Twelve Good Ways to Plant a Church

Twelve Good Ways to Plant a Church
By C. Peter Wagner

There are many ways to plant a church, quite probably more than 12. I have selected these 12, however, because they all work. I’m sure that they won’t all work for you, but I am equally sure that one or more of them will. Each church planting endeavor carries its own set of circumstances that will help determine which method is best.

My students often ask me which of the 12 methods I recommend the most highly. But I cannot answer that question in a general way. I could only answer it on a case-by-case basis. That’s why I call them “12 good ways.” I agree with what Rick Warren of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Mission Viejo, California, says: “If you’re getting the job done, I like the way you’re doing it.”

While I list the methods with numbers one through twelve, they fall naturally into two general categories for which I am going to use some technical church growth terminology: modality models and sodality models. I realize that these are strange words to some, but I’m using them because I have not been able to find any nontechnical synonyms with which I am comfortable. Generally, “modality” refers to congregational structures; “sodality” refers to other structures, such as denominational or parachurch agencies, which are not based in the local congregation.

Modality Models

The modality models for church planting all involve one local church giving birth to another. Seven of the 12 methods fall into the modality category.

Using the local church as a base has several built-in advantages for the new church, particularly when the nucleus for the new church is formed by people from the parent congregation itself. For one thing, the nucleus will contain church people with some experienced Christian lay leaders. For another, the nucleus members are usually characterized by a higher than average commitment level. When a pastor challenges members of an existing congregation to move out and start a new church for the glory of God, usually the more committed are the first to respond. A final advantage is that the nucleus members come to the project with a general agreement on philosophy of ministry. Not that the new church should be a clone, but the fundamental assumptions will usually be in place.

The first four methods of planting churches all assume that the parent church will spawn daughter congregations with the specific intent that the offspring will end up as autonomous churches. This is not the only possible out come of modality models, as we will see, but it is characteristic of these first four.

1. Hiving off. Hiving off is the most common way of planting a daughter church. It simply means that the members of a local congregation are challenged to form a nucleus and at a predetermined time, these people will move out under the leadership of a church planter and become the charter members of a new congregation. This usually assumes that the new church will be in the same general geographical area so that the nucleus members will not be expected to make a residential move.

Using the local church as a base has several built-in advantages for the new church, particularly when the nucleus for the new church is formed by people from the parent congregation itself

Frequently the selection of the nucleus members is random. All those who feel the call of God and who are willing to accept the challenge are welcome to apply. At other times it is more feasible to be specific and ask those who live in a certain area to form the nucleus. My friend Kent Tucker started Grace Church, Aurora, Colorado, in that manner. He was invited by South Presbyterian Church of Denver to form a nucleus for a new church, so he began by plotting the residences of church members on a wall map of the Denver area. When he did, he was impressed at the unusually thick concentration of pins in the suburb of Aurora. This helped him decide both whom to recruit for the nucleus and where to locate the church.

Kent Tucker’s nucleus was 60 in size. This is somewhat larger than the average of 43 that showed up in a recent Leadership journal survey. It is considerably smaller, how ever, than some nuclei that have been sent out by Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church of Seoul, Korea. In a pastor’s letter, Cho says: “I have sent three of my associate ministers to other areas to start their own churches. Yet these faithful ministers were not sent out empty-handed. We gave each of them a starting congregation of 5,000 members plus the necessary funds to have a successful ministry in their area.” I once asked Cho how much money he gave them, and he said between $1.5 and $4 million (U.S.) each. He told me that his brother, Cho Young Mook, was one who received $4 million in 1984 and that his church was approaching 100,000 members in 1989. Nine other churches are running between 10,000 and 30,000 members each. I mention this in passing because I think that Cho has set some world records for hiving off.

In some cases the nucleus can be formed around a special interest group that has previously existed in the parent church. A common example these days is a group that prefers a contemporary worship style while the parent church’s philosophy of ministry is more traditional. If God so leads, such a group can become the church planting nucleus and start a new church that can likely reach out and win individuals in the community whom the traditional church was not previously reaching.

2. Colonization. Colonization is a more radical form of hiving off. In colonization the new church is planted in a different geographical area, meaning that the nucleus members will make a move and find new homes, new jobs, and new schools in the target community. I saw this happen right here in Pasadena, California, when back in 1984 four couples left the Covenant Life Church home base for apostolic church planter Larry Tomczak in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and moved to Pasadena to plant the Abundant Life Community Church. My friend Che Ahn came as senior pastor, and they have grown to almost 500.

Colonization and Commitment

The colonization method of church planting presupposes such a high level of Christian commitment to the Great Commission that some are surprised it functions at all. Many existing churches would no more expect their church members to do this than they would expect to receive $4 million from Paul Yonggi Cho. But it does happen, and its frequency has been increasing throughout the decade of the 1980s, particularly among baby boomers.

James Feeney of Abbott Loop Christian Center in Anchorage, Alaska, has written a book on this, Church Planting by the Team Method. Abbott Loop began colonizing in 1967, and by 1987 they had planted 40 existing churches (plus 15 that did not survive). Those churches in turn had planted 17 others. In 1987, 10 of the original 40 churches were surveyed. The 137 people who originally moved out to colonize those 10 churches had grown to 2,068. The last time I was in touch with Jim Feeney he was preparing a team of 15 adults to move with him from Anchorage to Medford, Oregon, where they would be joined by four couples from a church he had previously planted near New York City.

Most of the colonizing churches of which I am aware are charismatic. However the most aggressive of them all may be the noncharismatic Boston Church of Christ pioneered by Kip McKean. I am aware that some of the methods used by the Boston Church of Christ to promote commitment and discipleship have come under criticism, but their track record for planting new churches clearly deserves mention. In the first eight years (1982-1990) through the colonization method they planted new churches or restructured old ones in such places as Chicago, Lon don, New York, Cairo, Toronto, Johannesburg, Paris, Stockholm, Bombay, Kingston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Manila and Tokyo. Many of these churches have in turn planted other churches, totaling 70 churches related to the Boston church. Their cumulative Sunday attendance is over 30,000—not including the 4,500 in Boston.

3. Adoption. Church adoption, like human adoption, means that someone else gives birth but the child becomes part of your family. I first heard of this some years ago at Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, California. It seems that some believers from St. Louis had visited the services in Melodyland and they liked what they saw so much that they felt St. Louis needed a similar ministry. So, on their own initiative they pioneered a work in St. Louis using the Melody philosophy of ministry. Word got back to Melodyland, they established contact with the young church, and offered to help them in every way. A family-type relationship was subsequently formed, and Melodyland functioned as a parent church.

Grace Community Church of Panorama City, California, at one point decided to do their extension ministry through adoption. Pastor John MacArthur recruited seminary Students and brought them on his staff as interns. By the time they had graduated they had fully absorbed the Grace Community Church philosophy of Bible ministry. As the pulpits of independent Bible churches in California and other states became vacant, the interns would candidate. When they received a call, the church was then adopted into Grace Community’s informal family of churches.
Through adoption several of these churches have now been revitalized. I previously mentioned that it was easier to have babies than to raise the dead, but, through adoption, John MacArthur and his interns have been used to raise several churches from the dead

4. Accidental parenthood. Now that birth control is widespread, the timing of many births is planned by the parents. Even so, accidents still happen, and some new babies were not carefully planned. I speak from experience, because of the three girls born to my wife, Doris, and me, only one was planned. But the upshot is that we love them all just the same.

So far the methods of church planting that I have described are all planned. But accidents do happen in churches as well, and sometimes the nucleus for a new church will break off from the parent church for reasons better described as carnal than as spiritual. Donald McGavran and George Hunter say, “Sometimes over a theological shootout, personality conflict, leadership struggle, or disagreement on priorities, a congregation will split. One faction will pull out, start another congregation, and both congregations will prosper more than the one former church did.”

What can we say to this phenomenon? I’m sure that God does not approve of church splits or the causes of them listed by McGavran and Hunter. Nor would I want to go on record as advocating church splitting as a church planting methodology. It is much better to pray and plan and minister in harmony. Nevertheless, when the dust settles, I have to believe that God loves both of the resulting churches and accepts them as part of the bride of Christ. Just as God can be glorified through the healing of a man born blind, He can be glorified through the offspring of accidental church parenthood.

The Parent and the Child

5. The satellite model. The four church planting methods I have described so far: hiving off, colonization, adoption, and accidental parenthood, all result in the new church gaining autonomy from the parent church. The satellite model is different in that by design the new congregations are only semiautonomous. They continue to have an organic relationship with the parent church. Some times they are called annexes or branch churches. In most cases the senior pastor of the mother or central church functions as the senior pastor of each of the satellites.

Worldwide the satellite model is having a very powerful impact for the spread of the gospel. John Vaughan reports his extensive research on the subject in his book The Large Church. Lie says, “Large churches with satellite groups combine the best of two growth strategies. …Although many of these churches are committed to building a large central church, most are just as committed to penetrating and reaching the city through the use of small groups coordinated fully, in most instances, by the parent congregation.”

The second largest church in the world, the Jotabeche Methodist Pentecostal Church of Santiago, Chile, has grown through planting satellites. The central sanctuary, where Pastor Javier Vasquez preaches on Sunday nights, holds only 16,000 and by itself is grossly inadequate for the 350,000 or so members. But throughout the city of Santiago over 40 satellites with their own church buildings and congregations numbering up to several thousands are in full swing. While each one enjoys a certain autonomy, they nevertheless consider themselves part of the Jotabeche Church and under the pastoral leadership of Javier Vasquez.

Satellite churches are flourishing in Chile and Brazil and Nigeria and the Philippines, but several are also becoming prominent in the United States. Perhaps the national leader is Pastor Lee Roberson of the Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A recent report I received stated that the weekly attendance of that church was 9,000: 4,000 in the mother church and 5,000 in 60 satellites called “chapels.”

My friend Randy Pope pioneered a Presbyterian Church of America in Atlanta, which he called Perimeter Church, named after the freeway encircling Atlanta. The church bulletin says, “Perimeter Church is one church with many congregations. All of Perimeter’s congregations come together four times a year for very special worship services called Combined Celebrations.” Randy Pope cares for the Metro Congregation and the satellites are called East Congregation, Intown Congregation and Northwest Congregation.

I like to call these kinds of satellites “scattered satellites” because they are located off the campus of the parent church. It is possible also to have “gathered satellites” in which the semiautonomous satellite congregations actually meet on the same grounds as the parent congregation. Although there are exceptions, most of the gathered satellites turn out to be congregations of different cultural groupings, and they could better be described in the next category of multicongregational churches.

6. Multicongregational churches By definition, multicongregational churches minister to several different ethnic groups. If properly managed, they are very effective in urban areas where many different minority groups live in geographical proximity to each other. Some multicongregational churches simply share facilities with ethnic congregations that maintain their own autonomy, while others go so far as to share the entire church administration equitably.

The best example I have found of the latter is Temple Baptist Church of Los Angeles, pioneered by my friend Jim Conklin. Let me hasten to say that not every pastor is equipped to handle a multicongregational church. It requires one who has a special ability for cross-cultural ministry, which I call the missionary gift. Jim Conklin has the gift. He is a veteran missionary to Thailand and has earned the Doctor of Missiology degree from Fuller Seminary. He knows both theory and practice.

The biblical prototype of a catalytic church planter was the apostle Paul. When Paul went to a new place he did what was necessary to get a church started but he didn’t usually stay there very long.

For years before retiring in 1988, Jim Conklin was the senior pastor of an English-language congregation and coordinating pastor over a Hispanic congregation, a Filipino congregation and a Burmese congregation. The ethnic pastors of those Congregations are members of the staff. A church coordinating council has representatives from each of the congregations. Each congregation contributes to the church a share of operational costs according to their weekly usage of so many square feet of the church buildings, eliminating any possible accusation of paternalism. Each Sunday each congregation holds services in its own language, but once a quarter they all worship together in “The Sounds of Heaven.” Temple Church projects planting other ethnic congregations and bringing them into fellow ship with the others.

7. The multiple campus model. At the beginning of this chapter I affirmed that all 12 of these methods work.

This is true of the multiple campus model, but not as true as the other 11. The concept here is that one local congregation, led by the same staff, with one membership roll and one budget owns and occupies two or more church properties, holding weekly worship services at more than one.

In one sense it could be argued that buying or building another church location for the same church is not church planting at all. On the other hand, multiple campuses have at times begun as the same church but ended up as separate churches. For several years, for example, Scott Memorial Church of San Diego, California, met on three locations: San Diego, El Cajon, and North San Diego. The preaching staff would rotate so that no one would know ahead of time which pastor would preach at which location. And the church grew first under the leadership of Tim La Haye and then under David Jeremiah. Eventually, however, it was deemed wiser to have three churches.

The jury is still out as to whether the multiple campus model is a desirable long range plan for a church. Two of the nation’s largest churches are currently using it. Pastors Paul Walker of Mt. Paran Church of God in Atlanta and Jack Hayford of The Church On The Way in Van Nuys, California, are preaching in two locations on Sunday mornings and reporting excellent results. As I learn of more successful models, I may be able to recommend it more enthusiastically.

Sodality Models

If the focus of the modality model is the local church, the focus of the sodality model is outside of the local church in a separate agency. At this point I am restricting my use of sodality to either a denominational agency or a parachurch organization. I listed seven methods under modality models, and here I will list the other five.

8. The mission team. A very common way of planting new churches is for a church planting agency to recruit, finance, and sponsor a team of workers to plant a new church.

In the first chapter 1 mentioned the PRAXIS program of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board in which they recruit seminary students for a 10-week church planting field seminar. Southern Baptists have also had success in recruiting church planting teams of college students for the summer vacations.

In their excellent book, Creating Communities of the Kingdom, David Shenk and Ervin Stutzman go so far as to argue that “a team is essential for church planting.” They point out that the team in one sense is already a church, that the members are diverse enough to contribute complimentary gifts, and that a special chemistry called synergy occurs, which dramatically increases the efficiency of each individual on the team.

9. The catalytic church planter. God gifts and calls some very special people as catalytic church planters. Their ministry is to go into a new area, develop a nucleus for a new church, and then move on and do it again. The biblical prototype of a catalytic church planter was the apostle Paul, who said, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it” (1 Cor. 3:10, NKJI’). When Paul went to a new place he did what was necessary to get a church started but he didn’t usually stay there very long.

Catalytic church planters are invaluable, especially when working with a denominational church planting agency. One of the most effective catalytic church planters I have met is Harold Cameron, a Southern Baptist who spent many years working with the Illinois State Baptist Association. He is now retired, but during his ministry he started or personally supervised the planting of over 500 new churches. It would usually take him about eight weeks to organize the nucleus to the point where they were ready to call their first pastor.

I once asked Harold how he did it. “Oh,” he said, “I do it through the telephone. I go to a phone booth with three rolls of dimes and if I don’t have a nucleus by the time my money runs out, I consider it a resistant area and move on elsewhere!” He, of course, had his tongue in his cheek as he told me that, but the general principle holds. He saw his role as getting in and getting out as quickly as possible. As I will mention again later, one of the common mistakes in church planting is to spend an excessive amount of time in building the nucleus.

Not that it can or should always be done in eight weeks. For many a four to six month period is more realistic. One friend, Bill Putman, who spent years as a catalytic church planter with the Churches of Christ, planned on a year and a half to develop a strong nucleus before he and his family would move on to do it again.

Founders, Tentmakers, and Other Planters

10. The founding pastor. The founding pastor is sent out by the agency not only to build the nucleus but to pastor the new church for an indefinite period of time. This is perhaps the most commonly used sodality model for starting churches.

Sometimes the founding pastor will sense a lifetime call to the new church. I first became aware of this years ago when my friend Robert Schuller told me that when he came to California in 1955 to plant what is now the Crystal Cathedral, he knew then that God had given him his lifetime ministry. Likewise Schuller’s neighbor, Rick Warren. As Rick was finishing his work in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he prayed, “I’ll go anywhere you send me, Lord, but please allow me to spend my whole life wherever that may be.” I have since heard him say in public that although he is not yet 40, Saddleback Valley Community Church is his last parish.

Some founding pastors also regard themselves as “lead pastors.” The plan is that they will start the church and pastor it at least for a time. Certain lead pastors feel that their principal gift is evangelism, and that in the early years of a new church their ministry can be quite effective. But as the church matures it will need a leader with gifts of pastoring rather than evangelism, so a change is in order. Others may have pastoral gifts, but they frankly recognize that God has equipped them to pastor a small church. If it becomes apparent that the growth potential is there for the church to become a large church, they will voluntarily step aside for another pastor better equipped for large church ministry.

Frequently the founding pastor is bivocational or a tent-maker. This is one of the major ways of cutting the costs of new church development, and I highly recommend it. Most growing denominations make good use of bivocational workers. Southern Baptists, for example, have 10,000 bivocational pastors in the United States. They nurture these workers by giving them special recognition, providing them services they need, and training them in tracks that bypass the traditional seminary system. A full 50 percent of Southern Baptist pastors are not college graduates. This is a key reason why the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the nation.

Keep in mind that bivocational pastors can see their status as either permanent or temporary. The majority of the Southern Baptist bivocational pastors regard themselves as permanent pastors of small, frequently rural, churches. On the other hand, the majority of founding pastors see their bivocational status as only temporary until the new church has a sufficient budget to cover their salary. Most plan to quit their secular job and give full time to the church as soon as they possibly can.

11. The independent church planter. Independent church planters go out on their own to start new churches. They do not serve either a denominational or a parachurch agency. In the strict use of the term, this is not a sociality model except for the fact that these independent church planters constitute themselves as a sort of sociality. Many independent church planters have done well in recent years, but their procedures do not differ enough from others of the 12 methods to merit more than a mention at this point.

12. The apostolic church planter. In recent years a new and very effective model for planting new churches has been developing chiefly within the independent charismatic movement. Many charismatics believe that all the New Testament spiritual gifts, including the gift of apostle, are operative today. Those who are recognized as apostles function with much the same spiritual authority as did the apostle Paul. Sometimes they are called apostles and some times other titles are used, but their role is the same.

Many apostles have been founding pastors of new churches themselves; they work in team ministry, and they use their local church as a base for church planting operations. When the local church is the base, this model combines both modality and sodality characteristics. Usually the church planters emerge from the congregation itself. The apostle confirms their call to full-time ministry, trains them, ordains them, and sends them out to plant a church. The new church is typically not a satellite, but an autonomous church. It has its own legal standing and owns its own property. However, the pastor and the church remain under the ultimate authority of the apostle.

The apostle’s authority, therefore, is not a legal authority but a spiritual authority. Only the Holy Spirit produces and sustains the relationship. As the number of churches under one apostle increases they relate to each other much as they would in a denomination. They typically reject the idea of denominationalism, however, because bureaucratic denominations are seen as legal (not spiritual) organizations. Terms such as “apostolic network” or “fellowship” or “movement” are preferred to “denomination” although their sociological function is similar.

There is some overlap between the apostolic church planter model and the colonization model described above. Four of the leaders of these new apostolic networks, Larry Tomczak of People of Destiny International, Dick Benjamin of Abbott Loop Christian Center, Terry Edwards of Harvest Field World Missions, and Jim Durkin of Gospel Outreach have collaborated in an excellent introduction to this methodology, The Church Planter’s Handbook. They are all advocating colonization as the preferred method. Larry Tomczak’s chapter “Relationship with the Sending Church” is a good place to start for those who wish to understand the biblical basis of this particular philosophy of ministry. He shows “how various churches and leaders can be related relationally and organically, not necessarily legally and organizationally.”

The church planting method you choose will depend on your gifts, sense of God’s leading and relationships with a local church or parachurch agency. Whichever one of these approaches you take, the planning stage continues as you determine what kind of church you are planting—its target audience, location and size.

1. Dean Merrill, “Mothering a New Church,” Leadership (Winter, 1985), p. 100.

2. Paul Yonggi Cho, December 1983 Pastors Letter, p. 1.

3. James H. Feeney, Church Planting by the Team Method (Anchorage, AK Abbott Loop Christian Center, 1988), p. 43.

4. Donald A. McGavran and George Hunter Ill, Church Growth Strategies that Work,* (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1980), p. 115.

5. John N. Vaughan, The Large Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 23.

6. David W. Shenk and Ervin R. Stutzman, Creating Communities of the Kingdom: New Testament Models of Church Planting (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988), p. 44.

7. For more information on bivocational pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention see Luther M. Dorr, The Bivocational Pastor (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1988).

8. Dick Benjamin, Jim Durkin, Terry Edwards, and Larry Tomczak, The Church Planter Lake Tahoe, CA: Christian Equippers Int., 1988), p.105.

Excerpted from ‘Church Planting for a Greater Harvest’ by C Peter Wagner

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”