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."
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.
That same report used the General Social Survey to document an 11 percentage-point decline between 1972 and 2010 in the percentage of Americans who identified as Protestants, from 62 percent to 51 percent — and the recent Pew report puts the figure at 48 percent in 2012. Immigration over that same period has also introduced a host of religious traditions — some of them nontheistic — to the nation's religious landscape, other Pew studies have shown.
But to church planters like Armpriester, declining church membership and a healthy religious marketplace present an opportunity.
"I don't see any end to the challenges" with the new assignment in New Jersey, he said. "I can drive 10 minutes and be in a totally unchurched area."
Those areas are fertile ground to a church planter who envisions a population of unaffiliated young adults eager to find a faith for themselves and their family or first-generation immigrants looking for a way connect to their own community or the community at large.
More than 30 percent of new church plants in the past two years within the Assemblies of God are Hispanic congregations, according to the denomination's Church Multiplication Network.
While there is no argument among leaders of evangelical and mainline Protestant faiths over the need to stem the decline in church attendance and attract new adherents, there is less agreement on how best to go about it. The current debate is over whether to revitalize a flagging church or let it die and start a new one.
"It’s easier to birth a baby than it is to raise the dead," said Ed Stetzer, head of LifeWay Research, which is affiliated the Southern Baptist Convention, and a proponent of church planting.
His descriptive distinction between changing an established church and starting a new one is often quoted by adherents of the movement.
"The reality is that many churches that need revitalization are in the downside of their life cycle. It is not inherently evil that churches die," said Stetzer in a recent online roundtable discussion among leading church planters in Outreach magazine.
But Stetzer and others don't advocate simply abandoning churches because they are experiencing a decline. They say effective planting and revitalizing strategies can help both approaches succeed.
"I am a strong advocate for revitalizing established churches," Fredrickson said. "There is a place for planting. But I know that churches well rooted in the community have resources and those are good things (for church planters) if you can spark new life into the churches."
Sparking that new life is difficult, if not impossible, in some entrenched congregations. But Pike said his denomination is learning that revitalizing is worth the effort since the renewed church can more effectively spawn new plants.
"At the end of the day, what is becoming clearer and clearer is that a healthy church will start other congregations," he said.
That's what is happening in Northern Utah, where the New Life Northview church recently began services in a North Ogden dance studio. The 80-member congregation wanted a more convenient location to worship for several years. But it didn't happen until this year when Pastor Dane Wead's New Life Fellowship in Logan offered to help out through the Assemblies of God's Parent Affiliated Church program.
"The Logan church uses its resources to get (the church plant) started," Wead said. "It’s all done through the parent (church) until the plant builds up a large enough congregation to support itself."
Another name for these spinoffs from a healthy church is "multi-sites" or campuses.
"This is a massive push within Protestant Christianity and in some ways a backlash to the mega church," said Kevin Dougherty, a sociologist at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. "It's a push away from 'we want everyone in the county to have a place in this one huge facility' to 'we are going to take the way we do church and bring it to you,'" on a smaller scale.
But not all multi-sites mimic the parent church. Pike said one reason for their success is they allow a group of like-minded congregants who may not connect with those in the parent church to worship together.
"People tend to want cultural environments they are connected to and where the gospel can be more clearly conveyed," Pike said. "They want to find a cultural group that is Christian and following Jesus that uses familiar symbols and language that helps that group follow Christ together."
And from a practical standpoint, the chances of that smaller spinoff surviving are much better if it can lean on the larger church for support, Dougherty said.
He said extensive research on the life of congregations shows the first decade of existence is critical. If a new church can maintain a consistent following of 30-50 people in that period it can likely live another five decades. That core group is needed to start and maintain donations to cover the overhead costs, childcare, youth ministry and other outreach programs and services that will attract others from the community to join, Dougherty explained.
"That's why we see a peak in closings in that first 10-year time period," he said.
Eye for talent
Establishing a financially and spiritually stable church to oversee a new church plant is tough — particularly in the Northeast, where attendance studies show the decline in membership is steep.
When Armpriester arrived in Niagara Falls he took on a church where the average age was close to 70 years old and seniors were the majority of the 150 weekly attendees. And he wasn't entirely welcomed by the aging congregants.
"Before my first Sunday some seniors sneaked in and moved the organ to the platform. The first three Sundays all we sang was 'Onward Christian Soldiers,' and I had to ask if we knew any other songs," he recalled.
Updating the musical offerings — while the most contentious — was one of many problems that needed fixing. Undaunted, Armpriester patiently went to work, cleaning out the clutter that had crowded out the children's ministry and establishing a program for youth as well as one for the seniors, who were having a tough time adjusting to the changes.
"But truthfully, the seniors never did face the changes. Newer people came and (the seniors) learned to tolerate them but they never liked it," he said. Attrition, through deaths and the inability of some seniors to attend church, whittled the resistance to a minority.
By the time Armpriester decided to move on, the average age was in the 30-year-old range, attendance had doubled to about 350, and the church was healthy enough to parent a church plant in Lake Tonawanda.
The turnaround in upstate New York was difficult for Armpriester. "As a younger person I couldn't have done a revitalization. I wouldn't have had the patience for it. I would have just bulldozed everything," he acknowledges. "(Revitalizing) takes a different approach, a slower approach. You have to balance change and to honor what is there."
Despite the challenges, Armpriester is a believer in this newer process of restoring the health of an existing church in order to more effectively spin off satellite congregations.Comment on this story
He has an 18-month plan to get the Englewood congregation behind a "compelling, clear vision for the church" that will include a set of values, established by the members, that will guide their decisions. "We will also institute a lot of prayer, personal, pastoral and congregational ... asking God what he wants."
All the while, Armpriester will be keeping an eye out for "talent" — potential church planters who can help achieve the vision of several Parent Affiliated Churches created from the Englewood home base.
"We will give them ministry experience in-house and as they develop give them a team to go plant with," he said.
It's not a calling for anyone, Armpriester explains, but only for those willing to take on a challenge and who have the entrepreneurial spirit and strong faith to fix it.