Ed STETZER and Warren BIRD, Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bassss, 2010, ISBN 978 0 470 55045 8, 210 pages.
Reviewed by Richard RYMATRZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada T6G 2J5

One of the most interesting recent developments in what can broadly be called Pentecostalism is the church planting movement. This has an international dimension but appears to be particularly strong in the United States. As the name implies church planting is a highly focussed evangelical activity where the goal is to establish multiple numbers of new churches from a common base. The goal here is to reach the growing number of people who have no sustaining attachment to a Christian community. The strategy employed is to multiply the number of churches and not just to increase them incrementally or by addition. These new churches have a very fluid structure that is much attuned to meeting the needs of people in an array of different situations. They embody the principle of Rick Warren, head of the well known Saddleback church, (who writes a forward to the book) “it's far easier to have babies than to raise the dead” This church planting movement is one response to a changed cultural context and as such opens up many potentially important conceptual issues. I think the best way to read this book, however, is not as a scholarly study but as a manual for future “church planters” and as such the book positively exudes enthusiasm for the task.

The authors make frequent reference to their own research and use this to frame the various recommendations that they make. In presenting the factors required for growth, for instance, the authors list seventeen dot points. This includes quite specific advice such as the best place to hold initial meetings. For those interested in a closer look at the research base not much detail is provided, but this fits with the aim of the book which is to provide practical advice. And there is a wealth of this; from how to get funding, to what steps to follow in first establishing a church, to how to measure or benchmark progress. I think the book will be extremely useful for those who work at the “coalface” of church planting and who are already committed to it. Chapter 6, for example, is devoted to better understanding the predictors of success in planting new churches. These include factors such as recruitment, assessment and deployment

The book will have less appeal to those who are not already involved in church planting and are looking for a more conceptual discussion of some of the issues surrounding this movement. Some of the more interesting theoretical issues about church planting are not discussed in any detail. For instance, many scholars of New Religious Movements are interested in the longevity of newly planted churches. The authors allude to this issue but there is little critical discussion. Chapter 7 begins with a statement, “Most New Churches Survive” - indeed 92% exist after 2 years, 81% after 3 years and 68% after 4 years. Some may see these figures as pointing to a quite serious decline over a relatively short period rather than as evidence for meaningful survival. In a similar vein, in the final chapter it is noted that when one of the authors established his first church in Buffalo, eight other people also began churches. Now twenty years later “only one of the churches remain, and four of the eight have left the ministry, their marriage, and the faith” (p.205). This type of reflection almost cries out for further analysis! For those looking for a more systematic and critical account of church planting I would recommend Kimon Sargeant’s Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Nontraditional Way. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000). Although now ten years old this book provides a broader focus but at the same time looks at many of the theoretical issues underpinning church planting.


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