LifeWay Research, in its Viral Churches research, examined church planting strategies and the effectiveness of all Protestant denominations. Leadership Network invested heavily (more than $100,000) in the research. As you can imagine, it was an enormous project.
While doing the research, which was at first a private report, I listed the denominations and groups that were strongest and those that were struggling in church planting. Later, Warren Bird -- the director of research and intellectual capital at Leadership Network -- and I published the research project in the book "Viral Churches."
We discovered and subsequently reported that the SBC is not one of the leading denominations in church planting. Facts are our friends, but some people in the SBC mistook my honesty for disloyalty.
Well, NAMB has now publicly stated that it is planting at a rate "under" 2 percent. Maybe facts really can be our friends. The reality is that our numbers tell us that we are not particularly effective at church planting.
Let's take two examples for comparison.
As a denomination, the Assemblies of God has 12,457 churches. Last year, they planted 325 churches. A few years ago, I had the privilege of spending two days with the Assemblies of God leadership, helping develop their strategy that later became the Church Multiplication Network. They have increased their planting to one new church a day. Their rate is about 2.6 percent (up from 2 percent in 2008 and 2.1 percent in 2009).
As we will see later, the Assemblies' rate is 50 percent more than what is found in the SBC. They have opened the first part of 2011 with 177 new churches, tracking at a 3 percent pace, or almost twice the SBC rate.
Steve Pike, national director of the Assemblies' Church Multiplication Network said to me in a recent email: "We've actually decided to have a holy dissatisfaction with a 3 percent rate." Citing the 3 percent number as a "break-even" pace, he said, "That's why our near-term goal is 500 churches a year -- it increases our pace well past the 3 percent break-even level."
Let's look at a Baptist group with even more impressive results. The Baptist General Conference (also called Converge Worldwide) planted 64 churches last year in a denomination of 1,150 churches -- a rate of 5.5 percent.
In the NAMB presentation at the SBC annual meeting, NAMB President Kevin Ezell announced that NAMB can say with certainty that 769 churches were planted in the SBC this past year. Since we have 45,727 churches, that means we planted at a rate of 1.68 percent last year. Therefore the SBC is almost a percentage point less than what the Assemblies of God does and about a third of what the BGC does. (Or, put another way, the Baptist General Conference planting rate is more than 300 percent that of the SBC's.) The SBC is below the rate that most scholars think is needed for basic growth, which may contribute to our membership decline.
In light of the current church planting numbers, it makes little sense to say that "NAMB talks too much about church planting." If anything, all of us should hope to talk about it as much as NAMB.
We have a long way to catch up with other evangelicals, but that is not my goal. It just helps us to define reality. That reality is that we cannot reach North America (and the world) without a more aggressive church planting engagement.
My hope is that NAMB will keep pushing us. We have not even begun to be as serious as evangelical groups like the Assemblies of God and Baptist General Conference.
So why should everyone in the SBC be concerned about church planting? Even those who are not directly involved with it will experience a benefit. As I mentioned, the Baptist General Conference is planting churches at a much higher rate than Southern Baptists -- and guess what? -- they have almost doubled the size of their denomination in the last 20 years.
In case you are wondering, the SBC potentially would have 30 million members right now if we had that same focus. Can you imagine the implications of a giving, going and growing SBC with more than 30 million members? Friends, communities and nations would be impacted for the glory of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
I have a deep appreciation for those groups who are acting upon their convictions regarding church planting. But I'm not headed over to those denominations. However, I share the same "holy dissatisfaction" with our current realities as Steve Pike and the Assemblies of God do about theirs. And I am dreaming about what God could do through the SBC when we get serious about planting churches.
Press on, NAMB.
Ed Stetzer serves as the vice president of research and ministry development for LifeWay Christian Resources.
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