Church planting is not as foreign of a term as it was twenty years ago. With the resurgence of church planting in evangelical denominations, many have heard the term if not been part of church plant themselves. In the same orbit the conversations about church planting happen other terms pop up to include “replanting” and “revitalization.” What are these? What’s the difference between them?
Church planting is when a group of believer’s covenant together as a new church body typically in a location where there was no church previously. Every church, at one point in time, was once a church plant. There are a host of different ways this is done, but in my own denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) the prominent route is to go through the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) church planting arm, the “Send Network.” This includes a quality control step of being endorsed by a sending church, passing assessment by SEND, and then the actual work of planting. Planting the church starts by identifying an area where a church body is needed, gathering a core group of people that will be the founding members of the church (these people often come from the sending church), raising funds, regularly meeting together to do the things you would as a church (studying the Word, hospitality, prayer, worship), and eventually “covenanting” together in a formal local church. While this is typically what is done, it’s not the only variation of ministry life in the local body. What most people are accustomed to is some form of what we call “revitalization.”
When the term “revitalize” is used, it often conveys that a church is in trouble and is on the verge of closing its doors. This shouldn’t always be the case, but it is what people mean. In a real sense we should always be doing the work of revitalizing. But spoken of here in a semi-technical sense, it refers to the attempt to bring new life to a dying and/or declining church. It typically involves working within the structures, procedures, and traditions that church has already established. These include the polity (how we govern ourselves as a church), church governance (elder vs. deacon led), the missional mindset (programmatic driven vs. relationally driven) and so on. When a pastor comes to revitalize there is of hope that the church will regain its former glory by being able to shore up the support to do the things the church is accustomed to doing for generations. Revitalization is slower, and for churches that are closer to closing its doors, it often simply means a slower and more painful death. This brings us to our last term, “replanting.”
As opposed to revitalization, church replanting is not a recommitment to traditions, structures, and polity as it has been done for years in a local body, but a large, if not complete recasting of the mission, vision, and church governance of the existing church. Everything about the church is being placed on the alter for the sake of the Gospel witness in that community and neighborhood. When a church goes through a replanting process, they are willingly examining every ingredient that makes up the church and recasting most, if not all of it, so that by the time the process is complete, the church has truly been rebirthed into a newly covenanted body of believers. It’s a major overhaul where the church is retooled and refit for a new chapter of ministry and life of that local body. Replants are often older churches that have amassed committees, by-laws and events that are tedious, dated, cumbersome and burdening an aging body trying to do too much. It’s a “replant” instead of a “plant” because many of those ingredients of the church are already present and aren’t being gathered from scratch. At the same time, it’s not a revitalization because it has altered many of the structures within the church over shorter period of time and to a greater degree.
To use a building metaphor, a church plant is building a house from the ground up - laying the foundation, adding the structures, piping, electrical and so on. Replanting is akin to gutting an older house to remodel it. The foundation remains intact as does much of the skeleton of the home but the plaster walls are taken out, the electoral is updated, and new windows and roof are installed. And lastly, revitalization is making only minimal changes to the house. A paint job, new appliances, and fixing older plumbing and electrical rather than replacing it, but the vast majority of the house remains as it was before. What is right for a church at any given time in the life of the body is matter of discernment and honest self-reflection.