasing, the only other alternative to lessening the supply (which would mean discouraging people from pursuing theological degrees in the hopes of being employed in a clergy capacity) is to try and salt the market.
This means pastors are expected to become entrepreneurs and start new businesses in risky markets in hopes that demand will follow supply is strikingly similar to what Starbucks tried to do through their opening of hundreds of stores, many times in close proximity to one another, and having them basically fight for survival. I’m sure Starbucks considers the fraction of stores that managed to survive on razor thin profit margins a net gain. But at what cost in both capital as well as manpower? For each store that succeeds you have to factor in the numerous stores that failed in order to get a more accurate understanding of the costs incurred. This, of course, assumes that growth, indeed exponential growth in many cases, is required and not optional. It is. Other business models, specifically that of Chick-fil-A show us that real success comes through careful observation of the market, self-assessment, planning, and implementation. Chick-fil-A doesn’t plant very many stores compared to other businesses in their industry, but the ones they plant have a much higher chance of being successful and self-sufficient.
By contrast, it is a widely known and accepted fact that the vast majority of church plants fail in less than 5 years. And even though it is never a pleasant circumstance when a business fails, it is even more tragic when the business that fails is headed by someone fresh out of seminary, sporting large personal and business debts. What I find mildly amusing is that the SBC condemns gambling (and drinking) and yet it seems hell bent on putting the unfortunate pastoral entrepreneur on the fast track to doing both.
In most church planting strategies. Failing churches are expected to fail, leading to the needless waste of untold amounts of resources. Not to mention alienating potential customers through negative shopping experiences. This pessimistic approach to failing churches is apparently borne of the desire to avoid the hard conversations that might otherwise save some businesses from failing. Then again, since the SBC consists of loosely affiliated churches I suppose the tactic is wholly in line with the overall church polity. After all, not many individual businesses concern themselves with assisting other businesses in a purely altruistic fashion.
Proverbs tells us that everything has a season. And church planting is no different. However, rather than seeing this as a season for planting (which carries with it the idea of a net gain) I would argue that this is the perfect season for tending to fields which have become weak, sickly, and unproductive. Rather than planting new businesses or crops while allowing others to fail, we should be making the wiser investment decision to patch up failing churches. That may mean that we need to revisit SBC polity and seriously ask ourselves whether it is time to change the governmental structure of the SBC or, as a less invasive option, produce material designed to help failing churches adapt to current market conditions.
Regardless of how we go about attempting to salvage failing churches, the tactic of writing them off and allowing the resources they contain (which includes people, our brothers in Christ) is needlessly wasteful. And it is actually a variation of the broken window fallacy to assume that more churches is the same as church growth.
In my next post I will explore the problem of excess supply.
In my last post I discussed the problem of market saturation when it comes to churches, particularly in the south where it is easy to find a church on almost every corner. However in the north the market saturation is less obvious because the problem is not an abundance of church businesses but a lack of market interest in religion in general and Christianity in particular.
This is not to say that market conditions cannot change. However the way in which markets change is through educating the consumer. This is wholly different than simple advertising where the goal is simple brand awareness of a product being offered to solve a known and understood problem and/or need. When companies wanted to introduce the personal computer to the average consumer who has never seen one before, they had to first undertake a campaign of education about computers in general and simultaneously seeding the potential market with a clear vision of the promise of a digital future.
The same thing needs to happen if we want to turn spiritually barren plains into fruitful fields.
Practically, this means a deliberate emphasis on apologetic training and engagement with individuals in markets that have, for a variety of reasons, selected against Christianity.
Before any new businesses can be established, we need to undertake a campaign of educating people of the product (worldview) of Christianity and what it has to offer. In fact, I would argue that such an education campaign needs to be undertaken even in saturated markets like the bible belt. We need to combat false impressions people have developed regarding what church is, what Christianity is all about, and most importantly, who God is and how we can know he exists and sent His Son to come and die for our sins to set us free.
We need to till the soil.
One of the saddest things to watch is when a business fails by refusing to recognize the reality of their market. What’s even sadder is when these businesses decide that the solution is not to invest in learning, but rather to spend more time and energy in establishing a plethora of new establishments in hopes that a few will find purchase and become productive. The problem with this approach, however, is that by ignoring market conditions, they are just as likely to accelerate their own demise as they are to facilitate growth.
The market condition in which church businesses find themselves is not very good. In fact, according to the statistics which are coming out year after year, they are downright dismal. Baptisms are down, the membership is growing older, giving is down, and if something is not done soon, thousands of church businesses are faced with the real prospect of closing up shop. In fact, many already have.
So what do the Southern Baptists plan to do about this? Well the buzz in the past few years has been church planting. In fact, the North American Mission Board has recently announced it’s intention to direct the majority of it’s efforts towards planting new churches in North America, specifically in the north and Canada. I suppose the hope here is the akin to throwing a bunch of mud at a wall and hoping some of it sticks.
But what about the practical implications of encouraging and funding many new start-up businesses in an already saturated market?
In economics 101 we learn that every market contains a saturation limit. This fact is readily obvious here in the Bible-belt where a church can be found on almost every corner and mega-churches are a dime a dozen.
From a business analysis perspective it is hard to see how the approach of starting new businesses in a saturated market makes much sense at all, especially since donations are a finite resource. In my next post, I will address the market conditions in areas which do not have an abundance of buildings to service an underdeveloped market.
Church planting has been a hot topic (quickly becoming an obsession) in the Souther Baptist Convention for the last few years. And after examining the issue, I plan on writing a series of 6 posts intended to outline what I believe are the pitfalls inherent in the modern church planting movement. But first, I believe a helpful foundation for any fruitful discussion on the subject will be to define a few key terms.
Even though they are loathe to admit it, 501c3 non-profit orginizations with property and staff are, at the end of the day, businesses. True, they are not like traditional businesses. These masquarade under the otherwise organic term “church”, they enjoy special spiritual prominence, and through that they are able to solicit and extract large sums of money through what amounts to sanctified begging (or extortion, take your pick) rather than the production of a good or the performance of a service.
As Alan Knox rightly and frequently points out, there is only one Church, the body of Christ, and even though that body finds a tangible expression in the form of local group of believers, the only valid reason for drawing a difference between groups of believers is by their location. For example, the letters in the New Testament were addressed to “the church in..” rather than “the First Baptist Church of..”
When one speaks out against church planting the common retort is that it is through the planting of new churches that the church of Christ has spread throughout the world. There are two distinct senses in which the phrase “church planting” is used. The first sense is more rightly understood as evangelism, the “making disciples” we are commanded to do in Matthew 28. The second sense, and the one I will be argueing against, is the establishment of new non-profit orginizations complete with staff, buildings (or other arrangements for a regular meeting place) and a clear affiliation with a larger denominational orginization.
In this sense, another name for “church planting” can easily be “denominational colonialism” since the criteria for establishing new churches in this second sense is not whether a body of local believers already exists but wether a body of local believer who are members of our denomination exists or not.
In the next 4 posts, I will be outlining the problems with church planting where the goal extends above and beyond the basic biblical mandate of evangelizing and making disciples.
I recently ran across this article in the WSJ thanks to Ed Stetzer, Lifeway’s church planting guru. The article examines the whole church planting movement (or fad) in light of entrepreneurial practices that other small business or startups could emulate.
Did you catch that?
Other small businesses or startups.
Where in Scripture are we given a picture of the church as a business institution?
This article is rather sad in that it gives a good idea of just how market-driven the church in America is.
Here are a few choice quotes:
small businesses could take a page from churches when it comes to getting people to open their wallets.
Another useful strategy: getting to know local businesspeople, who can work wonders by talking up the church to customers.
It also helps the church seem less focused on money.
Simple Church now rents space that contains 14 screens in one multiplex and six in another.
Note: Not to be confused with simple church.
several parents told him that programs for kids were essential in any church that sought them as regular members. But they warned him that those programs shouldn’t duplicate offerings already in abundance in the community—and they shouldn’t be scheduled at times that competed with established activities.