By Justin Horey
Innovation is at the heart of new church planting. Spend any amount of time talking to the leaders of the church planting ministries in the Restoration Movement, and it quickly becomes clear this is a group that prizes newness: new places, new churches, new believers, new ideas, and new strategies.
It’s not easy to say when this attitude began to take hold—perhaps in the 1980s or 1990s. Today new Christian churches are often established by organizations that profess to “do things no one else does.”
Lance Hurley, executive director of Ignite Church Planting in Chicago, recalls how his predecessor, Bob Sloniger, created controversy in the 1980s by recruiting unchurched people to participate in new church launches. (It was a radical idea at the time that has since been widely embraced by church planters across Evangelical groups.) And Tim Cole, executive director of Waypoint Church Partners, remembers fondly how some “maverick” church planters in the 1990s took great risks to reach the lost.
Hurley and Cole know about these things firsthand because before they were church planting executives, they were church planters—doing what needed to be done to start new congregations with one goal: to reach the lost in their communities.
A Spirit of Collaboration
In a lot of professions, a culture of innovation could create competition or even resentment between organizations. But as Phil Claycomb, executive director of Nexus, sees it, there is a growing spirit of collaboration between church planting ministries in the Restoration Movement. In his words, “When one of us rises, we all rise.”
Claycomb said most other Evangelical groups—some of which have centralized, denominational structures—have a spirit of competition between their “church planting networks.” Even though (or perhaps, because) there is no central ministry guiding and governing the work of church planting in the Restoration Movement, there is camaraderie between the organizations.
For most of the 20th century, church planting ministries (many of which called themselves “evangelistic associations”) concentrated on specific geographic areas. But in recent years, those geographic lines are being erased as more organizations choose to focus on particular areas of expertise instead of areas drawn on a map.
Ignite Church Planting, for example, was formerly the Chicago District Evangelizing Association. The Orchard Group, formerly Go Ye Chapel Mission, has expanded beyond its home base in New York City to concentrate on starting churches in urban areas around the world. And Waypoint Church Planters was created in 2015 though the merger of Envision and the Virginia Evangelizing Fellowship (VEF).
Assessment and Planter Care
For many years, church planting organizations inside and outside of the Restoration Movement have invested significant time and resources in choosing and caring for the individuals who lead new churches. Today, nearly everyone in church planting agrees assessment and planter care is essential. Naturally, in the spirit of innovation, Restoration Movement groups approach assessment and planter care in different ways.
Nexus, for example, extends its planter care beyond the traditional first two years, offering services for up to five years. Waypoint goes even farther, providing ongoing support to full-time ministers at all 400 Christian churches in Virginia and North Carolina—both new and established congregations. This unique “two-sided” approach sets Waypoint apart, and Cole said the goal is simple: “To keep churches on track and on mission.” Waypoint offers peer networks called “Fusion” groups (which are organized by affinity, not geography). More than 150 churches in Virginia and North Carolina are currently involved. Waypoint also offers hiring services and even interim preaching.
Stadia expanded its “planter care” services with the introduction of “Bloom,” a ministry that provides inspiration, encouragement, and leadership development for its planters’ spouses. Michael Wilkerson, a Stadia church planter in Memphis, Tennessee, expressed his gratitude for the ministry Bloom provides to his wife, saying, “Bloom really is one of the best things going in Stadia.”
Beyond the Suburbs
In the late 20th century, as church planting gained momentum (and popularity), suburban areas became popular targets for new church work. The logic was simple: when new communities are established, it’s important to start new congregations; city planners set aside space for schools, restaurants, hospitals, and more—but Christian churches are not always part of the “master plan.”
This tendency to plant new churches in new suburban areas produced many thriving churches, but it ignored major population centers also deeply in need of the good news: cities and urban centers. The Orchard Group, which had specialized in church planting in and around New York City for decades, decided to expand into other urban locations. Brent Storms, president of Orchard Group, said his team is focused on “places that have been overlooked, where there is a low percentage of church attendance,” such as Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Pittsburgh.
Lance Hurley reported that Ignite Church Planting is making an effort to reach both urban and suburban Chicago. He said in his home city, there is a diverse population that is “receptive to the gospel.” In his words, “People in Chicago are still open. They like to be part of something new, and they want to know what God says.”
Through a unique partnership with Compassion International, Stadia helps plant churches—primarily in Latin America. Tom Jones said because of these new congregations, “poor communities are literally being transformed.” The Orchard Group has also begun planting churches outside the United States, with congregations established in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Japan.
The 4-14 Window
Of all the innovation and creativity being applied to church planting, Stadia’s vision to “plant churches that intentionally care for children” may be the most unique. Tom Jones explained: “We believe the most effective way to reach people with the gospel is through church planting. We also know that most Christians come to faith between the ages of 4 and 14: what some people call the ‘4-14 Window.’”
Stadia’s goal is to act on those two truths. Greg Nettle, president of Stadia, said, “When we combine new church planting with caring for children, we see exponential kingdom results. We are relentless about this vision. We won’t stop until every child has a church!” Today, Stadia’s approach is unlike any other church planting organization in any denomination.
Of course, innovation, creativity, and even leadership are not ends in themselves; new methods are implemented in order to reach new people. In this area, the Restoration Movement leads as well.
The Orchard Group reports its newest churches (those less than 3 years old) average roughly 300 in attendance. Its 5- to 10-year-old churches average 600, and the congregations it helped establish 10 to 20 years ago now average 1,100 in Sunday attendance.
In Chicagoland, a recent congregation started by Ignite is already nearing 900 in attendance. That church has also embraced Ignite’s vision to reach urban, minority groups by launching a Hispanic “daughter church.”
Stadia points to its success rate as one of its most important results. Nationwide, 90 percent of the churches Stadia has helped plant in the last five years are successfully fulfilling their mission of spiritual and community transformation. Outside of the United States, when Stadia starts churches in some of the poorest regions of Latin America, Jones said 150-200 children in the community get sponsored on “day one.”
With a combination of fresh ideas and measurable results, Restoration Movement ministries have become church-planting leaders.
“Our movement is just the right size,” Tim Cole said. “We are large enough for synergy, but small enough to be nimble.”
Tom Jones added, “Our nondenominational nature gives us the freedom to be fluid as planters”
Phil Claycomb agrees. “Our tribe is uniquely positioned to be effective in church planting,” he said.
Christ followers from many denominations have taken note. As Tom Jones pointed out, “The largest church-planting conference in the world has its roots in the Restoration Movement.” The Exponential Conference began as the National New Church Conference: a small gathering of church planters and church planting leaders from the Restoration Movement.
This month at Exponential East (meeting April 25-28), thousands of people from various denominations will gather in Orlando, Florida, to learn, share, and celebrate the best of what God is doing through new churches around the world. (Exponential West is slated for October 3-6 in Los Angeles.)
Jones was realistic, however, noting “church planting is still very messy.” But today, the work that is being done to establish new Christian churches is influencing similar ministry throughout Evangelical Christianity. And the Exponential Conference is one example of the breadth of that influence.
“Exponential is the fruit of what has been happening in the Restoration Movement for decades,” Jones said.
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and marketing communications specialist based in Southern California.