Launching Large: The New Paradigm in Church Planting
To understand launching large, you must understand its two essential complementary components — launching quickly and launching from the outside in.
By Nelson Searcy
What would it look like if your church started a new church? Or if you felt called to plant a church? Maybe you have dreamed of planting a church, but the logistics of making it happen seem too daunting. You already have a church — and likely a thriving one at that — so why start another one? Why should you consider becoming a launching church?
Churches birthed out of existing, healthy churches have a significant advantage over church plants started from scratch. As a church planter from an existing church, you have the experience, support, and financial backing of your current staff and congregation. If you lead an outwardly focused church, you already have a team of people who understand the importance of reaching into the community. If your people are growing followers of Jesus, they will likely embrace being part of a culture that is focused on starting new churches. They will want to be a part, on some level, of expanded opportunities to share their faith with other areas of the community.
God’s church is meant to multiply. In the early days of church expansion, Paul wrote, “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). If God is calling your church to be a launching church, His hand will be with you just as it was with the Christians in Acts.
The path of least resistance is to keep tending our little corner of the world — to let ourselves become busy with the daily concerns of running our churches. But God has called us to spread the gospel more effectively by multiplying. He has called us to touch more unchurched people by taking the truth closer to them. By learning how to biblically and strategically launch new churches, we can grow healthy communities and lead more people to become fully developing followers of Jesus.
The most important factor in the decision to launch a new church is God’s leading. You must know that you know you are being called. Thriving churches have always been, and will always be built on the foundation of personal calling — not personal choice. Once you are certain your call to start another church is from God, start exploring the details. As Guy Kawasaki writes in The Art of the Start, “The hardest thing about getting started is getting started.” If God is leading you down this path, follow.
In 2001, when I first began to think seriously about starting The Journey, I set out to read all of the church-planting books and resources on the market. I wanted to be informed. I found several books helpful on specific points. Others painted in broad stokes and gave clear boundaries concerning what I should avoid or what key questions I needed to consider. Several taught church-planting systems that had worked in the 1960s or 1970s, but now seemed outdated. A few gave me a solid picture of what a mature church looks like, but did not provide a clear map for getting a new church off the ground with no money, no meeting location, and no members (the situation I was in). I was looking for a how-to guide on church planting — an instruction manual that not only made sense theoretically, but was also visibly working in a number of growing churches. It did not exist.
Because of my desire to learn all I could about starting a new church, I talked with successful church planters across the country. Many of the planters I interviewed were growing their churches with little guidance from current methods or resources. Because they were discovering their processes and principles through trial and error, most were excited to share their insights to help future church planters save time and energy.
Through conversations with these church planters, and through our study of the New Testament church, my team and I began to assemble a collection of contrarian church-planting wisdom on which our launching large mentality is built.
Launching Versus Planting
I am passionate about helping pastors start a church from scratch that will reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. I want to provide them with everything they need to launch large — a concept that stands in contradiction to most traditional church-planting thinking.
In today’s culture, a new church should not be something you plant. It is not something you put in the ground and tend, in hopes it will eventually grow. Rather, a new church should be a vibrant, life-giving mechanism positioned to bring truth to a desperate, fast-moving world. God is calling church planters in the 21st century to stop planting and start launching.
To understand launching large, you must understand its two essential complementary components — launching quickly and launching from the outside in. Let’s examine these precepts in more detail.
Launching large is the ability of a new church to reach as many people as possible within the first 6 to 8 months of existence. This is an issue of discovering and fulfilling potential. Of course, large is a relative term. Launching large will look different for different churches in different environments. Launching large is as unique as the area to which God has called you. Areas that are warm to the gospel may lend to a larger launch than completely unchurched areas. I have also seen the reverse hold true. Do not get too caught up in the numbers. Instead focus on the potential of your area as you allow the concept of launching large to sink in.
Do not underestimate the importance of numbers. Numbers represent people and impact in a community. Every person in a community matters to God and needs a spiritual home. God wants His family to be as large as possible. So, numbers do serve a purpose … a tool for measuring the expansion of God’s kingdom.
Ask yourself, What would launching large look like in my area? One way to determine a broad answer is to examine what God is already doing in and around your community. When we set out to start The Journey in Manhattan, we had a difficult time finding comparison churches, because there had been no successful new churches in the years just before our start. In the New York City culture of 2002, having 110 people at the launch of a new church was significant. Since then others in the city have launched larger than we did. And we are their biggest fans. God wants to use many churches to reach our city. This is not a competition.
God’s dream for the church you want to launch is bigger than your dream. Launching large is about cooperating with God to see His vision accomplished in your area. Do not underestimate your vision or your church’s ability to tap into it. If God is calling you to this task, He is not trying to play hide and seek with His plan. Use your sanctified imagination to envision what launching large would look like for the church you want to start.
Contrary to some schools of thought, even though you launch a church quickly, it can still be a healthy church. I believe a new church can begin monthly services within 2 to 3 months after finding a strong leader. From there, I recommend only 3 to 6 months of monthly services until the church launches weekly services. This combination of speed and momentum building has worked well in new churches around the country.
Some argue that you can start a new church even more quickly. Indeed, in many countries, some are launching church-planting movements in under a week or even in one day (see David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements). Here in the States, however, a slightly longer build-to-launch time brings greater health over the long haul. Launching a church is a bit like birthing a baby; the gestation period matters. While a baby can survive a premature birth, she may face long-term consequences. Resist the temptation to launch your replicate too soon.
On the other hand, many propose a long gestation period for a new church by using small gatherings, core groups, and high initial commitment by the early attendees. Some churches stay in this pre-launch stage for a year to 18 months. But many of these churches never get off the launching pad. There is always going to be a reason to postpone the launch. This slow approach to launching is detrimental to overall church health and to everyone involved — particularly your current congregation who is championing and supporting this new church. Take the time needed to ensure you are on a healthy track, but resist the temptation to wait too long to get off the ground.
Launching from the outside in
Launching large includes launching from the outside in — which is perhaps the most radical of the launching large precepts. It is possible to launch a church where the only Christians on the initial team are the staff (pastor, worship leaders, and spouses). When starting a new church, you do not need to wait until you can attract a set number of Christians from the area, or convince a few Christians from your current location to embrace the vision and relocate. God may want to use those people, or He may not. They are not necessarily required. Throughout history God has worked through believers and unbelievers alike.
Keeping the goal of launching large in front of you causes a shift in the early DNA of the church you are starting. Your church will have an outwardly focused mentality from the onset. Churches that launch large tend to stay focused on the unchurched, while churches that wait to launch often get distracted with insider concerns and taking care of the core. Keeping your church focused on those you want to reach from the beginning is much easier than trying to refocus a church that has become inwardly concerned.
For Such a Time as This
Launching churches are becoming more and more prevalent across the United States. In my work with these church starts, I have seen many grow from zero to over 400 in 6 to 12 months, using the launching large strategy. In a southern town with a population of 160,000 people, I worked with a church that grew from zero to over 250 in monthly services, and then launched their weekly services with over 300. A church in Florida, in an established major city where many other new churches had failed, accepted the idea of launching large and launched with over 300. It grew to over 400 people in under 8 months. Often, churches that launch large are able to grow to several hundred or to over 1,000 people in a few years. Then they, in turn, have the stability to start other churches. These testimonies should expand your vision of the potential God wants to fulfill through your desire and calling to start a new church.
Designing the DNA
As you move toward becoming a launching church, ingrain the desire to start new churches into the DNA of your current church. Cast the vision. Make sure your people know your church will eventually start other churches — locally and around the world. Put money aside to assist in starting churches, even if its only $50 or $100 per month. Plant the seeds. Mobilize early mission teams to work with new churches in your area or on national mission trips. Remind your people that you are a church committed to proliferating the gospel outside of your doors. Here are three ways for a growing church to move toward starting their first church:
1. Find a church planter inside your church. New churches, especially, often raise up planters quickly. Be on the lookout for people who might have this desire and calling. Give them resources and take them to conferences with you.
2. Find a church planter who is moving to your area. If there is already a solid church planter in your region, seek out a partnership. If there is a good match, jump in as one of their financial partners.
3. Find where your current financial partners are working and join them. The churches that helped you financially may have other partnerships they are pursuing. If they are doing something that ignites your passion, get on board.
Seek God’s will, so you do not fall into the common trap of dualistic thinking. Too many growing churches who consider starting other churches make the mistake of asking, Is it God’s will for us to grow larger or for us to plant other churches? This is not an either/or proposition. God intends for you to do both. I call this bifocal vision. Keep one eye on the growth and health of your church and one eye on planting other churches as quickly as possible.
As a model for starting other churches, look to the guideline in Acts 1:8 and lay out a 3 -to 5-year plan for planting churches in each area:
- locally (Jerusalem)
- regionally (Judea)
- nationally/cross culturally (Samaria)
- globally (the world)
Launching a new church that impacts the community, reaches the lost, grows rapidly, helps people mature in their faith, and then starts more churches nearby and around the world is entirely possible — with God. When He calls you to become a launching church, give all of the potential and possibilities over to Him and let Him lead your work. Then and only then will the churches He wants to start through you become churches of greater success and significance than you’ve ever imagined.