This is the question I’ve been asking myself since I finished reading Stephen Gray’s Planting Fast-growing Churches last weekend. Based on the research of 52 struggling church plants and 60 fast growing churches, he reveals those factors that differentiate fast-growing, dynamic church plants from slower-growing, struggling church plants.

Here are the observations that I found most interesting

  • Church planters who had strong emotional support, personal investment, and conceptual freedom were more likely to succeed than those who had weaker support, investment, or freedom. (p 9)
  • Church plants who received more funding for longer periods of time were overall less effective than churches that received less funding for shorter periods of time. (p 10)
  • If a church plant doesn’t break 200 in weekly attendance within its first two years, there is an increased likelihood that it never will. (p 40)
  • 93% of church plants do not reach 200 in attendance and become self-supporting within three years. (p 51)
  • If a planter cannot bring a church plant to be self-supporting within three years, this likely means that the wrong leader has been chosen. (p 64)
  • A shorter period of financial support forces the planter to be more aggressive in growing the church, raising additional funds, and teaching stewardship. An extended period of support is detrimental to the development of a church plant. (p 67)
  • Church planters who received specialized training achieved a worship attendance that was three times higher than those who received no training. (p 95)
  • 88% of fast-growing church plants had a church planting team in place prior to public launch. By contrast, only 12 percent of struggling church plants had a church planting team. (p 102)
  • An approach that utilizes a healthy dose of both small groups and preview services is the best way to go about building a large core group. (p 112)
  • 92% of growing church plants offered three or more ministry opportunities from Day 1 (typically worship, children, and youth). Conversely, 64% of struggling church plants offered only an adult worship service on Day 1. (p 122)
  • The early introduction of stewardship teaching is a critical factor affecting the size and survivability of a new church. According to this research, after four years, church plants that expected tithing experienced an average attendance of 120. Those new churches that did not teach any form of financial stewardship averaged around ninety in attendance. (p 126)

There were a total of twenty-one significant differences discovered between fast-growing and struggling church plants. Here’s a summary of these 21 differences

  1. Assessment:
    Using the Ridley Assessment is a must! The higher the score the better.
  2. Finances:
    Adequate financial support is a necessity. There is a delicate balance between too much and too little support.
  3. Full-time Planters:
    A majority of fast-growing church plants were led by full-time planters.
  4. Shorter Support Period:
    An extended period of support is not good for a new church – recommend less than two years.
  5. Give Additional Funding:
    A higher percentage of fast-growing churches received additional funding beyond the initial salary given.
  6. Limit Additional Funding:
    Most growing church plants received less than $50,000 additional funding within a one-year time frame.
  7. Planters Add Funding:
    Planters need to be responsible for raising a portion of their support.
  8. Vision Ownership:
    The vision for the church plant should be birthed in the heart of the individual planting the church.
  9. Audience Determination:
    The church planter should have the freedom to choose the target audience they want to reach.
  10. Financial Decisions:
    Planters of fast-growing churches were given freedom to spend their funding as they saw fit.
  11. Release Control:
    Sponsoring agencies need to give freedom to the church planter.
  12. Support Emotionally:
    Adequate emotional support for the planter is vital.
  13. Adequate Training:
    Church planters should receive more than one week of specialized training.
  14. Staff at Start-up:
    Planting a church with a team is a must! Don’t send a lone ranger to plant a church.
  15. Launch Team Size:
    A minimum of 40 people should be involved on the start-up team prior to launch—or wait!
  16. Ministry Opportunities:
    Fast-growing churches had at least three ministries in place at time of public launch: worship, children, and youth.
  17. Gathering Activities:
    Preview services and small groups should be utilized to build the start-up team prior to launch.
  18. Preview Services:
    Preview or “practice” services should be on a bi-weekly basis for at least three months prior to a public opening.
  19. Large Birth Weight:
    Do everything within your power to get at least 100 people to your public opening.
  20. Stewardship Training:
    Start teaching stewardship within the first six months. Don’t be overbearing, don’t whine, and don’t be secretive about your finances; instead, be transparent.
  21. External Focus:
    Fight like mad to keep your ministry focus outward.

There are a lot more factors that go into starting churches. This study focused on starting attractional-style church plants that experience rapid growth within the first two-three years. I believe that there are many dangers in starting churches that are oriented toward consumers of religious goods and services. Instead, churches should be oriented toward the agenda of MISSION—adopting missionary practices to make disciples who make disciples.

The approach to this study was primarily based on pragmatism. The survey did not evaluate whether this attractional approach was best; rather it focused on how to best make this approach work effectively. The danger of following a research study that describes what’s working or “best practices” is that you could produce new “growing” churches through man’s efforts and wisdom, rather than following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The discoveries listed are insightful. However, I disagree with his assumption that “in order to stem this tide of stagnation [in churches], we must begin planting churches to which people will flock” (p 46). Do lost people want to go to church? If we do all the things listed above, will it make more disciples of Jesus—or will it simply gather a crowd (mostly from other churches)?

Gray asserts that “church planting is a major requisite of sharing that saving Gospel” to people (p 46). I would contend that sharing the Gospel is a necessary prerequisite for church planting! Consider this: should we start churches to share the gospel—or should we share the Gospel and wait to start churches until we start making disciples first
Since the research did not address disciple-making, it appears that this is purely a pragmatic approach to gathering large crowds. According to Gray—“Crowds attract crowds.” He encourages planters to “create a buzz by making the first service so exciting and powerful, that people from miles around will come to see what is going on” (p 107).

Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t command us to attract crowds or for that matter, to start churches. He commands us to make disciples.

The best method of church planting is evangelism and disciplemaking.