A Healthy Church in Every Community

This article, originally appeared in Influence Magazine and was authored by Chris Railey, director of CMN, and John Davidson, CMN director of discovery and development.

God-given dreams change everything. God-given dreams are disruptive, transformative and ultimately redemptive. When God births a new dream in a person’s heart, it triggers a chain of events from which there’s no coming back. If you’ve been there, you know. God speaks and works through dreams and visions. And when we hear from Him, our world will never be the same.

That was certainly true for Joseph. As a young man, Joseph had a prophetic dream that revealed God’s plan for him and his family. For this dreamer, however, the journey would not be an easy one. In fact, his brothers became jealous of the dream and sold him into slavery. He faced mistreatment, false accusations and imprisonment — all as a result of his God-given dream.

 But because he held on to the dream and remained true to the One who gave it to him, Joseph saw God move in an amazing way. God used Joseph’s faithfulness to preserve the descendants of Abraham so they could become a mighty nation, in fulfillment of His promise.

Any leader should be able to identify with Joseph’s story. It takes a God-given dream to answer the call and carry on through difficult times. But holding on to that dream gives us a front-row seat to all that God wants to accomplish.

At the Church Multiplication Network, we have a God-given dream: We want to see 10,000 Assemblies of God churches planted in the next decade. In the face of increasing secularization of American society, that may seem audacious, to put it mildly. But we believe in the power of a God-given dream and what God can do through those who are faithful.

As I (Chris) look back at my own ministry journey, I can see the power of the dream God gave me, a dream to start a new work and see a fresh move of God in a hard place. The dream is exciting, but what comes next is hard — at times, confusing — and often challenges our faith and resolve. Yet the result of faithful perseverance toward a God-given dream is nothing short of miraculous.

We believe that a generation of church planters and missions-minded pastors and leaders will change the face of this country by discipling their congregations and reaching out down their blocks, across their towns, throughout their communities, and into the world.

That’s what happened in the Book of Acts, when the first Church received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. After God fulfilled the prophecy of Joel 2 by pouring out His Spirit on all kinds of people, the disciples became pioneers. They saw the work of multiplication as the Holy Spirit moved them, and the Church grew from their hometown, to their region, and out into the world. Since that time, Spirit-filled believers have followed the same path, believing in the principle of multiplication.

The modern Pentecostal movement essentially started out of a small prayer meeting in Los Angeles and now numbers hundreds of millions of believers worldwide. The Assemblies of God alone comprises more than 3 million members in the U.S. and more than 69 million around the world.

At this point in history, we need to see another move of God in the United States, and we believe this will come through the local church. At the heart of the Church Multiplication Network is a God-given dream to see a healthy church in every community in the U.S. But to accomplish that, it’s going to take a new movement of Spirit-empowered prophets, dreamers and ministers who are willing to embrace the call to bring this dream to fruition.

We’re praying for God to raise up a movement of leaders and churches to answer this call. For Assemblies of God ministers, that may seem like an odd message, given the success our Fellowship has had. Yet we believe everyone needs the gospel, and although we have seen successes, there is much more to do. Healthy churches change everything.

The Need: Are We Really Winning?

While many denominations are declining across America, the Assemblies of God is growing. Over the past 10 years, the Fellowship has seen the number of adherents grow by 12 percent, to more than 3.2 million people.

At the Church Multiplication Network, we celebrate these successes — and we celebrate a lot because there is so much good news. Churches are birthing parent affiliated churches to reach the unreached across town and across the country. Many church planters are going into places where Pentecostal congregations have never been. Others are replanting in areas where Pentecostal congregations once served but died out. There are just over 13,000 AG churches in the U.S., and every week those churches are ministering to their communities, bringing people to Jesus, and helping them grow in faith.

However, the Assemblies of God can’t rest on any laurels because there’s much left to do. There are roughly 30,000 cities in the U.S., and two-thirds of them don’t have an Assemblies of God church, which means a large segment of the nation remains untouched by our Pentecostal message.

The number of new churches we plant each year represents about 3 percent of the total number of churches in the Fellowship. With roughly the same share of our churches closing each year, we’re merely breaking even on this front. We are among the few denominations whose church numbers aren’t rapidly declining, which means we’re in a better position than most. Yet we need to step up our planting efforts if we hope to gain ground.

The percentage of Assemblies of God churches that are either plateaued or declining in attendance has been rising since the early 1990s — with almost 7 in 10 now falling into those categories — and is currently at its highest level in nearly four decades. More than 4 in 10 AG churches in America experienced at least a 10 percent decline over the last five years. Only 3 in 10 saw growth of 10 percent or more over that same period.

Even where we see growth in individual churches, a closer look at the statistics reveals another problem: Much of it is merely transfer growth. A LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 evangelical congregations found that churches average one conversion annually for every 19 people attending (a 19:1 ratio). For growing churches, the ratio isn’t much better — one conversion for every 17 attenders (17:1). In other words, most church “growth” is the result of people moving from one congregation to another.

There is plenty of work to do, as the fields truly are ripe for harvest. Churchgoing in America is in decline, as more people walk away from their local faith communities.

About 71 percent of U.S. adults identify as Christian, and a quarter are evangelicals, according to Pew Research Center. Yet only 36 percent of Americans attend religious services weekly. And the percentage of people identifying as evangelicals has trended down over the past decade.

Adding to the trouble for our Fellowship, fewer churches are aligning with a denomination. The majority of the 100 largest churches in the U.S. are nondenominational, a designation with which nearly 1 in 5 American evangelicals now identify.

The issue for the Assemblies of God is whether the Pentecostal message — and the power of the Spirit-filled life — will continue in the United States over the long term, much less the international missions movement that the Fellowship has so strongly supported over its lifetime.

We believe the key to reversing negative church trends is a healthy church in every community that can make the gospel accessible to everyone.

Proximity Matters

Technically, anyone with a smartphone has access to the gospel through the Internet and the dozens of apps that are available. But that’s not the same as experiencing the gospel within a healthy, Christ-centered church.

The most obvious benefit of a local church is its availability to people nearby. However, after years of churches leaving urban and rural areas and moving to the suburbs, and the migration of people across the country, there are places that desperately need a church. Millions of Americans simply aren’t close to a life-giving community of believers. In our largest cities, we don’t just need church but many churches.

This is a principle that the big retail chains, such as Starbucks, understand. They put stores where there are people, and in some cities, that means there may be a Starbucks across the street or just down the block from another Starbucks. Successful companies simply go where people are and provide services they want and need.

Can we offer people what they want and need? That’s something to consider, particularly given the increased secularization of the nation. Church leaders know that everyone needs Jesus, but with statistics showing that more and more Americans are either unchurched or dechurched, it seems many in our communities don’t know they need Jesus because they may not know about Jesus.

Complaining about the lack of people attending services will not alter the fact that society has changed. It’s not a matter of church not being at the top of people’s minds; for a growing share of Americans, it’s simply not a part of their thinking at all. According to Barna Group, roughly 4 in 10 Americans qualify as post-Christian (based on a series of questions regarding belief in God and Scripture, Bible engagement, church attendance, religious self-identification, etc.). They don’t know the power of the gospel because they often don’t know the gospel itself, and they haven’t witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit, especially through a local church.

To make matters worse, they may not know a Christian, much less a church that can provide them with guidance toward Christ. Over the past several decades, many churches have moved out of cities and into suburbs, buying land and building in new neighborhoods. Often, however, no church moved back into the neighborhoods they left. As a result, people in those places are without access to a healthy, Spirit-filled church.

Consider a single mother who doesn’t have transportation to get to a church on the edge of the city. She might attend if it were close, especially if she knew someone who would meet her there. If that church also met her felt needs — perhaps offering child care or parenting classes — the chances of getting her in the door would increase even more.

People need access to a healthy church, but they also need to see it in action. In an age of Netflix and on-demand everything, many complain that the church isn’t relevant and needs to become so. We believe a healthy church is always relevant because it speaks to people where they are and offers hope in the midst of life’s struggles. It also provides a welcoming and loving place of community in a nation that has seen an erosion of community life.

God has uniquely equipped us to address the current situation in America. As people of the Spirit, we have a calling to do His work, for His glory. He has empowered us to be His witnesses to the world — through both our words and our actions. We are a people of testimony. We have stories to share of what Jesus has done for us, how He changed us, and how the Holy Spirit continues to move in our lives. The unreached in America need to hear what previous generations in the Assemblies of God called the full Pentecostal witness. They need to see the power of God in our daily lives as the people attending our churches live it out in their neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.

The Leadership Challenge

God is calling us to raise up leaders who can meet people where they are, from rural communities to inner cities. That means engaging an increasingly secular nation. According to Pew Research Center, about 23 percent of U.S. adults are religiously unaffiliated, and 7 percent identify as atheist or agnostic — figures that have risen in recent years. We need workers who will plow the hard soil and pray for a harvest.

The Assemblies of God is competing for the hearts and attention of emerging leaders who could help lead this effort. Instead of joining with us, some follow loose networks of churches or brand themselves as nondenominational. For us, that is a missed opportunity. One of the strengths of our Fellowship is the multiplication that happens when we work together. Whether we’re planting local churches or engaging in global missions efforts, our history has demonstrated the power of Spirit-infused synergy.

Our prayer is that young leaders will catch this vision of seeing a healthy church in every community. It’s clear that Assemblies of God churches are doing well at attracting a cross-section of America. Consider that 53 percent of our Fellowship is under the age of 35. Also consider that 43 percent of our Fellowship is ethnic minority. However, the median age of credentialed ministers in the AG is 56, and the median age of our ordained ministers is 60. As a Fellowship, we have worked on cultivating young leaders, but we need to do more to expand that effort.

Young people are not answering the call to ministry as previous generations did. Many have never heard a message about the Great Commission or deliberated over an invitation to say, “Here am I. Send me!” They don’t know how to respond to God’s call on their lives, because no one has taught them. Without an infusion of young people who are passionately pursuing ministry, the average age of our ministers will continue to climb. While every believer can lead in his or her context of life and career, pastors must take seriously the need to call out and raise up the next generation of ministry leaders.

Healthy churches are committed to making disciples and raising up leaders. Many young people are looking for mentoring relationships. Spiritual fathers and mothers in our local churches can encourage and equip a new generation of leaders.

Fearless Multiplication

Together, we can develop an environment in which multiplication feels normal, not threatening. There may be a fear of multiplication in the local church for a variety of reasons, particularly because it appears to take away from a church’s resources of money, time and people. There may also be a fear that planting new churches will create competition for existing local churches.

However, looking at the Early Church, we can see that multiplication wasn’t just what they did; it was a part of who they were. Jesus discipled the apostles, and they became spiritual parents. Paul was a spiritual father to Timothy and Titus, among others. And they sent people and resources to plant churches and spread the gospel. What Jesus clearly taught, and the Book of Acts demonstrated, is that God can multiply what we give Him — far and beyond what anyone can imagine.

In today’s America, with its changing demographics, there is a new mission field just down the block or across town. Models like the parent affiliated church, multi-site campuses, and collaborative networks offer ways to multiply and create local churches in places where people can access them.

We simply need leaders who are willing to look past their fears, trust God for big things and take a step to reach their communities in new ways.

Actions and Attitude

It’s time for us, as a Fellowship, to dream again about how we can change the world, one community at a time. God gave Joseph a dream, and then He used Joseph to save many lives.

God is raising up leaders today to reach a lost and dying world, and we believe He has given us a prophetic call to take strategic action. Dream for what God would have you to do in the place He has put you. It starts with a vision to take the transforming power of the gospel to every city and town and village, to every zip code, neighborhood and street — until everyone hears.

It’s a big assignment, but it begins with small steps. Here’s a simple way to start: On a map, draw a circle around your church. For a small town, draw a 25-mile circle. In an urban area, draw a one-mile circle. Now look closely within that circle. What are the needs of people who live and work there? How is the church meeting those needs and reaching those people? Are there ways the church can multiply to become more effective at meeting the needs?

Those are tough questions, but they’re vital because they cause us all to reflect on how strategic we are in this process. In the busyness of ministry, it seems there is little time for strategy, but we must make the time if we want to become more effective.

A healthy church isn’t internally focused but externally focused. And pastors of healthy churches don’t just pastor their congregations but their communities. This will take new ways of thinking that may be uncomfortable. But church leaders have to understand that we’re in an unprecedented time.

What the local church does will affect the world, and not just in world missions support. America has become an increasingly diverse place, with people coming from around the globe to make a new life here or to work and study short-term. Reaching out to people from diverse backgrounds has the potential not only to change their lives but also to spread the gospel to the countries from which they came.

For healthy churches to maximize their reach, both here and around the world, it will take a God-given dream and a commitment to do these things:

  • Create spiritual parenting relationships to mentor and equip the next generation of leaders.

  • Work collaboratively with other churches, networks, partnerships and parent affiliated churches to plant new churches and campuses.

  • Believe in God’s abundance to overcome any fear, and release leaders and resources to expand the reach of the gospel.

  • Bring in both men and women from diverse backgrounds who can reach different areas and people than a church may have traditionally reached.

This may sound lofty, but God will empower us for the work to which He has called us. We must keep three words in focus: give, send and start. Each church can give to multiplication efforts, send leaders and start a new church or campus.

The needs and challenges are great, requiring us to think creatively about how to go and make disciples. How that disciple making looks will depend on the location. For rural church leaders, it may mean pastoring a large geographical area. In urban locations, it may mean considering neighborhood by neighborhood how to reach people in each one. Each approach will be unique, but the key is loving our communities, and planting new churches where they’re needed.

We’re humbled in the position we’re in at this time. We believe in the God-given dreams He has given you, just as we are believing in the God-given dream He has given us.

We’re breaking new ground for the Kingdom, but our trailblazing spirit isn’t new. Pentecostals have always been innovators. That was the call at the beginning of our Fellowship’s history, when a group of ministers banded together and pledged to do the greatest work of evangelism the world has ever seen. About 50 years later, the late Assemblies of God leader R.L. Brandt noted that the first disciples took seriously Jesus’ words to go into all the world, and we must do the same. He wrote, “Pioneering and progress are quite inseparable. Future expansion of the AG on nearly every front will be determined largely by the Movement’s pioneering pastors. Without them we die. With them we grow.”

We believe there is a new call in America for pioneering pastors to reach the world by multiplying and planting churches that will make a difference in their communities and beyond.

This multiplication is already happening in pockets around the country. Our prayer is that you will catch the vision. The harvest is plentiful, and the day of our Lord’s return is drawing nearer. If you are faithful to do the work God is calling you to do at this moment in time, the fruit of your labor will last throughout eternity, because God-given dreams change everything.