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.


Posted on March 16, 2020

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Steven Smartt says on

    Is there any additional information on churches fostering other churches? Have any case studies been written? If so, where would I access this information? Thank you!

  • Trent’s additional thoughts
    This is a relationship so the fostering possibilities have to start with relationship.
    1. Praying together – is this what God wants, If so are we willing to follow
    2. Reassure the church members to be fostered that we don’t want to take over or take away their church
    3. It has to be more than just throwing money or people – there has to be a real effort to do missions and worship together in relationship.

  • Our church is considering fostering a sister church in our association. We could use all the info and direction we can get to make this a healthy effort

  • Another concern may be that the fostering church may not have pure motives–they may be trying to get a free building for a mission or multi-site campus.

    I was in a church which went through a nasty split. We were then approached by a much larger congregation which was sponsoring a Hispanic mission and they offered us a monthly rent (enough to keep us in the black).

    Then they also offered us one of their young preacher boys as pastor. No sooner did he come on board, they stopped paying the rent. And he never went to them to ask for it. He also allowed the financial secretary to not balance the checkbook for 18 MONTHS, and one time he sat on a member’s check for a month–and then got upset when I found it on his desk, claiming I was “snooping in his mail” (it was addressed to the church, not him personally).

    Thinking back on it now, it was clear this was an attempt for the larger church to get our building for only assumption of debt (we owed on a renovation and also to the city for street repairs).

  • Dr. Jerry N Watts says on

    Fostering……….for me, as a DOM, will require some deep thought. Most of the time, a church declines to a dozen people because, not of the big a decision they made to die but rather, the numerous smaller decisions which cause death. At first blush (and I admit, reading your article is the first time that I have actually considered this), even sending a mass of people from a healthy church into the midst of one that is unhealthy is futile…..The same decisions and direction that created this situation will still be made and taken. Again, I am not desiring to be critical, but rather offering an opinion to help the situation. Candidly, I compare this to having the flu bug, going to the ER where you are surrounded by doctors and nurses, but refusing to allow treatment.
    For me, I will give the “Fostering Concept” a little more thought because this might be a workable concept for some of our churches that have been ‘on the verge’. A couple of weeks of no meeting (and no money) might just be the catalyst needed to assist with some ‘Fostering.’ Thanks for you article.

  • Jimmie and Hattie Booker, Servants of Jesus Christ Ministries says on

    We believe your identifying these three resourceful words are extremely clear. We hope those who are in the sphere of influence will buy into this movement to see Christ Churches expand the way Christ want them to. This will certainly make a different in our culture

  • LeRoy Smith says on

    Foster may become very helpful since many smaller Churches are concerned about their Church but are not as interested in joining together with another Church.
    Thank you