by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 2/19/17.
I want leaders to consider “external” and “internal” planting a bit more as they strategize the future of their ministry. External planting is a somewhat typical semi-autonomous church plant by a mother church. Internal planting is supporting sub-congregations of different cultural behaviors, ideas and styles within the mother church.
And, we need both. But usually when you hear “church planting’” you think of the former, the autonomous or semi-autonomous church plant: organizationally and locationally removed from the mother church.
But I want leaders to grasp the strategic idea of balancing external plants with internal plants. We should have both and perhaps even balance them: 50% internal plants and 50% external plants. To explain why, let me share some questions a student once asked about this.
The student said, “In the Missional Church course we learned that planting a church was one way to rejuvenate a local church’s lifecycle, and promote growth. Your response makes me think you disagree with that. I see how growing an internal sub-congregation will grow the main church, but isn’t the process of loosing members to the daughter church, and the daughter church having to learn to make its own way, what stimulates innovation, change, and growth in both churches? Perhaps I am just being too optimistic. I do not know the actual statistics for church plant survival, but I’ve read that it is anywhere from 50%-80%. People seem to get more excited about planting a church than adding a new service (even though adding the new service may cause more growth?). It may also be the denomination’s mindset. I get the impression that the number of churches (especially new churches) a denomination has is sometimes trumpeted more than the number of members. Which sounds better, ‘We have 100 churches with average attendance of 100 people at each’ or ‘We have 10 churches with an average attendance of 1000 people each.’ 100 churches could mean more communities being reached, while 10 huge churches could mean more work actually being done. When I read the core values and core scores of my denominational department of evangelism it seems more directed at planting new churches than growing existing ones.”
These are important questions. And here are my responses.
1. Yes, I disagree (as does Eddie Gibbs in I Believe in Church Growth, 1981, pp. 282-284) with solely external planting. As a consultant I see the damage it does on a local level when we create an external plant without regard to fostering an internal plant in a nearby congregation (external plant cannibalizes local churches, while birthing competitive and weak plants). I think you can see that internal planting is much better for the rationale I outlined.
2. Plus, an internal plant can have the same amount of innovation, change, and growth as does an external plan (look at how innovative youth ministries can be). The internal plants also create an “economy of scale” as a church grows into a larger church with multiple sub-congregations (creating multi-cultural acceptance too).
3. And, I think you are right that external planting is more popular from a denominational perspective where the number of churches trumps health. The Church of the Nazarene emphasizes internal planting more than Wesleyans and their churches are on average much larger than ours (creating sustainability and an economy of scale = they can do more).
4. You asked, “Which sounds better. ‘We have 100 churches with average attendance of 100 people at each’ or ‘We have 10 churches with an average attendance of 1000 people each.’ 100 churches could mean more communities being reached, while 10 huge churches could mean more work actually being done.” Because in my consultative experience I’ve found that you need on average 175 attendees for a church to have the range of ministries people have come to expect, those 100 churches of 100 people are likely struggling and not healthy. Thus, they are usually not reaching people anyway.
5. It seems to me that in 50% of these situations it might be better for the larger church to have a sub-congregational “venues” in these neighborhoods. The venue could be a culturally distinct sub-congregation, but would have all of the financial and staff backing of the larger church. The business world understands the importance of an economy of scale, but the church misses it and creates networks of struggling congregations.
A name for this type of church is The Multicultural Alliance Model.