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Church planting and church growth in western Europe: an analysis.

Abstract

Church planting is often seen as the best way to grow the church numerically. However, there is surprisingly little research examining this claim in any detail, and the research that exists turns out to be not very well-founded or unclear in terms of sources, definitions, and so forth. Recently, research has been conducted in three small Reformed denominations in the Netherlands, comparing older and younger churches with regard to converts and returnees. The results show that the younger churches gained approximately four times as many converts and five times as many returnees as did older churches. Three explanations seem the most plausible: younger churches are more often in good demographic locations, they spend more time and energy on outreach, and their leadership is more entrepreneurial.

Keywords

church planting, church growth, research, Netherlands, converts, returnees

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One of the most popular arguments for church planting in modern times is that it adds new converts to the church. C. Peter Wagner, previously professor of missiology at Fuller Theological Seminary, asserts that "the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches." (1) Lyle Schaller, a well-known researcher among church growth theorists, suggests, "If you are interested in reaching new people, by far the most effective way to do this is through church planting." (2) And Tim Keller, perhaps the most influential missionary practitioner in the modern West, writes, "Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60-80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshiping body, while churches over ten to fifteen years of age gain 80-90 percent of new members by transfer from other congregations." (3) These results are undeniably attractive. Who would reject a proven method or strategy for numerical church growth?

Planting for growth in western Europe

Church planting may hold wonderful promise, especially in Europe, where so many churches are on the brink of extinction. Even former state churches and mainline European denominations have therefore begun to plant churches. (4) Today we have reached a new stage in which church planting in western Europe is no longer a feature of free churches alone.

In this article we analyze a number of recent European studies on these newly formed missionary communities and their assumed contribution to numerical church growth. Do these studies prove that church planting is indeed the single most effective evangelistic methodology, even in a highly secularized context?

An overview

One of the main problems with church growth studies is their methodology. Unfortunately, most studies on this subject seem to be little more than mobilization rhetoric. Definitions are lacking or vague. Research methods are seldom described, and therefore it remains unclear what is measured and how reliable the findings are.

For example, a common mistake is to use baptism figures from churches that baptize only adult believers. Such figures indicate that younger churches in some denominations have more adult baptisms than do older churches, but they do not tell us the background of these candidates for baptism. These individuals may very well have been raised in Christian families. The single fact of adult baptism cannot be sufficient ground to claim that church plants are more effective at reaching the unchurched than older churches. For these reasons we have limited ourselves to the following, more informed studies. They provide a diverse picture.

Unclear

Between mid-May 2012 and mid-October 2013, the British Church Growth Research Project investigated twenty-seven Church of England church plants. Most of these churches were planted between 2001 and 2012; six were planted between 1984 and 1995. The results of the visits and the interviews with experts, trainers, national and diocesan officers in the area of church planting, leaders of major church planting, and members of their churches were published in November 2013. One of their observations was that hardly any church plant could provide the number of its new converts. (5) It thus remained unclear whether the church plants grew by transfer growth, by the joining of de-churched people, or by the joining of unchurched people.

Tempering enthusiasm

Other studies temper the enthusiasm about church planting as an evangelization strategy. For example, George Lings and Stuart Murray investigated the 1,867 churches planted by all British denominations between 1989 and 1998. Interviews with representatives of these denominations indicated that these churches were effective at reaching the de-churched, but the number of unchurched people joining these churches was minimal. (6) According to Murray, "Church planting was apparently not a panacea for a declining church, a guaranteed church-growth mechanism, of even 'the most effective means of evangelism under heaven.'" (7)

German studies point in the same direction. Paul Clark describes research done by Lothar Krauss for the Bund Freikirchlicher Pfmgstgemeinden (BFP, Federation of Pentecostal Churches). Of the 475 German-speaking BFP churches, 66 were classified as church plants. (Because of cultural and language difficulties, he could not obtain the statistics of their international churches.) In the year 2006, these 475 German BFP churches had a net growth of 376 members (1.2 percent). Of these 376 new members, only 97 were considered unchurched converts. The other new members were transfers of individuals who grew up in church. We do not know how many of these 97 converts had joined church plants, but it seems that the evangelistic results of the church plants were minimal. (8) Paul Clark, who is a BFP church planter, writes, "The few individuals who respond to the good news seem like a drop in the proverbial bucket." (9)

Sabine Schroder came to a similar conclusion in her research on churches planted by free churches in Eastern Germany in the period 1989-2003. She conducted a survey (with a response rate of 33 percent) among the church planters. The survey revealed that 44 percent of their members had come to faith within these church plants. This statistic is impressive in the light of what we know about conversion in Europe, but caution is advised, since it was unclear what was meant by the category "came to faith" and because of the low response rate to the survey. It is impossible to say whether the people who came to faith were previously unchurched or nominal Christians or even active church members who experienced a renewal of their faith. Schrader estimates the actual number of unchurched people in these church plants to be very low, mainly because these churches give very little consideration to contextualization. (10)

Report on Strand 3B

One of the most extensive studies for newly formed missionary communities was led by George Lings, vicar in the Church of England and director of research of the church's Church Army Research Unit. Between January 2012 and October 2013 records were kept of 518 examples of "fresh expressions of church." All of these new initiatives were planted between 1992 and 2012. The data were collected by interviewing the leaders. (11)

The report reveals that, for every one person sent out to be part of beginning a so-called fresh expression of church, there are now two and half more people. Of the attendees, 25 percent are long-time Christians, 35 percent were de-churched, and 40 percent were unchurched. De-churched people have had some exposure to the church and its message, and they may be left with favorable or unfavorable feelings about that experience. But the nonchurched had no previous connection with the church and no real idea about it. (12)

These are encouraging figures, but caution is advised. We cannot assume that the unchurched people are now convinced Christians. When Anglicans count numbers, they use the category "attenders" rather than "believers." Also, just over 40 percent of the attenders were less than sixteen years old. (13) How does this figure relate to the 40 percent unchurched people? Are the unchurched attenders of the "fresh expressions" mainly children visiting a "messy church" (i.e., a children's church)? This conclusion is suggested by the recent study of John Walker, who found that "fresh expressions" in the Diocese of Canterbury attracted considerably more children than ordinary churches, even though these congregations did not do a significantly better job in drawing unchurched adults. Since most adults who are attracted to the church have had some form of religious socialization, this result is important for long-term evangelism strategies, but it does not prove that new churches have better evangelistic outcomes than older churches. (14)

Nevertheless, the Church Army report offers refutation of the charge that "fresh expressions" primarily attract existing or bored Christians by transfer. "It would be very rare that a parish church has these high proportions of de-churched, and certainly non-churched, as attendees. This contrast is noteworthy." (15)

"HOOP": A study of three Dutch denominations

In 2012 Alrik Vos compared the conversion success of older and younger congregations in the Netherlands within three smaller, Reformed denominations. (16) These churches have a general policy of infant baptism and oppose rebaptizing adults who have received the sacrament as babies. This research probably offers the most reliable data to evaluate church planting as an evangelization strategy in western Europe.

The HOOP study

In this section we consider the research method used in the HOOP study, as well as the results and some explanations derived from the research.

Research method

In Vos's study, church planting was defined as "church initiatives which aim at establishing new Christian communities and the churches that have emerged out of these initiatives, which are no more than 10 years old." Churches that merged, split off, or transferred from another denomination were not counted as church plants because they were not established as a newly formed Christian community. Within the church plants, Vos distinguished between "older" (in existence 6-10 years) and "younger" (5 years or fewer).

The secretaries of these churches were asked for (1) the founding year of their church, (2) the number of people involved as of January 1, 2012, and (3) the number of unchurched people that had been reached by their church over the previous five years. Since these three denominations generally keep precise records (carefully distinguishing between different categories of new members), this approach was considered to produce reliable data.

Within the category "unchurched" Vos distinguished between first-timers and returnees. First-timers were new people who (1) were never before a part of a local Christian church, (2) did not know the Gospel, and (3) were baptized by their new church (or made a profession of faith if they had been baptized as a child but not raised as a Christian, did not know the Gospel, and were never a conscious member of any church). Vos defined returnees as people who were now actively involved in church life and who (1) had been actively involved in the past, (2) had terminated their involvement at some point, and (3) had not been involved in any church between this termination and their current involvement. The first-timers were considered "reached" when they joined a local church by baptism or profession of faith. The returnees were considered "reached" when the leaders of the church recognized these individuals as people (1) who belonged to their church, (2) for whom they had pastoral and diaconal responsibility, and (3) who attended the church at least once a month.

Vos approached 492 local churches in the three denominations. This group was divided into churches older than ten years (476) and church plants (16). Response percentages were 39.5 percent and 81.0 percent respectively. Statistical corrections showed that, given the homogeneity of this group of churches, this level of response was sufficient to support reliable conclusions. (17)

The results

The results concerning the first-timers appear in table 1. As this table shows, during this five-year study the average proportion of initiates (i.e., converts) in these denominations was one initiate for every 964 members per year. This proportion is considerably better in the church plants. Even if we exclude the two most successful church plants and compare the remaining church plants with the most successful older churches, the church plants registered a conversion rate 4.7 times higher (1:52 vs. 1:244). While studying the tables, please keep in mind that four of the church plants were under six years old. A convert made by a church plant only one year old yields an average of 1.0 first-timers per year, not 0.2 first-timers per year.

The results concerning the returnees are listed in table 2. Here we see the same pattern. Excluding the most successful church plants and comparing the remaining church plants with the most successful older churches still produces a conversion rate 5.7 times higher (1:66 vs. 1:377).

Although these tables must be used carefully (given the very unequal sample sizes), this research is the best evidence we have demonstrating that church plants attract more newcomers than older churches. This evidence, however, is not yet proof of the claim that church planting furthers church growth. It may be possible, after all, that the number of newcomers is proportioned differently when new churches are planted, without changing the total number of converts. In other words, church plants may take a bigger piece of the same pie. Vos has been able to control his data in this regard for one denomination only, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK). He has compared the total annual number of newcomers in this denomination between 2000 and 2005 with the numbers between 2005 and 2011. In the first period the annual average of newcomers was fifty-seven, while it grew to eighty-three in the second period. Since all but one of the CGK church plants were planted after 2005, this result suggests strongly that the church plants have increased the evangelistic returns of this denomination. (18)

Explanations

How can these results be explained? Vos developed four hypotheses based on church growth literature and feedback from six church planting experts. Using an Internet survey, Vos tested these hypotheses among 163 pastors of the older churches and 18 church planters. Each church planter represented one church plant. The difference with the thirteen church plants that delivered statistical data is explained because some of church plants did not deliver data and some of them could not because of the phase their church plant was in.

Within these three denominations Vos found no significant differences between the theology of church planters and that of pastors in older churches. Three other factors, however, do seem to explain the difference between the older and younger churches in his study: (19)

* Location: Generally, churches are planted in areas with population growth, while older churches are more often located in areas with stable or declining population numbers.

* Missionary focus: Pastors in newer churches foster more missionary expectations in their congregations, set explicit missionary goals, and are prepared to make sacrifices in order to reach out to their community. In other words, they work harder in terms of evangelism and social action.

* Leadership: Church planters are much more entrepreneurial than pastors of older churches, are more hopeful about the missionary opportunities in their community, and more often feel a specific vocation for (evangelistic) mission.

Even though the results are questionable because of the small number of church plants and church planters, it is noteworthy that these explanations are consistent with the findings from the Church Growth Research Programme in England in its search for ingredients that are strongly associated with numerical church growth. (20)

Conclusions

In his book Understanding Church Growth Donald A. McGavran, the well-known founding father of church growth theory, asserted that "only the creation of multitudes of new, vital congregations ... will reconvert the myriads of European Christopagans." (21) After analyzing these studies on church planting in western Europe, we draw the following conclusions:

1. Altogether, it is very difficult to measure the contribution of church planting to conversion church growth. More reliable, broad, and robust data are needed in order to give more convincing support for or against claims about church planting and conversion church growth.

2. The available data show that church planting in western Europe is not a panacea for conversion church growth. The numbers do not indicate that myriads of European Christo-pagans will be reconverted by church planting. The results, rather, show a small-scale countertrend, and only under certain conditions.

3. Even though it is a small-scale countertrend, the conclusions of this survey show that conversion church growth is possible, even in a highly secularized context. The impact of church planting can therefore be much larger than its numerical results alone, for it can provide an antidote to the belief that we are facing a culture of inevitable decline.

DOI: 10.1177/2396939316656323

Stefan Paas

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands

Alrik Vos

Heerhugowaard, Netherlands

Funding

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Notes

(1.) C. Peter Wagner, Church Planting for a Greater Harvest (Glendale, CA: Regal, 1991), 7.

(2.) L. Schaller, "Schaller Says SBC Must Decide about New Church Starts," Biblical Recorder, June 15, 1991, p. 8.

(3.) Timothy Keller, "Why Plant Churches?" 2002, http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/leam/ resources/Why_Plant_Churches-Keller.pdf, 3.

(4.) The Anglicans and Methodists in England, for example, started so-called fresh expressions of church in 2004. These "fresh expressions" are primarily directed toward people who do not yet belong to a church. Not a movement of free churches alongside older churches, "fresh expressions" are located in the context of an existing church that is often trying to renew itself (see Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context [London: Church House Publishing, 2004,] 43-83). The Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland has followed this model in Germany (see Matthias Bartels and Martin Reppenhagen, Gemeindepflanzung--ein Modell fur die Kirche der Zukunft? [Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 2006), and the main Protestant church in the Netherlands, the Protestantse Kerk in Nederland, has set a goal of planting 100 "pioneer places" before the year 2016. A pioneer place is an innovative form of church that suits the changing culture and is primarily aimed at people who do not know the Gospel and are not involved (anymore) in an existing church (see www.protestantsekerk.nl/actueel/Nieuws/ nieuwsoverzicht/Paginas/100-nieuwe-pioniersplekken-in-2016.aspx).

(5.) David Dadswell and Cathy Ross, "Church Growth Research Project: Church Planting," 2013, www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/UserFiles/File/Reports/CGRP_Church_ Planting.pdf, 4, 63.

(6.) George Lings and Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Past, Present, and Future (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2003), 14.

(7.) Stuart Murray, Planting Churches in the Twenty-First Century: A Guide for Those Who Want Fresh Perspectives and New Ideas for Creating Congregations (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010), 13.

(8.) Paul Clark, "Intentional Mission in Post-Christian Germany: Considerations and Implications for Missionary Church Planters," 2009, http://pmgermany.com/wp-content/ uploads/2010/08/intentional_mission.pdf, 29-30.

(9.) Ibid., 40.

(10.) Sabine Schroder, Konfessionslose erreichen: Gemeindegriindungen von freikirchlichen Initiativen seit der Wende 1989 in Ostdeutschland (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Theologie, 2007).

(11.) Church Army's Research Unit, "Church Growth Research Project, Report on Strand 3b: An Analysis of Fresh Expressions of Church and Church Plants Begun in the Period 19922012," October 2013, www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/UserFiles/File/Reports/churchgrowthresearch_freshexpressions.pdf, 6.

(12.) Ibid., 6, 24.

(13.) Ibid., 23,42.

(14.) John Walker, Testing Fresh Expressions: Identity and Transformation (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014).

(15.) Church Army's Research Unit, "Report on Strand 3b," 24.

(16.) Alrik Vos, "HOOP: Een onderzoek naar de missionaire effectiviteit van kerkplantingen binnen de NGK, CGK en GKV in Nederland" (MA thesis, Vrije Univ. Amsterdam, 2012), www.kerklab.nl/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/HOOP-De-effectiviteit-van-kerkplantingals-missionaire-strategie.pdf, with English summary. The research concerns three denominations: the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, established in 1892, and currently with ca. 73,000 members), the Reformed Churches Liberated (Gereformeerde Kerken Vrijgemaakt, 1944, and ca. 120,000 members), and the Dutch Reformed Churches (Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken, 1967, ca. 33,000 members).

(17.) Ibid., 126.

(18.) Ibid., 66.

(19.) Ibid., 79-116.

(20.) Church Growth Research Programme, From Anecdote to Evidence: Findings from the Church Growth Research Programme, 2011-2013, www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/ UserFiles/File/Reports/FromAnecdoteToEvidence1.0.pdf, 10-13.

(21.) Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 262.

Author biographies

Stefan Paas, professor of missiology and intercultural theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and professor of missiology at Theological University Kampen, writes extensively on mission in Europe. His book Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience will be published by Eerdmans in late 2016. s.paas@vu.nl

Alrik Vos is a theologian and a church planter in Heerhugowaard, the Netherlands. alrik.vos.79@gmail.com

Corresponding author:

Stefan Paas, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Rijksstraatweg 22, 1396 JM Baambrugge, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Email: s.paas@vu.nl
Table 1. Conversions in Dutch church plants: First-timers
reached per year.

                                      First-timers  First-    Total
                                      who made a    timers    first-
                                      profession    who were  timers
Churches                              of faith      baptized

Older churches (average per year)     30            30        60
Ratio of first-timers to all          1:1928        1:1928    1:964
  people involved in the church
Same ratio in the 13 most             1:494         1:481     1:244
  effective older churches
Church plants (average per year)      17            28        45
Ratio of first-timers to all people   1:82          1:50      1:31
    involved in the church plants
  4 younger church plants             1:168         1:40      1:33
    ([less than or equal to] 5 yrs)
  9 older church plants (6-10 yrs)    1:75          1:52      1:31
Same ratio, excluding the 2 most      1:128         1:82      1:52
    effective church plants
  4 younger church plants             1:168         1:40      1:33
    (excluding none)
  9 older church plants               1:122         1:1 10    1:61
    (excluding 2)

Source: Information adapted from Vos, "Hoop," omitting
figures for the children of first-timers.

Table 2. Conversions in Dutch church plants:
Returnees reached per year.

                                                     Returnees reached
Churches                                             per year

Older churches (average per year)                    31
Ratio of returnees to all people involved in the     1:1842
  church
Same ratio in the 13 most effective older churches   1:377
Church plants (average per year)                     43
Ratio of returnees to all people involved in the     1:32
    church
  4 younger church plants                            1:8
    ([less than or equal to] 5 yrs)
  9 older church plants (6-10 yrs)                   1:63
Same ratio, excluding the 3 most effective church    1:66
    plants
  4 younger church plants (excluding 1)              1:30
  9 older church plants (excluding 2)                1:87

Source: Information adapted from Vos, "Hoop," omitting children.
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Author:Paas, Stefan; Vos, Alrik
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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