Planting Churches: More, Bigger or Both?

Should church multiplication be about planting bigger churches. Or, should church planting be about planting many small churches? Both are wrong answers.

The true fruit of an apple tree is not apples (coverts in our churches). A better answer might be apple seeds, for the fabled Johnny to do his work. Instead the true fruit of an apple tree is an apple forest.

Note, the TRUE fruit of the tree isn’t even an orchard (denomination). It is a mess of trees.

And vs Or?

There are two issues to consider here. The first is the age-old tension between “and” and “or.” We tend to simplify whatever comes our way. The and/or mentality is the ultimate simplification

The most effective Christian leader is comfortable with ambiguity.” We need both an and mentality rather than one that resorts to or.

Some of us are only able to focus on building something large. —this may come from our spiritual gift-mix. Others, like me, press for rapid church planting. We don’t take time to worry about size. Still others limit church planting to lots of small, simple churches. These folks often react against large churches. I say we need them all.

“And” Is King

A big church that plants lots of other churches is the sweet spot for potential. Bigger churches can stand to lose a few members to launch teams. They have financial and wisdom resources to help others. To plant a large church that spins off others is nirvana. I know, I did it for most of my life.

Small congregations plant most new churches in the United States. Some may be splits. But, most intentional church planting comes from small churches. They seem willing to make big sacrifices. Seems that the bigger you get, the more you need to conserve leaders, people and money.

But, suppose you get big while planting churches. Stay big while planting churches. And let those churches grow to whatever size they will. Do this and you can make a dent in our culture.

Bigger tree, more apples. More apples, more seeds. More seeds, more trees, More trees, more apples…

Those Infernal Orchards

The true fruit of an apple tree, in nature, is a messy forest. It is not an orchard. No neat rows. No pruning to make picking easier, etc.

If we say the fruit of our ministry is converts, we short the Great Commission. If we try to control the churches we plant, we short their potential. Worse, the leader who does this adds extra work to their plate. This slows the reproduction process. An effective church multiplier will focus. They will make disciples. Train disciples to lead. Then release their disciples to do whatever God calls. They won’t try to play pope over them. Doing so slows everyone.

One of my greatest frustrations is trying to get denominational credentials for pastors.

We once planted a church in Venice, California. The pastor led some druggie friends to the Lord. They became a house church. But they soon outgrew the home where they met. Our church helped them rent a building.

Then the denomination stepped in. They had a dying church in the community. Another group (in the same denomination) coveted their building. That group felt threatened by your fledgling church. This was silly. Venice is a big town and none of the three churches was larger than 100 people. We were told to disband the church plant. We started anyway. Afterwards, I asked the bishop, “Well, do you want the church, or not?” He acquiesced after complaining that our pastor smoked cigarettes. Lots of pain for no reason. Actually, we did him a favor by planting without permission. He could mollify the other church by blaming us for crossing lines. Those lines ought not exist.

My point is that church planting ought to be messy. I’m even less than impressed with the term “Hope Chapel movement.” We’re not an organized movement. But, a messy outgrowth of intentional disciplemaking and church planting.

Forests are more natural than orchards.

HEY: Do you agree? Disagree? Please sound off! Your comments are part of this blog and stir fresh thinking in others. Please comment below:



14 thoughts on “Planting Churches: More, Bigger or Both?”

  1. Been on a journey lately to change my language. We are planting the church, not churches. We are make disciples not converts. We multiply disciples and refuse to settle for simple addition. The church is a family not a location. I agree that we should multiply churches (plural) as long as we continue to push towards a language that also insists that there is one body, the church. Regardless, it’s been so exciting to see members of The Refuge that get to serve with begin to catch a vision for making disciple-makers. I can’t wait until the day that we begin to see not only disciple-making disciple makers, but also church planting churches.

    1. I agree with your sentiments but think the word churches implies a necessary multiplicity. I’ve watched groups get so far into the language of unity that they turned inward and stopped multiplying. Looks like that is no danger to you, though. We need disciplemakers, church multipliers and movement makers.

  2. Thank you Pastor for your transparency in your writing. I have followed you for many years and served at several of your church plants. My calling is the marketplace and I agree sometimes having too much control may reduce the effectiveness of making disciples. My true growth in ministry occurs when I am called to do something i have never done before, seek God, and go for it! My wife has a tangerine tree and as ugly as it is it produces a lot of sweet tangerines.

  3. Amen to the concept of Apple Forests Ralph! As the leader of a church planting organization for 15 years, I confess I’ve been focused more on developing systems to produce Apple Factories. Apple Forests are less systematized, less controlled and more productive.

    1. Thanks George.
      Have you read the book, “The Starfish and the Spider,” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom? It is liberating. Wish everyone in your position had a copy.

  4. Thanks Ralph, very encouraging and thought provoking. In Japan, where I live, we need rapid multiplication of churches that plant churches. Just as every apple has seeds for new apple trees, so each church should have seeds to start new churches. In this nation of well over 95% without any kind of meaningful encounter with Christ ever in their life, that idea is sorely needed if we hope to actually make a difference. In addition to recognizing that size is not the key issue, I’m wrestling with how to define what a church is. In other words, when does a group started by a church reach the status of becoming an independent church on it’s own? Within 6 months we are planning to start a new church full of seeds to start other churches. Appreciate your insights and encouragement, as always.

    1. Maybe we need to get our eyes off the barn and onto the harvest. We tend to measure a church by its form rather than function. If you get idealistic (maybe too idealistic, but it is a good place to start), you can think of “two or more gathered in my name” as church. I’ve seen several churches started from just that small a base. One grew to a thousand. In Japan some top out at 8 or 9 while one went to 80+.
      The important thing is to get something going and growing… Hope you do it soon. You can set an example for others to follow…

  5. Mother Estelle Bouttry

    You are so true. We see the language of unity that we turn inward and stop multipleing .
    We need discipline makers. Amen

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