Launching Large

The New Paradigm in Church Planting


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

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.

Launching quickly

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.

Are You Sure You’ve Been Called?

When you know God has called you to start a church, you will be able to face those first difficult years with confidence and grace. While there will be periods of trial and uncertainty, knowing you have been called to the work you are doing will keep you moving forward. Look at some ways you can recognize a proper calling:

Proper Sources of Calling

  • Prayer and Bible study. God calls and confirms His call through prayer and Bible study. When God calls people, He often confirms His calling every time they pray or read the Bible.
  • Surprise. Ministry may have never entered into your own plans when God intercepts your plans. Someone said, “When God is stirring in my life, everything familiar gets uncomfortable.” This surprise calling leads to a 180-degree turn in career and focus.
  • Holy discontent. While anger, resentment, or discontent toward an existing church or pastor can be a source of improper calling, a proper calling will often carry with it a sense of holy discontent. This discontent does not focus on problems within a ministry, but has a heart to improve the situation in a particular community. Holy discontent also comes when you have ignored God’s call in your life, and you realize you will not find fulfillment until you surrender to His will to start a church.
  • Burden for the unchurched. A desire to reach the unchurched always accompanies a proper call. If your goal is to change the Christians in your community, most assuredly God has not called you to start a new church. However, if you have a strong passion to reach the unchurched, you may be hearing from God.
  • Godly counsel. A proper call will be accompanied by the confirmation of those around you. Seek other leaders and gauge their response to your call.

Nelson Searcy, Manhattan, New York

Fast Growing Church Plants

According to studies, most new churches start and remain small. However, strong interest exists in the launch large approach. Acts 1 and 2 indicate that the Early Church went from 120 believers to 3,120 believers overnight. In the first year after Christ’s death, the number of believers increased to over 20,000.1 Church planter Ron Sylvia is one of the voices that believes “launching large is congruent with the best of missionary theology and with the methods of Jesus.”2 Such large starts lead to momentum, credibility, and status as self-supporting will soon follow.3

Stephen Gray is a researcher who compared 60 fast-growing church plants and 52 struggling church plants to try to understand the factors that enabled churches to grow larger than 200 in their first 3 years. He has a new book developing this research called, Planting Fast Growing Churches.

Gray found that in successful church plants:

  • 88 percent have church planting teams.
  • 63 percent have a core group of 26 to 75 people.
  • 75 percent use a contemporary style of worship.
  • 80 percent put 10 percent or more of their budgets toward outreach and evangelism.
  • 16 percent have a higher rate of full-time pastors than struggling church plants.
  • 63 percent of planters leading fast-growing plants raise additional funding, compared to 23 percent of those that are struggling.

Church planters leading fast growing church plants felt a greater sense of support from their pastoral colleagues and surrounding churches, they have more fellowship with other pastors, their work is more highly celebrated by their denomination, and they experience far less negativity from their direct superiors than did those planters leading struggling church plants.

ED STETZER, Alpharetta, Georgia, is missiologist and senior director of the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention. From “Improving the Health and Survivability of New Churches,” Leadership Network. Used with permission.

Notes

1. Bill Easum and Bil Cornelius, Go Big: Lead Your Church to Explosive Growth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 7.

2. Ron Sylvia, Starting New Churches on Purpose (Lake Forest, Calif.: Purpose Driven Publishing, 2006), 108.

3. Ibid., 109.

Finding Focus

If I asked, “Who do you want your new church to reach?” you would most likely respond, “Everyone.” While you want to share the gospel with anyone who will listen, developing a clear picture of the demographic you are targeting will help you effectively reach the most people from the start. FOCUSon the specific group to which God is calling you. Your focus population should be:

Findable
Outward-oriented
Community-based
Unreached
Specific

To find focus for your new church, ask yourself three questions:

1. Who are the key population groups living in my area?

Do some demographic research. Do not just go with what you see. If you have lived in an area for a long time, you need to examine it even more closely. Studies show that once people live in an area for a while, they do not really see the community as it is. They only see their small corner and translate that personal reality onto the whole area. Find the facts.

2. What population group is not being reached effectively?

Invariably, there are certain groups in your community who are less exposed to the gospel than others. Perhaps a housing boom has recently attracted young couples. Maybe a certain ethnic demographic has just moved in. You will effectively influence more people if you can couple your new church plant with the rising population trend of an unreached group.

3. To what population group do I best relate?

Of the varied people groups in your area, to whom do you most relate? You will best relate to people who are similar, and slightly younger, than you. You may have a heart for a different population group, but that does not mean you are called or equipped to reach them.

Your sweet spot lies at the intersection of these three questions. At The Journey, we discovered we needed to focus on the young professionals moving to Manhattan. This demographic is one we can effectively and enthusiastically reach. By learning to FOCUS, our answer was clear.

Nelson Searcy, Manhattan, New York

Priorities in Fast-Growing Church Plants

Church plants that grow faster are also intentional about their outreach priorities. For example, 80 percent of fast-growing churches put 10 percent of their budgets toward outreach and evangelism compared to 42 percent of struggling churches committing this percentage. Fast-growing churches also use more contemporary worship styles that are more culturally relevant to the unchurched people they are trying to reach.

Other significant findings that differentiate fast-growing church plants from struggling church plants during the 3-year period following launch include:

  1. Only 9 percent of fast-growing church planters are given salary support past 4 years; 44 percent of struggling church planters are supported past 3 years.
  2. 63 percent of fast-growing church planters raise additional funding for the church plant. Only 23 percent of struggling church planters raise additional funding.
  3. Planters leading fast-growing church plants are given more freedom to cast their own vision, choose their own target audience, and they have more freedom in the spending of finances.
  4. Fast-growing church plants have multiple paid staff. Two paid staff members was a majority among the church plants.
  5. A majority of fast-growing church plants utilize two or more volunteer staff as part of the church planting team prior to public launch.
  6. Fast-growing church plants utilize more seed families than struggling church plants.
  7. Fast-growing church plants use both preview services and small groups to build the initial core group.
  8. Fast-growing church plants that use preview services used three or more of these services prior to public launch. A large contingent of these churches use over five.
  9. Fast-growing church plants have children and teen ministries in place at time of launch and offer at least three ministry opportunities to first-time attendees.
  10. 57 percent of fast-growing church plants teach financial stewardship during the first 6 months from public launch. By contrast only 40 percent of struggling church plants teach financial stewardship.

ED STETZER, Alpharetta, Georgia, is missiologist and senior director of the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention. From “Improving the Health and Survivability of New Churches,” Leadership Network. Used with permission.