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

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

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.

Multi-site movement

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.

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