In evangelical literature it is widely assumed that there is a clear causal link between church planting and church growth. Many will remember Peter Wagner’s famous quote: “Church planting is the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven”.
Is this true? In its most straightforward version, this claim would mean that:
Young churches always grow better than older churches.
The growth of young churches will inevitably level out when they grow older.
Unfortunately, there is very little reliable research into this supposed connection between church planting and numerical growth. For sure, much has been written, and the same claims are repeated over and over again, but on a closer look there is an astonishing lack of unequivocal, clear, and well-researched data corroborating the claim. Recently, however, some new research has been done that can help us to find out to what extent the claim is true.
In Chapter 3 of my book Church Planting in Secular Europe: A Critical Analysis, I discuss much older research, and I present some new studies. From this research it appears that there is indeed a relationship between the age of a church and its growth. However, this is a correlation rather than a causal relation.
As for the difference between a correlation and a causal link, take for example the relationship between smoking, yellow fingers, and bad breath. When we study people, we observe that having yellow fingers and bad breath almost invariably go together. Does this mean that yellow fingers cause bad breath, or vice versa? Of course not: both are correlated symptoms of a deeper cause, smoking. So, while yellow fingers and bad breath are correlated, they do not cause each other.
More or less in the same way, there is a correlation between the age of a church and its growth. Generally, young churches grow better than older churches. However, this does not mean that growth is ‘caused’ by the age of a church. Firstly, some old churches grow better than some young churches. Secondly, some young churches do a much better job than other young churches. Apparently, age is not the decisive factor here. This invites us to look for other, deeper, causal factors that explain why not all young churches grow, and why some old churches do grow.
Recent research on both sides of the Atlantic indicates convincingly that the location of a church is an important causal factor of growth. Location can be geographical and social. For example, inner city congregations and suburban congregations grow much more than other congregations. Also, immigrant congregations are growing. Other factors, as appears from the latest Dutch research, are strong evangelistic effort (measured in money, time, and priorities), and entrepreneurial flexibility. Location in itself will do nothing for a church, unless the church interacts with it creatively and invitingly.
In other words, church growth happens at the intersection between a good location (geographically and/or socially), a strong emphasis on evangelism, and flexibility with regard to strategies and forms. For several reasons it may be expected that younger churches will be at this intersection more often, for example because they are usually planted on good geographical and demographical locations. This explains why a correlation is found between the age of a church and its growth. However, there is no reason why some (or even many) older churches would not experience growth if they find themselves at the same intersection. On the other hand, if church plants are planted in the wrong location or if they do not have adequate missionary leadership, or if they merely copy-paste existing models, it is unlikely that they will grow.
Of course, these findings are not spectacular at all. If anything, they indicate that there is no silver bullet of church growth. It is simply untrue that young churches always grow better. Numerical growth is caused by a set of factors, which are more often found in young churches than in older ones, and it includes setting clear priorities and doing a lot of legwork. Sometimes the truth is just very simple.
In terms of missionary strategies these results may lead to the following conclusions:
Church planting is a very good way for churches and denominations to respond flexibly to demographic and social changes. It allows them to be in those places where it matters, and release missionary leadership exactly there.
Churches that are declining do not need to despair. Locations that are currently bad can become attractive locations very rapidly. Late modern societies are highly unpredictable. Political decisions, economic changes, new housing projects, immigration, and gentrification often turn bad locations into good ones. Something like this happened in most European cities during the last decades, often to the benefit of older inner city churches.
Churches that want to grow should make evangelism their priority. A considerable amount of their money, time, and energy must be spent on the effort of inviting and initiating people into the Christian faith. There is no alternative for that.
VU University Amsterdam & Theological University Kampen, the Netherlands
Prof Stefan Paas worked as a high school teacher and as a staffworker for the IFES in the Netherlands until 1999. After he finished his PhD in Old Testament Studies (1998), he became a consultant for evangelism in the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. He became involved in several church plants. In 2005 he and his family moved to Amsterdam, where they assisted in the planting of Via Nova, a new church in the city centre. Being a professional theologian and committed to education, Stefan became a lecturer in missiology for the Theological University of the Free Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 2009. In 2010 he took the J.H. Bavinck Chair for Church Planting and Church Renewal at the VU University Amsterdam. Currently he divides his time between these two jobs. Stefan is also involved in the City to City Europe network of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC), and he takes part in several national networks of evangelism and church planting. He has written some books on these subjects as well, and is preparing a publication in English on church planting in Europe. Stefan is married to Dorret, who is a school teacher, and they have a son and two daughters.
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