post

Simple Churches in a Complex Culture

As a pastor who has sponsored many new church plants, I am always excited to meet people who want to start new churches. All the research shows that new churches reach new people faster than old churches. The Southern Baptists (who keep immaculate records of this sort of thing) have reported for decades that the baptism-per-member ratio of new churches is five times better than that for existing, older churches. That alone is a good reason for mission-minded, ourtreach-oriented pastors like me to be enthusiastic about helping new churches get started.

Part of the success of new church plants comes from their intentionality in looking for and finding new ways to break into the non-churched culture with the gospel. While the gospel message itself never changes, we way that we “package” it, in other words, the way that we do church, is always changing.

Twelve years ago, when I was sponsoring church plants in Texas, I could outline a mathematical formula for planting a suburban church. You stared with a church planter, added 10 people, and had a core group. A core like this would produce $60 per person per month– you could count on it. For worship space, you needed fifteen square feet per person and for Sunday School classes for kids; you needed thirty five square feet. A rule of thumb for small church budgets is that one-half of the offerings can go to personnel, while a third to facility and rest is applied to program expense or invested in missions. With these parameters, the math is not difficult to do.

When the group reached 100 people, they would have $6,000 per month income. This presupposes a “middle class” congregation of mostly regular people. We did some plants among special ethnic groups, like the Cambodian refugees in our zip code, and obviously, the giving ratios were less among that group.

By typically, a group of 100 people could easily fund a pastor with half of their offerings. Another third would rent 3,600 square feet in a storefront shopping center (at six dollars per foot per year). By the time the new church reached 200 in attendance, they had the wherewithal to fund their part of buying land and constructing a new building. About $300,000 would erect a first-unit building complete with a gravel parking lot that could be paved when you got around to it. Texas Baptists built a lot of churches that followed this formula in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Fast-forward to where I serve today, Denver, Colorado, in year 2009, and you can forget all the formulas presented above! The old template just won’t work. Grow a new church to 100 and they will barely be able to afford rent in another church, let alone a storefront. Storefronts can run $3,000 to $6,000 for basic space. Giving-per-person ratios might be higher, say $80 per average attender per month, but with 70 people the rent could consume their entire budget. Yikes.

Grow a church to 200, even with $16,000 per month in offerings, and they are not going to build anything in today’s hostile-to-church-building climate. Property and building costs on the edge of Denver, for a new “first unit church facility,” would be closer to $3 million than they are to $300,000. No way a church of 200 is going to build brand new building, without a great deal of outside assistance.