By Jose Cortes, Jr

A few days ago, a long-time church leader, who is now retired, asked me,“What keeps you busy these days?”

“Church planting,” I replied. “Here in North America, unions, conferences, and local churches are collaborating to plant 1,000 community churches over five years.”

My answer was delivered with passion and energy, and I subconsciously expected that my interrogator would jump for joy at such a bold vision for growth; after all, I don’t remember the last time Adventists had such a courageous—and almost impossible—vision. I expected an affirmation, a prayer, a word of encouragement—some type of positive reinforcement, but to my surprise, none came. Instead, he looked at me with an almost harsh expression and said, “If you plant 1,000 new churches in North America, what are you going to do with the existing churches? What are you going to do with those churches which are in decline?”

The question was accompanied by a rebuking tone of disapproval, as if church planting were somehow in opposition to existing churches. As if there should be some kind of natural antagonism between the tree and the fruit—which also holds the seed—which holds the future tree.

I took a deep breath, and, recovering from my shock, asked, “How old are you?”

“I am 78,” he replied.
“Has life been good?”
“Life has been beautiful. Why do you ask?”
“Have you ever wondered what life would have been like  if you had never been born?”
“I’m not sure I’m following you,” he said. I asked a few more questions.

“What is the best thing that ever happened to you?”

“My kids and grandkids! They are a joy!” he exclaimed, without hesitation.

“Did you die when they were born?” I continued.

He was beginning to see the point I was making, and I decided to throw in one last question: “What would have happened to your family if you had died without ever having kids?”

“My family would never have existed.” He said these words in a subdued tone, and quickly walked away.

This church leader’s initial reaction to church planting is very common and is based on a myth—“Church planting hurts existing churches.” This could not be further from the truth, but it has kept the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America from expanding and growing to its full potential.

The truth is that existing churches do not decline as a result of church planting. Established churches do not die as a result of giving birth to new congregations. On the contrary, church planting revitalizes the mother church and provides the opportunity for more disciples to be engaged in mission. Church planting keeps the mother church healthier, extends its life, and assures the longevity of the denomination or the network of churches for generations to come.

Why do churches die? Thom S. Rainer, in his blog entitled “Autopsy of a Deceased Church,” gives some of the reasons. Here are a few:

lack of community focused ministry
budget for members’ needs keeps increasing while budget for mission decreases
absence of missional/evangelistic emphasis
members argue more and more about their preferences
members don’t pray together
no clarity as to why the church exists
idolization of another era

Now, knowing that church planting does not cause decline or death in established churches, perhaps you may be asking: What is the big deal with church planting? Why is church planting important?

There are people in neighborhoods, small towns, cities, and corners of the Rocky Mountain Conference territory, who cannot experience the love of God and the compassion of Jesus in practical ways through an Adventist community of believers simply because they don’t have physical access to us. To be accessible to most people we need to have a church for every 25,000 inhabitants. With over 354 million people across North America, we would need approximately 14,162 Adventist churches to be more effective in reaching people. Presently, we have 6,277 congregations.

There are over six million people in Colorado, Wyoming, and the San Juan County of New Mexico. This means the Rocky Mountain Conference needs about 240 churches in order to be accessible to most of the population in its territory. There are about 100 churches in the conference. We clearly have a lot of work to do across North America, and in the Rocky Mountain Conference. You are alive today because someone gave birth to you.

The same applies to your church. You belong to a church today because someone planted your church. What would have happened if your parents had decided not to reproduce? Were would you be? How about the church? What if the Adventist pioneers had decided to stay comfortably with one church community and had never planted another church? What would have happened to the Adventist movement?

When children are born they bring happiness, hard work, and much responsibility to the parents. Births rank right at the top of the happiest moments for human beings. Responsible, healthy, functional parents do not decline with the birth of their children; they become happier, more active, and work harder than ever before to provide, protect, and make sure the new life grows, develops, and is able to reproduce again.

Just like births, church plants should be among the most celebrated and special events in Adventism. Churches that plant churches are happier, healthier, more relevant, and more active. They are also supportive of their new baby congregation. Just as parents love their babies, mother churches must love their new church plants, and allow them to grow and develop with their own unique characteristics.

If you feel like the church leader in my story, I am praying for you. If parenthood and grandparenthood are so great, why discourage others from the experience? In the name of Jesus, do not deny your church the most awesome challenge and the happiest privilege of giving birth to a baby church.

–José Cortes, Jr., is North American Division (NAD) associate ministerial director. He leads evangelism, global mission, and church planting for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.