The Pipeline is Shrinking: Reflections on the State of Church Planting

I recently spent a couple days with four pastor friends. All of us are in our 40s. All of us planted churches in our 20s and 30s. And all of us have been leaders in the Acts 29 Network for over a decade.

We love what Acts 29 stands for, and we love the history and the sense of brotherhood we share because of it. But as we reflected on the past decade, we observed that the early years of Acts 29 were marked by an energy and momentum that the later years have lacked – especially in North America. The question is: why?

Statistically, the “boom years” of Acts 29 were 2007 to 2012. During that five-year period the movement grew from 140 churches to 424 – a stunning 200% growth rate. Over the most recent five-year period (2012-2017), the movement’s growth rate has held at a much more modest 45%. Now, by any standard, a 45% growth rate is still a stunning success! But compared with the boom years, it represents a three-quarters reduction in the rate of growth, as well as a reduction in the actual number of churches planted (284 vs. 195). The data affirms our intuitive discernment: momentum has slowed.

Certainly Acts 29 has seen its share of organizational challenges during these years – most notably Mark Driscoll’s descent from leadership and all its attendant chaos. But in spite of this, Acts 29 today is more structurally sound than it’s ever been. And Acts 29 churches are more tangibly committed to church planting than ever. All Acts 29 churches give 10% of their internal giving to support church planting efforts, and many of them either host or support regional church-planting residencies. Organizationally and logistically, the movement is on firm footing.

So what accounts for the slowdown? Here’s my hypothesis: Acts 29’s boom years were fed by a leadership pipeline that no longer exists.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, church planting was not the vocation of choice for young leaders. Most men who felt a calling to ministry looked for opportunities as interns, youth pastors, associate pastors, or campus ministry staff members. That all began to change through the influence of two men: Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll. Though many other voices were sounding the call to church planting, Keller and Driscoll were the ones gaining the attention of younger leaders. Keller’s call to urban renewal resonated with many who were troubled by the megachurch’s suburban captivity. And Driscoll’s sanctified irreverence challenged the saccharine sentimentality of the evangelical subculture. Both men blended Reformed theology with missional innovation in a way that resonated with young pastors everywhere.

The church planting candidates that flooded Acts 29’s boot camps and assessments in the mid-2000s were youth pastors, college pastors, and church staff members – in other words, men with real church ministry experience. They’d preached sermons, done evangelism, discipled new Christians, and learned to submit and serve under someone else’s authority. In a sense, these leaders were ready-made church planters: they were already committed to God’s mission, they were experienced and fruitful in ministry, and they felt called by the Holy Spirit to step out on their own and lead missionary church-planting efforts. They didn’t need to be trained, equipped, and prepared; they just needed to be sent.

No longer is that the case. Are there still youth pastors and associate pastors mulling a call to church planting? Sure. Some of them are reading this post. But they are not nearly as plentiful as they once were. Ready-made leaders who are theologically mature, missionally fruitful, self-aware, and ministry-experienced are harder and harder to find. No longer is there a glut of church staff members and campus ministry leaders who have put in 5 or 6 years in ministry and are starting to dream about church planting. Now, church planting has become a first option for many seminary graduates. Denominations and agencies and networks are pushing church-planting much more aggressively. The guys who used to aspire to youth ministry or campus ministry now aspire to be church planters. And many of them lack the patience to serve on a church staff for five or ten years before launching into church planting.

The surge of interest in church planting is a great thing. But it comes at a cost: a longer gestation period for potential church planters. In the boom years, Acts 29 spoke of planting 1000 churches in 10 years – and that seemed realistic based on the surge of ready-made leaders pouring into our ranks. But as my investment advisor always says, “past performance is not indicative of future results.” Turning a seasoned youth pastor or college pastor into an effective church planter is a two-year project; doing the same with a young seminary graduate is more like a ten-year project. The pace of church-planting must slow accordingly.

In one sense, Acts 29 is already adapting. During our re-organization in 2012, we realized that we had basically been an “attractional” movement, using events and podcasts and platforms to attract young leaders toward church planting. What we hadn’t done well was to grow our own leaders from within. Our marketing materials spoke of “churches planting churches,” but in reality we were more like a fraternity of church planters. So we began to build residencies and training programs and new initiatives that would develop leaders from within, enabling our existing churches to plant new churches by raising up leaders internally.

In my opinion, our rhetoric still needs to catch up with reality. Sometimes the rhetoric of church-planting movements (not just Acts 29, but others also) can create the expectation of continuous exponential increase. Acts 29 speaks of “planting churches that plant churches that plant churches” – and indeed, that is what we want to be about! But underneath this rhetoric, we need to acknowledge that this may be a ten- to fifteen-year process. Statistically, only 26% of existing Acts 29 churches were planted out of another Acts 29 church, and only 7% are third-generation plants. My own church, Coram Deo, has finally reached “grandfather” stage – having planted a church (Providence Austin) that has planted another church (Trinity Church Austin) – but even that was by attracting leaders from outside and then developing them. If we’re talking about real missional church-planting… if we’re talking about moving a man “from pagan to planter…” then we’re talking about a decade or more of discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership development. The conditions that spurred the growth of Acts 29 in the boom years simply do not obtain anymore. We must adjust our expectations and our methods accordingly.

In my opinion, the ongoing flourishing of missional church-planting in North America will require three important shifts:

  • A shift in strategy: church planting networks need to slow down the pace and expectation for church planting. They need to focus on slow growth rather than exponential growth, and on long-term leadership health rather than short-term results. To say it another way: planting 100 churches this year does not guarantee 100 healthy churches 5 years from now.
  • A shift in rhetoric: church planting networks need to speak honestly in order to create appropriate expectations. Americans are addicted to “vision,” and in the evangelical world, vision often means hype. Church planting networks should resist this temptation and instead cast a realistic vision focused on long-term influence. Keller’s wisdom is instructive here: for years, he has spoken of moving New York City from 1% evangelical (1990) to 15% evangelical (still a distant hope – right now it’s at 5% evangelical after almost 3 decades of work). This kind of long-term vision builds an expectation of slow, steady progress rather than immediate results – and it encourages seeing church-planting as a lifelong calling.
  • A shift in aspirations: young leaders who think they want to be involved in church-planting need to aspire to work on a church staff for 5-10 years as a first step. Most aspiring church planters I meet are impatient. They don’t know who they are; they don’t have an accurate assessment of their gifts; and they don’t have the wisdom and seasoning that comes with maturity. Moving men like this into church planting too quickly is a recipe for instability. I tell young leaders they should expect to serve in ministry for a decade before they’re ready to plant a church. Data from Fellowship Associates reveals that the best church planters are in their early 30s, with 7-10 years of ministry experience and some type of theological training (seminary or equivalent). There’s a reason for that.

Local churches need to adapt as well. Most of our church-planting residency programs within Acts 29 have been designed as one- or two-year “finishing schools.” Which is to say: they’re still designed for the kind of leaders we were attracting in the mid-2000s. They are built for leaders who are theologically mature, missionally fruitful, self-aware, and ministry-experienced, and who require only some final preparation in order to plant a church. In addition to these sorts of residencies, we need diverse theological and leadership training initiatives within the local church to equip leaders at all stages of maturity. We can’t expect ready-made church-planters; we need to pray, work, and labor to move people from pagan to planter.

26 Comments

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  1. Good stuff. We have been digging into this lately (Leadership Pipeline) and are excited about a program we have come up with. You raise an interesting thought with the 7 – 10 years ministry experience. I wonder, if we didn’t add an element of intentionality to this if we couldn’t cut that learning curve in half. By actively mentoring our young leaders who have shown the tools and skills. This might mean over staffing or leveraging volunteers more for core functions, but it might be worth it. Anyway, good stuff, give us more to think about for our program.

  2. You may want to also think about the pipeline from the other end. I will be retiring in about 7 years and I am praying about the possibility of planting a church. No way I am getting on a bus, touring some spot and eating at Diary Queen as the highlight of my week. I want men to disciple and mountains to conquer.

  3. Bob, Excellent insight — all three points are valid. I think the wisdom of your experience speaks loudly here. There can be an urgency, especially in our youth,, that is more imposed by man than by God. In contrast, simple faithfulness reaps great reward.

  4. I understand this may not have been the focus of the article, but I do wonder why so much emphasis is given to solving the problem of “unchurched communities” with new church plants and young leaders.

    What about existing, but plateaued small churches? And what about the current grandfathers of the church, those 65+ year olds who faithfully attend but are unclear on the role they are to play? To me I see tremendous opportunities in both of these areas, perhaps more so than in 10-year discipleship programs which focus on young 20-somethings.

    And just to be clear, I don’t see this as an either-or scenario. I’m not advocating for one over another, rather I think all of these strategies are important. I’d be curious to hear other opinions on my suggestions though.

    • Derek,
      I think the main reason the focus on 20 year olds in the article is because *generally* (not pointing out specific churches, and j know there are exceptions) plateaued small church and the “grandfather” pastors aren’t usually planting churches or looking to plant churches.

  5. Great article Bob. I agree that our current leadership pipelines are too myopic. We have piloted an Apprentice program at City to City NYC to mentor these young leaders who are 5-10 years out from planting. Coupling that with a NYC campus of RTS we are just beginning to address this gap.

  6. Thanks for this great article Bob! I agree. Do you think pushing into harder to reach nooks and crannies of our country is going to be key as well? Rural and deep city are areas that need new growth but will require more time, less glory and thick skinned pioneers. Probably tentmaking as well.

  7. One thing the article does not consider, which I think is an important issue, especially when considering why young men are not considering becoming a church planter, is the reality that over half of church plants actually fail. The church planting movement as a “corporate” (think business model) movement has now had long enough to track all of their success and failures. And though the significant number of failures are not used to hype of potential planters, the carnage of those failures and the impact upon the pastors (and their families) who faithfully worked to plant a church but for one reason or another it did not happen, can be seen and heard by potential planters, and perhaps they do not want to end up abandoned and disillusioned like the multiple church planters I know who did not see “numerical” success or the business model of success the supposed church planting gurus claim should happen. When the successful plants are always held up as the norm, which have often also become some sort of mega church, the expectations for what church planting is or will be is not accurately reflected or portrayed to the young impressionable young men. Of course, this is not a reason not to plant churches, it’s just a reminder to be brutally honest about the challenge of church planting and perhaps another reason why the pipeline is shrinking.

  8. Bob, I partially agree with your assessment about the pipeline, but have a much harsher assessment of why the shrinkage . I agree the pipeline has shrunk, but mostly because of many unqualified but highly idolatrous type-A men like myself church planted for our glory and within several years through suicides, affairs, mental breakdowns it was all blown up. Church planting was sexy when we lived under the charade that so much good work was being done. When A29 was invincible and “we have the best assessors and church plants.” I’m not saying no good has come out of it, or that by God’s grace some plants like myself have survived and gotten our bearing back. I’m saying the very philosophy and motivation of church planting was a major contributor in killing the movement.

    When I planted in Seattle there were maybe 15 church plants in my region that are now gone. Networks like SBC and A29 pushed very hard for men to plant, but cared more about starting churches than creating healthy long-term ministries. Just like that book Trellis and the Vine talks about, when planting is more important than maintaining a healthy and fruitful vine, the vine dies and it did.

    Where I do agree with you is the need to shift strategy, aspirations, and rhetoric. Stop elevating church planting as something sexy and help weed out those who do it for the wrong motives. Take more time with men and if through process they plant, have a strategy that stays alongside them in the first couple years. We thought having a tough assessment at A29 was all that was necessary, but we sent the guys out on their own and many failed because of it.

  9. Brilliant observation (shrinking pipeline) and very helpful suggestions in what shifts we need to make to multiply churches. I am grateful to God for you, Bob.

  10. Your comments are right on, Bob. But from my vantage point in New England, church planting is as hot as ever. And the region badly needed it! Although Acts 29 may be slowing down for a well-deserved breather, local church organizations are picking up the slack. Groups like Restoration House, Christ the King, Seven Mile Road, High Rock, and NAMB are all thriving! I’m sure we’re in a cycle that won’t likely be rising forever, but for now, New England is experiencing a new dawn on the spiritual landscape! Praise God!!!

  11. Have planted 5 churches in the last 17 years out of our congregation and have led church planting in our denomination for the last 7 launching 37 new plants. Agree the pipeline is tough but disagree slightly that planters need 5-7 years experience on a church staff. We pluck guys out while in seminary and begin their training with internships in order to cut the time down. I realize everyone doesn’t live in a town that has a seminary in their backyard but if one is close any church serious about planting should recruit there.
    Also, more needs to be taught about how to wed a new church planter with the leadership personality of the planting church. A great deal of friction occurs when the planting organization / congregation leadership has one idea and the planter has another. Kind of like communication between an exasperated parent and a frustrated 16 year-old. Lots of opportunities for misunderstanding and hard feelings. There is great wisdom in creating, not only a job description, but also a paradigm for how the sending church intends to plants. All kinds of church planters out there, you need to find one that fits with your model for planting.

  12. “Americans are addicted to ‘vision’, and in the evangelical world, vision means hype.”

    Thank you for putting that into such a clear thought. Though I’m not a church planter, I love church planting, which is why the article caught my eye. This idea distilled into one sentence made the article well worth it.

  13. I have many friends in the A29 camp, and consider this my “tribe.” They’re largely the impetus behind me planting. However, I opted to plant through a different CP network (Baptist Missionary Association of Texas) after I was literally told, from the stage, in a conference break out session, from A29 Executive Board Member (half joking, half serious) to “go get married first.” The extra-biblical bias against single men is another reason to consider for the shrinking leadership pipeline.

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