Success and the Church Planter: A Response to This American Life

This American Life recently aired a podcast about the church planting movement in the United States after another podcast, Start Up, began a series following an individual church plant. It is encouraging that church planting is so effective that Ira Glass finds it worthwhile to explain it in a balanced story to his audience.

The story mentioned many groups that have spent incredible resources to see new churches planted. There is much to celebrate about the birth of new churches and the ways they embody and proclaim the good news of Jesus. By God’s grace, these new churches can become places where skeptics, seekers, and Christians who have grown disillusioned with the church can engage with a church family that introduces them to Jesus. This is why we go into church planting, isn’t it? We want to see followers of Jesus made into disciples who can be his hands and feet to their friends, neighbors, and even their enemies.

But while This American Life did a fair job of explaining church planting to a secular audience, the opening lines were startling:

“There’s this whole Christian version of Silicon Valley, only instead of creating apps and tech products, what the Christian world is trying to do is use the tools of Silicon Valley to create churches. They’ll call them church startups or church plants…. If you can find it in Silicon Valley, it probably exists somewhere in the church planting world.”

This is not untrue. In fact, it gives a clear picture of many — but not all — church planting efforts in the United States. The problem with the statement is that it summarizes what is wrong with church planting efforts in America.

Silicon Valley is full of individuals who utilize good gifts from God to innovate and strengthen businesses. They turn ideas into reality that can change the world, often for the better. At the same time, there is a great brokenness that permeates Silicon Valley (and all of corporate America) and therefore the aims and tactics of Silicon Valley are not neutral. Corporate America operates from a worldview that is, in many ways, incompatible with the kingdom of God. This is what makes this podcast so troubling — American church planting does, in fact, borrow a lot from American corporate culture. We need to have serious conversations about the idolatry that has been adopted into church planting along the way.

Perhaps after listening to this podcast we should take time to consider, lament, and repent of the ways in which the people of God have at times married ourselves to American capitalistic ideals, creating a syncretism in the church that allows us to be evaluated by a secular audience as the “Christian version of Silicon Valley.”

Defining Success

There are great things to learn from the marketplace. Church planting has been impacted by countless organizations networking, learning from each other, and discovering ways to support, encourage, and catalyze church planting. For this I am grateful.

The problem is that when we use corporate metrics for planting churches, it affects everything about the way we plant churches. In turn, this shapes our worship and discipleship, and it happens despite our best intentions. I believe the church-planting world shares a common desire to see disciples of Jesus living out their faith in all areas of life. Unfortunately, the most popular metrics and tools of church planting more closely reflect the capitalistic values mentioned in the podcast:

  • Figure out what is most attractive to people in your target community
  • Attract people to become part of your new thing
  • Be self-sustaining by year 3

The end goal in this model, the podcast rightly points out, is a self-sustaining church. If the end goal is a self-sustaining church, then a planter may feel the need to do “market research” in a community in order to “attract” a “target audience.” This is very different from what I have appreciated about the work of both Dr. John Perkins and Dr. Tim Keller, who encourage planters to get to know a community by moving into a neighborhood, learning the language, making friendships, and beginning to discern the beauty and the brokenness that permeates the area. Their emphasis is not on understanding a market in order to build a customer base. Instead, they advocate incarnating in a local community in order to truly meet the needs and address the fears and hopes of the people who live there. These two approaches may look similar on the surface, but there are drastic differences when it comes to internal questions, motives, and drives.

If we recognize the difference between building an audience and genuinely reaching people, we may also recognize that a self-sustaining church plant is the wrong end goal. Many of us plant churches because we have determined that church planting is perhaps the most strategic way to make new disciples of Jesus. But if that is the case, then the end goal needs to be making disciples of Jesus (non self-sustaining church plants) and church planting becomes one of the very important ways we do this.

Potential Customers, Investors, and Products?

Do we view people in our neighborhoods as people to serve or as potential customers who validate and support our projects? The current approach, as described in the podcast, can unintentionally and even subconsciously encourage a church planter who is not radically self-aware to view their neighbors, core team, staff, and even family members as means to an end.

In order to reach the end goal of a self-sustaining church, planters may be tempted to fake it as a leader and push themselves to “succeed,” even if that means sacrificing the kingdom of God along the way. It can become easy to allow market research to lead them toward attractional models that require incredible amounts of resources to promote the brand, generate marketplace momentum, and adopt pragmatic leadership cultures that do not always reflect biblical church governance.

The podcast also highlighted how angel investors use the three year self-sustaining mark to determine their gift giving. Somewhere along the way, it has become standard to talk about giving donations in a way that ensures the giver gets the greatest “return” on their investment. We often define this return without slowing down to ask the Holy Spirit to define it for us.

It can feel better for a large gift to help reach a hundred or a thousand people for Christ rather than 50, but Jesus never lets us use this math. Jesus picked the one over the 99. This isn’t to say there are no insights to be gained from marketplace research and principles, but we will not know how much our talents “return” for Jesus until he shows up on the last day and weighs them.

It can feel better for a large gift to help reach a hundred or a thousand people for Christ rather than 50, but Jesus never lets us use this math. Jesus picked the one over the 99.

What are the unintended consequences of a majority of us using the same metrics and standards? What could happen if only 10% of angel investing went to networks and church planting organizations experimenting in planting non-gentrifying, economically depressed communities? Or in “hard soil,” such as among predominantly Mormon, New Age, or Muslim populations? What would it look like to disciple those in our church with the spiritual gift of generosity to work through these questions with us?

You might say, “But there is nothing wrong with logos, brands, and marketplace momentum.” I agree. There is nothing inherently wrong with these things. However, we have to acknowledge that we are swimming in a culture that reeks of consumerism, and if we are Americans planting American churches, we are very prone to be blind to our cultural idols. We often fail to recognize just how deep consumerism runs in our bones. It is at least as deep as Egypt’s gods were in the bones of the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness.

The Pressure on Pastors

Success is the American way — to try hard, persevere and, against all odds, come out on top. Americans love success stories, but if we are not careful to consider how we have been shaped by them, they become the stories our church planters are most tempted to bend toward. Church planters may achieve what they set out to do, but just like their business counterparts, they often do it by paying a price Jesus never asked them to pay: dissolving marriages, children who do not know them, a prayerless life, anxiety, and a lack of compassion and pastoral care for their people. In addition to these tragedies, the last decade has put some of the worst church planting on public display: the manipulation and abuse of God’s sheep in order to fulfill personal needs for approval, achievement, or control.

Jesus wants our hearts, our affections, and our listening ears. Our good Father wants us to be faithful and fruitful in the places he has rooted us, and to resist judging fruitfulness based on the world’s measures of success. Some are asked to sow, some are asked to water, but it is God who makes a plant grow. Furthermore, not everyone who sows or waters uses tilled and nutritious soil. If we try to be “the Christian version of Silicon Valley,” we’ll be tempted to sow among good soil, but Jesus never told his disciples to target the most strategic areas for growth. He told them to scatter seed.

How We Talk About Church Planting Affects Our Witness

My younger cousin and closest childhood friend, Allison, is the one who told me about the podcast. She grew up with me in church. In fact, her father was a pastor for most of her life. Her exit from Christianity began with a strong aversion to evangelicalism. We talk at length about Jesus and regularly discuss the ways evangelicalism feels like every other corrupt institution in society to her. Her response to the podcast was, “This is why I would never end up back in a church. It is exactly my experience. It’s a business that needs people in the pews so pastors can feel good about having power and influence over culture.”

“This is why I would never end up back in a church. It’s a business that needs people in the pews so pastors can feel good about having power and influence over culture.”

Allison and I disagree on much and we do not mince words with each other. However, the Jesus I follow is both beautiful and challenging to her. The Jesus Allison and I talk about is a Jesus who gave up power and displayed love, justice, mercy, and grace to a broken world. Christianity, as described by this podcast, is not. In fact, it repulses her (she was shocked to learn that I am part of such a movement described). This would be true of countless peers I grew up with who have since left the church. My conversations with Allison mirror my conversations with them. People are increasingly weary of American Christianity wedding itself to power, whether it be it political or in the marketplace. If the people of God are to be a Good News people, we must find ways to plant churches that display all of Jesus to all areas of life. I do not know if Allison will decide to follow Jesus or not at some point in her life, but I know my heart’s desire is that she still sees and encounters the true Jesus and makes decisions based on the gospel — not her experience with evangelicalism.

I am deeply thankful for the many organizations that have developed strategies and tools to catalyze church planting. But as we continue to plant churches, it is essential to remember that, although strategy, plans, and metrics are helpful, Jesus reminded his disciples again and again that it is not ours to know fully how or why things grow:

“Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” —Mark 4:27

Let these words of Jesus fill us with humility, increase our prayer, and strengthen our resolve to keep in step with the Spirit of God.


Twelve years ago Dennae and her husband started a church in Phoenix.

Today, she is Executive Director of the Surge Network — a network of 60 churches working together to be a witness for Jesus and plant more churches in Phoenix metro area.