I published the following article in the Sacramento Region Baptist Network Newsletter in 2003. It opened with a quote from an article in Net Results magazine, January 2003, by Lyle Schaller, a noted church consultant. He said:
A highly subjective guess is that planting a new Protestant mission in the U.S. in the early years of the twenty-first century is at least five times as expensive and ten times more difficult than it was in 1953. Compared to 1883, it may be a hundred times more expensive today and fifty times more difficult. In the 1880s new churches were launched to fill a vacuum. Today most are planted in a highly competitive and far more demanding ecclesiastical environment. That explains why fewer than one-half of new churches average more than 150 at worship a decade after their first public worship service is held.
He goes on to conclude that church planting should no longer be ranked in the top 5 priorities for denominations in this country as a vehicle for evangelization and kingdom growth. He believes it should be in the top 6 to 10 priorities. He says, "What was a low-cost, high-return tactic in 1885 has become a high-cost, moderate-success tactic in contemporary urban and suburban America." He goes on to say that the large, successful churches (such as Willow Creek, Saddleback, and Calvary Chapel) should export whatever excellence they have by starting missionary churches, He says declining (dying) congregations are being revitalized by selling their old property, moving somewhere else and try to reach a different clientele than they had before (I call this "recycling church assets").
Then I added these comments:
From my experience in California over the last 30 years, traditional church starts have all but come to an end. The reasons are:
1. The traditional church culture is foreign to Californians and 2. Property and buildings cannot be had.
The large, successful churches are difficult to start because of these reasons:
1. The traditional system won't give the vast amounts of money it takes to start these churches in California,
2. Leadership is rare for the kind of church that reaches Californians.
Let me elaborate. First, local government and communities don't want churches, not so much for religious reasons as for economic reasons. Secondly, the land and the building fees are so large that 95% of the churches can't afford them. In addition, it takes highly specialized and multi-talented people to plant churches in the urban areas of California because the population has such high standards of quality and professionalism. Also, the old preaching and teaching methods do not apply. Communication has to include professional-level drama, technical effects, modern music, and a pastor who is more of the Oprah Winfrey/Bill O'Reilly host than the orator.
Furthermore, Sunday School continues on the way out—not Bible-teaching or training—but the format and organization known as Sunday School. You should be able to figure out why. It's not because Sunday School in itself is bad or because we don't have fond memories of dedicated Sunday School teachers in the past. It's because the social environment no longer supports such a labor-intensive, building and property intensive, limited use intensive, high budget, volunteer-dependent system.
So, what does this mean? It's time for people like you, and me, who now carry the weight of responsibility for the Gospel, to step up and lead. We must learn to extend the Kingdom of God in California.
Lyle Schaller has made a good suggestion. We can partner with successful churches in helping them plant missionary churches in Sacramento. Yet Schaller only sees part of the picture. New forms of the church need to be welcomed into our association: cell churches, transitory churches, cluster churches, and occasional churches. The older churches with property might consider changing into cluster churches where multiple small churches use the property as a headquarters, while the association helps them by doing the back-office work of the accounting and payroll.
We know we will be on a learning journey and the future form of the Body of Christ in Sacramento will emerge as we move in faith. Abram didn't know where he was going when he answered the call to leave Mesopotamia. We know, metaphorically speaking, that we can't stay in this land any longer. It's time to go with God.##
Post Script in 2020: The amount of change was too much for a 150+ year institution to make at the end of the 20th Century. But cheer up, Jesus has overcome the world and the true assembly of Christ-followers will always gather together even if it's under a tree. Remember, this is the Bible's description of the Called-Out-Ones (church):
Acts 2:42 Christian Standard Bible: "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [which is now the New Testament and Old Testament], to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer."
That is to say, they met together regularly to learn the Bible; to support, encourage, and enjoy one another; to memorialize the Last Supper of Jesus and the Disciples by taking the Lord's Supper; by talking to Jesus and the Father as a group. That's what I call pure "church." We need fellowship with Jesus and our brothers and sisters.