the future is here
Reading Time: 7 minutes (eleonora.)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! ‘Just one more thing,’ as the man said. Yes, I had one last thing to say about the recent sneak peek at the 2020 performance metrics of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The leaders of this embattled denomination had one and exactly one metric that ran in the black last year, and they made sure their followers felt supergreen about it: new churches. Yes, the SBC ended up with a small net positive in church additions to their denomination. Much of it seems to have come from church plants, meaning brand-new churches. But that number isn’t one to celebrate, as we’ll see today.

the future is here
(eleonora.) the future is here, peeking through the blinds

Christianese 101: Church Plants.

In fundagelical Christianese, church plants are brand-new churches. But they’re a little more than just some bright-eyed guy renting a venue and setting out his shingle. They’re a cutting from a bigger church, in gardening terms.

Often, more established churches send out tendrils from their main mothership to new neighborhoods where they think they’ll find demand for their product (active membership in their group). They send a newbie pastor, typically one who volunteered for the parent church for a while with their youth ministry or something, and often they’ll seed the new church plant with a few established members (and other resources) from the parent church. The established church supports the new church for a certain amount of time, usually three years, after which the church plant is on its own.

You’ll generally hear about church plants from Calvinist fundagelicals. They like to liken these new churches to plants and gardening. They are way, way into this imagery. Acts 29, a Calvinist church-planting group started by lizard king Mark Driscoll, leans hard on it. So does the equally Calvinist Reformed Church of America.

As we might expect, Christians who like gardening imagery with their church plant metaphors also think there’s some tried-and-true way to make church plants succeed — with success meaning independence and self-sufficiency.

As you might have noticed from the links above, they also like to express their preferred surefire processes with flowcharts and diagrams: the perma-blinking left turn signal of Christians who desperately want their beliefs to mesh with reality.

That said, they’re not 100% wrong about some of their ideas. Church plants begin life with years of support and a lot of extra resources. It isn’t shocking to think that such churches are playing the startup game on easy mode.

The Bad News About Church Plants.

Churches are businesses. They’re just usually very ineptly-run businesses. And they get way more taxpayer money and financial perks to help them limp along than secular businesses do.

Even with all that taxpayer support, churches must follow the same rules that any other business must follow. They require customers who want to buy what they offer for sale. Without ongoing and significant patronage and support from their local community, churches die just like any other business would.

And church plants struggle for life just like any other new business would. Almost a decade ago — and shortly before evangelicals really understood that Christianity was fully in decline — Ed Stetzer (then the head of SBC’s subgroup and propaganda producer LifeWay) wrote a paper about church plants’ survival rates. (You can download it here — actually, you won’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter, grr.) It includes a lot of interesting stats about church plants, for those interested in the topic (like me).

In his paper, Stetzer found that the conventional wisdom held that church plants had about an 80% chance of failure within four years (meaning they’d collapse and die before then). But he thinks that with tried-and-true methods, evangelicals can improve those chances dramatically — to about a 32% chance of failure. Even so, most church plants will remain very small, with fewer than 100 congregants. Fast growth past the 200-people mark requires a lot of resources from the mothership and great demand from the community.

Ed Stetzer’s conclusions: Shock of all shocks! A church that begins life with more than 100 people will grow faster and have a better chance of survival than one that starts out with way fewer! Church plants with lots of mothership support survive better! Hiring pastors who are manager material for church plants helps them survive too!

Shocked, yes shocked we all are!

The SBC’s Love Affair With Church Plants.

For years now, the SBC has loved church plants. Though they do require some resources, they’re usually easy to get started. Most large SBC churches probably have plenty of guys around who’d love to be pastors one day, and the SBC as a denomination likes to help support church plants anyway.

In the SBC’s 2020 Annual Report, we find them praising LifeWay on p. 134 for this help:

the LifeWay Leadership team provided free resources to more than 600 new church plants, including access to Ministry Grid, curriculum, website support, online giving, and other LifeWay resources.

That help paid off bigly. On p. 65, we find them talking up the 908 church plants, new affiliates, and campuses that Southern Baptists started in the previous year. Wow, 908! Of course, not all of that will be church plants. It also includes existing, established churches who just joined the denomination to be racists and bigots-for-Jesus with the cool kids. Indeed, on p. 151 we learn that only 552 of those 908 were church plants. But it super-sounds neat to rack ’em all up together, doesn’t it?

We also learn an interesting fact on p. 151:

Churches started since 2010 now account for 11% of all churches in the SBC and they
report 18% of all SBC baptisms.

Hm. Let’s ignore that most of those baptisms are probably just re-baptisms, which are common for Christians joining a new denomination. No wonder the SBC does love its church plants. Those sorts of numbers make their top leaders feel downright gooey.

Really, they’d be fools to ignore guys with urges to start new churches — especially in the Age of Pandemic.

A Heart for Church Plants in 2020.

So now, let’s head back to that sneak peek of the SBC’s 2020 numbers, which we learned in a Baptist Press release. In that release, we learn that the SBC counted 47,592 churches total last year. Well, in 2019 they counted 47,530 churches. So that’s a net addition of sixty-two churches! ZOMG! We also learn that that increase takes into account an interesting number:

Importantly, the number of cooperating Southern Baptist churches grew to 47,592 even with a pandemic raging across the country and the globe. The increase was fueled by 588 new church plants across the United States during 2020, according to stats provided by the North American Mission Board [better and more hilariously known as NAMB].

“Importantly.” LOL, okay Jan. “Importantly.”

So the SBC started up 588 church plants in 2020. But wait, there’s more. I went to NAMB’s site to find out more. Here’s what I found:

One HOPE Fellowship was one of 588 churches Southern Baptists planted in 2020, an increase from the 552 started in 2019. In addition, 143 churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and 126 new church campuses were started. [. . .] In total, 857 new congregations were added to the SBC in 2020.

And out of 857 total new churches and campus groups, they ended up with a net sixty-two new churches.

It is staggering to imagine the revolving door of SBC church counts.

But What Does Church Even Mean Nowadays?

Remember, most churches ended up meeting online for a lot of 2020. The pandemic created a lot more laws and rules around how churches could meet. Sure, some evangelical church leaders showboated around by defying those rules. But a lot of other evangelical churches wisely complied and went online.

I cannot imagine an easier environment in which to start a new church than what the pandemic fostered in the past two years.

I mean, man alive, just imagine what an opportunity aspiring evangelical leaders found in that new normal of online/virtual church meetings. No buildings to rent, no seating to install, no sound system to buy, no power bills for huge spaces, no parking to figure out! All a new church needs in the Age of the Pandemic is an opportunity-exploiting pastor, maybe a small band, and a bit of digital know-how.

Even NAMB seems to know this. Their story about that One HOPE Fellowship talks about them going to virtual meetings in 2020 after a year of meatspace meetings. The church leadership recognized that they absolutely had to maintain strong connections with their neighborhood — their customers. So, they started various pandemic-assistance programs that sound well-received. Very clearly, they’re only performing this charity in hopes of snagging new members for their church, but still, it’s something.

How many of these virtual churches are doing even that much, if NAMB is bragging this hard on this one newbie church? Probably very few, with none outdoing that one.

(Also peep NAMB celebrating the guy who claims TWO-count-em-TWO new converts to his own church for apparently the whole past year. Dude couldn’t sound less “very excited about what God is doing.”)

So, Church Plants Aren’t Actually Much to Brag About.

The SBC has known for years that they’re losing a staggering number of churches each year. Many disaffiliate — especially with the denomination’s drilldown on racism recently. But most probably just close due to lack of business. (Or because their pastors can’t hack the new job requirements.)

Likewise, SBC leaders have known for years that they must start an even-more-staggering number of new churches in order to offset those churches they lose each year. They always want to be growing in the number of churches on the rolls. Anything else means they’re losing, and that can’t possibly be allowed. So if the SBC can’t stop churches from closing or leaving, then they must start new churches to overcome those bad numbers.

That’s why SBC leader Ronnie Floyd’s new initiative, Vision 2025, sets one of its goals as adding 1200 new churches every year for five years. Almost all of those churches are going to be church plants, simply because the SBC can’t find more established churches to join them. Remember that 908 new congregations rah-rah they had in the 2020 Annual Report, where it turned out that 552 of those were church plants? Well, 297 were new affiliations of existing churches.

That was in 2019. In 2020, they only found 143 existing churches willing to sign up with them.

So the SBC is going to need more and more church plants to make up the difference. They don’t even expect most of these plants to survive. No, they just need the church-as-a-whole equivalent of butts in pews (BIPs) to spin a false narrative about winning the Jesus game.

I hope a lot of aspiring pastors in the SBC are willing to be the denomination’s fall guys, because that looks like what they’re gonna be. Hooray Team Jesus, I guess.

NEXT UP: We waltz into Hell on nonexistent feet to taste flames with nonexistent tongues. See you tomorrow. <3

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(Quick note about SBC campus groups: they don’t count as actual churches, according to the calculus the SBC does on the topic. But they count these groups in other ways — like when talking about all the new churches that started last year. “Everyone in the pool!” It’s so dishonest, but I expect nothing else out of the SBC’s leaders by now.)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...