Planting Cool Churches? Don’t Believe The Hype

I love church planting. I’ve committed much of my life to it. My passion is to see new churches planted that transform lives, serve neighborhoods and impact cities. But over the years I’ve seen a kind of church planting that I worry has the potential of doing as much damage as it does good.

This kind of church planting often begins with the best of intentions. The planter loves Jesus, wants to be his ongoing transformative work in the world, and senses a call to plant a new church.

But somewhere along the way, either because of explicit training, implicit assumptions or a combination of both, the planter decides to employ a rather popular method of planting their church. They are told it is an “effective” way to plant a church. And besides, he/she can cite numerous examples of churches like it around the country.

It all seems to make sense on paper.

However, in my opinion, this is a method that has been tried and found wanting. While it may be effective in gathering a crowd, it seems to largely fail at effectively making disciples. In fact, when you strip the particular strategies down to their core and examine the values that drive them, I worry it is a way of planting churches that may actually run counter to Jesus and his kingdom way, inevitably threatening to undermine the work altogether.

What is this kind of church planting are we talking about?

Here are some of the common characteristics I see. It’s a kind of church pastoring and church planting that focuses on things like:

1. Style over substance

Lots of intentional thought has been given to things like user experience and image while the sacraments and rhythms of discipleship remain largely an afterthought. The planter and their team spend a lot of time promoting their work on social media but little actual time on their knees in prayer. As launch nears, it often means that having things like a nice sound system and engaging worship space are non-negotiable but addressing hard topics head on is up for debate.

2. Emphasis on marketing 

Early on the pastor spends a disproportionate amount of time cultivating the church’s brand. This is often accompanied by an inflated marketing budget to get the church’s name “out there.” Often the unspoken aim here is to present the church plant as cooler or more culturally dialed-in than other established churches in the area. The truth even less likely to be said aloud is that this is typically done in hopes that they can get a fair number of those church people to leave and come their way.

3. A short gestation period

The team rushes into launching public worship services as quickly as possible. Sometimes this means the planter hasn’t been in the community long, limited discipleship has taken place amongst team members, little to no evangelism has happened yet, or a combination of all of the above. The planter wants to plant and harvest on the same day, but any seasoned farmer will tell you healthy, sustainable, real growth doesn’t happen this way.

4. A big launch

This typically involves the church growing from little more than a small group to 100-200+ people overnight. Unlike Pentecost, this isn’t due to a sudden and powerful moving of the Holy Spirit (although sometimes we will still frame it this way). No, this sudden mass of people have showed up because of strategic efforts of the planter and his team to mass market the new church to the surrounding community. And because few true skeptics or unbelievers will respond to religious mass marketing efforts apart from real, meaningful, time-tested relationships, the vast majority of people who show up are already-Christians who have come from other churches.

5. Propping up the pastor as a kind of a localized spiritual celebrity

In a culture of cool, few things are more universal than having a local rock star. And while no sane church or pastor will actually admit to doing this, it ends up happening far too frequently. This section calls for an entirely separate article that I will post soon, but for now let me simply say is dangerous and widespread. Perhaps the most damaging part to the cause of Christ? Much of the church ends up orbiting around the pastors gifts while the rest of the church is never really equipped, empowered or released.

6. Leading people to believe their primary part in God’s mission is helping pull off weekend worship experiences 

I’ve written elsewhere about this in Leaving Fishbowl Christianity Behind, so for now I’ll simply say that this is can be so common amongst those raised in church culture that it can sometimes feel next to impossible to help them see the problem, like trying to help a fish see the water they’ve been swimming in their entire life. This can be true of pastors as well. We become so consumed with pulling off Sundays that we start to think of Jesus’ mission through the lens of weekend worship services, as if that’s primarily (or even exclusively) what He’s up to in the world. Cool, attractional churches are particularly vulnerable to this because of the resources and manpower it takes to pull off the weekend experience.

7. Celebrating numerical growth as the penultimate measure of success

You can hear echoes of this when a full room on Sunday morning is framed as evidence of God’s work, favor or blessing; when it seems attendance achievements and goals are one of the most talked about things from the stage or around the leadership table; when the pastor appears to be buzzing when weekend attendance is up and demoralized when weekend attendance is down; or when major decisions are being made to enable the church to grow the crowd without sufficient work going into how to make disciples of those already present.

 

Now in the spirit of total disclosure, this is a kind of church planting I’m well acquainted with. This is the world in which my personal journey in church planting began. I’ve been through various trainings that equip planters to do this very thing. I’ve watched friends plant churches this way and achieve remarkable “success.” These are the waters I swam in for some time.

I share this simply to point out I’m not above this kind of thinking. I’ve been there. But the older I get and the more I watch the “fruit” of this kind of pastoring and planting churches over the years, the more convinced I am this ship needs to sail.

Its effectiveness is at best, questionable. At worst, not only is it ineffective at the things that matter most, it can be deeply damaging to the cause of Christ. As that damage compounds we find ourselves poised to lose an entire generation.

In other words, if we don’t figure this out, it’s about to get worse. Much worse.

Now some may be thinking at this point:

Aaron, this seems a bit dramatic. I go to such-and-such church. It’s full of young people!

That’s great. I am so glad to hear it. I really am. We need more churches effectively reaching the next generation. But let me ask you an important question:

Where did those young people come from?

Were they previously unchurched? Dechurched? One of the rapidly growing population of “Nones” who claim no religious affiliation?

Were they converted and discipled through your church? Is that how they got there? The answer in far too many cases is no.

In hip, attractional, launch large churches the more honest answer to the question “where did all these people come from” is almost always overwhelmingly “other churches.” 

That’s a problem. In fact, if true, that’s a whole list of problems. Here’s a few that immediately come to mind:

  • It would mean we’re spending enormous amounts of money each year simply shuffling sheep from one church to another
  • It would mean we aren’t reaching nearly as many young people as some of the cooler churches amongst us might lead us to believe
  • It would mean we’ve inadvertently made a business of pandering to people’s sinful nature and consumeristic tendencies and then celebrating it as the work of God
  • It would mean we are raising a generation of church goers that largely have never been discipled and therefore don’t know the first thing about how to make disciples
  • It would mean we’ve shrunk the global and cosmic mission of God to what happens for an hour on Sunday
  • It would mean we continue to add to the broken paradigm of professionalized ministry while at the same time largely overlooking and missing out on the vast majority of our church’s untapped power and giftedness (aka the parts of the body that don’t get paid to operate in their created function)
  • It would mean if we’re not careful, we risk churning out pastors who are more serious about style and culture than living, sacramental Christianity
  • And if we do that, we risk creating and participating in communities that bear the name of Jesus, but look nothing like the kingdom way he taught and modeled for us

I’m sad to say this is precisely what the American Church has been accused of by those raised both within and outsides its walls.

One study conducted by the Barna Group, asked Millennials to describe Christians. Words like lovinggenerous and compassionate hardly made the list. Instead, they described Christians as judgmental (85% ), insensitive to others (70%) and hypocritical (87%).  

Something is broken and it’s not primarily our style.

Another study by Barna, among young adults who don’t go to church, revealed only 8% said they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date.’

The answer is not in trying to make Jesus’ church hipper, cooler or more attractive.

We tried that. Entire businesses, websites, non-profits and consulting firms have been created to help churches up their style game. But the whole thing has proven to be one giant failed experiment.

While new churches are started every year with solid branding, killer production setups and inflated marketing budgets, studies continue to confirm that church attendance amongst young adults has plummeted. Millennials have largely walked away from the church.

So while the church kids bounce from shiny new church to shiny new church, their peers have become increasingly less religious and increasingly more vocal about it.

And if we don’t change, I fear things are about to get worse.

 

While we Millennials have been criticized at times for our “slactivism” – performing acts via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but sacrificing little time or resources to bring about change – this is not true of those coming after us, Generation Z.

Gen Z is a motivated and resourceful group, longing to make a difference in the world and willing to sacrifice to make that happen. According to one survey, 62% of Gen Z’ers desire a job that has social impact and 72% hope to start their own business one day.

Their most sought after profession? Social entrepreneur.

And it seems they aren’t willing to wait until after college to get started. In fact, according to a Harvard Business Review, 70 percent of teens are currently working entrepreneurial jobs.

So why the voice of concern for the church?

Because the next generation appears far more committed to community engagement and social impact than we are.

If this is indeed the case, why on earth then would they view a church that is more concerned with its image than its impact as remotely attractive?

They won’t.

And my fear is just like their Millennial counterparts, they already don’t.

Significant damage has already been done and it’s going to take a lot more than skinny lattes and skinny jeans to recapture their imagination.

In fact, I think it’s quite possible that the harder we try to make Jesus’ church cool the more our churches will find themselves missing the mark of our Great Commission and struggling to find an audience for the message we claim to be so passionate about.

Too often it reeks of inauthenticity and it appears this generation doesn’t have the stomach for it.

This generation is hungry for something deeper.

Something real.

Something beautiful.

A cause worthy of their life.

Sadly, as of now, it appears fewer and fewer believe this can be found in our churches, no matter how cool.

 

Want to keep reading? Here are some recommendations:
- Shane Stacey's excellent 5 part blog series on Generation Z
- The Prodigal Church by Jared C. Wilson
- "Want Millennials Back In The Pews?..." by Rachel Held Evans
- You Lost Me by David Kinnaman

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.