I was planning to write a post defending Rick Warren (which, let’s face it, is news enough) from the suspicion and criticism aimed at his plans to establish a Saddleback Church franchise in London. I was going to say something like this:
I’ve been on both sides of this debate: initially as a Christian when a new denomination was looking to plant “one of their churches” in a very well-churched area; and then on the other side right now, as I’ve been questioned for planting churches in an area which area does have churches in it. I don’t believe as some (including the agency we work with) that church planting is necessary the best way to share the Gospel, nor do I believe it is the commission we’ve been given. (which I think said something about disciples and nothing about churches, which makes it a lot harder to carry out. If I can plant a church, then any fool can.) But there is still a merit in planting churches, even in an area with lots of churches already. First, people are different and we should contextualize the Gospel to as many tastes and subcultures as there are—no single local church can hope or expect to serve everyone. So there is always room for a church which is bringing something new to the area. Second, what’s the threshold for describing an area as well-churched or under-churched? You may actually find that an area which appears well-churched actually has difficulty serving all the people in that area, if you just try running the numbers.
Obviously the first point doesn’t apply to Saddleback, since it is practically the apotheosis of franchise Evangelicalism—it both defines and reflects the culture which many, many other churches are trying to achieve. Which leaves point two: try running the numbers and see. So I tried running the numbers.
As an example of how this works, I’ve been questioned because I’m planting churches in Fushimi, which already has 14 churches in it. 14 churches already! That’s not pioneer evangelism! The two other factors that you need to know is that the population of the area is about 280,000 with Christians making up about 0.6%.
So we do some sums: Each church is trying to serve a non-Christian neighbourhood of 280,000 * 99.4% / 14 = 20,000 people. Each church has in theory an average of 280,000 * 0.6% / 14 = 120 members, although from our observations on the ground, there are considerably less than that. (We have not found a church with over 100 members and have found many churches with substantially less; our observed average is about 30—we’re trying to visit them all, build relationships with the local pastors and ensure that they understand us and are happy with what we’re doing. So far, so good.) So churches are hitting under their weight and trying to fulfill a gargantuan task.
This is where the judgement call comes in. Planting a new church is in a sense a judgement on the competence of the existing churches. It requires you to decide that the existing churches are not up to the job which they are trying to do, that they need help, and that they need the kind of help that you can provide. I don’t have an absolute figure that I would put on the capacity of a church to serve its neighbourhood, but running the figures tells me whether a new church plant is a helpful intervention or arrogant colonialism. Like I said, it’s a judgement call. In our circumstance, we’ve decided that despite the energy and motivation of Japanese churches, 30 people, or even 120 people, trying to serve 20,000 just seems to be too hard. On the basis of this we decide there is room for a new church.
I don’t have accurate figures for London but we can do a back-of-the-envelope estimate. Google Maps finds 26,000 churches in Greater London; obviously there are some caveats with that figure—some are churches that we might not consider Our Kind Of Church, and there are probably some churches which are functioning more as historical buildings than worshipping and serving communities. But there are probably also churches which Google doesn’t know about. Still, let’s round it down to 20,000 to be generous to Saddleback.
20,000 churches sounds a lot, but we’re talking about London, which is a big place. As Krish puts it:
But on the other hand London is a city with a population of larger than many countries and it is far from being a reached city and so we need all the help we can get.
And of course, he’s dead right. The population of Greater London is 7.7 million. Christian population is again hard to measure. The often-accurate Operation World gives the figure of 8.8% Evangelical. Why we need to go with the “Evangelical” figure and not the “Christian” figure is another rant for another time, but for now, let’s go with that.
This means that each church is trying to serve 7,700,000 * 91.2% / 20,000 = 350 people. And each church has on average 7,700,000 * 8.8% / 20,000 = 33 people in it. Once again, planting a new church is in a sense a judgement on the competence of the existing churches. Can a church of 30 people serve a community of 350 around them? Yes, I imagine they are perfectly capable of doing so. On the basis of this I would personally decide that planting a new church in London would not be a helpful intervention. (Caveat: Unless I was planning a church to serve a particular people group or subcommunity within London, in which case we would need the numbers for that group. But I don’t see Saddleback doing that.)
At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be a priority right now. There are other places which could do with churches a bit more than London. I know there’s the argument that London is “strategic”, but that’s just saying that people in London are more important to God than people in Fushimi, which I’m not sure I would want to be justifying.
If Saddleback are serious about helping out and planting churches, though, we look forward to seeing a Saddleback Church Fushimi. There’s room for them here, at least.