Some of the nation's most prominent church planting leaders are getting together to help inspire and challenge fellow leaders in the largest conference of its kind in North America.
Building from momentum from last year's gathering that had a sold-out crowd of around 1,000, the 2007 National New Church Conference opens Monday in Orlando, Fla., in an even larger venue to accommodate the growing number of participants.
This year's conference comes as the world is seeing greater divergence in church planting today, from megachurches and multi-site churches to house churches, as Ed Stetzer, missiologist and senior director of NAMB's (North American Mission Board) Center for Missional Research, noted.
The last time the United States saw a major church planting movement was in 1795-1810, according to Stetzer, when 3,000 Baptist and Methodist churches were planted on the Western frontier.
"I am struck by and disappointed in some ways by how little is going on [in church planting]," said Stetzer in an interview featured on the Church Planting Network. "We need to see a whole lot more going on.
"I think we've bought into this sense in North America that the goal is to have a big church, grow a big platform, get a certain fame that comes with that," he continued. "I think we need to change the scorecard. We need to ... be churches that are multiplying, impacting communities [and] that are sending people away – sowing and reaping."
Although new models, approaches and conferences have emerged over the last several decades, still the American culture is "less reached" and even those who go to church are "less committed," said Stetzer.
As churches adopt prevailing culture models, Stetzer believes church planters have a natural tendency to jump into cultural relevance more than biblical fidelity. Although that isn't a bad impulse, there needs to be balance, he noted.
"How can I help Christians to not to just think of themselves as consumers of religious goods and services and churches as vendors of religious goods and services but how can we challenge believers that God called [us] ... to really engage in the full mission of God," the missiologist said, indicating that he has been burdened by this. "God's people are called to do something more than run an institution and propagate an organization. They're to live the Gospel in their lives. I just don't think many people are getting that message."
Nevertheless, with hopes of seeing more transformative and impacting churches, Stetzer sees a surge of interest in church planting today and believes that it may be the beginning of another church planting movement.
Dave Ferguson, lead pastor of Community Christian Church in Naperville, Ill., has a vision to not only reproduce churches but to also be a catalyst for a movement of reproducing churches. Known for a multi-site approach, the 5,000-member church is launching its eighth location. As starting new sites has become part of the church's DNA or "business as usual," as Ferguson put it, the megapastor is now leading the New Thing Network – a church reproducing network.
With more models and churches being birthed, Stetzer says the challenge is to make sure the diversity is "birthed out of deep love for Scripture."
"For me, I think missional has to begin with the idea of biblical fidelity."
The 2007 National New Church Conference, themed "Exponential: Moving Beyond Addition," is scheduled for Apr. 23-27 with such speakers as Bill Hybels, Larry Osbourne, Jim Putman and Mark Driscoll, among others.