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Simple Churches in a Complex Culture

As a pastor who has sponsored many new church plants, I am always excited to meet people who want to start new churches. All the research shows that new churches reach new people faster than old churches. The Southern Baptists (who keep immaculate records of this sort of thing) have reported for decades that the baptism-per-member ratio of new churches is five times better than that for existing, older churches. That alone is a good reason for mission-minded, ourtreach-oriented pastors like me to be enthusiastic about helping new churches get started.

Part of the success of new church plants comes from their intentionality in looking for and finding new ways to break into the non-churched culture with the gospel. While the gospel message itself never changes, we way that we “package” it, in other words, the way that we do church, is always changing.

Twelve years ago, when I was sponsoring church plants in Texas, I could outline a mathematical formula for planting a suburban church. You stared with a church planter, added 10 people, and had a core group. A core like this would produce $60 per person per month– you could count on it. For worship space, you needed fifteen square feet per person and for Sunday School classes for kids; you needed thirty five square feet. A rule of thumb for small church budgets is that one-half of the offerings can go to personnel, while a third to facility and rest is applied to program expense or invested in missions. With these parameters, the math is not difficult to do.

When the group reached 100 people, they would have $6,000 per month income. This presupposes a “middle class” congregation of mostly regular people. We did some plants among special ethnic groups, like the Cambodian refugees in our zip code, and obviously, the giving ratios were less among that group.

By typically, a group of 100 people could easily fund a pastor with half of their offerings. Another third would rent 3,600 square feet in a storefront shopping center (at six dollars per foot per year). By the time the new church reached 200 in attendance, they had the wherewithal to fund their part of buying land and constructing a new building. About $300,000 would erect a first-unit building complete with a gravel parking lot that could be paved when you got around to it. Texas Baptists built a lot of churches that followed this formula in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Fast-forward to where I serve today, Denver, Colorado, in year 2009, and you can forget all the formulas presented above! The old template just won’t work. Grow a new church to 100 and they will barely be able to afford rent in another church, let alone a storefront. Storefronts can run $3,000 to $6,000 for basic space. Giving-per-person ratios might be higher, say $80 per average attender per month, but with 70 people the rent could consume their entire budget. Yikes.

Grow a church to 200, even with $16,000 per month in offerings, and they are not going to build anything in today’s hostile-to-church-building climate. Property and building costs on the edge of Denver, for a new “first unit church facility,” would be closer to $3 million than they are to $300,000. No way a church of 200 is going to build brand new building, without a great deal of outside assistance.

One recent example is Faith Mountain church in Lakewood, Colorado. As a successful plant by any metric, they average more than 200 people a week and have seen 500 people attend on Easter Sunday. They were able to purchase an old abandoned theater, but only with major financial underwriting from a denominational-oriented capital funding agency.

Another successful plant in our area is Mesa View Church in Golden, Colorado. Mesa View has met in different churches (at off times) and was renting a storefront for $2,000 a month when the rent jumped overnight to $3,000. They are a congregation of less than 100 people, so they are back in another church.

What we need is a new template, a new formula. I used to say that if you wanted to reach 1,000 people, just plant 10 churches of 100 people each, or if you can pull it off, plant one church of 1,000 people. People today tend to want to gather in the large groups of 1,000 or more, for reasons that aren’t particularly scriptural. But to plant a church that large, a planter would need a “launch team” of 200 people or more. The new church must be large to start with and grow quickly.

Today, I’m thinking we need to get smaller in order to grow larger. To reach 1,000 people tomorrow, maybe we need to plant 100 churches of 10 people each. It could be that the “micro church” (also known as the “simple church” or “house church”) movement may be the tool that God is going to use next.

Simple churches are working in Denver. Imagine: a church with no “spectators,” where everyone participates. A church that features relational discipleship and functioning church discipline. Imagine: a church with no debt and a very simple budget. This church gives to missions, and it also gives to the poor. A church “where everyone knows your name,” (picture the Cheers bar from the TV show) where hardly anyone gets paid, or needs to get paid.

Simple churches come in all socio-economic sizes, ethnicities, and languages. And they come with all sorts of problems, including (but not limited to) parking, child care, pastoral training, doctrinal purity, and improper relationships. (Sounds kind of like our regular churches, doesn’t it).

Best of all; imagine a church that easily reproduces itself, because it has the concept of creating new churches built right into its DNA. When a simple church that meets in a house grows to more than 20 people, it feels like a mega church inside that house. The people will be more than willing to “divide and multiply” like a biological cell.

Not that the simple church will replace the need for regular, or large, churches. That isn’t likely, at least for another century or so. But the simple churches can work alongside the rest of us, and reach many people we’re not likely to touch. Simple churches will be a challenge for us. As established churches, how do we recognize them and support them? They will also be a resource for us, and a blessing to us, and a partner alongside us.

And one more thing: Simple churches do look familiar to us – they look a lot like the churches in the New Testament. They have some of the same problems and suffer some of the same maladies. And they survive – oh yes, while the mega churches may turn out to be a late 20th century cultural anomaly, the simple churches will survive — history being on their side for the last 2,000 years.