'Some Fell on Good Soil': Church Planting in Religious Ecologies

In the midst of the decline of mainline denominations and the rise of the “nones” in the U.S. something surprising is happening.[i] Church planting is booming.  According to Ed Stetzer and Dave Travis, the number of new churches started annually jumped from approximately 1500 in the late 1900s to 4000 by 2006.[ii]  Such a spike is not only the greatest surge in church planting in the last century but Warren Bird claims it has yielded such a flurry of planting that the number of churches opened annually has outpaced church closures—a much more discussed and visible reality.[iii]  This rising phenomenon calls for sociological study, not only to describe and explain its occurrence, but also to understand the factors influencing the vitality of these new congregations.

I have contributed to this needed area of study by seeking to bring insights from organizational and religious ecology perspectives to understanding the influences upon the vitality of new congregations and their networks.  An organizational ecology approach “focuses on the influences of the characteristics of organizations and of the demography and ecology of the populations in which they operate.” [iv]  Thus it explores not only the impact of internal factors such as the church’s attributes, but also of external ones, such as the existence and characteristics of other churches.  Animating this study, then, is the question: What are the most relevant ecological factors impacting the vitality of new congregations and church planting initiatives in the U.S.? 

In the final section, I employ the most relevant theories toward an analysis of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO), a new church planting initiative on the West Coast of the United States.  Based on the factors identified as pertinent to new congregations generally, I highlight some of the features of C4SO that promise to be either liabilities or assets.

My article, originally published in Witness: Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education, v. 27 is available in its entirety here.


[i] Mark Chaves, “All Creatures Great and Small: Megachurches in Context,” Review of Religious Research, 47(4) (2006), 329-346; Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations,” American Sociological Review, 67(2)(2002), 165-190.
[ii] Ed Stetzer and Dave Travis, “Who Starts New Churches?: State of Church Planting USA” (Leadership Network, 2011), 2.
[iii] Warren Bird, Warren, “More Churches Opened Than Closed in 2006,” Rev Magazine (August 2007), 68.
[iv] Michael Hannan, “Ecologies of Organizations: Diversity and Identity,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(1) (2005), 54.

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