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October 30, 2018

The New Normal in Church Planting

By Ed Stetzer


Whether a denomination or network uses the term multiplying, parenting, sending, sponsoring, partnering, or some other phrase, what matters isn’t the label. In its essence, church multiplication is the action of churches planting churches and often, subsequently, their own networks. This is becoming the new normal in church planting.

Although Bob Logan and others had been writing about church multiplication in the early 1990s, it wasn’t until a little over a decade ago that the paradigm for church planting in North America actually began shifting from addition to multiplication.1 What this means is that instead of just planting growing churches, leaders and organizations began focusing their vision and strategies on planting reproducing churches.


Much of church planting in North America happens through organizations creating strategies to form congregations in a particular context. These organizations and strategies are often referred to by missiologists as mission structures. In fact, when reverse engineered, a mission structure actually reveals something about the theology and philosophy of the ministry of an organization. This is important for understanding where we are today in North American church planting.

Missiologist Stanley H. Skreslet writes, “Mission structures are a kind of ‘theology on four wheels’, enfleshed demonstrations of a theoretical orientation to the world…they are windows that allow one to peer closely at the underpinnings of a given theology of mission.”2

Underneath our strategy and organization lies assumptions we make about:

  1. What is mission?
  2. Who should be participating in it and how?
  3. Who should be organizing it and how?


The real shift towards multiplication thinking began after organizational systems (recruitment, screening, assessment, training, coaching, and funding) were already firmly in place—at least for some networks and denominations. These systems were adapted from the ones used by foreign mission boards. By 1987, organizational psychologist Thomas Graham had already been writing about the first implementation of these systems, which occurred via Mission North America (PCA) around 1983.3 It was adapted from their foreign mission counterpart, Mission to the World.4

According to Graham, these systems were designed to select candidates who had the potential to become successful church planters. They were built from a paradigm where mission boards did both the recruiting and selecting of potential missionaries. This paradigm forms the basis for the current mission structure for how most denominations and networks plant churches in North America today.

Today’s mission structure for church planting in North America assumes the church planter is not only integral but also central to the success of starting new churches.

While doing research to update Charles Ridley’s Church Planter Profile, J. Allen Thompson made an interesting observation regarding mission structure: “What you value most in a church planter profile is what you will build your systems around.”

In other words, church planting networks and denominations predominantly build their mission structure around church planter selection and what they perceive to be as the ideal church planter. Most potential church planting candidates are assessed for competencies with the hopes that they will achieve two end goals:

  1. A high chance of survival and health
  2. The ability to grow the church plant to a sustainable size

This entrepreneurial model of church planting, which emphasizes the selection of an entrepreneurial church planter, has driven much of North American church planting for the last 30-40 years. These systems, by necessity, are constantly maintained, tweaked, and upgraded to avoid attrition.

However, since the conversation is shifting from addition to multiplication— from mission boards selecting ideal church planters to local churches strategizing new church starts—the focus of our research centered on this question: How have networks and denominations shifted their Church Planting Systems (CPS) from directly planting churches to helping churches become reproducing churches? Have their systems moved from addition to multiplication?

*This article is an excerpt from Best Practices in Church Planting Systems that I wrote with Jeff Christofferson, Daniel Yang, and Daniel Im. Download the e-book for free.



Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer (@edstetzer), is a professor and dean at Wheaton College who also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is regional director for Lausanne North America and publishes research through Mission Group. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the founding editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible study. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays across the country. He serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Chicago and has been the interim teaching pastor at Moody Church in downtown Chicago.


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