Multiplying Short Life-cycle Churches

Some time ago, I spoke with a hurting former church planter. The church he led died a couple of years ago. He was feeling bad about the death of the church he loved. Where he saw failure, I saw a church with a shortened lifespan. The church was a success while it lasted. Planting churches requires flexible thinking–sometimes we get something different than we expect.

Military Churches Are Prone to Short Life-cycles

Exploring the conversation further, he revealed that the focus of the church had been military families from Pearl Harbor and another base in Hawaii. This healthy church collapsed when a normal rotation of families pulled most of the people out of the state. The rotation was unusual in that it took so many people from a single church—these people were from various branches of service.

This was an unusual, and unavoidable, coincidence. However, it demoralized this pastor. He has a career outside of the church so his family came through intact, but he was defeated. After discussing the good that happened during the four years the church existed, he came to see victory amidst the ashes. When I asked if he would plant again, he brightened up and said, “I’ll consider it.”

We ended up talking about life-cycles of churches. Just like the church at Antioch, or the churches in Revelation, most churches have an expiration date. For some it is hundreds of years from their founding. Others have a shorter shelf life, but that doesn’t make them a failure. The good they do will last through eternity.

One of our early church plants in Okinawa has experienced birth, death and re-birth several times. The pastor, John Bacigalupo, a Marine who retired at age 42, simply stuck out the troop rotations which shrunk the church he pastors (this thing happens more often in Okinawa than Hawaii). Hope Chapel Okinawa has grown to 150 people then shrunk to near zero on several occasions over its three-decade history. They’ve also planted a half-dozen churches in Okinawa, The Philippines and the U.S. mainland—all planted by servicemen retiring on those rotations.

We would do well to re-think our ideas of success. Longevity counts for something, but not for everything.

A Gang Centered Church Plant

My friend “Rac” Racoma sometimes laments that the church he planted only existed for around eight years. He’s mistaken about that for two reasons: A. He planted three churches, not one. B. The kids he worked with are going on in the Lord.

Rac and his wife, Veronica, visited relatives in a tough neighborhood on Oahu when she noticed how well he hit it off with a few young gang members. She encouraged him to plant a church among them. A small-business owner, Rac often toyed with the idea of planting a church. He had pastoral experience leading home-groups in our congregation and he had sat through a few courses at a local Bible college. He soon launched “Hope Chapel Kalihi” in a carport. The initial members were also members of a local gang.

Most of those kids accepted Christ. Some married their girlfriends. High school dropouts got diplomas via a GED test (and a decent job for their effort). Many moved to the mainland where homes cost less and jobs pay more. Others moved on to join “adult” churches.

Rac started over with another gang. These kids had seen what happened with the first group and wanted some of it for themselves. While the church continued to operate, this was actually a second congregation. The group maxed out at around 80 people.

The third church plant was an extension of the second after that congregation grew up and moved away. This time the members were “straight kids.” When that group eventually moved on the church(es) came to an end. Rac and Veronica were somewhat distraught, but he commented that he would no longer need to haul his five-decade old body around a basketball court with 17-year-olds. Unlike the military pastor, the Racomas are sure of the long-term good that came of their short-term efforts. They understand the life-cycle of a church varies according to the needs of the community rather than the needs of the pastor. By the way, this morning Rac emailed from Kenya to describe his success, over the weekend, at training wannabe church planters there. He taught from his experience along with scripture. Hope Chapel Kalihi came to an end, but its ripples continue to widen…


It is worth noting that when Hope Chapel Kalihi was a gang-related church they met physical violence. On four occasions, rival gangs attacked them. This involved broken windshields, lots of blood and one hospitalization. Neighbors demanded that the church move (or quit meeting) because of the violence. Even the “straight church” got assaulted. The upside of this is that one bout resulted in some of the attackers coming to Jesus after a community peacemaking endeavor.

The military church on Oahu was a mid-sized congregation whose termination demoralized the pastor. The one in Okinawa grows and shrinks while the pastor simply perseveres. The gang church was really three separate micro-churches. It’s pastors accepted the end of their journey. Each example displays a short life-cycle that is foreign to standard church-growth thinking. However, each church was/is a valid expression of the body of Christ. Each sowed seed that will grow into eternity.

The three pastors came into church planting via a local church with vision to multiply, and each had a career apart from the church. Not even “bi-vocational” in the normal sense of the word, two of these men planted and served the church while earning a living in their chosen secular career. My point being that pastors who do not depend on a church for income can reach pockets of society overlooked by “vocational pastors.”

If you’ve read this far, you probably have thoughts of planting a church or multiplying yours. I urge you to consider raising leaders who possess these qualifications: A. They have been discipled into ministry. B. They are veterans in pastoral ministry within your congregation, or some other. C. They have a career that will allow them to plant a church free from worries about money. If we think outside the lines of professional ministry and a middle-class audience we can reach into communities often overlooked by church as we know it. Besides, some short life-cycle churches grow into more than you expected…

So, What Do You Think? 

Please use the comment box below to share your experience with others, or agree/disagree with what I wrote…





15 thoughts on “Multiplying Short Life-cycle Churches”

  1. Great perspective, and one that I share. Several years ago we planted a very unique church on the same campus as our main/mother/headquarters church. This church was thematic–and was our first ‘designer-church.’ Expenses were very low because we used the existing facilities and existing staff. This church was geared to meet the needs and fit the lifestyle (as best we could) of the gas drilling & fracking industry. We called it ‘Pipeline Church.’ (We learned that there is another ‘Pipeline Church’ that is also thematic, but it was in California and based on the surfer culture). We used an industrial motif and logo and even used hardhats for offering plates. Although we are in the Northeast, in New York state, the gas drillers were mostly from the South. That meant our music was going to have a bit of twang in it. They came into our area in droves! We ramped up and began services. Families and individuals began to come and they were excited that we took their weekly schedule into account. We did more than take it into account–we designed everything around them. The future looked pretty bright! The people were excited and felt pretty special. We got some flack from people who were environmentally opposed to fracking and they thought we were being irresponsible for creating a church to cater to that industry. We just explained that we were not going to take a political position on the merits or lack of them concerning the fracking industry, but they were people, and people need Jesus. There was a buzz around our community because no one had heard of such an approach. I believe I got the idea from the Cowboy Church concept. After less than a year of services, our governor suddenly clamped a moratorium on fracking. Little by little the available jobs and opportunities dried up and one by one they all went somewhere else. A year after starting we held our last service. It was sad, but beyond our control. Pipeline Church was a friendly, welcoming place where these roaming Southerners felt accepted, safe and loved. We realized that we had filled a spiritual need for the folks who made Pipeline Church their church home and we also had built some great, (and now it turns out several years later) lasting relationships.

    1. James,
      Great story that reflects reality in many places. I would bet money that someone from your Pipeline Church has already reproduced it at another fracking site.

  2. Last year I had lunch with a missionary from Cyprus. He told me that in some parts of Europe with transient populations, short life-cycle church planting is a strategy for reaching people who will be moving on to other parts of Europe. I’m not sure if I like that strategy, but I work in the US and Philippines where conditions are different.

  3. Michael Alonzo

    There will always be a need to plant New Churches….. The military driven plant is and its cycle is a given… however, how can you bring in the local community that Surronds the military focus. community……Success in part is driven by the leaders you appoint and identify……From Hope Chapel Hermosa beach to Oahu. planting is always in the Lords I treat….. the need is even greater now , than back in the day….. Jesus will always look for the heart that say; Here am I send me….

  4. Thanks, Ralph, for sharing your insightful thoughts on this. It’s a good word of encouragement, since many church plants do not endure indefinitely. To view them not as failures, but as short life-cycle churches is helpful, a good reminder than while institutions come and go, kingdom fruit remains and multiplies. The church we planted and that I’m still with is going strong after 17 years, but of the two churches we’ve planted, only one remains. The other was a short life-cycle church that did some good work during its season.

    1. Thanks Wayne,
      Some pastors would stop launching churches because one “died.” If we can look at the ongoing ministry and life changes that come from a church that ran its course we will find courage to keep planting. I found Bobby Gilbert’s comments (above) interesting as they trace new life born of churches that died.

  5. you are right on PASTOR RALPH.. even if only one soul was saved in the process it is always worth it because that one soul may go on to save many other souls.. whenever travel to international destinations am always provided with the opportunity to share the LOVE of the LORD with total strangers at the airport or during a hike in the mountains or during a kayak journey.. even if just a seed is planted am never discouraged and am instead grateful for the chance to make a difference in the lives of others.. BLESSINGS + love you.. sparkie

  6. Bobby Gilbert

    interesting because you mentioned military plants.

    In germany, several “missionary” plants never really broke into the culture here. The bad side of the story is some military people seen them as beggars and gypsys. The missionaries became dependent on the military meaning they wanted USA goods.

    The good side is some of these churches never intended to become missionaries. The ones that I am talking about is ones that were planted by civilian or military people. These churches by accident or circumstances or in some cases, actively pursuing the people or locals.

    Now, the ones who were accidental really wanted to get “american style” bible teaching and practice english. When the military left, they went on to other churches. I have off and on contact with these people. Recently, I don’t have much contact because all of my time is taken up in working for the Catholic church.

    The active pursuing of people was a church that was mainly black started picking up “African migrants from the container holding place”. I was one of them who would take turns picking these guys up and bringing them to church. I don’t remember how we even started this service. It pretty much died because of movement of the migrants and eventually, the military left.

    What came out of this little ministry is many “African style” churches popped up. Several years ago, I ran into a guy who used to come to this military church. We talked about “what happen to the other guys”. He said he switched to this church because it is not far from his house. He said the others guys and “new other guys” went on to start other churches. One church is suppose to be heavy pentecostal in Augsburg. The guy who started this little ministry is no longer doing this sort of ministry and is retired in USA. He still loves the Lord, but not actively in front of a church.

    There is a little humor behind this guy. When he and I were in the military, he and I spent time in the Lord together. He left back to the states and I got out of the military here. The German (american) church had a huge split, a very nasty one. This is the church that the African would later attend after the military left Augsburg. He attended the church after the first major split.

    I run into this military guy who is again back in Germany. He said that he started a church. I tell him that I just left a church that is a major mess. All of these situations are all connected to each other. This guy is about 6 feet 5 and white as white can be. He tells that his church is at this one place WHERE this other church was before. The church that split grew out of this small building. I tell him that I will come by. I know the building and walk in the church. It is full of black americans with one white pastor and his white family. This guy cannot dance. He cannot play basketball. He is up in the front doing his best moving the music.

    The story is basically, this non speaking german church which had no plan to be a german church served this african migrants who later would go on to plant churches in Germany.

    I got the story from this guy who ended up at the church that had a major split because he lived near church. They had moved a few times after the split. This church that split actually could have turned into major movement in Germany. They had a big movement. Many of the church that carry the name “Christus Zentrum” started from this one church that split.

    God can use a non dancing white tall guy who speaks no german into a missionary who started many of the african migrant churches in germany.

    My only crime is I took turns picking the few migrants who could fit in my car to go to church. Back then, these migrants spoke no german.


  7. I was very encouraged by this last article as I have just realized we had started a church at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility back in 1976. Until I planted Hope Kailua in 1989. I, we, our bands Rhema, Logos, Daystar, and the Stephen Anthony Band actually planted two churches there. We held a mobile worship service for the older long term boys every fourth Sunday of the month and one every fifth Sunday for the younger short term boys.
    Later after feeling convicted of what to do with the boys after they served their time I offered to help tutor any of the boys who were interested in receiving a G.E.D. (General Education Diploma) equal to a high school diploma. Only one showed interest but what a joy to attend his graduation ceremony with his family and all the other boys and staff members. Now since I turned over HopeKailua to my associate pastor I am back this time twice a month every second and fourth Sunday. We (Jim and his wife, Ralph and Eugene and David worship with the boys, share God’s Word and then close with praying for whoever wants it one on one.

  8. An eye-opening revelation regarding these “alternative” church plants. As a mostly retired physician working only 3 days a week, my wife and I have been involved in street outreach for the past 4 years. One of the outreaches involves my giving a brief Bible talk and prayer prior to the meal. We have long prayed for how to turn this into a “church service in the park” without progression. Your article helps me to see that it already is a “church service in the park” and we only need to continue to reach out each week with God’s love and allow Him to touch and change hearts. Thanks for the encouragement.

    1. Jay,
      Thanks for the comment. Identifying the group as a church (to its members) might bring a welcome surprise. I’ve watched such a move cause some people to step into more responsibility for others while others decide the group isn’t for them. With equipping members for ministry as a goal I think we gain when we start “alternative” churches or transform missions like yours into churches. On another plane, if you do this you will add to a slow process of re-defining church in America around relationships rather than buildings or institutions.

  9. Thank you Ralph for your insight! We planted a church almost 10 years ago that has grew numerically (I realize that’s not our ultimate scorecard) in our area and launched a second campus a few years back that is also doing well. However, after focusing more on creating simple discipleship structures in small groups that allow groups to multiply disciple makers (and groups), reading almost all of your books and God changing my heart, we are shifting towards creating a stronger decentralized process which hopefully leads to a multiplying movement. I’m praying that God will allow us to start 250 churches before I turn 70 along with making everything we do about the Great Commission, disciples makers and multiplication through new churches. As we are getting ready to plant our first church in a month or so, this article is really encouraging to rethink what success ultimately should look like for the group we are sending out. Thanks again!

  10. There’s a important common denominator in all of Ralphs stories that is someone believed in these young men and their ideas of starting churches. There’s too many times we look for reasons to disqualify a person. Ralph has always had the ability to believe in someone that others would not.

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