I’m excited to start contributing articles to the CLB Forge Blog. As the Associate Director of North American Mission my primary responsibility is to oversee our church planting efforts. God has a place for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren (CLB) on the mission field of North America and engaging in this calls for us to rapidly increase our church planting activities right now and for the years to come.
The people of the CLB are a missionary people—we became a church body over a century ago in an effort to send missionaries across the globe. Today we have that same missionary heart, and we are called to turn to the mission field where God has already placed us: North America.
If you’ve been in one of the many churches with empty pews and plenty of room for more people, you may ask: Why do we need to start new churches? Why not focus on filling the ones we have? I have heard that question many times. In fact, I’m passionate about strengthening established churches: My doctorate focused on church and parachurch executive leadership and my thesis was all about church vitality. I ran a consulting ministry prior to accepting the call to serve the CLB and I’ve worked alongside a number of established churches to help them enhance their ministry effectiveness. The established church is very important, and yet, we must start new churches for a number of reasons:
New churches are more likely to reach the unsaved. 60-80% of new members in a church plant were not a part of a church beforehand, while in established churches, 80-90% of new members are transfers from other churches. Church plants are often very engaged in the making of new disciples and focus on communicating the gospel in a way that connects to the community.
More churches are needed. Across the U.S., about 4,500 new churches are started every year. However, because about 4,000 churches close every year, that means that the Christian church would need to plant an additional 2,000 churches every year just to keep up with population growth, not to mention reaching an increasing percentage of the population. We need more churches!
New churches reach new groups of people. Church plants have a unique way of connecting into different sub-cultures, ethnic groups, and parts of the community that established churches aren’t geared to reach. New churches are built to be mission outposts that learn the needs, values, and languages of the community, and then serve and speak the gospel in a way that those groups can understand. Last century, the CLB saw tremendous growth by reaching groups of immigrants in coastal cities like Seattle and New York. Those immigrants needed a church that spoke their language and understood their culture, and new CLB churches provided that.
No single congregation lasts forever. I have yet to identify a single congregation that has existed since the time of the early church. That means that all churches have a lifespan and at some point their mission is fulfilled and they close. It’s hard to think about that happening to your home church, and yet it has always been this way. If you look at the founding of the CLB, which was started in 1900, of the five congregations that started the denomination, only one remains open. It’s painful to watch a church that you love experience these latter life stages, but I believe that God created congregations to be this way in part so that it would always be necessary to make new disciples. Over time, the legacy of the CLB and the legacy of individual congregations will rest with the new churches that are started.
God has a place for us on the North American mission field. We will continue to strengthen established churches, but we will plant new churches as well, with the goal of planting more and more churches. As I write for this blog in the months to come, I plan to share with you my vision for CLB church planting, the strategy that we’re implementing to fulfill that vision, and best of all—stories from our church plants where teams of CLB people have boots on the ground in the front lines of our mission efforts.
Ryan Nilsen - Associate Director of North American Mission
“Why Plant Churches?,” Tim Keller, Redeemer City to City, January 1, 2002. https://redeemercitytocity.com/articles-stories/why-plant-churches
The Church of the Lutheran Brethren 1900-1975: A Believer’s Fellowship—A Lutheran Alternative, J. H. Levang, (1980: Faith and Fellowship Press).
The American Church in Crisis, David T. Olson, (2008: Zondervan).