By Carol Pipes
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the first research project of its size and scope, Lifeway Research studied African-American church plants to measure and identify characteristics of healthy church plants and to measure characteristics distinctive to the African-American context.
Lifeway Research surveyed 290 African-American church planters who started churches prior to 2012. Almost half (43 percent) were started since 2007. Church planters from more than 20 denominations participated plus several from non-denominational churches. Ninety-four percent of the church plants studied are still in existence today. Among the churches that closed, lack of financial support was the most common contributing factor.
The survey measured several factors including worship attendance, new commitments to Christ, community demographics, church culture, facility usage, promotion and outreach as well as church sponsorship and funding.
“We have conducted large national studies on church planting in the past,” noted Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research. “But it would be wrong to assume that national factors are the same for every sub-population of church plants. We are grateful that key sponsors came forward wanting to measure the reality of African-American church planting today.”
These sponsors included Mission to North America (PCA), Assemblies of God, Path 1 (United Methodist Church), International Pentecostal Holiness Church, Southern Baptists of Texas, the Foursquare Church, and North American Mission Board (SBC). They received this report at the bi-annual meeting of the Church Planter Leadership Fellowship.
The study found a steady increase in attendance to be the overall trend among African-American church starts. Average worship attendance for the first year was 37, and by year four, the average attendance doubled.
The survey identified three characteristics that had the most positive impact on worship attendance. Those characteristics were present in more than two-thirds of the churches: delegation of leadership roles to volunteers, leadership training for new church members, and a plan of personal spiritual formation for the church planter.
The study found worship style impacts attendance. The most common worship style used by African-American church plants was blended, cited by 45 percent, followed by contemporary gospel, contemporary and urban contemporary, ranging from 12-14 percent. However, church plants with a more distinctive style, urban contemporary for instance, had higher attendance than churches using a blended style.
The average number of new commitments to Jesus Christ for the first year of a church plant was 16, the study found. The average number of new commitments peaked in year three at 20 and then remained at 12 or higher for the rest of the years measured.
The study identified two characteristics that stood out as having a positive impact on new commitments to Jesus Christ and were present among more than two-thirds of the churches. They were door-to-door evangelism (75 percent) and conducting a new member class (68 percent).
Six characteristics were shown to impact both worship attendance and new commitments to Jesus Christ:
• Church planter compensated for their work (52 percent of the new churches)
• Weeklong Boot Camp or Basic Training provided for the church planter (42 percent)
• Church planter worked 60 hours a week or more on the church plant during the first two years of the church plant (39 percent)
• Sponsor or mother church permitted the church plant to meet in the sponsoring church building (32 percent)
• Church building of their own during the first five years (20 percent)
• Contemporary worship style (13 percent)
On average, African-American church plants started in communities that were largely made up of the following ethnic groups: African-American (42 percent), White (35 percent), Hispanic (13 percent), African or Caribbean decent (4 percent), Asian (3 percent) and other (3 percent).
The survey asked church plants to select what ethnicity or race they specifically sought to reach in the community around the church. About two-thirds (68 percent) of churches focused on reaching African-Americans. Although, more than 80 percent of the church planters said they also intentionally sought to reach a cross-cultural or multi-ethnic group of people in their churches.
Church Sponsorship and Funding
The Lifeway Research study discovered 48 percent of new churches were sponsored by another church. Among the sponsoring churches, 79 percent provided active prayer support while 53 percent provided mentoring to the church planter or church planting team.
“A sponsoring or mother church is often a crucial aspect of successful church plant for obvious reasons,” said Carl Ellis, assistant professor of practical theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas, and a consultant on the research project. “The fewer burdens a church plant has to carry in the initial stages, the greater is the likelihood that the new church will succeed.”
The primary funding sources for African-American church plants were funds provided by core members (84 percent), funding from the affiliated denomination (62 percent), funding from the church planter or church planting team (49 percent) and the personal financial support network of the church planter (44 percent). The study also found 36 percent of church plants received funding from one or more sponsoring churches.
The average amount received by church starts from outside sources was $21,818 in the first year. Average dollars received from members or attendees in the first year was $33,301. During the first seven years, outside funding declined 44 percent while dollars from members or attendees grew 211 percent.
Among the African-American church plants surveyed 29 percent were self-sufficient by their first year. Half achieved self-sufficiency by the fourth year, and 60 percent by year 10.
Many church planters received support other than financial during their first years. Sixty percent said they received church planter mentoring, coaching or supervision as well as training for themselves or their team.
The project indicated 55 percent of planters received church planting training prior to starting a church. But only 16 percent received specific training on the dynamics of the African-American context prior to planting. Sixty-nine percent said they would benefit from that type of training today.
Two-thirds (69 percent) of the church planters were bivocational the first two years of the plant’s existence. Despite so many having a second job, 63 percent of church planters worked 40 hours a week or more at the church. Slightly more than half (52 percent) received some financial compensation for their work as a church planter. Only 38 percent of the planters stated the financial compensation was adequate to meet their basic needs and that of their family.
The majority of church planters arrived on the field as a single staff member. Only six percent of the church plants had a paid, staffed team of more than one person to start the church.
“This research has described in detail African-American church planting today. More importantly this research has begun productive conversations among church planting leaders across the U.S. about how best to train and equip new African-American church plants,” said Stetzer.