Church Planting in the US

The United States is often described as a land of boundless opportunity, and in many respects this is certainly true. One area of opportunity, however, that seems often to be either denied or simply ignored is the opportunity to plant new churches. Many people believe that America has all the churches it needs and that our entire missionary focus should be overseas. There are many solid reasons for disagreeing with this thinking. Why should we give fresh consideration to the need for planting churches here in theUnited States?

The most important reason is that the fulfillment of the Great Commission mandate given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ requires church planting. When the Lord said that disciples were to be baptized and taught to observe all of His commands, it presupposes the establishment of local churches in order for this to be carried out. The book of Acts clearly records that the apostles understood this (Acts2:41-47;11:19-26;14:21-23). Paul’s description of his ministry at Corinth makes it clear that he viewed himself as a church planter (1 Cor 3:5-17). Church planting is the true target of the Great Commission, so every church that is committed to the commission must be committed to church planting.

The Apostle Paul makes two statements to the Roman believers that help us understand how he viewed the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In describing his own ministry, he says that “I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation” (Rom15:20). Paul viewed himself as a pioneer church planter; that is, he went into areas where the gospel had not been preached, and he laid the foundation by planting the local church (cf. 1 Cor3:10“like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it”). From the record in Acts, we see that Paul normally focused on significant city centers in order to establish a base from which the Word would spread to the surrounding regions (cf. 1 Thes 1:8).

The second statement by Paul that opens a window into his understanding of the task is found in Romans 15:23, “but now, with no further place for me in these regions.” The regions to which he refers are Macedonia and Achaia (v. 26). How could Paul say there was no more place for him there? Had everyone in those regions trusted Christ? No. Had everyone even heard the gospel? Not likely. What Paul meant was that his work of laying foundations was done; it was now time for the churches that had been planted to finish the task in that region. The churches which had been planted by Paul should now become churches that plant churches. This is exactly what we should expect since the Great Commission includes the words, “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” In other words, the Great Commission has a built-in reproduction principle—those who become disciples are obligated to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them to obey Jesus Christ.

How does this apply to church planting in the United States? It reminds us that having a foundation laid does not mean the job is done. It is certainly true that the foundation has been laid in the U.S. God has blessed us richly with solid, Bible-believing local churches. But in every region of our country there are still communities (and their size and number are growing) that do not have a church like that. It is the responsibility of the existing churches to establish churches that can expand the work of the Great Commission into those communities.

The need is greater than we might imagine. The rate of population growth in our country has far exceeded the growth in churches. In 1900, there were 27 churches for every 10,000 Americans; by 1996, that number had dropped to 11 churches per 10,000. Over the course of the last century, the American population grew by 300 percent while the number of churches grew by only 50 percent—and that includes all churches, not just those that actually believe the gospel of Jesus Christ! The fact is that most of the over 350,000 churches in the U.S. are either doctrinally unsound or dying—some estimate that 3,500-4,000 churches per year cease to exist. Untold numbers beside these are barely hanging on to life and are of little help in fulfilling the Great Commission.

Given the amount of people in this country who do not know the Lord Jesus Christ, one can easily argue that the U.S. is still a large mission field! Not only is this true because of population growth, but because of the population shifts that are taking place in our nation. These shifts are happening within communities (expanding suburban and exurban areas) as well as regions (the South and Southwest). As these new areas grow, they provide incredible opportunities to plant solid, new churches. As the population shifted toward the suburbs it took churches with it, leaving large urban areas without solid, Gospel-centered churches. In reality, almost everywhere you look reveals a field which is ready for harvest.

 Some folks worry that focusing on church planting in the U.S. will distract from overseas missions, but this doesn’t make sense. The fact is that we don’t really have a choice between these two options; we are obligated to do both. And successful church planting here in the States provides a larger base of sending churches for missionaries to the fields of the world. In fact, given the support struggles that many missionaries face, perhaps we should recognize the long term importance of planting churches that will be missionary minded. From my perspective, it is less selfish to plant churches in America than it is to pride ourselves about a well-lit missionary board that is conveniently dark in the area right around our church. I say conveniently because that darkness keeps us from having to give up any members and significantly less money to advance the GC. It costs a lot more to start a new church with 10 families than it does to take on a missionary for a few hundred dollars (if that).

I serve a church located in the Metro Detroit area of Michigan, so my greatest burden for church planting in the US starts right here. There are over 5 million people that live in this region and that means there is a lot of room for new, healthy churches to be planted. The city of Detroit alone represents a field with almost 1 million people and an enormous need for solid Gospel-preaching churches. Here at IC, we’re praying for God to bring together a fellowship of pastors and churches which are committed to planting more churches in our region and within the city. And we’re praying for men whose hearts burn for the glory of God in the gospel to come serve as planters and partners with planters. May God be pleased to do it for His name’s sake!

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