We don’t need to plant churches! We need to bring together all the smaller congregations and have one large church with money,” said my pastor friend from across the table. The small church plants he referred to were growing with attendances of 110 and 130; his church barely broke 200.
“No! Our churches shouldn’t be larger than 100, so we can connect with the members,” another colleague shared. “But we do have to pack our empty pews before we plant.”
If you’ve participated in church planting discussions, you have heard many similar objections. I had some of the same arguments with my colleagues in my first year of ministry as an associate pastor in Colorado.
Even though I grew up in a pastor’s home and watched my dad plant seven churches in 12 years in Communist Bulgaria, my belief was that we had enough churches; my job was to grow my congregation to as large a number as possible. I figured this would make us highly visible to our community. This was my default thinking until I attended a seminar on church planting in 1999 at the Mid-America Union Conference pastors’ meetings. What I heard completely transformed my philosophy of ministry.
I realized that every church reaches its ministry ceiling, then plateaus—for years—unless its leaders are willing to adopt major changes to raise that ceiling. I was also challenged to consider the well-documented statistics that one large church reaches fewer people than two healthy churches of equal size in the same context.
As I returned home, I discovered that with minor variations, attendance in all three congregations in our district had stayed the same for the past 15 years, despite numerous baptisms and the great pastors who preceded me. The churches were reaching few new people, and even though we could improve on that, it became clear that one church would not engage all communities and cultures in our city. The reality was that we would be more effective if we started a new church that would connect with those we were currently unable to reach than forcing a change in the existing church. If I wanted to see a real difference there, I had to ensure that church planting was a part of our vision for growth.
Evangelism leads to church planting, and church planting leads to evangelism. In Matthew, Jesus compelled His disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). The plural form of ethnos (nations) in the Greek refers to non-Jews. In today’s language, Jesus would say, “Go and reach all ethnic and socioeconomic groups living among you.” Jesus told His followers that when they received the Holy Spirit they would be witnesses in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Mission-minded churches must be passionate for sending missional teams to new geographic areas and to new demographic groups in the midst of our communities.
The church exists for mission. Our faith community is there to help us grow and remain spiritually closer to God. But if that’s all it does, it ceases to be the church of Jesus. “ ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people’ ” (Mark 1:17). “He appointed twelve that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out the demons” (Mark 3:14, 15).
Christ did not call His disciples to walk with Him so that they could build a bigger temple, to help Him take care of the believers, or to assist Him in handling larger crowds. He sent them to serve others and lead them back to God. Churches that have adopted a true Bible-based discipleship model focus not only on discipling people “in,” but “sending them out.” Church planting is the natural outcome of healthy sending churches.
A church that sends, grows. The more disciples and leaders you grow, the more people you can send out to plant. The more people you send out, the more opportunities you have for growing new disciples within your church. God might grow your congregation to a megachurch if that is best for the community you’re serving. But you should not ignore God’s call to keep planting.
In 2005, my family and I planted a church in Frisco, Texas—a suburb in northern Dallas—under the umbrella of the Richardson Seventh-day Adventist Church. The area was experiencing a growth explosion. Of the 20 people who joined our core team, six were pastors’ kids. Only three of them were actively involved in church ministry before they joined Crosswalk, despite their great leadership skills and professional training. Church planting creates opportunities for inactive members to get involved in new ministries.
In 2000, Richardson, our sponsoring church, had made a decision to multiply under the leadership of a missional pastor. By 2005 it had planted four churches (English, Spanish, Brazilian, and African). Our church was the second English church plant, and we joined Richardson and its daughter churches in continuing to plant. By 2019 the combined church planting efforts resulted in 17 new congregations in northern Dallas: 10 churches (four English, five Spanish, one Brazilian), four companies (two English, one Spanish, one Korean), and three mission groups (two English, one African). Total attendance of all 17 new congregations was more than 2,200 people, with a membership of 2,737. The average annual conversion growth rate between 2002 and 2010 reached 10.76 percent, equal to that of the fastest growing fields of South America. The average annual conversion growth rate still remains 6 to 8 percent.
Reflect on this: in 19 years the Adventist church in northern Dallas grew six times (more than 600 percent). If this can happen in North America, it can happen anywhere in the world. Welcome to the power of multiplication.
What happened to the Richardson church during that time? Its attendance grew from 450 to 650, and its membership from 654 to more than 1,000. This isn’t unique. During the time I was assisting the Texas Conference as the church planting coordinator, from 2015 to 2019, we were blessed to start 46 new churches. Every sponsoring church planted a new congregation for mission, and not because of conflict. Attendance and finances grew beyond preplanting levels in less than nine months. A church that plants, grows, and a church that grows, plants.
The Adventist movement was a church planting movement. In 1862, James White wrote to all the Adventist pastors, “In no way can a preacher so well prove himself as in entering new fields. There he can see the fruits of his own labors. And if he be successful in raising up churches, and establishing them, so that they bear good fruits, he gives to his brethren the best proofs that he is sent of the Lord.“ The Adventist Church had a reputation of being a multiplying church.
In December 1909, the Seventh-day Baptist Reader published, ”All Seventh-day Adventist clergymen are missionaries—not located pastors—and are busy preaching, teaching, and organizing churches the world over.”
We grew exponentially by reaching new communities here and abroad. We’ve continued growing the mission abroad very well, but it seems we’ve neglected the mission at home.
Despite the surge in the church planting movement in the past 10 years, statistics reveal that only 4 percent of all Christian churches in North America have ever multiplied. This means that 96 percent of churches have never bothered to reach or succeeded in reaching a new community and starting another congregation. Adventist church statistics are about the same. So if we want to have only 4 percent of our churches multiply, we must plant 260 churches
a year in North America alone. In truth, we should do even more.
How do we do that? We must train and empower our elders to oversee and disciple our existing church members so that pastors can focus on training and leading new planters and plant new churches, following our Adventist roots. Of the 46 new churches we planted in Texas, all but four were raised by lay leaders who felt the call of God to plant congregations in their communities.
God has called us to return to our roots, creating a culture of multiplication within Adventism. The fastest growing conferences in North America are those that plant new churches. Disciples make disciples; leaders develop other leaders; and churches must plant churches that plant churches.
Boyan Levterov has worked as a pastor, a church planter, and the Texas Conference church planting coordinator. He is currently a church planter in Rockville, Maryland.