The tide has turned pointing to planting and multiplication

By Ronald E. Keener

A whole industry has developed to support church planting, say authors Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird, not alone their own writing: Stetzer’s previous Planting Missional Churches and Bird’s Starting a New Church. There is equipment designed for portable churches and coaching networks for “church developers,” and Exponential, a conference that draws 3,000 current and prospective planters.

Warren Bird
Ed Stetzer

Now both men have teamed in writing Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers (Jossey-Bass, 2010), a Leadership Network publication.

The authors responded to several questions from Church Executive:

What is viral? What’s viral church planting?

When something spreads at an ever increasing rate, it’s described as going viral. Some examples would be when a YouTube video umps to a hundred thousand views overnight, when a retiring teacher gets a zillion congratulatory notes because “everyone” has helped spread the word, or when thousands show up at a certain store based on a rumor that spread out of control saying that the latest iPhone will be offered there at half price.

Viral church planting happens when new churches are being launched at rates no one seems able to track. This won’t happen from an assembly line approach that figures out how to double or triple its output of new churches. Instead it will occur when a group of churches each begin to start multiple new churches, that in turn start multiple new churches, that in turn continue the multiplication effect.

What’s different about church planting from what it was five or 10 years ago?

An important tide turned a few years ago in the United States. Now more churches are being started each year than older long-established churches are closing. Church planting has become more popular in many quarters than pastoring an already established church. Both these examples speak to a new visibility, legitimacy and heightened passion currently associated with church planting.

You’ve written, “In recent decades, church planting was definitely not the admitted choice that it is today.” So what’s changed?

More people have realized the strategic importance of church planting. They see that the 400 thousand existing churches, as fine as many of them are, simply cannot reach or serve more than 300 million people in America, up to a third of whom are unchurched. More important, Christian leaders are realizing the potential role of new churches in reaching distinct segments of people who may never hear the Gospel unless a new church goes to them and speaks their heart language. Without new churches, America’s tremendously large unchurched population will simply not be reached.

What would a church multiplication movement look like if we saw one?

It would involve thousands of new churches, each of which felt empowered and motivated to help start more churches, each of whom likewise carried a contagious DNA of replication and multiplication.

What is it that you would want the reader to take away from having read the book?

Many readers believe in church planting but haven’t considered the idea of church multiplication. Viral Churches speaks to people in the pew, to leaders of existing churches, to current church planters, to future church planters, and to those who train and coach church planters.

Any forecasting you can do on the growth of the church from the multiplication movement?

It won’t happen without fervent prayer and a true touch from God. It did happen in the United States between 1795 and 1810. Signs of it are showing up today, such as in the organic church networks under the leadership of Neil Cole. There is no reason why a church multiplication movement cannot occur in our generation. We believe God’s desire is for those who don’t know God to see the gospel demonstrated in the life of someone they know, and there’s no better way for that to happen than through the birthing of thousands of new churches.


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