If you pay attention to ministry conversations on the internet, there's a good chance you've heard the term "replanting." In the last couple of years, this idea has really gained traction, and I think with good reason. Today, you can find podcasts, books, and a growing pile of online articles that take up the task of church replanting.
Fact is, the replanting conversation is a needed one that rises out of the real world situation concerning churches across North America. It's impossible to get a definite figure on the total number of evangelical churches in the United States, but it is widely agreed upon that the majority of these churches are not growing in size. In fact, depending on where you turn for your research, somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of local churches are either plateaued or declining in size. In other words, the average church footprint in its community is most likely getting smaller, not larger.
I'll be the first to suggest the size of a church is not the measure of its health or spiritual vitality. However, the number of congregations in rapid decline is an indicator of a bigger trend developing in North America. I believe we are sitting at one of those generational seams where we will see a huge amount of congregational turn over in the next decade or two.
Take for instance my own denomination—the Southern Baptist Convention. We are currently planting somewhere over 1000 churches per year (depending again on who you ask), but all recent measures seem to suggest we're also closing just under a thousand. We are currently closing slightly less than we are starting. Unfortunately, those numbers are worse for a number of other denominations and networks, which are closing more than they are starting. What is more, I think we are on the front edge of that wave and will only see the number of churches in crisis get higher, at least for the next decade.
While those numbers paint a gloomy portrait concerning North American missions, replanting is perhaps the bright spot in the conversation. Replanting, simply put, is the idea that God may not be done with all of these churches.
Replanting vs. Revitalization: Is there a difference?
Revitalization, as a term in local church ministry, has been around for a while, and most pastors have at least heard of it. In short, revitalization is the process (usually slow and methodical) of bringing an unhealthy church back toward spiritual vitality. Churches, like any other organism, have a life cycle. We know that churches are born, grow, live, and eventually die. Of course, our hope is that a church's life cycle is many generations long.
Think of revitalization as the process of nursing a church back toward health. Often, revitalization occurs through the steady leadership of pastors and key leaders in a congregation. These leaders re-evaluate their ministry and context in order to make the necessary adjustments to return the church to its biblical mission.
Replanting aims at the same goal: taking a dying church and bringing it back to life. However, this process differs in some significant ways from that of revitalization. A replanting process admits that a church's situation is severe enough that traditional measure of revitalization may not be the best method of restoring vitality. In fact, the ideal candidate for replanting is often that congregation that realizes it has approached (or passed) its end of life.
In these instances, replanting uses the remaining footprint, existing congregation, and the legacy of the original church to birth a new church start in its place. Replanting allows for more drastic changes and provides those churches in the most dire circumstances with hope for the gospel legacy of their congregation to continue through the ministry of an essentially new church.
Obviously, replanting and revitalization share a lot of common ground, and the very brief descriptions above do neither process justice. Both are processes designed to help lead a congregation back toward spiritual and missional health. However, the paths toward that health differ. Both are necessary as congregations attempt to assess their situation and determine how best to meet the needs of a transitioning neighborhood around them.
Consider Revitalization or Replanting
Just a few years ago, the thought of churches volunteering to be replanted would have seemed an unlikely prospect. It is a big sacrifice for a church to step into this kind of process. It almost always means drastic change for the congregation, its purpose, and even its identity. However, I am hopeful that this attitude is changing.
In our own association, I am seeing the fruits of a replanting and a growing openness by congregations to being replanted. Far from having to convince churches that they may need to be replanted, in Houston, we are having churches contact us, asking if this might be an option for them. I truly believe that God is not done with many of these churches and that new, vibrant Great Commission ministry can continue for generations more in the very footprints left by the legacy of these congregations.
If you are a pastor or church leader anxious about the future of your congregation and its vitality, I would encourage you to consider replanting as a potential option for your congregation. I've been encouraged by the congregations that have approached me this year, and as more churches begin this process, I believe other churches are seeing the potential for new life.
To that end, here are two initial resources that provide a great first touch for church leaders considering a replanting process. For the pastor, I would suggest a book by Mark Clifton called Reclaiming Glory: Creating a Gospel Legacy throughout North America. Clifton's book is an excellent first read for any pastor but especially those considering some kind of revitalization or replanting process.
Another tremendous resource for church leadership teams, deacon boards, or other groups of key leaders is God's Not Done with Your Church: Finding Hope and New Life through Replanting by Mark Hallock. Hallock's book is a quick read, designed to help church members see past their current horizon and envision a potential future of renewed health.
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.