Church Planting Elitism

Earlier this week, Ed Stetzer shared about new trends in church planting, most notably that local churches are becoming the engine for church planting.  As someone who is (and will continue to) invest himself in helping churches plant churches, this is exciting to see.  However, there is something that has been on my mind for some time, and I have been bringing this up among church planters in the PLNTD relational communities for their thoughts on this.  What am I speaking of?

Church planting elitism.

Now I hesitate to even mention this because I have some good friends in the church planting world that would likely fit the description below. Nevertheless, I think it is worth discussing because I fear the upshot is a growing disconnect between what is being portrayed/perceived and what is experienced in reality for many church planters today.  Let me explain.

When I reflect on the major plenary speakers at church planting conferences today, there are five categories or common characteristics that most (not all) of them have:

  • Large church – their church typically runs over 1,000 in attendance
  • Million dollar budget – their budgets allow for large amounts (not necessarily percentages) of money to go to church planting
  • Urban centers – they are located in a large urban city (Dallas, Raleigh, Louisville, Seattle, Orlando, etc.)
  • Colleges/Universities and seminaries – they have several colleges, universities, and seminaries where they can easily farm and recruit future church planters from the upcoming generation
  • Charismatic personality – they usually have a strong, dynamic leader whose personality plays a significant role in the branding of the church plant

While not every conference speaker at church planting conferences fit every one of these categories, it seems that most of them do.  And I might add, this is not inherently bad or wrong.  What makes it bad or wrong is the unintended consequences that arise from what could be described as church planting elitism.

What are some of the unintended consequences?

Church planting becomes popular because conference attendees are more likely to be fan-boys rather than called by God to plant a church.  It is easy to grow a soul-patch, wear distressed jeans, and find affliction shirts to sport.  In other words, people can “play the planter” all the while never become one.  The church planting stardom built upon the cult of celebrity fights a very real temptation to embrace personalities in church planting rather than the purposes of church planting. Church planting elitism creates a massive disconnect between what is represented on the platform versus what the average church planter experiences in the trenches.  What if you don’t live in an urban center, don’t have a large budget, don’t have hundreds of people, and don’t have large universities and seminaries around?  Can you plant churches?

My guess is that the majority of church planters attending conferences have relatively little in common with the aforementioned categories and therefore experience dissonance while at same time expressing appreciation for those who fit those categories.  Church planting elitism implicitly creates an arbitrary standard for “success” in church planting.  What does it take for someone to be a speaker at a church planting conference? By what standard are we determining success, and what would be appropriate ways to celebrate it?

These are just some of my thoughts that run through my head.  And let me repeat that those who you or I would fit into this category are not wrong for qualifying to be in that category.  What is problematic to me is the manner in conferences employ them and the goals they seek to accomplish.

Let’s be honest.

If you are responsible for putting a church planting conference together with a goal of having 500+ people in attendance (much less 2,000 or more!), you would not have people headlining the conference that people have never heard of.  As I have been told on more than one occasion, church planting elitism is necessary to draw large crowds of people because of their familiarity with said speakers.

We may scoff in disappointment with the conference planners with this admission, but what does it say about those of us who pick and choose conferences based on the same criteria we easily judge them for employing for a successful conference?  Is it possible to have an “anti-conference” conference where people would shell out significant amount of money and carve out sections of their yearly calendar to attend a gathering where there is no celebrity draw and no elitism being paraded?

Well, if that is going to happen, I believe it will be when a massive number of people network together with sincere commitment to live in genuine community for a greater purpose in advancing the mission by serving one another.

I want to believe that community can replace celebrity as the main attraction.
I want to believe that encouragement can replace elitism as the main motivation.
I want to believe that conferences turn out more soldiers in the trenches than fan-boys in the lobby.

Do any of you feel me on this one?  Let me know what you think, especially if you are a church planter or in a church planting church.  The trend of more churches being responsible for planting churches is a very encouraging trend, but it seems that until we can see churches of 200 people with significantly less money in more obscure places capable of reproducing themselves, we still have a long way to go.

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13 Comments on “Church Planting Elitism”

  1. Kyle French Says:

    There are plenty of conferences like you are describing (though maybe not on church planting). They’re usally small, supported by a single local church, under-promoted, and often free.

  2. Nathan Says:

    Excellent post! I agree with your reflections.
    This is why I appreciate Sovereign Grace who, though their conference events are huge, are constantly placing normal, ordinary pastors who don’t have Ph.D’s from Cambridge or pastor a megachurch. Jofh Loftness is a good example of this. http://www.sovereigngraceministries.org/blogs/sgm/post/John-Loftness-The-Advantage-of-the-Small%28er%29-Church.aspx

    However, I am not opposed to having ‘Gospel-centered celebrities’ headline conferences. The main reason for this is that these guys tend to be specially equipped and gifted and are worth gathering 7k people to hear them. I’m especially encouraged because it seems that by and large, our Gospel-centered circle has avoided spotlighting gifted guys who may be devoid of godliness and humility. This is a mistake our friends in the seeker movement may have made.

    Excellent post! I’m adding you to my RSS

  3. John Says:

    Homerun. I’m a planter in a growing city and have felt the tensions you speak of, the celebrity that is accompanying this biblical trend of planting and the subsequent upshot of it becoming more of a trend and less of a call for many. Bittersweet to see the resurgence of plants right now for all your aforementioned reasons.

    Also, if this is your ever so subtle way of asking me to speak at the next PLANTD conference, I’d be glad to 🙂

  4. mraley Says:

    Strongly agree with this post. We’re part of a rural church attempting a church plant in the next town. Most of the resources don’t fit.


  5. Timmy,

    Solid thoughts. I would only suggest what you describe derives from a deeper elitism that shows up at “any” conference. Go back and peruse line-ups before church planting became vogue and the measure of who “gets it.” You will find the same thing dating back thirty or more years.

    And, the same unintended consequences breeds and unhealthy discontent among young pastors that results in what Ed Stetzer has referred to as an “envy” of those in the very places you describe (5 characteristics). And, when some who do not fit the prescribed criteria but pastor in other settings invite these same celebrity figures to come, we have been told, “your church is not big enough.”

    Funny how those who can identify the sordid affair tend to perpetuate the very thing they identify.


    • Anecdotally, I was invited to be a part of a coaching community where one of the leading church planting platform speakers was going to coach a small group of people. Unfortunately, our church did not meet the arbitrary criteria of have at least 500 people in attendance on Sunday mornings, so I was scratched off the list.

      The irony is that church planting churches *send their members away on mission* so the measure that *should* qualify someone for coaching is the very thing that disqualifies them from being coached by a well-known church planter.

      Just thought I’d throw that personal example into the mix FWIW.


      • Timmy,

        So, maybe the issue runs on both tracks. The current climate, regardless of the conference subject, exposes much about us (we who attend these gigs) and them (those who put on these gigs) thereby making this an expose about all of us.


  6. I feel you. Staying focused and faithful in our locality is a way forward. Work with men, do the work of the ministry…

    Why not just drop out of that whole scene? We can imagine doing this work without conference circuit riding…no?


    • I wonder what would happen if indeed the was a strong number of people who did drop out of the whole scene. It doesn’t look like that sort of thing would happen, as conferences have played a significant role in evangelicalism picking and choosing their leaders, especially for the next generation.

      • Reid Says:

        Exactly. We need more men who care not for impressing some thing called “evangelicals” We need need more servant leaders who care not for stage and spotlight and find joy in leading only as men in the arena.

        A possible rubric for such a way
        1. Do not fear man or engage in angling for political power – be under authority but be give ourselves to the work allotted to us
        2. Serve locally and in real mission first and foremost
        3. Speak only at events which are of direct gospel ministry orientation
        4. Work to do training in small bands and cohorts
        5. Give generously to any and all with no credit expected or concern for loss of copyrights and monetary potential.
        6. Using technology – publish directly


        • I LOVE your recommendations bro. Solid. I originally posted this on PLNTD’s training community, and your thoughts were exactly what many of them were saying.

          It seems that conferences planners are going to have to decide whether they want to target the fan boys in the foyer or the servant leaders planting in obscurity.

  7. scottemery Says:

    Here are a few links that may spark some thoughts in regards to the “anti-conference”. Check out the Ecclesia Network and what they do: http://www.ecclesianet.org/ Their most recent Unconference: http://www.ecclesianet.org/la-2010-west-coast-regional-gathering/2010/09 And their Missional Learning Commons: http://missionalcommons.org/ Hope some of these thoughts help.


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