SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — What happens when a church grows too big to fit inside its own walls?
That’s the challenge faced in recent years by the Sunset church, a rapidly growing congregation in this southwest Missouri city of 150,000.
Rather than build a large new facility, Sunset church leaders decided to plant new congregations, pulpit minister Joe Bright said.
“Having been blessed with much growth … a decision was made not to become a megachurch,” said Bright, Sunset’s preacher for 14 years. “Instead, with God’s help, our goal has been to plant as many new congregations in the greater Springfield area as we can.”
The first new church was planted in 2000 in Nixa, Mo., just south of Springfield.
About 75 Sunset members left to start the Union Hill church in Nixa, which has grown to Sunday morning attendance of about 400. Steve Martin is the preacher.
In 2005, Sunset planted a second new congregation in Brookline, Mo., west of Springfield, by sending out 150 of its members. The Brookline church, served by minister Tony Gentry, averages Sunday attendance of about 250.
Bright and his wife, Vicki, were involved in church planting in Ireland for 10 years. They worked in Dublin and later Limerick.
The Brights, who have three grown daughters, also have helped plant churches in northern Mexico through building campaigns with minister Rick Owens.
In an interview, Bright discussed the challenges and blessings of the church planting by Sunset, where Sunday attendance averages about 650, up from 575 before the first plant. In deciding to plant new churches, what challenges did the Sunset congregation face?
The initial decision to plant a daughter church was a real challenge to our faith. The primary concerns we faced were:
1. The financial effect on the mother church. 2. How our youth group would be affected. 3. What this would do to our leadership in the mother church, because it was apparent from the first that many of our gifted and enthusiastic leaders would want to be part of the planted church. 4. And the loss of fellowship with those we had come to know and love.
We stepped out in faith and have learned the truth of God’s promise in 2 Corinthians 9:10-11: Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion. What have you learned that might benefit other churches?
Growth came in several ways, some of which we had not anticipated. Evangelism was at the root of our initial decision to plant new churches. We believed what C. Peter Wagner had written in his book “Church Planting for a Greater Harvest” when he said, “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.” This has been borne out as both newly planted churches have been able to reach out to the unchurched in their neighborhoods in ways we could not have done had we not planted.
Second, the goal of “every member ministry” has come closer to reality in both the mother church and in the planted churches. We were amazed to see many of our marginally involved members step up to fill vacancies or to meet new needs.
The third area of kingdom growth was the most surprising. We have seen many discouraged, burned-out Christians find renewal in these newly planted churches. A new church was seen as a place for a new start. What other insight could you share?
We have learned that planting a church is a lot like having a baby. It is difficult to micromanage every detail and to set dates and times precisely. The whole planting process tends to take on a life of its own, especially near the end. One of our elders described his feelings in these words: “We hadn’t even finished laying the tracks before the train ran off the end!” Because of this element of dynamic momentum, it is especially important to get things in place early on. Infrastructure needs to be in place for all leadership and ministry positions long before the final phase. Are you concentrating on plants that include new church buildings or plants that involve cell groups meeting in places such as homes and coffee shops?
Sunset has opted for the more traditional model. This is what is called “hiving” in church planting terminology. Although our two daughter churches are not clones of Sunset, they are similar. The first plant met for the first few years in a warehouse but eventually built a building. The second plant had a church building from day one. I believe both the traditional and cell group approaches are viable, but the traditional model seems to work better here in the Midwest and provides for more long-term stability. Based on your experience, how big a need — and opportunity — is there for domestic church planting?
In my opinion, the need for church planting has never been greater. I also believe there is an unprecedented opportunity for the growing number of larger urban churches to be involved in church planting. The question, however, is this: Are our larger congregations willing to make the required sacrifice to plant new churches?
It will mean giving up their “megachurch” status. It will require financial sacrifice. And it will mean sending out some of the greatest talent in the congregation.
Churches of Christ are failing to keep up with the nation’s population growth. Do you see planting of new churches as a means by which we could turn that trend around?
Missouri is one of the leading states in the nation in terms of declining number of Churches of Christ. I have made it my goal to see as many healthy congregations planted in southwest Missouri as I possibly can in the years God gives me. I don’t know of any other plan that will even begin to turn our decline around. What advice would you give as members contemplate church planting?
We began by reading as much as we could about church planting and made survey trips to church-planting churches. We asked a lot of questions and began to formulate our own plan based on our unique situation here in Springfield. We spent time in prayer and moved slowly. We trusted God to provide the financial needs, which he did in some pretty amazing ways. We gave God the credit and the glory for anything good that happened along the way. Our theme verse has become 1 Corinthians 3:7: So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. What does the future hold for your church-planting efforts?
We are now planning and praying about our third church plant. We are working together with both Union Hill and Brookline in this next plant, realizing that one church can only have so many babies!