Many people today live as though life is one giant smorgasbord. But instead of relatively inconsequential decisions—say, what type of pizza to eat or whether they want chocolate or vanilla ice cream—their choices have deeper implications. We bring our plates and fill them with political, gospel, and social ideologies that match who we are. This isn’t all bad. In fact, to live in a country with such variety is a reason to celebrate.
But such freedom to choose is mirrored inside the church as well, and Christians are increasingly mixing and matching their faith in unexpected ways. For example, the current “deconstruction” movement is a reminder to pastors and church leaders that the Christian faith is complex.
This tendency to pick and choose, however, has massive implications as we decide which parts of our theology to keep, which worship style to mirror, which pastor or influencer to follow, and which ministry activities matter most to us. Unfortunately, one thing that too many Christians are leaving at the table is the one thing we desperately need—real-life community.
Unfortunately, one thing that too many Christians are leaving at the table is the one thing we need the most—real-life community.
The church was designed by God as a source of fellowship, accountability, and teaching, and to serve as a witness to those inside and outside its walls. We come together to worship him in joyful obedience. Yet research from the first quarter of 2022 shows that in-person church attendance is only 36 to 60 percent of what it was pre-COVID. In fact, researchers say that despite in-person church services returning to normal, once-regular churchgoers aren’t necessarily coming back.
So if people aren’t even going to church, why are we still planting churches? Here are three reasons why, despite declining attendance, church planting matters more than ever.
1. God created us for community.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for “one another” or “mutually” (allelon) appears 100 times. The pandemic has shown us that when people are isolated, devastating effects occur in the form of increased anxiety, depression, and malaise. The church gathered has been, and always will be, God’s mechanism for us to be in community and on mission together. God himself exists in community as Father, Son, and Spirit, and he calls us to be in community with each other. And he provides the local church to meet our human needs for relationship.
The first believers gathered together often and with purpose. There’s simply no substitute for real-life interactions—primarily in the Sunday-morning gathering, but also through home groups or one-on-one prayer opportunities. Church planters enter an environment decimated by two years of isolation. We aren’t meant to weather these storms alone. As Tim Keller once observed, “Covenant community is like air. We don’t miss it until we need it.”
2. Only in community can we truly feel cared for.
Technology isn’t bad. In fact, tech has played a very important role in our churches during the pandemic. Many of us learned how to livestream with at least a modicum of professionalism. We learned the art of Zoom and how to facilitate evening prayer times and morning worship with just a few of us in the room together.
The problem is that many people have continued virtual church long after the literal church doors have reopened. Whatever one’s reasons, we must remember that technology is a supplement to church, not a substitute for it.
Technology is a supplement to church, not a substitute for church.
Technology allows us to listen to our favorite preachers and teachers at our convenience. We can “attend” worship concerts via Facebook Live or listen to music on demand. But what we can’t get online is real-life care and compassion. My favorite online preacher will never care for me like my church community will. When we go through times of grief and loss, it’s our local church community who will be there for us to cry with us and shoulder our pain. If we’re unwilling to step back into our church, we’ll never fully experience the wonder and power of Christian community. Church planters today have the opportunity to be the real-life hands and feet of Jesus as they walk alongside those hurting and hobbling.
3. Our witness is stronger together.
The church on mission is usually more effective than any individual doing it alone. As Francis Schaeffer observed, “Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful. Christian community is the final apologetic.” When a person steps into a church, he ought to feel the welcome and love of Christ’s people in a way he doesn’t experience anywhere else.
If we’re unwilling to step back into our church, we’ll never fully experience the wonder and power of Christian community.
Our churches are meant to be for those who are broken. In other words, for all of us. Even as COVID numbers decrease, the pandemic’s mental-health effects haven’t. We live in a fractured world, and those who are wounded need a place to go. Without in-person churches, where will they go?
Church planting exists to reach the unchurched and to tap into communities untouched by the gospel. This doesn’t always mean a new building or a place that looks like a church, but it does mean creating a real-life space for believers, for those questioning their faith, or for future Christ-followers to come and find welcome. In the smorgasbord of life, who wouldn’t put this on their plate?