To Plant or To Replant, That Is the Question

Okay, I admit I am envious. I’m envious of the new house my friend recently built. I’m especially envious of the energy-efficient spray foam insulation, modern windows and doors, and fuel-miser heating system. As I lug firewood and watch my woodpile shrink through the long Maine winter, I often wish I could start over, building my house with all of the latest construction materials and systems. But then, I look at the charm of our older house and the spacious property it sits on, with westerly views across the lake, and my jealousy fades. The plain vanilla style of his house and its crowded location offset its modern advantages, and I am content.

Let’s face it: there are pros and cons with both newer and older homes. And the same holds true in the church plant versus church replant debate. As a pastor who has served both in revitalization churches and in a multi-site church plant, I have experienced the benefits and liabilities of both.

In the long hard years of revitalization, I often thought that “the grass was greener” where my church planting colleagues were laboring. I imagined them not having to contend with musty buildings, archaic committees, cranky leaders, and change-resistant congregations. It was only when I talked with them in depth that I fully appreciated the challenges they faced in planting.

I thank God for the hundreds of churches that have been planted here in New England over the last 40 years, churches that have blessed so many and advanced the Kingdom so far. I am also thankful for the faithful, persevering church replanters who are reclaiming holy ground and revitalizing historic churches. Is one strategy better than the other?

At Overseed, we estimate that there are 5,000 to 6,000 churches in need of replanting here in New England. In sheer numbers, therefore, the opportunities for replanting are great. I admit that my bias is with replanting. If you are tempted, as I sometimes am, to idealize church planting and to envy the planters, here are a few things to consider.

  1. Consider the enormous challenge of growing a church plant from a living room size to a critical mass capable of actually functioning like a church. In my experience, it takes a remarkable and rare gifting to be able to do that. According to church planting guru Bob Logan, only about 1 percent of pastors have the church planting gift mix. Unless a church planter arrives with a ready-made leadership team, building that team is a long-term, hit-or-miss process. The planter will need to recruit people with musical, technical, teaching, and administrative gifts. He or she must also gather a congregation with some age and income diversity—younger people to draw their own demographic and older people with Christian maturity and liberality with their typically greater income.
  2. Consider the ongoing problem of finding suitable rental property in which to meet and worship. “Suitable” includes such features as visibility, accessibility, capacity, parking, and weekday availability, all at a rent you can afford.
  3. Consider the difficulty of finding a permanent location, especially if you want to build a new facility. Communities are increasingly resistant to losing property from tax rolls and will often apply zoning regulations against churches. In addition, there are unsympathetic neighbors who may threaten lawsuits. If you do find land, all of the attendant costs to purchase and develop the property may well erode the savings set aside for building.
  4. Consider the soaring costs of construction given the worldwide demand for building products, a tight labor market, and burdensome building codes. The blue sky dreaming of that ideal building can quickly turn into a pared down, barebones square box with a fiberglass steeple.
  5. Consider your church identity. “Who are you, and what are you doing in our town?” Unlike the other churches in town, a church plant has to convince a community that they belong there, are needed there, and will bring value to the town. Along with the identity issue come decisions such as naming the church, writing a constitution, crafting bylaws and doctrinal statements. Most challenging of all will be discerning and communicating the vision that will enable the planted church to bond with the local culture in order to reach the community for Christ.
  6. Finally, consider the challenge of volunteer burnout that comes with the weekly setup and tear down for worship services in temporary locations. After months or years of that grind, the most committed volunteers are tempted to feel that they signed onto the enterprise for higher purposes than that.

After weighing all of the costs, if you’re still convinced that you are called to plant, then go for it, trusting the Lord who has promised to “build my church.” On the other hand, if you believe you are called to revitalize a church, then you too have to count the cost.

  1. It’s going to be harder than you might think because you will face resistance not only from the world but also from the very flock you are trying to lead to greater vitality. This is because revitalization involves change, and no one likes change.
  2. It’s going to take much longer than you can imagine. We at Overseed estimate it takes 7 to 10 years to see a church in New England revitalized.
  3. You must be sure that your spouse and family are fully onboard because it may be years before they find peer fellowship in the church.
  4. You are going to need the moral and spiritual support of your denomination or, if your church is independent, from a cohort of pastors committed to church revitalization.
  5. You should have evidence that you are gifted as both a patient chaplain and change agent among the existing congregation, as well as an effective evangelist in the local community.
  6. Finally, you have to trust in the God who brings dry bones back to life.  

That being said, consider all of the blessings a replant offers. There are thousands of churches in need of revitalization, almost on every corner of every community in America. Denominations are eager to see the dry bones come to life. Each of these comes with a congregation. It may be small, or elderly, or tired, but they are the Remnant, and we know from scripture that God has not forgotten the remnant and has a plan for them.

Each also comes with a building. The building may be old and rundown, but it can be refurbished. It is a building that was designed for worship and ministry, and you are in complete possession of it. It may very well be in a prime location with high visibility, a true landmark in the community.

Each church also has an identity and a place in the community—in a word, you already “belong.” The church may be marginalized and largely unknown in the city or town, but no one will ever question why you are there. In fact, most folks will likely be glad to know the church is open for business, and they will cheer your successes. It is a lot easier to win a hearing for the gospel when the people want you there.

Last and maybe most important, each existing church has a legacy. It was founded by faithful, godly people who, sometime in the past, staked out holy ground with their blood, sweat, tears, prayers, and sacrifices. In New England, that first planting may have occurred 100, 200, even 300 or more years ago. They entered a covenant with God to be planted in that soil as a light to that community, and God loves to show that He keeps His covenants.

Yes, I’m sometimes jealous of my friend’s new house, but I’d never trade my old house with its rich history and the warm memories of our children growing up here. I’ll just live with the imperfections and cut more firewood. And I’ve never regretted the more than three decades I have spent in church replanting.

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