The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada have announced a campaign to increase their membership to 350,000 in 1,500 churches by 2020. (In 2009 they had 234,385 members in 1,077 affiliated churches.) Their ambitious goal reminded me of a column I wrote in The Mennonite back in 2010 about church planting—and how, according to veteran British church planter Stuart Murray, it has to be done differently today if evangelism is to be successful at all.
In 1992, churches in Great Britain launched a plan to plant 20,000 new churches by 2000.
There was some success; several hundred new churches did result. But it was not the thousands that were hoped for. Of those churches that were planted, many struggled and some closed after a few years. Others persisted, but did not thrive. Few inroads were made into the communities they wanted to serve.
Looking back, veteran British church planter Stuart Murray wondered what went wrong—and what could be done to avoid repeating those mistakes. Planting Churches in the 21st Century: A Guide for Those Who Want Fresh Perspectives and New Ideas for Creating Congregations is the result.
"I think the main problem was that people focused on speed and quantity rather than quality,” says Murray, who helps direct the Anabaptist Network in Great Britain.
“We were more interested in how many churches we could plant, not what kind of church various communities needed.”
Church planting "isn't just about numbers," he says. "It's about the renewal of the church and the development of new ways of being the church that are biblically rooted and contextually appropriate."
Not all church plants will succeed, he points out. But whether they grow or fail, "there are lessons to be learned."
One of those lessons is that Christianity has to be presented differently today.
"In the past, we could assume that people we wanted to reach with the gospel knew the story," he says.
"But we cannot make such an assumption today. Here in Britain, the cut-off point for knowing the Christian story is about 35 or 40 years of age. I assume that something similar might be occurring in parts of North America."
Another lesson, he notes, is that living faithfully—in the hope that others will notice and then want to know more about Jesus—only works if people are familiar with the Christian story.
"Many church leaders in Europe and North America have told me their members are more comfortable living faithfully and distinctively in the hope that others will be challenged by their example and drawn toward faith," he says.
"While there is much in this that I affirm, living out faith only works where people actually know what that faith is actually all about."
A third lesson for church planters is the importance of discovering "what aspects of the gospel connect with people today," he adds.
For a long time "evangelists used guilt and death to connect with people, with forgiveness and the hope of eternal life as the good news,” he says.
“But many people today don't feel guilty, and many are not particularly interested in life after death. It's no longer a starting point for a conversation about faith."
For Murray, starting points that might work for conversations about faith today include alienation, loneliness, a search for meaning and purpose, interest in spirituality, and ways to live meaningfully and with purpose in this life.
"The gospel can meet all human needs, but we need to listen carefully to our post-modern and post-Christendom culture to learn what they are," he says.
"We don’t want to give out answers to questions nobody is asking."
As an Anabaptist, Murray believes that tradition brings a special gift to the church planting enterprise.
"Anabaptism has historically emphasized the importance of telling the story, of community and the centrality of Jesus, along with the importance of following Christ in life," he shares.
"Many people today want to know how they can make a difference and be fulfilled in this life—not just in the life to come. The Anabaptist emphasis on service and living the life of faith may prove to be an effective starting point."