There are currently more than 45,000 Southern Baptist churches across the United States. Most of those churches, however, are concentrated in the South, with fewer churches located in states like New York and New Jersey.
In an effort to remind people of the importance of church planting, especially in under-reached and under-served areas like the Northeast and West, the Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board – currently the North American Mission Board – created Start-a-Church Sunday.
Placed on the SBC calendar in 1991 as part of the Convention's Bold Mission Thrust initiative, a multi-pronged emphasis on evangelism, missions and church planting, Start-a-Church Sunday continues to remain on the calendar today as an annual reminder to churches of the importance of starting new churches.
After the adoption of SBC's Great Commission Task Force Report, the emphasis was formally launched in 2011 under the banner of Send North America.
Though Start-a-Church Sunday was specifically marked for this Sunday, March 25, 2012, Mike Ebert, vice president of communications for the North American Mission Board, told The Christian Post that church planting was something that the Southern Baptists were always working on throughout the year.
"Even though we're starting churches all year long and we have that involvement all year along, it's a way to focus on that on a particular day," he said.
The North American Mission Board is currently involved in a variety of different programs that support church planting in North America, including the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
"Start-a-Church Sunday is just an additional way to bring attention to [those offerings] as well," Ebert revealed.
The NAMB leaders believed that church planting is not only biblical but also critical in terms of reaching North America for Christ.
Over the next few years, they hoped to see more direct and personal involvement by existing Southern Baptist churches in these efforts, whether that be through funding, prayers, or sending mission teams.
If some congregations did not have the resources to plant churches on their own, they could join resources with other churches or come alongside other church plants and church planters, encouraging and assisting them in whatever way they might need.
"There's really a role to play for a church of any size," Ebert emphasized. "We'd like to see personal participation grow because it really is churches that starts new churches. You can't do it from a national agency. We can help by providing funding, training, helping in the missionary selection process...but we need more actual churches who are willing to jump in and be involved in the process."
Looking at the statistics today, only 4 percent of Southern Baptist churches are directly involved in church planting.
Though they are encouraged to see those churches participate in some way, the NAMB desired to see at least 10 percent of their churches join in on the initiative.
"One of the things we are constantly trying to remind Southern Baptists of is that not every region looks like the South in terms of the numbers of churches and the number of people that have access to the Gospel," Ebert explained to CP.
"So many of us are concentrated in the South where there are lots of churches. That's not to say that we don't need more in the South but we do have a lot in the South so we have to remind Southern Baptists that it's not this way everywhere."
The church to population ratio in the South, for example, is far above that in the Northeast. For every 1,375 people in Mississippi, there is one church. Likewise in Alabama, there is one church per every 1,420 people.
In New York, however, the rate was significantly lower, with one church for every 59,760 people. In New Jersey, there is one church for every 76,000 people. And in Canada, the rate dropped even lower to 1 church for every 121,000 people.
"So we would love to see every region in the United States and Canada have the same kind of Gospel access that folks living in the South have," Ebert shared. "That's what we're really trying to do, to remind Southern Baptists first that there is a need and number two that there is a role to play for every church."
The NAMB believes that starting new churches is one of the most effective ways to spread the Gospel.
"If you look at the research, new churches tend to reach more people for Christ than established churches," Ebert noted. "And there's nothing wrong with established churches but the fact is that when you settle into your community and into a routine, there's not as many new people that your church is reaching for Christ. So a new church is going to reach new people"
"We also know that established churches all take on their own identity, own culture, and own feel and so there are just some people, ethnic groups, demographic groups, economic groups that a church is not going to reach, so that's why you need different kinds of churches even in the same city.
When asked if there could be a problem in churches taking on their own identity and own feel, he responded that just like every person has their own personality, it was the same with the church.
"As a church takes on its own personality and feel, certain people are drawn to that church so that's why you need different churches, a real diversity of churches that are going to draw in and appeal to different people. We know that the Gospel has an appeal to everyone but each of us is different in terms of the kinds of styles and personalities we're drawn to."
Church planting has become a big focus of the SBC over the last few years.
During the SBC Pastors' Conference in June of 2011, Kevin Ezell, the NAMB's president, told attendees that the biggest part of what the NAMB will be doing is mobilizing and equipping.
"We're going to mobilize churches to plant churches – through associations, states and clusters of networks. All of it will be to mobilize churches to plant churches," Ezell said according to the Baptist Press.
He set a goal to have 55,901 Southern Baptist congregations by the end of 2020 as part of the Send North America strategy.
"Pastor, we're not going to make it harder for you. Associations and states, we're not [going to make it harder on you either.]...We're going to make it easier for you to engage in missions and to pray and partner. We can do this together."
LifeWay Vice President Ed Stetzer also said during the conference, "People might say that the North American Mission Board is getting too focused on church planting. I say thank God."
"We don't need just the North American Mission Board focused on church planting; we need this denomination to get focused on church planting."
For more information on how to get involved in church planting as a Southern Baptist church, go to NAMB.net and click on mobilize me.