By Jennifer Taylor
From multisite campuses to nationwide networks, interest in church planting is at a new high. Restoration Movement leaders have been planting churches and sharing their experiences for decades, but this renewed focus on reproducing churches—plus a commitment to cross-denominational collaboration—has made the National New Church Conference the premier church planting event in the country.
The National New Church Conference (NNCC) first met in 1969 as the “First National Colloquy on New Church Evangelism.” According to John Wasem’s August 2006 article in Christian Standard, 38 people attended this first event held at Great Lakes Bible College in Lansing, Michigan.
In 1975 the conference adopted its current name and continued to grow as initiatives like “Double Vision” focused more attention on church planting.
“Alan Ahlgrim, founding minister of the Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Niwot, Colorado, served as the initial leader of Double Vision and cast a powerful vision for our churches nationwide,” Wasem writes. “As a result, the NNCC grew in size and influence with several hundred ministers, evangelists, professors, students, evangelistic association leaders, and elders attending the highly motivational and practical conferences.”
By 2005, 200 to 300 Christian church leaders enjoyed the annual event—and its ad-hoc leadership team considered next steps.
“While we wrestled with the NNCC’s future, I had already planned to spend a year meeting with church planters and listening to their needs,” says Todd Wilson, who then served as executive pastor at New Life Christian Church, Centreville, Virginia, and is now director of the Church Planting Network, an alliance of organizations dedicated to facilitating an “explosive expansion” of new churches by building planting networks. “I agreed to assume a leadership role for 2006 and take the conference beyond the status quo.”
Wilson spent the next year networking with both Restoration Movement leaders and church planters from other evangelical circles.
“Our movement was already in a leading position in church planting, with larger average plants and higher success rates compared to many other groups,” says Brent Foulke, director of special services for Stadia East and director of the 2009 NNCC. “We decided to proactively market to those networks. As Todd built key relationships, he presented the conference as a unifying event.”
The strategy paid off; the 2006 conference, held at Journey Christian Church, Apopka, Florida, sold out with 900 people.
“2006 got people’s attention,” Wilson says. “Church planting directors from many other groups ‘stuck their toes in the water’ to test the event. They realized the NNCC was a safe place—and an exciting one. The next year they returned with their entire teams.”
In fact, so many registered for 2007 the planning team was forced to reconsider its assumptions about location and programming.
“For years the presidency changed annually and each year’s president hosted the conference at his church building,” Wilson says. “For instance, in 2006 the president was Dan Donaldson; he served as lead pastor at Journey and we held the event there. After 2006 we had to rethink that approach.”
The changes started with codification of a long-term leadership team. Because most of the direction for the conference to that point came from the NewThing Network, Orchard Group, Passion for Planting, and Stadia: New Church Strategies, the new board included two representatives from each organization. The team established the Church Planting Network as the NNCC’s new nonprofit organization and allocated responsibilities for financial and operational management based on each participating organization’s strengths.
The new board decided to keep the conference in Orlando—moving to the larger First Baptist Church—through 2009, and also suggested a three-year term for the president.
“This is unusual in our movement’s conferences, but other groups quite often create events tied to specific personalities,” Wilson says, citing Catalyst’s connection to Andy Stanley and the Willow Creek Leadership Conference headed by Bill Hybels. “To keep growing we needed continuity and the instant branding of a strong leader.”
This took two forms: Dave Ferguson, lead pastor at Community Christian Church, Naperville, Illinois, and cofounder of the NewThing Network, agreed to serve as president for three years, and Wilson extended his own behind-the-scenes role for the same time frame.
Today, the NNCC—or Exponential Conference—reaps the benefits of this consistency.
“Attendance continues to climb each year,” Wilson says. “In fact, we throttled back our advertising budget for 2009 because so many people were doing the job for us. We ask every registrant how they heard about the conference and overwhelmingly they say word of mouth.”
Almost 3,000 people attended the 2008 conference, representing at least 35 different (mostly evangelical) denominations and groups, with Christian church leaders comprising about 25 percent of the total.
Similarly, the speaker lineup features some of the biggest names in church planting and church growth, from Restoration Movement circles (Vince Antonucci, Derek Duncan, Jim Putman) and beyond (Rick Warren, Tim Keller, and Ed Stetzer).
“The momentum builds on itself,” says Brent Storms, managing director of the Orchard Group. “After several successful years we consistently attract a lineup unlike any other conference.”
In fact, the number of interested speakers now exceeds available slots. To use as many as possible, and to multiply marketing opportunities, the team added preconferences in 2006.
“We ask organizations doing something significant to lead a preconference,” Wilson says. “It’s a win for them—we handle logistics and give them the revenue. And it’s a win for us—we now have 12 extra seminars by Purpose Driven, the Acts 29 Network, and other nationally prominent groups. Each preconference speaker’s income is based on attendance, so they promote it, and almost everyone who attends a preconference also registers for Exponential.”
This entrepreneurial insight drives Wilson, and led to his transition out of the year-to-year conference management. Foulke worked as an “apprentice” managing director for 2008 and will serve as director of Exponential in 2009.
He’s already enthusiastically planning next April’s event.
“Most conferences, including ours, have a ‘come and learn from us’ vibe,” Foulke says. “Next year we are intentionally moving toward ‘come and learn with us.’ Our desire is a rapidly multiplying movement of church planting in North America, but none of us has truly experienced that kind of growth. We have a lot to learn from Vietnam, India, Korea, and other places where hundreds of new churches are starting.”
The 2009 conference will feature several of these international church planting movements with video and live speakers from each nation. “After an overseas leader shares, a U.S. leader like Craig Groeschel will share what he just learned and how he’ll apply that in his church,” Wilson adds. “People are accustomed to hearing big-name speakers talk about what they already know; this year we’re taking a risk and asking people to talk about what they have to learn.”
“This humble, open-handed posture will permeate the whole experience,” says Foulke.
While the Exponential team plans this new approach, count on even higher attendance and broader participation in 2009.
“Church planters share a hunger to introduce people to Christ, and that common mission unites us,” Foulke says. “The conference really is a safe place to share ideas without denominational drums being beaten. Our autonomy ideally positions us as a conduit to bring this event, and that kind of collaboration is what our movement is all about.”
The next NNCC will be April 20-23, 2009. Visit www.ExponentialConference.org for registration, podcasts, and more.
Jennifer Taylor is a freelance writer from Nashville, Tennessee and a contributing editor to CHRISTIAN STANDARD. Read her blog at www.christianstandard.com.