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This article was written by Al Mulder, director of new church development, Christian Reformed Home Missions

Enclosed is an article entitled Unfulfilled Expectations of Church Planting which is scheduled to appear in the November, 1996 issue of Calvin Theological Journal. The article was written by the Rev. Dave Snapper, missionary pastor of the Anchor of Hope Church in Silverdale, WA. The reflections that follow are provided in anticipation of questions raised both by this CTJ article and by David Snapper's doctoral dissertation of which the enclosed article is a summary.

I begin by expressing appreciation to David Snapper for his sacrificial commitment to new-church development, particularly as expressed in his ministry with Anchor of Hope from 1984 to the present. Starting a new-church is a venture of faith, and he has walked the walk. I also thank him for prompting us by means of these Notes and Comments for the Minister to reflect and dialogue regarding the challenges and blessings, the problems and promises of new-church development (NCD) in the CRC.

David Snapper informs our dialogue by documenting environmental considerations such as congregational size in relation to the density of CRC population (section II, F, pp. 12-15). He also challenges us regarding our less than stellar record in receiving new members through evangelism. This is true of CRC churches in general and of the 95 subject congregations of his study - congregations organized between the years of 1970 and 1990.

Unfortunately starting with a negative premise is less than helpful ("The research underlying this report rests on the premise that Church Growth principles, as proclaimed by specialists, have been either incorrect or wrongly applied to CRC NCDs," p. 6), and the manner in which he refers to church growth proponents is less than gracious (for example, "Carl F. George . . . sounding like a circus barker, proclaimed a patented elixir for church growth...," p. 3).

On various points Dave Snapper represented Home Missions in ways that Home Missions does not own. For example, in the opening section, and directly in the face of a summary statement regarding five measures of church effectiveness, David Snapper declares that Home Missions has in fact made numerical growth "the sine qua non of NCD success (italics added, p. 1)." He then uses success and failure terminology throughout the paper in a way that calcifies a wrong impression.1 Another example is his exaggeration of the '200 barrier' issue to something far beyond what Home Missions said or intended (p. 2). The CRHM reference to the '200 barrier' appears in the form of a note in the 4/92 edition of CRHM Guidelines for NCD. The intent of the note was to highlight the relationship between numerical size and organizational viability, based on the assumption that most congregations prefer a future in which they grow to the size that can afford a full-time, seminary-trained pastor.2 A third example is David Snapper's exegesis of a Peter Wagner quip about having babies versus raising the dead, and my intentions in quoting it (p. 2).3 My understanding of Wagner's statement, and my point in quoting it, was simply that congregational growth through evangelism is more likely to occur through the starting of new churches than through the renewal of established ones. Fourth, it also is important to clarify that NCD ministry, while expensive, represents about 60% of the total CRHM budget.

One of the dilemmas in a dialogue such as this is that it's difficult to talk about numbers. The very things that church growth proponents appear to espouse, and that David Snapper is constrained to criticize, and that Home Missions attempts to reframe rightly, are the very things we all look at just the same! How many members do you/we have? How many people attend your/our worship services? How many people came to faith in Christ through your/our church last year. The answers do not tell all, and wrong conclusions often are drawn, but the church does count.

It also appears that on various key points David Snapper's research does not support his conclusions. This may be explained in part by the fact that his project is more a study of new-church size than of new-church development. The latter would require analysis of numerous other relevant factors, such as religious demographics of the target community, composition of the core group, characteristics of the leadership, conception and implementation of the ministry plan, additional analysis of members received through evangelism, and the like. We would have been helped particularly by more analysis of growth through evangelism of the subject congregations, both in relation to environmental factors and various other factors noted. At any rate, let me give two examples of conclusions not necessarily supported by the research.

  1. The subject congregations were identified on the basis of having organized from 1970 through 1990, meaning they likely were started between 1965 and 1985. Most new and emerging churches with whom CRHM now is in funding partnership were started after 1985. What may be true of the subject congregations is not necessarily true of new churches started today.
  2. David Snapper observed that "clearly, for most (subject) congregations, higher evangelism rates are not associated with successful (numerical) growth" (p. 11). However, the comparison is based on statistics for the period of 1987 to 1993, at which time the subject congregations on average were 10 or more years old. I also would point out that although the size of a congregation is not a reliable indicator either of growth through evangelism or of overall ministry effectiveness, the age of the congregation frequently is. To give a current example, of the 3,170 new members received through evangelism as reported in the 1996 Yearbook, 1,238 were received through new and emerging churches in partnership with CRHM. In comparison to an overall ratio of 92:1 for members in comparison to new members received through evangelism on a ratio of 150:1 for established churches only, the ratio for new churches is 7:1. Yes, God does this through the prayers and parenting and financial support of all of us, but new-church development is his special instrument!

I concur fully with David Snapper's summary statements. The first is that "It is only rarely that a CRC NCD can be established successfully (sic) without the nurture of a nearby CRC community" (p. 21). This is an important insight that Home Missions has endorsed in principle and in practice for a number of years now. In 1986 CRHM declared its preference for starting new churches in proximity to other CRC churches or, if at some distance, with a view to starting a cluster of churches. In 1993 CRHM decided that all new church starts in the future would be by way of grant funding only (versus direct sponsorship), and in partnership with a local parent church or other local new-church sponsor. Today a key CRHM strategy is to help churches to parent new churches, with the level of parental involvement ranging from foster parenting to adoptive or natural parenting.

His second and final concluding statement, is that "wherever we may plant a new church its survival and growth remains uniquely a work of God's sovereign grace" (p. 21). Amen and amen! New-church development is a difficult and 'risky' undertaking, and the study and application of church growth principles - even rightly understood - are no guarantee of evangelistic response or overall church effectiveness. The fact is, the best- laid plans of talented and godly men and women often turn out quite differently than envisioned. Of 20 new church starts in a 12 month period during 1990-1991, 20% concluded prematurely, 50% now report 50 to 100 attenders, 20% report from 100 and 200, and 10% report more than 200 in attendance. Given the "unique working of God's sovereign grace" in each new congregation, we - Home Missions, David Snapper, and all the rest of us - need to do a better job at celebrating with each new church whatever fruitfulness God provides, whether "one hundred or sixty or thirty times what was sown"(Matthew 13:8, 23).

For me the bottom line is that church planting continues to be a primary means by which Christianity expands around the world. The size and shape of new churches may differ radically from one time and place to another, and leadership needs of congregations started in the 21st century may differ radically from those started in the 20th century. Yet we can expect church planting to continue to be a primary means by which 'unreached' people in North America will come into fellowship with Christ and his Church. And whenever and wherever God in his sovereign grace enables new churches among us to survive and thrive, we also can expect that many of the dynamics identified with church growth thinking will be part of the means God uses to release his sovereign grace for the salvation of many.

Read Dave Snapper's response.

FootnotesEdit

  1. Five Measures of Church Effectiveness is an editorial of mine that appeared in Net Results magazine in 9/93. In 4/95 these five measures were reformulated and incorporated into NCD guidelines as follows: "The effectiveness of new and emerging churches is evaluated in relation to wholistic growth and development, including: (1) numerical and spiritual growth, (2) financial stewardship, (3) organizational development, and (4) outreach at home and abroad to people in physical and spiritual need" (Guidelines for NCD, document B.40). 
  1. The 4/92 edition of the Guidelines for NCD contained the statement that "All new churches shall expect and program themselves to become self-governing, self-supporting and self-reproducing congregations within the CRCNA." This was accompanied by the note regarding New Churches and the 200 Barrier, in which it was stated that "A desired outcome in the overall CRHM vision for NCD ministry is that many new churches will break the 200 barrier as a result of effectively seeking the lost and discipling the found . . . all for God's glory." This note was deleted from the guidelines a couple of years ago for editorial reasons.
  1. This quotation appeared in another editorial I submitted to Net Results magazine, and which appears in the Guidelines for NCD (document B.12). In response to pastor Snapper's sensibility on this the Wagner quip has been deleted from the 1996-97 edition of the Guidelines binder. 

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