By David Dummitt
In the last several decades, Western churches grew big. Very big. Megachurches swelled. The multisite movement allowed churches to grow wide.
Last fall, minister and church planter Matt Chandler created a stir when he announced his plan to release all of his campuses to be autonomous churches. Pastors across the United States are beginning to ask, “What if we are boxing ourselves in? And what is next?”
I believe we are on the cusp of a shift in church-planting methodology, and I’m dreaming of new things. What if we could be more effective in raising and releasing leaders? Can we plant even more churches by approaching church planting the same way we approach building our families? Perhaps when God told us to be fruitful and multiply, it wasn’t just a familial command, but was also meant to be lived in a ministry paradigm.
The most common church-planting models over the last century have a few big pitfalls. Parachute-model church plants are often underfunded and can be risky and isolating for leaders. Multisite models can create heavy ceilings over restless leaders who dream of leading something at the highest levels but cap out under a lead pastor. Only half of autonomous church plants make it to their fifth anniversary.
The Healthy Developmental Process
I foresee a growing model of church planting that I call “Family of Churches.” This method is analogous to raising children. Living things grow. Living things reproduce. But there is a healthy developmental process to maturity. I don’t expect my 12-year-old to be self-sufficient. While he possibly could survive on his own, it would not be in his best interest to release him from under my daily guidance and leadership yet. While he could have a child, doing so at his age would be incredibly detrimental. However, if he is still living at home when he is 40, something is wrong.
As parents, we are charged with the responsibility of nurturing and raising our children well. Eventually we release them to be autonomous while continuing to share common threads that tie us together and bring us all back to the family table. Mature, adult children reproduce themselves, grow the family, and perpetuate the healthy familial development cycle. Grandpa never retires from the family, but his role in the family shifts as he ages and as children attain maturity.
The church is a living thing—a family. Church planting should be treated like raising children. Raising up new leaders should be akin to a mother and father who nurture and lead their children to maturity, with the goal that someday they will thrive as autonomous church leaders themselves.
The Simple Strategy
It works like this: a church leader who is leading himself and his church well raises up a leader who will become a campus pastor. As the new campus grows healthy and strong, the paternal lead pastor releases the mature campus pastor and the campus to be autonomous. But that autonomous church still shares some level of relationship with its parent church as it in turn launches new campuses that will become autonomous churches themselves, thus creating a family tree. This family will share some core DNA (e.g. ethos, name), but would operate with independent leadership.
The “Family of Churches” model could be a healthy prototype for aggressive church growth at an exponential rate. This method nurtures the health of individuals, teams, and congregations while equipping and unleashing them to reach the world through church planting. Additionally, the family church-planting method can solve many of the pitfalls faced by other models of church planting. I previously mentioned that half of church plants survive to their fifth anniversary. By contrast, 80 percent of campuses are still around after five years. A Family of Churches model that provides developmental structure for a new church—campus to church plant—significantly increases that church’s chance of survival.
The Pitfalls of Common Church-Planting Models
A major problem church leaders face using the most common church-planting methods is what I call a ministerial hostage situation. Many aging senior pastors cannot retire well; they cannot step away with confidence their congregation will transition in a healthy way when someone else steps in to lead. This creates a predicament for the congregation, which risks splits and division. The Family of Churches model fosters a natural leadership succession plan that would be conducive to healthy transitions in most situations.
On the other end of the spectrum, younger leaders in churches can start to feel restless and stuck in their own ministerial hostage situation. Leadership ceilings risk stunting their growth and advancement as leaders. They might feel they cannot grow in influence and opportunity unless someone ahead of them quits, retires, or dies. The Family of Churches model provides healthy leadership-development environments for young leaders to be raised up, nurtured, and eventually released to lead autonomously.
Another pitfall of modern church-planting methods has been the inadvertent creation of Christian celebrity. One person is seen as the guy for thousands of people. We adore our celebrities. We idolize them, and sadly, we are sometimes blinded by celebrity and we lose sight of Jesus. When one of our celebrities retires, dies, experiences moral failure, or just plain burns out, it is catastrophic for the church. Congregations break. Those outside the body are given another reason to never step foot in a church. Believers become disillusioned.
By constructing a familial network with multiple leaders all working toward the development, nurture, and eventual release of younger leaders, celebrity is diffused. The focus can be on Jesus and leadership development, with appropriate milestones for new leaders to take the reins.
The Leadership Legacy
The Family of Churches planting model allows us to raise and release church leaders without being threatened by them, while also carrying on more significant legacies than just having our name stamped on websites and ranked in magazine lists. Some other church-planting methods inadvertently set up cultures of competition. Some leaders can become leery of releasing other leaders to plant new churches because it might somehow hurt head counts and bragging rights.
This method creates a different culture that celebrates the successful launch of autonomous leaders. These “children” don’t threaten the “father’s” position, but rather enhance the richness of ministry by expanding the family name, maintaining healthy connections, providing safety nets of support and wisdom, and more. We should be eager for our leaders to pass us. We should be the obnoxiously loud parents cheering as they round third base for home. We should be our “children’s” biggest fans.
If we adjust our vision and values of church planting we will be more in line with Jesus’ prayer for unity, create stronger leadership pipelines to see exponential growth in the global church, raise ceilings for restless leaders, and create healthy succession plans for aging pastors.
David Dummitt is the lead pastor and planter of 2|42 Community Church in Michigan, one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country. He is also on the lead team of NewThing, a catalyst for reproducing churches worldwide.