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Church planting: the best hope to reach more people with the gospel in the U.S.?

Phil and Meredith McCollum prefer not to refer to themselves as “church planters.”
“Gospel planters” might be a better description for the couple, who moved to a poor neighborhood in East Hollywood, Calif., to share Jesus Christ with working immigrants.
“For us, it’s not so much that you bring people to church and then they know Jesus after going to church,” said Meredith McCollum, a mother of three raised in traditional churches in Vermont and upstate New York. “It’s the other way around. If we can introduce them to Jesus, then they can become the church.”

Similarly, Tim and Annette Broadwell, who will help launch the new Northern Hills Church of Christ at a Canton, Ga., high school Oct. 7, have spent months making connections with unchurched people at homes and neighborhood carnivals — even buying their own cotton-candy machine.

While a cappella singing, weekly communion and baptism for the forgiveness of sins will characterize the new church 40 miles north of Atlanta, the Broadwells don’t intend to focus all their energies on a single hour on Sunday morning.
Rather, intimate, small-group gatherings outside the formal setting will remain integral.
“To me, that’s where real life happens,” Tim Broadwell said.

This is what Gailyn Van Rheenen, founder of Mission Alive, a church-planting organization based in Carrollton, Texas, refers to as ministry “in the trenches.” It’s a missional model, Van Rheenen said, that begins with “searchers, skeptics, the poor and brokenhearted who would never come to an existing church.”
With membership in Churches of Christ failing to keep up with the nation’s population growth, starting new congregations from scratch may offer the best hope for reaching the lost, some church leaders say.
In the last quarter-century, America as a whole grew at a rate 20 times faster than the church. While the nation’s population jumped 32.2 percent, church membership increased only 1.6 percent since 1980, hitting 1,265,844, an analysis by The Christian Chronicle found.
“I’m not ready to give up on our existing churches,” said Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark.
“But the bottom line is, it’s an awful lot easier to have babies than it is to raise the dead.”
From presentations at Christian college lectureships to specialized workshops across the nation, the concept of church planting has created a buzz.
Actual church planting among Churches of Christ, however, remains in the infant stage, according to leaders of Mission Alive and Kairos, a church-planting ministry based in Portland, Ore.
“If we look at the number of people and churches that are actually deliberately engaged in the process, it’s a very small number yet,” said Stan Granberg, Kairos executive director.
As Van Rheenen put it: “Our churches are just now beginning to realize that church planting is something positive and … more than church splitting. I think it’s not on the radar screen for most of our churches.”
Kairos is working with 11 church plants from New Jersey to California, including the East Hollywood effort by the McCollums. One of those plants is north of the border in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Mission Alive has planted seven churches and has another seven in the works, with key locations including Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth and the Atlanta area, where the Broadwells are planting.
Charles Cook, an instructor at Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas, directs the Focus Northeast/Northwest program.
It’s designed to help plant new churches in strategic places and settle Sunset graduates in areas where they are most needed.
But Cook said he knows of “only some 15 new churches” planted in 11 Northeast states in the last eight years.
“Reason would tell us that it is not at this time a trend,” he said.
On the positive side, Marvin Crowson, domestic missionary in residence at Harding University, said he has started receiving more calls from churches and parachurch organizations recruiting students to join church-planting efforts.
“My feeling is that with the exploding diversity of all kinds in our populations, it is critical to our survival and to the advancement of the kingdom of God for us to begin going to the people … instead of just asking them to come to us,” Crowson said.
For that to happen, he said, some church leaders must stop being so protective of “their flock” and “their congregation” and any effort to plant a church within driving distance.
“Protection of their power base seems to be more important to them than reaching people who are missing from the family of God,” Crowson said.

Outside Kansas City, the Liberty Church of Christ in Missouri church uses a “Starbucks outreach” to invite non-Christian friends to a non-threatening setting, minister James Nored said. As it deals with crowding, it makes sense for the congregation — which has grown to 330 in Sunday attendance — to contemplate planting rather than automatically investing in a larger building.

“A church could be planted right across the street from the original church, and on opening day, it would reach totally different people,” Nored said. “There are people that, for whatever reason, would never even consider going to the established church even though it may be a great church.”

In East Hollywood, the McCollums and their teammates, Ed and Katie Magos, dub their ministry the Way of Life Village. The Westside Church of Christ in Bakersfield, Calif., where Phil McCollum grew up, serves as the overseeing congregation. The nearby Hollywood Church of Christ and the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas also provide support.

Meredith McCollum said the notion of taking the gospel to the streets is a struggle for her and Phil as they adapt their understanding of church.
“We both come from traditional church backgrounds with the building and ministry programs,” she said. “So, it’s very different for us, and we’re acclimating, and we’re being shown by the Lord what he’s asking of us.”

In Georgia, the new Northern Hills church is sponsored by the East Cobb Church of Christ in Marietta, about 20 miles away.

Even before the congregation’s opening, small-group studies resulted in the baptisms of two women.
Kimberly Bernhardt, a single mother of three, said she had “little faith and trust in God” when she came in contact with the church planters.
“God truly answered my cries for help,” Bernhardt wrote.
She described the Christians she met this way: “They looked at me through nonjudgmental eyes. Their hearts beat with unconditional love. For me and my children, they accepted us with an open spirit.”

  • Feedback
    I read your article about church plants with great interest and hope. Does anyone in your church do church plants in New York state? I live 30 miles away from my congregation and it is difficult to have much Christian fellowship with the distance and severe winters. My daughter and I have expressed an interest in getting a church planted in our home town which was met with some resistance by our congregation. I would really appreciate any help you can give me or at least steer me in the right direction. Thanks so much.
    Clare Waligory
    Watertown church of Christ
    Lowville, New York
    February, 24 2010

Filed under: Are We Growing

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