Church planting is the best way to renew established churches, says the Rev. Pete James, pastor of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

He shared this message with 50 pastors from large (600+ members) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations and 25 new church development coaches at a Jan. 25-29 gathering here  sponsored by the Evangelism & Church Growth ministry area of the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC).

“We should call the whole church to come together around church planting as our primary mission,” said James. “It is the best evangelistic strategy for the 21st century.” 

James has served at Vienna, a 2,500 member congregation, since 1979. In 31 years of ministry together, James and his congregation have helped plant three Presbyterian congregations:  Centreville, Riverside and Nueva Rivera — one church that worships together in two languages — in Sterling, Va., and Brambleton in Ashburn, Va.

“As we planted these churches, there was  a sense of spiritual combustion,” said James. “Everything just exploded. People became excited about the new relationships they were forming. They got engaged in local ministry.”

At the gathering, all four pastors from the churches Vienna helped told their stories. The Rev. Rob Bromhead talked about Centreville’s first Christmas Eve service when 23 people showed up. Now 20 years later nearly 500 come to three worship services.  The Revs. Brian Clark and Edwin Andrade spoke about Riverside’s decision over time to create one church to serve an increasingly economically diverse Anglo-Hispanic congregation. Day laborers and government workers are among more than 500 who come together for worship on Sundays and Wednesdays.  

Pastor Elizabeth Brookens-Sturman of the Brambleton church — which began in 2005 — talked of ministering in a highly educated area of great affluence where community members struggle with stresses associated with high profile jobs in Washington, D.C. Brookens-Sturman described Brambleton as a “parachute-drop,” meaning no members from Vienna, Centreville, or Riverside transferred their membership to the new church. 

However a couple from Vienna, another pastor, and three members from Riverside joined her on the church planting team. More than 100 people worship together now on Sunday.

“It [the conference] was the first time our new churches have all gathered together to tell the whole story of their church planting,” said James. “It was thrilling for me. I had no idea God would use our efforts to produce this kind of yield, in ways beyond our imagination.”   

Vienna provided 20 people and $250,000 to Centreville, and $500,000 to Riverside, Nueva Rivera and Brambleton, partnering with the GAMC in each of the new church developments. More than 1,200 worship weekly now in the churches Vienna helped plant.

During the conversation James pointed to detailed studies that suggest 60-80 percent of those who worship at new church developments are either un-churched or de-churched (former church members who have become inactive), while 80 percent of those joining established churches come with a letter of transfer.

“There’s no other strategy that can do what new church developments can,” said James. “They are the best way to reach new people groups and new generations. They are innovative, less conventional, relaxed and relational. You can invite friends.”
Each of the pastors of the congregations started by Vienna praised James for calling them into new church development ministry. “The church was always there for us,” said Clark. “But not in a controlling way. They were like this community resource.”  

Clark also pointed out that two or three people may be all it takes to start a new church development. Riverside began with two couples from Vienna who started a Bible Study. When Clark arrived in January of 1997 it had grown to 12 people

“Never begin by asking ‘how much will it cost?’” said Clark. “Instead, ask who God might be calling you to reach in your community.”

This is what Vienna and Riverside are doing now in Haymarket, Va., which has three large, growing active adult communities. A group of 10 people from both churches who live in the area are starting several small groups, hopeful they will grow into a community of faith that will eventually meet for worship.

“This has been remarkably encouraging,” said James. “I hope you will share this with leadership in your churches, in our denomination. “I’m very hopeful. The work of Christ is growing exponentially in this country. These new church developments are growing deep and wide.”

"Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide" is a two-year emphasis approved by the 2008 General Assembly to encourage church growth in evangelism, service, discipleship and diversity. The 2010 General Assembly will be asked to extend the emphasis.