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The PCA’s Church Planting Strategy

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

At our presbytery’s August Church Planting Network Gathering, Chris Vogel spoke about national trends in church openings and closings and discussed the Presbyterian Church in America’s plan to grow from just under 2,000 churches to 3,000 churches.

Chris works with Mission to North America (the PCA’s mission organization) as the Church Planting & Vitality Coordinator. He has several decades of experience as a church planter and pastor. In recent years, he’s worked with networks similar to our presbytery’s network.

Describing his role with MNA, Chris says, “I oversee church planting efforts and also the health of existing churches by focusing my time on leaders within presbyteries. MNA’s and the PCA’s goal is growth and health, which requires existing churches to be healthy. Church planting is a by-product, but it’s not the end in itself.”

Chris focuses on big picture strategies and systems across the denomination. He meets with presbytery chairmen and network leaders, and he oversees a readiness seminar and assessment center for church planters. He says, “We don’t want to only identify the planter, but we also want to provide systems within each presbytery where planters can thrive.”

These efforts come in part from looking at trends across the United States and identifying issues in the Church in America. Before 2019, the PCA planted 50 new churches each year for over 20 years. From 2019 to 2022, the number dropped to roughly half of that. (Data for 2023 is not yet available.) The PCA now plants about 25 churches a year.

In 2014, across all evangelical denominations in America, 4,000 churches were planted while 3,700 churches closed. In 2019, 3,000 churches were planted while 4,500 closed. Chris says, “It doesn’t do us any good to be planting churches if we’re closing so many each year.”

While people have noted the impact COVID-19 had on church attendance and pastors, Chris explains, “The downturn started before COVID-19. It wasn’t just the pandemic, and it’s not just PCA. Denominations across the board are facing the same issues: seminary students are not interested in planting or pastoring. Instead, many are going into counseling or seeking associate pastor roles.”

The exact reason for this shift is not known, but Chris and other experts believe it is due to cultural and generational shifts. Chris noted studies from the business world which show that younger Millennials and Gen Zers are disinclined to pursue leadership positions.

“In business, they want to be on a team. In the military, people are deferring advancement because they don’t want to be in charge. They’ve seen the fallout of leaders, and they don’t want to be another casualty. They’re reluctant to be out in front, and we have three generations now that haven’t suffered in the ways some previous generations have. We don’t want to suffer; we want to have it easy.”

However, Chris explains that the desire for a team is not wrong, nor are the current younger generations the only ones that have been considered lazy. “Boomers called Gen Xers slackers, and now Gen X calls Millennials slackers. But, where the Boomer mentality was about independence and doing things by yourself, spiritual maturity involves interdependence in community. No one plants a church by himself, but until recently, we haven’t talked about it in terms of a team much.”

In addition to a shift in language, the PCA is focused on networks that create teams and offer the support needed for pastors to thrive in ministry.

Of his previous experience in Wisconsin, Chris says, “We wanted to see expansion and growth, but we had to be sure that the churches in the presbytery felt comfortable with what we were doing. Their buy-in was critical. We were able to quadruple the number of churches in ten years, but we realized that we needed to raise up our own pastors and planters. We couldn’t just call up the seminaries and say, ‘Send us your church planters.’”

Chris says, “If you’re a planter or trying to recruit a planter, talk about forming a team of people who are leaders in more than name only. Usually, planters gather people to them and out of that group, look for leaders.” He suggests identifying leaders first. “How about gathering people who you can work together with to get something moving?”

Chris also suggests adjusting expectations for how long church planting takes. “Think about five years instead of just three years. Start by focusing on meeting people and getting embedded in the community.”

Another thing the PCA has learned from looking at national trends is that we need to adjust our view of demographics. Chris says, “We need to be thinking much more broadly than we have about where we’re planting and the demographics we’re reaching.”

He explained that historically, it’s been fairly easy for the PCA to plant in upper middle class, suburban, mostly white areas. Now, the denomination is expanding to ethnic minority communities. “There are about ten South Asian teaching elders in the PCA. What if we intentionally built that community?” Chris and the denomination hope to raise up more Mandarin speaking pastors in order to reach Chinese communities, noting that refugees and immigrants often want to worship in their native language.

While some churches may be primarily made up of one ethnic group, other churches might be multi-ethnic. The primary goal is to spread the gospel, regardless of the demographic breakdown.

Chris cites One Voice Fellowship outside of Washington DC, a church that simultaneously translates the service into multiple languages with about 14 minorities in the congregation. He said, “It’s hard to do, but it’s possible. There is a desire for multi-ethnic, cross-cultural work.”

Here in the Tennessee Valley Presbytery, Grace + Peace is one church that has a significant Guatemalan population. However, partly because there are only two major cities in the presbytery, a demographic shift in this region means focusing on rural areas that have previously been overlooked.

Chris also discussed the need for church plants to prepare for transitions. “We’re seeing churches close in under ten years of age, usually because the church planter leaves and the next pastor comes in, but the church isn’t equipped to make that shift. Most pastors don’t want to start over and move, but that doesn’t always mean they have a managerial skillset.”

Making a parallel to the business world, Chris explains that a gifted entrepreneur might find themselves ten years in, leading a successful business, now with a large staff to manage and other responsibilities. This requires a new skillset. “What we need to do is train our planters to be pastors, just like we train them to be planters. We’ve talked about how to start something, but we haven’t trained church planters in how to be a pastor.”

In addition to strengthening existing churches, planting new ones, and reaching minority groups and rural areas, the PCA is also reaching out to churches outside the denomination. Chris explains, “In small towns, there are often young men who have an interest in ministry. When we can, we want to help them be better grounded and receive training. Through that, we might find that their church wants to join the PCA, but regardless, we’ll be supporting these pastors in our communities.”

Chris also explains that raising up leaders from within a community is more likely to lead to long-term success than sending in people from other backgrounds. He says, “We have to create sustainable pipelines to raise up planters and pastors.”

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