Are we planting churches or worship services?

Are you planting a church or a worship service?

Some of you may be offended that I even asked that question. Odds are, you will see and agree with the dilemma I propose in this article. Others may not understand the distinction I just made, and this is for their benefit. Too often, I watch young planters caught under the weight of this, and I hope to provide a different perspective.

Methods matter.

If your focus while planting is solely on providing a Sunday morning gathering, then you will get what you plant. If the weight of your church planting strategy is developing an excellent worship experience, then you will most likely wind up with a crowd of people who are just looking for a weekly worship experience.

Enter the launch conversation. Today, there is a lot of talk about a church plant’s “launch.” Many agencies even require a church to have an official launch date. This is, of course, the day that the plant goes public. A core team may have been meeting for a while, but in the minds of some, it is not a church until it launches. In this paradigm, the lead-up strategy is really about doing the things that make the launch successful.

I am by no means suggesting that a launch is always a bad idea. Furthermore, I am not insinuating any church plant that has a launch strategy is only interested in starting a weekly worship event. I am, however, suggesting that it is not the only way to start a church. And I am insinuating that it is easy to lose focus on church formation in an overweighted emphasis on the weekly event.

We need to break the traditional mold in North American church planting that claims the only way to start a successful church is reproducing the same kind of churches we have had in the past, namely event-centric assemblies tied to a specific location. This mold pushes us toward having a space before we have people. In urban settings that is very expensive and requires a funding model that expects business start-up levels of income. It also requires a church to have a mature worship service from day one. In other words, a large launch designed to attract people requires a good worship band, the right kind of tech and sound equipment, and the kind of space people want to visit. This model pressures a church to choose their stage leadership in the beginning based more on talent than on holiness and character. It requires spending a lot of up-front money on aesthetics to make the worship environment appealing.

Do not mishear me. This may still be a good way to plant in some places. In fact, it may be the best way to plant in order to reach some groups of people. It can have its problems, though. Truth is, no one church can reach a city, and no one method has a hegemony on healthy planting. We need to broaden the horizon and realize that we want to plant churches not worship services.

A worship service is not a church.

It is also not the measurement of success for a church plant. I have worked with young church planters for a number of years now, and I have sat through a lot of meetings with denominational agencies, conventions, and sending churches doing assessment and planning strategy. It is common for these conversations to revolve around establishing a timeline until launch, questioning the planter on whether they have sent out their mass mailers, and focusing on the details of finding that ideal space and worship team. I do not want to minimize any of these details. They do matter, but they are not the meat of church planting. A worship service is not a church. If the weekly service is the high water mark for the vitality of your church, then you are measuring the wrong things.

I have also talked with pastors in cities about the regular trickle of mass mailers they receive advertising that new church plant launch in their area, only for that church to never make it off the ground. One after another, big plans are advertised and church plants are shut down when the payout never comes. Imagine how this steady trickle of mass mailers affects the unchurched residents in that neighborhood. Do not assume your mailer is the first or only one that people receive. 

There are good reasons for an emphasis on the weekly event here in North America. First off, this has been the most visible piece of church practice in a Western context for a very long time. Most Westerners, even unchurched ones, think of the weekly Sunday gathering when they think of church. This causes churches and agencies to narrowly think the way to start another church is by starting another event. And, it is naturally what unchurched people recognize as a church. In fact, some may feel you are asking them to be part of a cult if you tell them you get a small group of people together in your home to worship the Lord. That sounds creepy to some. However, that stool spins in both directions. Western unbelievers often have many negative stereotypes associated with that Sunday worship gathering.

Another reason is the sheer numbers necessary to establish and maintain our traditional style of church in North America. Churches need a certain number of people providing offerings in order to keep the lights on, pay a pastor, and rent or maintain space. Thus, church planting often turns into scraping for a congregation to make the whole thing sustainable. Ironically, this reasoning is very circular. All of these expenses are actually produced by the method used to attract the people to pay for the expenses. I have heard church planting strategists run numbers on the amount of income necessary to support the average plant and the amount of congregation needed to sustain this. Of course, this whole paradigm assumes a particular style of church that requires these expenses, and the number one expense (at least in the beginning) is almost always that large weekly event and the space and equipment necessary to hold it.

Unfortunately, this often creates an overemphasis on Sunday gathering as the method of growing a church into existence. It is easy to fall into the trap of spending the lion share of energy, time, and money on perfecting a Sunday service and seeing who shows up. The search for a cool space, the renting or purchasing of good sound equipment, the enlisting of a worship band, and the cost of advertising with mass mailers and other means adds up. In urban settings, where we arguably need the greatest push for church planting, this results in exorbitant financial needs.

What is more, a purely attractional model of church planting will attract people who are looking for a church. That may sound like a good thing, but the kind of people looking for a church are usually already Christians. Of course, lost people do sometimes look for churches, but the majority of the time an overemphasis on attractional methods grows a church through shuffling sheep. Christians who are moving into the city may need a church and consider your mass mailer. Other Christians who are disgruntled with their church and looking for something new may notice that flapping flag you put out in front of the school you use on Sunday mornings.

This may actually grow a church faster than other means. A big launch service with a polished worship band accompanied by well-placed advertising may fill the room. And this will certainly help meet the sustainability needs if these people become regulars. There is something in this, though, that feels like it may compromise the mission in the name of church stability. Perhaps the underlying assumption is that a new church, even if it was grown by attracting a bunch of Christians from other places, is better than no church at all in this neighborhood. At least now there is a church here that a lost person could come to if they wanted, right? But, if we are honest, we need to ask if a church birthed simply from transfer growth has accomplished the right mission. It may be self-sustaining, but did it make any disciples?

People who are far from God are much less likely to be convinced by a bumper sticker. What is more, in today’s cities, many of the people we desperately need to reach are from radically different worldviews. When a person with a Buddhist background is hurting or troubled, they will most likely turn back to Buddhism. If a nominal Muslim has a spiritual crisis, they will most likely turn back to the mosque. Very rarely will a church flag in front of a middle school be the means of attracting this person to Christ. Could it happen? Sure. Should we build a strategy on it. Nope.

Instead, we need to balance attractional methods with methods that engage the lostness we say we want to reach in the first place. In some contexts, this may mean a focus on building small groups, centered around evangelistic Bible study that periodically gather together for a large worship time.

But worship services do matter.

I am not saying corporate worship does not matter. A church can be a church without ever having a “launch,” but it cannot be a church without getting together for worship, fellowship, and mission. Assembly is required. Perhaps a church in an urban setting, or one working with a non-Western culture, would look much more organic, weighting the majority of its fellowship and mission in to smaller groups. Nevertheless, this group should still make assembly for worship, fellowship, and mission a priority. This may only take place monthly because of space or financial constraints, while the smaller groups meet much more regularly.

Corporate worship matters, but it does not have to look like it has in the past. We need to balance out the events of planting with other, more vital, components that ensure a depth of community and mission. Plant a worship service, and that may be all you get. Plant a church, and it will have this and so much more.

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