One way to grow a congregation is to create outposts into the community to attract seekers, and then invite them to participate with the parent church (even if they never actually join).  This takes a mix of business innovation and marketing savvy, but is not hard to implement.  A good place to start is an article by Outreach Magazine, “The Church Needs a Skunkworks.”

A skunkworks is a group within the organization that is given broad powers to try out new ideas.  There is an expectation that some of the ideas will fail, or will never achieve popular approval, buy by allowing the group to think way outside the box, they have the opportunity to find disruptive ideas that make major progress.  It was a skunkworks that created the atomic bomb.  Another one created the laptop.  The copying machine (Xerox) came from one.

Dean Kelly, the late former leader of the National Council of Churches, in his book Why Conservative Churches are Growing (1972) suggested growth could come by creating an ‘eklesesia’ – a congregation within a congregation, and allow them to worship differently, reportable only to the pastor or a small group of elders, until the ideas being tried are evaluated. (The Oureach article notes “it  is better to establish some boundaries in the beginning rather than let them be discovered…by hitting a brick wall later.”)  It may be their ideas are later adopted church-wide, or that they eventually become a new church plant sponsored by the church, or that the group dissolves, leaving the leaders better trained for future service within the congregation.

One phrase from the Outreach article argues for this group to start outside the church:  “Once you start on church grounds, the likelihood of ever getting off campus is weak. But if you start off campus, you will find fewer restrictions in the future and more opportunities in the present. Besides, it is healthy if the church finds itself out in the community figuring out ways to bring the kingdom of God to a place.”

The other reason comes from in internet marketing space.  Savvy marketers will establish multiple ‘feeder’ sites whose only purpose is to attract a subset of the market and draw them toward the main sales site.  By establishing themed ministries in the community, we establish connections on topics that interest them, and then use those relationships to introduce them to the church itself.

If you need help establishing your own skunkworks, let us know.

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One of Jesus’ more common teaching models to interpret scripture is to begin with “you’ve heard it said…but I say to you.”  This phrase came to me when I read a report of a meeting of church planters.  They were popping off one-liners, and one blogger recorded them. The one that struck me was

It’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.

The mantra among the denominations has been that churches not adding daily to their number are dead, and we should “let the dead bury the dead.”  People want to “be fed” and are encouraged to leave the troubled church and join the big one down the street, because “a church alive is worth the drive.”

I submit to you the better explanation is that

It’s easier, cheaper and more biblical to heal a sick adult than grow a new one.

I submit that if the doors are still open, the church still has life there.  We should not be in the business of euthenasia just because it’s more fun to start new things than to take care of business.  It’s fun to make babies, but hard work to change their diapers, drive them to daycare and little league, teach them to do homework and to drive, and then turn them loose on society as responsible adults.  But it’s what we have to do.

Do you know that it takes a huge amount of effort and tens of thousands of dollars to start a new congregation?  But if you spent half that much time and a third of the money, you could probably restore a struggling congregation (if it’s willing – see discussion here). 

What does the Lord require for the struggling church to be healed?  To want to be useful, to have faith, and to be doers of the Word and not just hearers.

We may need some new churches, but more than that, we need renewed churches.  (…and fewer dismissive catch phrases)

I just found Drew Goodmanson’s post on “Five Trends for the Future of Church Planting.”  His prediction #5 says that “More churches will be planted without the role of a preaching pastor.”

That brought me back to my musings on the nature of the church.  How big must a church be – or rather, how small can it be – and still be called a church?  What is the essential structure?  Are staff essential?

The trend in the past decade has been to send a preaching pastor out to start new churches.  He will begin with a Bible study in his living room or a cafe, and when there are half a dozen, he will form a small congregation, with himself as pastor.  Or he will simply rent space somewhere, bring in recorded music and preach for whoever shows up.  (I’ve done it that way.)

However, if you read David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements, you will join me in recognizing that in situations of exponential growth, there’s no time to hire a pastor.  Exponential church planting is where a person is trained in how to share their faith and then actually does it, winning his whole family, or a group of friends, and they agree to continue meeting together to learn about this faith.  In some situations, one or more from that group may share the newfound faith with another circle of friends, who accept the gospel and agree to begin meeting to study.  One of the examples Garrison gave us a few weeks ago was a man in Asia who did just that – started a church that started a church – before he came back to the second week of training on what to do next.

If a group of believers are gathered as a church, performing the essential functions of a church (see more here), but lack the theological training to provide one another anything more than shared ignorance, then it is perfectly fine to use recorded or broadcast sermons and teaching.  This does not, as one comment to Goodmanson’s post suggested, lead us into becoming  “less and less relational and relying more and more on technology.”   The technology is a supplement, but without the human-to-human connection in an accountable community, there is no church. (Just not a preacher.)

According to nextchurches.com, planting a new church is easier than revitalizing a struggling one. But at what cost? What kinds of resources – dollars, volunteers, time – are needed to start a church from scratch? What if you put those kinds of resources, that much effort, into revitalizing a struggling congregation?

The site says to assemble a team and cast a vision, then start raising money – lots of it.  “Big money follows vision.”  I know of churches that struggle by on less income than a single new church launch.

Instead, why not start a church within the church?  The way a church planter starts with a handful of committed volunteers and builds out, there is no reason a church – even a small struggling church – can’t do the same.  I started a congregation in a small church on no money, and it thrived for a season, invigorating the sponsoring congregation.  I’m part of another growing messianic congregation within a Baptist church, begun with no budget and still spending a pittance a year as we approach a consistent 50-60 at each service.

Nextchurches is right that it takes a vision and a core of committed workers.  If the small-church pastor can’t move the intransigent lifetime elders to change the host church, then start a second congregation inside the first with a couple of like-minded individuals.

Who knows, the church within may soon outgrow the parent.