For the past 25 years the PC(USA) has had a strategy for planting churches that involves careful demographic studies, long-term investment and gradual development. New Church Developments (NCD's) in our denomination take a long time to get going and cost a lot of money. Without doing a lot of analysis I'll just say that I don't think this strategy is working very well.
Parallel with this NCD situation we have a denomination that has been in pretty steep decline. A large percentage of our churches are small and shrinking. As such they cannot afford full-time ministers who come with a lot of debt out of seminary. Other churches are closing, or leaving the denomination. Furthermore, ministers are working longer into old-age before retiring. However, our 11 seminaries continue to pump out graduates every year. These combined factors have led to a situation where we have thousands of individuals wanting to do ministry with no place to do it. These unemployed potential ministers are often younger, unordained (because they can't get a call), and a lot more of them are women and minorities than their employed counterparts. They represent, in other words, the very demographics that our denomination is failing to reach.
Thus we have two related problems - a failing strategy for planting new churches, and a lack of pulpits for incoming ministers. Could we mitigate (if not outright solve) both with one stroke? I think we could. Here is my proposal:
Instead of NCD's being created by Presbyteries and Synods in a long, slow, expensive process, provide a plethora of small grants to individuals wanting to plant a church. Offer 2-years half-time salary to 300 ministers a year. Prioritize young ministers, women, minorities and others who have a harder time getting into the competitive first call slots. Make them come up with the proposal and go out on a limb with unconventional organizing plans. If in 2-years the NCD isn't viable, move on.
Many of these NCD's will fail, but so do NCD's developed the expensive and slow way. At least this way we will have tested the waters a bit, and employed a large group of our young talent to see if any gems emerge. As it stands we are wasting a huge pool of motivated, educated, potential ministers. The harvest is indeed enormous, but the workers don't have to be as few as they currently are.
I am convinced that we need a more spontaneous, bottom-up, strategy for developing ministries. Once upon a time, to get volunteers and participants you needed to have institutional structures in place. The way to open a church was to build it, hire a minister, and put a sign out front. Now though, all the institutional readiness and stability in the world won't get you members. In fact, who wants to be a "member" of anything? People want to show up where the action is. They want to join a movement; participate in a project; attend an event - not get their name on a roll. It's time for a Church 2.0 where everyone generates the content, and determines the form it takes. Successful church plants are going to be more like memes than clubs.
What if 90% of these NCD's fail? That's 30 new churches this year. And next year. And next year. Meanwhile those other 270 pastors are busy learning important lessons about what works and what doesn't. They will provide important feedback to the denomination as a whole about our church planting strategy. Feedback that is more valuable than what we currently get purely on the basis of quantity. And the whole time they will be employed in our denomination using their gifts for ministry instead of waiting tables, or doing data-entry.