New research suggests that the evangelical church in America is not dying. While denominational growth has been on the decline, church planting has become the cutting edge for reaching more people for Christ.
"It's a good day to plant a church," says Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources.
When Stetzer decided to plant his first church 20 years ago, he recalled finding only one book on church planting. Now, pastors or people right out of seminary have access to an increasing number of church planting networks and resources to help them jumpstart their mission to reach communities and the unchurched.
Moreover, church planting has become "a preferred ministry option" and a primary ministry focus when it comes to reaching the lost, according to Stetzer.
Stetzer's conclusions are drawn from one of the largest and most comprehensive studies on church planting, in which he was the primary researcher.
The "State of Church Planting USA" study found that interest in church planting is growing rapidly. The pace of church planting has accelerated dramatically in recent years, according to the study.
While insufficient information exists to quantify the exact number of church plants, the study's finding suggested that approximately 4,000 churches are being planted in the United States each year – an all-time high.
The research also noted that church planting is much more varied than in the past with "missional," "seeker-sensitive," "purpose-driven" and ethnic church planting models being developed.
And these new models were found to produce more evangelistic conversions.
"I think a lot of it (church planting) is demographically driven," said Dave Travis, managing director at Leadership Network, which worked in cooperation with Stetzer on the study. "There is this bulge of young adults that come up and begin to create new forms of institutional faith. There will always be a need for new churches and new church plants to serve those needs."
Twenty years ago, much of the church planting efforts were focused on geography and reaching new areas or "unserved" communities, Travis noted. Today, "affinity" strategies dominate.
"Most successful church planters today are specialists who emphasize a particular style of worship or a specific demographic," he said. "For example, they may exclusively plant house churches or ethnic churches – or perhaps build purpose-driven, seeker or missional churches. And the trend toward specialization is likely to continue as more tools and resources that serve specific types of planting strategies are developed."
Church plants are also no longer denominationally driven. Instead, church planting is happening more on the local level. And at the forefront of the movement are "church-planting networks" which is a loose affiliation of churches not necessarily tied by a denomination but by a shared commitment to launching new, like-minded congregations.
"As a result, denominational offices are increasingly taking a subordinate role – equipping rather than directing local congregational efforts," according to the study.
The concept of self-replicating churches – planting reproducing churches – is a recent phenomenon that was spearheaded primarily from churches founded within the last 20 years, the study highlighted.
Still, mainline denominations are rediscovering church planting, says Stetzer. Some of the national churches that have a church planting emphasis include the Reformed Church in America, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian Church in America, the Baptist General Conference, and the Missionary Church.
"They're seeing North America as a mission field needing to be evangelized and re-congregationalized," Stetzer says.
Debunking claims that most new church starts fail within the first year, the study showed that survival and success are markedly greater than realized. The latest research suggested that 68 percent of the roughly 4,000 churches planted each year are still functioning four years later.
Despite the growth, sophistication and diversity of church planting in the United States, one question remains: Why don't we see church planting movements in the Western world like we see in the Global South?
The study suggests that North America has not yet seen a breakthrough in true church multiplication.
But Stetzer sees America growing closer toward a major movement.
"Church planting has grown in its scope, diversity and impact," Stetzer says. "North American churches, networks and denominations are making church planting a growing priority. Such emphases push the church closer toward a movement – where churches plant churches that plant churches across North America and the world."
And Travis remains hopeful.
"I am hopeful that this study and the growing number of outstanding church planting conferences and resources will inspire a new wave of planters in the years ahead," said Travis. "That would be very good news indeed. Launching vibrant new congregations is often a more feasible and more fruitful strategy than attempting to revitalize struggling congregations."
The State of Church Planting USA study was based on interviews with more than 100 denominational leaders (representing dozens of different denominations), 200 church-planting churches and some 45 church planting networks.