The Foster Church Movement


By Thom S. Rainer

Fostering and adoption are typically words connected to families and individuals.

But now the movements are connected to congregations as well. It is an exciting time. 

Let’s get my meanings clear so we can be on the same page. Here are three definitions I often use together: 

Revitalization is the process where a church seeks to get healthier using its own internal resources of people, funds, and processes.

Adoption is the process where a church seeks to get healthier by being adopted by an external organization, usually another church.

Fostering is the process where a relatively healthy church provides people and other resources for a relatively unhealthy church over a specified period of time. 

Revitalization, adoption, and fostering could have different approaches, but the essence of each is consistent. “Revitalization” takes place with a church’s internal resources. “Adoption” takes place externally. I coined the word “fostering” as a natural extension of “adoption.” Both words are used of human families and congregational families.

Here are some essential principles of fostering a church: 

The essence of fostering is one church caring for another. The relationship takes place when a relatively healthy church makes itself available to help a less healthy church. Both churches are typically in the same community or in nearby communities. 

One common form of fostering is for the healthier church to provide specific resources the less healthy church does not have. It is not uncommon, for example, for the fostering church to provide the foster church a preacher when they have no pastor. Some churches provide musically talented people. Some help with community ministries. The possibilities are many, but this approach has specificity to it. 

Another form of fostering is to provide a mass of people with no predetermined roles. One church with which I had familiarity sent twelve of its members to be a part of a dying church of ten people. The commitment was for one year. Though the twelve members from the healthier church did not have preconceived roles at the onset, they quickly began to settle into ministries where the dying church needed the most help, and where the members of the healthier church were naturally gifted. And it was a big boost to the dying church to see their attendance double in one week!

Fostering typically begins relationally between members of two churches, often the pastors. A pastor of a healthier church I know intentionally developed a relationship with the pastor of a struggling church over coffee once a week. In that relationship the pastor of the healthier church was able to offer some of his church members to help the struggling church.

Fostering should have a clearly defined ending point, usually less than a year. Otherwise, the foster church can develop a dependency on the healthier church. The goal is to help the struggling church move to a new level of health that is sustainable without the resources of the healthier church. 

Fostering may lead to adoption. If the fostered church sees it cannot move forward without the foster “parent,” the fostered church may request adoption. The healthier church, however, should not begin the relationship with a secret goal of adoption. If adoption is a possibility going into the fostering relationship, it should be made clear on the front end. Anything less is deceptive.

I have marveled at the church planting movement, the church adoption movement, and the revitalization movement. I am thankful to God for His work in these congregations. 

Now, a new and growing movement is beginning to emerge. It is called the foster church movement.

I am convinced it too is a movement of God. 

Stay tuned. We will have a lot more to say about the foster church movement in the days ahead.


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