Wednesday, September 27

Why do so many of our church plants fail?

The Good News. Over the past few years we have seen over 250 house churches started. All of these have been begun by winning new believers and discipling them to the Lord. These new church plants are led by lay believers, many of them 2nd generation Christians coming out of the original church plants. Hundreds of souls have come to know the Lord through these church starts.

The Bad News. Less than 100 of these can be found today and remain active. We despair at the great number of church plants that start well and yet within weeks or months disintegrate into nothing. This of course has us trying to figure what is going on? Why do we have such a high attrition rate? I can only speculate at this point and openly invite input from others.

Some thoughts that come to mind from our own local experience:

1. Leadership of the new works do not really believe that the house churches are legitimate N.T. churches. Most of our servant leaders come out of the established traditional evangelical churches and carry with them huge amounts of extra-Biblical baggage. We do our best to teach them what the NT says, but breaking paradigms is hard. Our training is viewed not so much as planting new churches, but as a way to grow the already established churches (more converts=more money coming in=bigger facilities/staff=more ministries=greater prestige,etc.)

2. Failure on the part of us missionaries to properly spend necessary time with all of these church planters to teach, mentor, encourage, etc. There are so many of these folks scattered all over the city and province. We haven't figured out the best way to maintain meaningful relationships with them to be able to journey with them through the ups and downs of church planting.

3. As George Patterson teaches, slowness to baptize new believers may be a cause for many of the churches disintegrating. While baptism does not save, we do feel that until they are baptized, they are probably not saved. Baptism is the great deciding factor for most of our people. When they decide to be baptized, that is when they really have made up their mind to follow Christ. Even with our teaching on the subject there is often reluctance on many of the servant leaders to baptize because of years of evangelical traditions where only ordained ministers can fulfill this role. This is further complicated by the traditional churches not accepting the work and validity of the house churches or their leaders.

4. Lack of a clear network that ties all of the house churches together. We have tried many ways to keep alive some sort of network amongst the house churches but find it is difficult to achieve due to the size of the city, transportation factors, working with people from varied denominations and backgrounds.

5. Many have "closed shop" because they ran out of materials and lessons to teach. They simply "run out of gas" after a while and don't know what else to do. Ongoing training is one thing we stress and this has helped those who continue with the TEE and other training opportunities, but more often than not, what happens is that people fall back into their default mode and do not apply that which they are being taught. It doesn't take long for the blossoming new believers to notice that there are plenty of other churches around that seem to be doing it "better."

6. The attraction of the big, traditional established churches enticing the new believers into their machinery of programs, services, ministries. It is very hard to compete with the worship bands, trained preaching, nice facilities, programs for children and youth, etc. Many of our new believers in house churches will begin to compare their simple house church experience led by lay leaders with all that the bigger churches have to offer.

7. Lack of perseverance and/or lack of maturity by the lay church planter. They start out well and with enthusiasm, but begin to falter when the first problems begin to arise. They soon encounter problems that were not covered in our training (murmuring, jealousy, gossip, accusations, direction for the church, etc.) I really can understand better Paul's Epistles to the new churches in this light. There are so many problems in new churches and often the servant leaders simply do not feel equipped to handle a lot of what goes on. So the leader tends to shut down and it isn't long afterwards that the church shuts down too.

8. I have often thought of the parable of the sower in relation to church planting. Jesus speaks of several kinds of ground that the seed fell into. An abundant harvest takes place in only one of the types of ground while while the other three produce no lasting results. Maybe this is the norm and to be expected? Whether or not this is so, we long to see more permanent fruit, fruit that remains.

ANY INPUT OUT THERE WOULD BE APPRECIATED!!!--I am serious. For several years now, one of my frustrations as a church planting missionary has been our inability to get the necessary help/insight to be able to stop the hemorrhaging. We know how to start churches, we have what I believe to be great materials and training, but we aren't doing too well at sustaining them long-term.

More and more I feel the need for onsite "house church coaches" to walk alongside us and share what they are seeing. As Stepchild recently wrote about in an excellent article, church planting is more an art than a science. Our own vision gets clouded and we need a fresh set of eyes to help us see clearly what is happening. Someone who really understands our local situation and can advise from lived experience rather than simply referring us to an article/book/case study.


Travis said...

I just got done reading Neil Cole's book, Organic Church...I think he would probably say #8 on your list.

It looks like you have experienced fruit, though...more fruit than anything here in the States. Praise God for what He's done in your parts!

Darrell said...

Guy your humility and transparency is amazing to me. I really respect that about you. It is an example to me. It is also extremely valuable to me because of where I am in this journey.

I know very little of what you do to train servant leaders so forgive me if what I am about to write is old school to you, and already a component of your training. As I read this post I wondered how much “deprogramming” is part of the training for those who come to you as Christians in traditional churches. The week of training with David Watson was 70% deprogramming. He made these pastors, missionaries, and mission board folks look at the scriptures and only the scriptures on everything that had to do with the church. In one column he had them copy the passage, the next column he had them write the scripture in their own words, and the last column he had them write what applications came from the scripture. It was painful for them. It was not Watson trying to persuade them, it was the Word speaking authoritatively about leaders, function, activities, and nature of the church. Most were forced to admit the reality of what and how they do things were in conflict with the scripture. I think this was a very smart move on Watson’s part. It served to build a very biblical basis for everything. I think it weeded out anyone with mixed motives, and empowered others to make drastic changes knowing the scripture was their foundation for the changes. Again perhaps you already do this. You have done far more then me, and have forgotten more then I will learn about all this.

We have the same problem with networking existing house churches. We have tried several things to create a network; retreats, quarterly pot lucks, web-site, newsletter, days of prayer, etc. I don’t know if it can be done at a high level, or if it is really makes a difference. What is very important are the mentoring relationships with leaders. Relationships like the one I have with folks like you, are a life line. So I have focused my energy toward networking with leaders, and left the network of churches to happen on their own. Over the last year our house church has formed an informal network with one other house church. The association developed as a result of one of their leaders and I developing a strong and deep relationship.

Guy overall I pray that God would give me ¼ of the fruit you have. What a blessing to see around 100 churches. I will continue to pray that God will guide you to do the things you can do to make a difference. However like you told me once, Jesus is the one who builds His church. Bless you for being willing to do something different!

Paul Burleson said...


I've been out of pocket and on the road the past couple of weeks at the time I usually comment, but you've been prayed for regularly.

I have to say, your last couple of posts have been exceptional. I know without a doubt you're hearing from a pioneer. I think that's some of the best stuff I've read in a long time. It will be used, remembered and reflected on for some time in my heart. Thanks.
Paul B.

antonio said...

I think prayer has some to do with it but it is hard to get people motivated. I think your number six is also definately a big problem.

From what I have seen here most of those wishing to have Bible studies and such end up just joining the local church or not doing anything at all. My thing now is that I don't have much experience in what happens afterwards to be able to comment to much, because our work is primarily pre and not post. However; that does help me out for the future as my primary job is changing of sorts.

GuyMuse said...

TRAVIS, I very much would like to get my hands on a copy of Neil Cole's "Organic Church". I have heard Neil speak and have heard/seen videos and recordings by him, but do not have this classic hc book by him.

DARRELL, Thanks for the kind words. We used to do more "deprogramming" but have backed off from it quite a bit over the past year or so. Our reasoning was that while we believed a lot of this, it was turning a lot of people off who might be willing to plant a church. We figured ANY new church plant is better than none. Now we are having to take a second look about all these matters. It was very interesting to me to read that you say 70% of David Watson's training is deprogramming. This gives me something to think about.

PAUL, Thanks for your faithful prayer support. The Teleamigo video I posted today has the purpose of trying to get a bunch more "Paul Burleson's" out there to pray for us as well, as the title suggests, Prayer is the foundation of everything we do. I'm glad you enjoyed the "Frontier Theology" piece, seems Wade did too!

ANTONIO, You are right, motivating people is very hard. That is where praying to the Lord of the Harvest for laborers comes in. Unless HE touches their heart, there is little we can do to convince them. We have had a lot of trouble with #6 too, but in the end, we are ALL working for the Kingdom (not OUR kingdoms). We are happy if any new convert joins either one of our new church plants, or chooses to unite with an already established church.

antonio said...

As I am ironing my clothes, I was thinking about this. One of the problems I face and others have faced here is the men. Many of the woman are Christians and so are many men but the men have a lack of involvement. This was demonstrated for me in a Bible study that we had to move out of the home and to the church for reasons out of control. A lady came to the Bible study and said, if you do it here. I can come but not in home. Of course this Bible study is not for new believers and is a disciple class so of which it is not a big deal even though some have already think it's not good being in the church. Of course the flip to this is that this is not a Bible study take members and start a new church but to disciple the ones in an already established church. What happens afterwards is in the Lord's hands. I think sometimes we put to much emphasise on what the book says and not what the Book says. It's all the Lord's and within his power. By the way, that is encouraging news about the church plants.

mr. t said...


These last two posts are unusually good and have blessed me tremendously.

I agree with all of your observations 1-8. I think most of the reasons you mention relate to barriers to house cpm from traditional evangelical churches. I echo what Darrell mentioned about deprogramming. If they don't like it, they are not going to plant churches that will plant churches anyway. In your place I would maintain a healthy relationship with these but focus on the disciples ready for a change, to work outside the box. After all, you are there to reach the lost, not to coddle the saved.

Something to consider would be your context. I have observed in pioneer situations house churches work really well. Where there is little or no gospel/Christian presence. But where there have been churches established for many years, and many are still vibrant, house churches tend to get swallowed up or not have the same impact on lostness. However, cell churches tend to have great impact in those environments (especially in latin america). There are a variety of reasons for this, it would be better to go into that on another post.

I wrote something about this back in August - cpm... for every context?

I would like to dialogue more about it, maybe another time.

mr. t

GuyMuse said...

ANTONIO--We too have a shortage of reliable men to work with. They are good about talking, but when it comes time to actually getting out there and doing something, it is usually the women who can be counted upon to step in and do what needs to be done.

MR. T--Thanks for the good words. I remember well your "cpm...for every context" post. It was excellent and the dialogue between you and David Rogers in the comments section was most interesting. What you say above in your comment is a generally accurate observation, "I have observed in pioneer situations house churches work really well...But where there have been churches established for many churches tend to get swallowed up or not have the same impact on lostness...cell churches tend to have great impact in those environments..." However, I truly believe that if we are ever going to ever make a serious impact upon lostness it will not be through the established or cell church models. It will be when the entire Church is mobilized into the harvest fields and freed to plant churches in the natural context that homes provide. The control factors in most established work restrict this process from taking place, and yet it is precisely what the Lord commanded us to do (at least it is so in our context.)

zane anderson said...

Hi Guy, Hi Travis, and all laborers in God's vineyard.

God is really at work but the work has it's discouragements. For me, it been like clawing my way through granite with only my fingernails to work with. But I'm not ready to give up, by his grace.

House churching requires a stable household which disqalifies most in the US where the divorce rate for the saved is the same as the lost. Then both spouses should be in general agreement about church things. Then there should be a general agreement on the format. Then there should be a willingness to love at all times.

As for the numbers in the USA, Travis, this is from a Dawn Ministries report from earlier this year:

"John White challenged us with what he calls 'the leadership solution', daily praying the Luke 10:2b prayer for laborers, together with a soul mate. Since he started doing this, and teaching this organic principle to other believers, God sent people on his way, one after the other, asking advice on how to plant churches, and he could simply coach them in doing that. This way, the simple church networks in the States are growing exponentially. While 530 simple churches were planned 'in faith' for 2005, they hit the 6,000 mark. While they intended to train 530 church planters in 2005, they saw 1,000 church planters trained in the first two months of 2006 alone. With this kind exponential growth (the current growth rate is 70%) they could reach their target of 4 million simple churches in North America (400,000 networks, 40,000 network coaches, 4,000 lead coaches) by the year 2018. Then they still have two years left to rest from their labors."

So, I went with haste to John's site expecting to find a directory of church planters broken down by city and state, eager to find them working in our area. Instead, I found one link to one other coach - one who charges $50 per half-hour phone session. If this is about "simple church," why all the expensive and ongoing coaching?

Ross Garner said...

Hello Guy

As I read your post I was reminded of the pioneering theological work of Roland Allen. I am sure you will be familiar with his thinking as you are putting much of it into practice already.

I hesitate to offer advice as you are streets ahead of anything else that I know of in terms of church planting, so perhaps I could just encourage you to refresh your memory by looking at this web page and seeing if the Holy Spirit gives you any particular insight.

The bit that seems most relevant to me in view of your concrens is this: "Just as the Apostle did not abandon the new congregations but visited, wrote, and sent others to them, likewise, contemporary missionaries were not to practice abandonment."

Just how you get the balance right I do not know. But I am sure the Lord wants to guide you in this.

As I am writing I find Galatians coming to mind. St.Paul was frustrated by the Judaisers who were trying to draw his converts back into the old religious ways.

I hope these rambling thoughts prove to be helpful.

David Rogers said...


I have refrained from commenting up to now, because by no means would I ever want to minimize what God is doing there in Ecuador through the house church movement. You have seen much, much more fruit there through house churches than we have seen in Spain through any church planting model.

I do, however, find Mr. T's comments about context, and the influence of the established churches, to "strike a chord." I remember hearing (and if I remember correctly, reading as well) Wolfgang Simson say something to the effect of individual house churches will not work in the long run, without the support of the "city church" and the 5-fold ministry network. I don't know if you have anything that resembles this there.

The problem I see with Simson's model (if I am understanding it correctly) is that the "city church," in my opinion, is not truly the "city church" biblically, unless it embraces and includes the traditional church as well.

In the end, there may not be a whole lot of difference between some so-called "house church networks" and some so-called "cell churches." I seems to me it would be positive to link the "house churches" together in a network that some might even mistake for a "cell church," provided it avoids the overly authoritarian, hierarchical structure present in a lot of the "cell churches" in Latin America.

But, all of this is more just theory, since we in Spain haven't had near as much opportunity to try this out in real life situations yet as it seems you have there in Ecuador.

I pray God will give you wisdom, boldness, and perseverance, as you continue to obey Him there.


mr. t said...


I just read David Roger's excellent comment. I encourage you to use the best things about the cell church model to build a tighter house church network. It does not matter if others mistake it for a cell church as long as it accomplishes kingdom expansion.

You are at a new stage of development in the work that requires adjustments that will facilitate further expansion. You don't want to copy another model but follow the Holy Spirit's lead to strengthen the existing network and take it to the next level. Your present network may be too loose and need some more formal structures to encourage, provide accountability and new empowerment of leaders.

Just a thought... mr. t.

Guy Muse said...

ZANE--Thanks for stopping by and for the interesting USA hc stats. I can understand your frustration about not being able to find a hc coach (or at least one that doesn't charge $50/half hour). I would personally write John White and explain your situation. I have written him on numerous times and always received a thoughtful reply to my inquiries.

ROSS--Thanks for the CMA link. I will check it out later. I confess I have never actually read the Rolland Allen classics but have been aware of the principles he advocated for many years. We try to follow the MAWL (model, assist, watch, leave) approach to our own church planting. In the "L" stage when we leave, it has been our experience that the planted church tends to leave us, rather than any intentional leaving on our part. They "grow up" and move on. We continue to invite them to meetings, events, etc. Sometimes they participate, other times not. I guess this is healthy, but we miss having more contact with them.

DAVID--As I responded to Mr.T, I went back and reread the dialogue you had with him in the comments section over a lot of this same theme. We do have a "city church" thinking that would include ALL the Body of Christ in our city (traditional, cell, house, etc.) I would agree that individual house churches will not work in the long run unless they are part of a larger "city church" and have the ministry of a 5-fold network of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

But having said that, we are a looong way from this being something functional. We can't even fellowship with the traditional Baptist churches, little less any other denominations and churches in our city. We have tried over and over to show our openess to the traditional churches, but they think of us much as the RC church did the newly forming Protestant church back in the Reformation (as rebellious brethren that need to get back in the fold.)

There has been an attempt to name "apostles" over the "city church". But not much has come of this so far. The only "apostles" named were all the pastors from the big churches in town. About the closest we ever get to truly being a "city church" is for special events like the upcoming Franklin Graham crusade. In these contexts everyone seems to come together for an EVENT but after the dust settles, we each go our separate ways.

Speaking of Wolfgang, he wrote one of the most interesting papers on the need for the three expressions of NT church (traditional, cell, house) to come together to finish the task. I translated the 2-page paper and often hand it out to anyone I think might bother to read it.

guy muse said...

MR T--I am not sure I would know how to take the best from the cell church model to build a tighter hc network. Any ideas? This is pretty much where we are at the present, seeking the Spirit's guidance to take it to the next level. I know we need more structure but simply don't have the insight either from the HS or any other sources.

David Rogers said...

Once again, I want to reiterate I feel a bit out of place commenting here, as my "theory" far outweighs my "experience."

But, upon hearing personally W. Simson a couple of times, and reading "Houses that Change the World," I came away spiritually and strategically challenged, but also wondering how what he was saying could ever truly fit in with us as a denominational missions agency.

Ideally, I long for the day when we could actually see something like the "city church" Simson describes really functioning like it did in NT times. Pragmatically, however, I believe we run a grave danger by trying to force it before its time, much like Alexander Campbell, whose followers ended up becoming more sectarian than the the sectarianism he purported to avoid.

I think the best option for us, in the meantime, is to recognize denominations a here with us for a good bit longer, and try to get on as well as we can, showing mutual respect, love, and cooperation, whenever it is practical. I think organizational union, for the time being, will tend to get in the way more than help these things, though.

Church planting networks are somewhere in between. They are many times transdenominational, but do not pretend to be the "city church" representing everyone of all stripes and colors. I think in each context, it is good to seek out, or work towards a group of like-minded churches and church planters, and encourage each other, organize joint training events and programs, and provide for wider fellowship of those involved in the individual congregations. Whether there is a formally defined supervisory relationship between pastors/leaders of house churches and larger scale team of overseers would depend on the particular context. But, I do think it is an idea to be considered, at least.

Mike said...

Thanks for posting this Guy. This is all such great stuff to learn from. Your posts are rippling farther than you know. In a good way!

mr. t said...


What David Rogers said is worth repeating and thinking/praying about...

"I think in each context, it is good to seek out, or work towards a group of like-minded churches and church planters, and encourage each other, organize joint training events and programs, and provide for wider fellowship of those involved in the individual congregations. Whether there is a formally defined supervisory relationship between pastors/leaders of house churches and larger scale team of overseers would depend on the particular context. But, I do think it is an idea to be considered, at least."

I would find those like-minded apostolic types that see the need to take it to the next level and spend time praying with them about how to do that. I also don't see anything wrong with creating a voluntary hierarchy to encourage, hold people accountable and empower lay people to do all that is necessary (baptism, Lord's Supper, etc.).

You are at a point that no one can tell you how to do this... just find others with the same heart and mind to pray through it. You already recognize the need for more structure to slow the hemoraging. The Holy Spirit will lead you and your fellow leaders on how to best do that.

Guy Muse said...

MIKE--Thanks for stopping by. I always enjoy keeping up with your missions travels around the world over at Letters From Paphos. It is so exciting to hear what God is doing in all these places.

DAVID/MR.T--Very timely advise that which Mr.T says of David Rogers is "worth repeating..." This very afternoon in our team meeting we took your advise and made up a list of around 20 solid church planters, men/women who are "on board." Each of us on the team chose three of the 25 to personally begin visiting and to find out how we can help the church start. We are going to do everything within our power to be there for them, help them, pray with them, provide them with the materials they need, motivate to multiply, etc. Once a month we are going to try to begin meeting with all these people in one place.

The comments shared on this post have resulted in some concrete actions taken by our team today. May God continue to lead and guide us all.

Anonymous said...

The attrition rate sounds about normal to me for LA, anyway. In Honduras we start 100 DBS's (discovery bible studies) and know that 50% to 75% will fall by the wayside and disappear. Our answer has been to focus on the continuous starting of new DBS and not let the attrition rate hold us back. We are always pushing out and forward knowing well beforehand "that it is what it is "and from all appearances we can't change the attrition rate. So, if we wish to start say 100 churches in a year we best look at starting 400 new dbs's and focus on that process instead of on those that fizzle out. By doing this we may actually end up with 200 churches instead of 100. Then one rejoices. Of course the transition from dbs to church is another process that is different than the process of starting hundreds of new dbs' s. Once the transition is made to churches then you again have more attrition. Some will fall by wayside and disappear completely. Others will breakup and members will scatter joining traditional churches. There are many tensions in small house churches. They are "face to face" churches. Everybody knows most everything about everybody. Again you get a primary attrition rate when starting dbs's then a secondary attrition rate when these dbs's form into churches. In the latter we just rejoice that folks are continuing to serve God even if it may be in another The former attrition rate is more unsettling because it is directly concerned with the lost and dying.

J. Guy Muse said...


Thanks for the comments. Sounds like we experience similar things! I agree that continuing to focus on new works is what we need to be doing. Some will take root, and others will not. The same applies for those in training. Only about 20% of those trained ever do anything with the training. The rest just archive the materials and never do anything with the training they have received. Keep up the good work. Sounds like there are some exciting things happening there in LA.