The Third Wave of Church Planting: From Startup to Scale

The question might not be how to start new churches, but how to bring them to scale.

In a recent Fast Company article, The Startup Revolution Is About To Surge Again, Coca-Cola VP of Innovation David Butler discussed his ideas about what is needed for the “next wave entrepreneurial growth.”

I see some parallels with church planting and church growth movements.

Butler talks about three waves, two of which have already occurred and one which is forming.

The First Wave

The first wave was, “moving from dotcom to startup”

Startups are now mainstream. It’s never been easier to start a business. There are new tools available that make the process easier than ever before.

Church planting has become more mainstream as well. Church planting became cool. Churches wanted to become church planting churches and seminary graduates began thinking more and more about planting their own churches rather than going on staff at existing churches.

In the startup world, “new tools, communities, and access to capital have all contributed to today’s global startup ecosystem. That’s the second wave—the wave we’ve been riding for the past decade.”

Church planting organizations, congregational church planting arms, multisite, church planting conferences, books, etc. all grew up to create a church planting ecosystem. This was the second wave.

The Second Wave

Church planting organizations and networks like ARC, Church Multiplication Network, NAMB, New Thing Network, Converge, Launch Group, Acts29, Stadia, etc., made it easier to start new church plants than ever before.

Conferences like Exponential and countless books and websites arose during the second wave to further build the church planter ecosystem.

But it’s not enough to launch a startup or plant a church…they must succeed. And in this regard the numbers are not heartening.

Butler writes, “Ninety percent of all startups still fail.”

According to NAMB research, about a third, 33% of church plants, won’t survive past the fourth year and the average size of those churches was just over 80 people.

According to Butler, the reason startups fail at such a high percentage is scale. “There’s one thing that’s most to blame: scale. It’s easier than ever to start a business, but harder than ever to scale one.”

Scale is the Third Wave

“The next wave will be all about building scale-ups.”

Butler asks, “What if we could help founders reach scale more consistently? Imagine if we could get even 10% more startups to scale. Even better, what if we could cut the 90% failure rate in half? What would that look like?”

The entire church planting ecosystem, denominations, organizations, etc., should be asking themselves the same questions. How do we scale up these church plants?

Butler points out that, “Big, established companies know how to scale but don’t know how to start. Why? Because starting is quite different from scaling: Agility is not the opposite of scale; it has a different purpose and process, and it creates different results. And while there has been a lot of emphasis on starting lean, there has been a surprising dearth of tools and information as to how to cross the chasm between starting and scaling.”

The Third Wave of Church Planting will be about helping church plants scale. Helping them leverage their existing structures, a focus on execution, scaling up processes and procedures, developing their core competencies, and creating repeatable discipleship pathways.

The third wave is about how to take “big thinking” and turn it into the systems that can scale to accommodate church growth while simultaneously developing clear and easily executed discipleship pathways to grow individuals. But that is not all.

The third wave is a mashup of big and small; when startups and big companies come together and share what each does best. The third wave is when church plants and large established churches come together and give the best of each to the other.

Startups and church plants know how to start and stay lean and agile. Large companies and established churches know how scale. Imagine what would happen if church plants could learn to scale and if large churches could learn to think entrepreneurial. That is the Third wave.

Now think of a church that has successfully scaled to the point that it is global. A church that has created a church network or ecosystem in its own Purpose Driven Church Network, offers training to pastors through retreats and conferences, who can partner with churches, governments, businesses, and NGO’s to address the problems of spiritual emptiness, lack of servant leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic diseases, and illiteracy around the globe through their PEACE Plan, who continually plants their own multisite campuses around the world like a startup, and who helps other church plants to start.

That is Saddleback Church. Saddleback Church is a Third Wave Church.

Rob Jacobs
Pursuing the intersection of Spiritual Formation & Discipleship with Servant Leadership and Spiritual Leadership Development. Living, loving, and leading at Saddleback Church. A blender, cross-pollinator, and pirate of ideas. Husband, father, friend, pastor, & servant leader. Adoption, Cancer survivor, former public school teacher & administrator, USMC, and broke down Rugby player.