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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

"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.

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.

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