Church planting is hard, many pastors would say. But it's where much of the church growth is happening in America at a time when most churches are dying.
"Two-thirds of all churches in America are plateaued and declining," said Pastor Rick Warren after speaking Thursday to thousands of church planters at the Exponential Conference in Orlando, "and if it weren't for the growth that's taking place in church plants and megachurches, Christianity would be declining."
Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., says the growth in church plants and megachurches has helped keep the Christian population in the United States from dropping.
His comments come as the latest statistics from the Southern Baptist Convention, of which his church is a part of, show baptisms have dropped for the third straight year in 2007 and total membership dipped. Some say membership has plateaued and is on a trend toward decline unless change happens within the 16-million member denomination. Southern Baptists are now being seen as one among many major Protestant groups that are declining.
News of the denomination's decline was released during the April 21-24 Exponential Conference where over 2,700 church planters and leaders attended to analyze the DNA of successful reproducing churches. The annual conference has been touted as the "mother of all church planting conferences"
Today, church planting has reached an all-time high with approximately 4,000 new churches planted every year in the United States, according to the "State of Church Planting USA" study. Church plants are also starting out with larger crowds with hundreds joining the first worship service, and the survival and success rate of church plants is at 68 percent.
One of the biggest trends in church planting today is the multiple venue church, or the multi-site church. The idea is that one church meets in multiple locations which are fed video satellite preaching from the main church campus.
Dave Ferguson, pastor of Community Christian Church, is expanding outreach and already transitioning from a multi-site church to a "poly-site" church – reproducing different kinds of campuses to reach different kinds of people – where the mission becomes the priority rather than just reproducing the same church, he said.
While some believe the large church trend will soon die out, Warren says the next generation of churches is going to be even bigger.
"They're going to be far larger than the boomer generation of churches because they're not limited to one campus anymore," he said in an interview featured on the Exponential Conference Web site.
Warren's Saddleback has planted over 40 independent "daughter churches" in Southern California and it recently launched a multi-site initiative with a goal of 10 campuses by the year 2010. According to Saddleback's multi-site church blog, its new campuses in Corona and Irvine drew 490 and nearly 2,000 attendants, respectively, to the first service.
"Reproduction is the mark of health," Warren commented.
Meanwhile, Alan Hirsch, co-founder of Shapevine and the founding director of Forge Mission Training Network which focuses on developing missional leaders in western contexts, believes church plants in America need to adopt a more missionary stance.
"I think here in America, I think church planting is still very bonded to church growth methodology and ideas," Australian-born Hirsch said in an interview featured on MondayMorningInsight, a Web site for pastors and church leaders.
"It (America) hasn't really thought through ... the nature of the church as a mission agency. We simply have to adopt a missionary stance in relationship to our culture," he continued. "We've got to break the monopoly that church growth thinking has over our mindset. Because unless we do that we'll never become a truly missionary agency."
The Exponential Conference featured other well-known speakers, including Tim Keller, founding and lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian; Ed Stetzer, former church planter and director of Lifeway Research; and Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church.