“Why plant a church in this city when we already have so many churches that are struggling or dying?”
Church planters often are asked this question, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, by their non-Christian neighbors and by pastors of established churches. A casual glance around the landscape of most North American cities provides ample justification for the concern.
In some areas, church buildings seem more prevalent than gas stations or grocery stores. Their vast size and strategic location often cast a wide shadow over the young church plant that rents space at the elementary school down the street.
Many such buildings, however, are the homes of stagnant or declining congregations—many of which face imminent closure because of aging membership, dwindling finances, lack of missionary fervor or a combination of all three. The statistics are staggering.
Ed Stetzer notes that 80 percent of churches are stagnant or dying, and Thom Rainer lamented the reality that approximately 100,000 churches in the United States are on the brink of death.
Their people may reminisce of a time past when the nursery was full, the congregation was passionate, the lost were reached and the church was a significant catalyst for mission to their city. Now, however, we see the skeletal remains of a glorious past—empty church facilities and billions of dollars in unused church property.
What are we going to do with these buildings and resources—and the people who call them home? The answer to this question is laden with missiological significance. The lackluster religious climate of most North American cities, coupled with the waning cultural significance of the church, all mean we need a viable and reproducible alternative.
No Easy Answers
For some, the answer is found in some type of church revitalization project in the hopes that the right combination of pastoral leadership, evangelistic programs and missionary intentionality will jumpstart the stalled church. Sometimes this works. Often it doesn’t.
Church mergers and partnerships may provide a better alternative for the long-term revitalization of churches throughout North America. Thankfully, God, in His kindness, has provided a host of young churches that are ripe for such partnerships through the increase in church planting fervor.
What was once a fringe segment of highly charismatic and entrepreneurial leaders has now developed into a movement spanning the globe. Many young pastors have seen their predecessors struggle through the travails of church revitalization projects and find the prospect of starting a new church with a healthy theology and philosophy much more appealing than spending decades trying to revitalize often-unwilling churches.
And therein lies the fascinating intersection—hundreds of declining and dying churches located beside hundreds of newly-established church plants. These two groups could combine, leverage the unique strengths of both and see God catapult them to levels of evangelistic impact that would far exceed what either could do independently.
And yet such mergers are rare. The proliferation of denominationalism and church splits has resulted in a divided family, often committed to “their” local church, yet not in relationship with other believers from other churches in the same city.
Judgmentalism and competitiveness are far too common and cause churches to squander untold amounts of resources and manpower. These churches, and their leaders, must spend more time talking to one another than they do about one another.
The Makings of a Movement
The momentum that could result from a church merger is intriguing to many leaders, and yet so few examples of such partnerships can be found. Thankfully God provided one such example in The Church at Cherrydale located in Greenville, S.C., as two churches—one a church plant and the other an established church—combined for the sake of more effectively making disciples in our city.
This merger was the result of God’s graciousness, the prayers of His people and the humble investment of many. The results far exceeded our expectations. As a young church planter and pastor I had prayed that God might allow us the joy of such a partnership, but the challenging nuances of such a process made it daunting, to say the least.
As one conversation led to another more complex conversation, I found myself longing for some type of guide to help me navigate the new terrain. Once the process was complete, I set out to write down the path that I took and the lessons that I learned in the hopes that other churches would be helped by some practical tools and encouraged to consider the same type of decision.
The process of a church merger, and the host of questions that result, may seem overwhelming. And yet other essential questions loom on the horizon for those who fail to tackle such challenges. These questions aren’t from our congregations but from our God.
He asks whether His Church will be faithful with what He has entrusted? What will we do with the vast resources at our disposal? Will we find difficult yet effective ways to steward them for His glory? Or will we bury them in the sand and squander the legacy of the Church in our day?
By God’s grace and led by His Spirit, church mergers provide a means by which healthy, mission-fueled, disciple-making churches can fill every North American city. Our cities certainly need it.
For much more on this topic, download the new eBook by Matt Rogers, Mergers: Combining Churches to Multiply Disciples.