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Entrepreneurial evangelists embrace new ideas, approaches to spark growth through church planting

Published: Friday, Oct. 12 2012 10:31 a.m. MDT

Evangelical faiths are encouraging innovative approaches in church planting and revitalization to attract new followers.

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Pastor Jim Armpriester calls himself a fixer.

"I am a little strange, I think," the 49-year-old molecular biologist-turned-churchman says. "My personality requires me to have a challenge or else I create conflict."

He describes his latest challenge as his biggest yet. Armpriester is drawing on his 15 years as a "church planter" to revitalize an Assemblies of God congregation stagnated by internal conflict and lack of leadership in Englewood, N.J. And from that rejuvenated church he hopes to spawn several new "plants," or churches, among the area's multicultural and young adult populations who are searching for a group of like-minded believers to worship in a style they are comfortable with.

"This is the greatest challenge so far because it has the greatest potential for growth," says Armpriester, who moved his family to New Jersey in September after more than four years pastoring in Niagara Falls, where he restored to health a congregation that doubled its attendance, dropped its average congregant age by 30 years and helped spawn a church in nearby Lake Tonawanda.

He's one of a growing number of church planters in the United States — the latest in a long tradition of evangelical entrepreneurs who shake up established methods of Christian worship and practice as a way to attract new followers. The latest trend among these energetic planters is to leverage the resources of a healthy church to spin off satellite congregations of worshippers who may be younger, more ethnically diverse or in far-flung areas.

"Evangelicals have always had this innovative spirit, thinking about doing things a little differently," says Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean for the Fuller Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education programs. "You had church planting and now the hotter trend is these multisite churches."

Fertile ground

Fredrickson can rattle off a long line of evangelical pioneers dating back to the first of America's "Great Awakenings" — periodic religious revivals in American history — from John Wesley and Charles Finney to evangelist Billy Graham and mega-church pioneer Bill Hybels. They all introduced new ideas and methods of spreading the gospel and attracting new believers.

While some of today's church planters trace their ideas back to the early Christian Apostle Paul's work around 65 A.D. — "He was a start-up specialist," says Steve Pike, director of the Assemblies of God's Church Multiplication Network — Fredrickson says the modern-day movement began in the late 1970s.

"There was a sense that churches were losing their influence in the broader culture and the way for that influence to expand would be through church planting simply because established churches were too static to do new things," Fredrickson said.

Instead of working within the traditional parish model of organization — where congregations are created along geographical lines and report to a centralized headquarters — church planters struck out on their own to create congregations that were attracted to a certain style of worship or a group with similar cultural values.

The trends that spawned the church planting in the 1970s continue today.

Recent surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life show 44 percent of those polled have left the faith of their childhood and either joined another church or are unaffiliated with any religion. With nearly 20 percent of Americans saying they are unaffiliated, Pew says that group is the fastest-growing in America. And the largest demographic within the unaffiliated is those younger than 30 years old, among whom a third say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.