I originally wrote this for the Heartland Connect around two years ago. Lately, I have been facing some things that have challenged me in some of these very areas. Having read it again recently, and having made a few edits here and there, I can say now, after almost five years of church planting, and two years later, that my encouragement to new or prospective church planters would be exactly the same, if not a little more emphatic. I hope this is a help!
I have not arrived. In fact, I told my wife just the other night as I laid in bed discouraged, that I’m not a good husband, I’m not a good dad, I’m not good at planting churches, and here I am trying to do all three. So, before you say, “what does he know?” Let me go ahead and answer… Not very much. I do feel, though, that three years of trying to plant a church has taught me at least a few things that others might find helpful. This list is not exhaustive. It is somewhat practical and somewhat philosophical in nature. I haven’t mastered it myself. I am still learning, but here it is.
- Be real.
I don’t think I need to expound upon this much, but don’t fake it until you make it. You may be a church planter or a pastor, but you are Jesus’ disciple and as such you are a pupil. He’s the only one with all the answers, so relieve yourself of some pressure and stop trying to be that guy. Be real. Be approachable. Be yourself. Be honest with the people you are trying to reach and lead. If there is something that you don’t know, or that you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to admit it. Don’t pretend to be what you aren’t and what they know they can never be. Be a normal man that is simply trying to follow Jesus just like them. Paul was this way. While he may not have gone into detail about his specific struggles, he was honest about the fact that he struggled. He referred to himself as the chief of sinners – present tense. He acknowledged that his flesh and his spirit battled and that often he wouldn’t do the things he desired and would do the things he didn’t desire. We don’t get to see as much of Peter as a mature believer, or get to hear from his hand as much, but we get to see him quite a bit in his immaturity, and what we see is that he was just a man with many issues of his own. This is good. Jesus can do a miracle with a mess. That is why you and I are in ministry to begin with. Let’s not forget it or yield to the temptation of letting others think that we are something that we are not.
- Do a few things and do them really well and encourage participation.
You only have so much time. You don’t have the resources (money or people) that a larger, established church has. So, if something is going to happen, the bulk of making it happen is going to be on you. The more things you spread your time and attention between the less time and attention you can give to each one. A degradation in time, equals a degradation in quality. It’s that simple. I’ll say more about this in another point, but don’t get so caught up in thinking that you have to do all the things every church you have ever known has done or does. It seems to me that the first century churches were far more focused in their purpose and efforts than churches of our day tend to be. They weren’t less busy, nor were they doing less. I think they did more and the individual members devoted more of their time to the work, but they were focused on doing fewer things. In our church, we do fewer things than most churches, but our participation rate is high. Our lowest percentage of participation in anything church sanctioned is 80%. We do fewer things, but unapologetically expect and communicate the expectation that everyone needs to participate in everything.
- Determine to be more loyal to Christ and truth than you are to any man or ministry.
You are answerable to your sending church and Pastor. That’s a fact. Trust God and accept that. I think this is one of the more clearly observable truths evident in Paul’s ministry. He was sent by the church at Antioch. I think it is very telling that the Spirit of God came to the church and told the church it was time to send Barnabas and Saul instead of going to them directly. God communicated with them directly in calling them, but communicated with the Antioch church when it came time to separate and send them.
Paul always went out of Antioch, and he always returned to Antioch. That was his church as long as he was a church planter. I am trying to be clear regarding the relationship between a church planter and his sending church because I don’t want anyone to misunderstand this third point or what I am going to say about it.
If your loyalty isn’t ultimately to Jesus and truth, then you will sell the work and the people short (your submission to your sending church and Pastor will be a result of your loyalty to Jesus and truth… by the way). You trusted Jesus to call you to wherever you are. Now trust that He knows better than anyone else what will and won’t work in regard to strengthening His disciples and reaching the people. For a church planter this can be challenging because all eyes are on you, and the fear is what will happen if you don’t do things just like everyone else. Will you lose support? Will Pastors begin to talk about you amongst themselves? Will your reputation be damaged? This is still to some degree a sad reality. On the one hand you are there and know that changing a few things would make your ministry more approachable for the people of your area, but in order for you to be there you rely on the funds of churches led by men that may not understand the nuances of ministry in New York City as opposed to ministry in Birmingham, Alabama.
Jesus called you to the people of your area. Let Him lead you regarding reaching them and ministering to them. I hate what that might mean for you or me, but God didn’t call us to a secure, cushy, and comfortable situation. He has called us to plant churches and reach people. They need us to try to reach them, not try to please people that are thousands of miles away. Don’t be arrogant about that. Don’t be angry or bitter about that. Man up and do what you have to do. Again, you have authority to answer to as far as your sending church and Pastor, so follow the proper channels of authority, but providing you have, don’t be afraid to innovate. Everyone says not to reinvent the wheel. Innovation isn’t a bad thing. We don’t use round stones, or wagon wheels, or anything like that anymore. We still use wheels, but I’m thankful wheels, as well as suspension systems have evolved. They have changed. They are better now, or at least better suited for our environment. Determine to be more loyal to Christ and truth than anything else.
- Raise more support than you need.
This one came to me in retrospect. Raise more support than you need (this will also help cover startup and early operation costs). Set up a salary package as soon as you have people in the church to help you with it, receive support through the church you are planting, and have the church pay you as an employee (this helps you establish work history in the area you are living, and simplifies your tax situation). Your sending church can simply deposit one check each month into your church plant’s account, and then your check can come from the church plant. Base what they pay you on the salary you’ve agreed upon and not on the amount of support that is coming in. Put the extra money into a specific savings account the church can draw from once your support dwindles. That will likely happen before the church is ready or able to pick up the tab, especially in a very expensive urban area. Every day you can give that church plant your full attention is so important. You may have to get a job eventually, but hold out as long as you can. People may disagree with me here and that’s fine, but that is my advice nonetheless.
- Know what you believe about what a church is and what it is supposed to be about (not just what you’ve inherited from your experience and upbringing).
Determine and state in one clear and concise sentence what Jesus had in mind when He established the New Testament church, and what you see throughout the New Testament regarding church life. Clarify what a mature disciple is, and then design ministry programs accordingly. Read simple church. In fact, I would recommend some time at Rainer University… There are five books I would recommend you read by Thom Rainer while you are preparing to plant a church. They are, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, The Unchurched Next Door, Breakout Churches, Simple Church, and Millennials.
(an addition to #5) Be sure you know who Jesus is. I don’t mean in just a saving faith sense. Get to know who He is personally. Get to know Him; the Jesus of the Bible. Don’t settle for someone else’s version of Him. It will fall short, I assure you. He is everything! You need to know Him, otherwise, how can you follow Him? How can you be His disciple? How can you lift Him up before the lost all around you? They need Him, and He loves them! Don’t risk veiling His beauty or His majesty. I think, maybe, this should be number one, but here it is. Take it for what it’s worth. Get to know Jesus.
- Lose yourself.
Stop caring about looking like a failure if it fails, and focus on hearing from God and loving Him and loving people! Don’t forget that God is as interested in working on you as He is in working through you.
- Don’t try to be an example in church planting.
If God is in it then there won’t be a formula for reproducing what has happened, and the thought that others might try to mimic what has happened will scare you because you will know that your methods didn’t accomplish anything and apart from God won’t accomplish anything.
- Let your family fully commit to being on board before you start.
A more godly man would have listed this one first, but here you go. They are your family. It’s not about needing them. It’s not about the idea that you lose your wife, you lose your ministry. That thought process has always bothered me. How about this… If you lose your wife… you lose your wife! If you lose your child’s heart, you lose your child. That is why you want to allow God to work on them as well. That is why you want to make sure they are willingly signing on. Planting a church is the hardest and most trying thing emotionally, physically, etc., that I have ever attempted, and it takes its toll, not just on me, but on my family as well, and sometimes I know they feel it even more than I do. My teens don’t have friends their age at our church, and haven’t had in three years. My six-year-old has had to experience kids coming that are his age, becoming friends, and then watching them leave for silly reasons more than he should. My wife and I are fortunate. God has brought many our age, and so we have peers. In this regard this process has been harder on my children than any of us. If you think you will shield your family from the challenges of church planting, you are a fool. Don’t risk your family to your zeal. My little ones were too young to sign on, and you may be in that situation, but shepherd them carefully along the way.
(update on #8) Some of you must have been praying for my kids. They now have many their age. I am thankful, but I must say that the last two years, and 2019 in particular have been, by far, the most challenging for my wife and I, and for my wife in particular. The reason I mention this is because, again, things will change, and new challenges will come. Don’t lose your family along the way. Make it clear to them that they aren’t in competition with this work. I have to admit, I am not good at this…
- Accept that, sometimes, you have to go slower to go faster.
Things may not happen as you would like or as quickly as you would like. Bro. Wayne Hardy said to me once, ‘you need to build wide before you build up.’ A solid foundation is essential to a healthy church. Wouldn’t we all like to be the miracle success story that ends up running a couple hundred and severing support after the first few years!? There are no short cuts. As one man said, short cuts make for long delays.
- Understand what success is.
Going back to point five, understand that success is doing what Jesus designed churches to do, however you articulate that. Don’t ignore results. Every number represents a person and thus tells a story, but don’t focus on results either. Focus on loyalty to Christ and obedience. Have a heart and burden like Paul to reach people, but learn to be satisfied pleasing Christ.
- Finally, and perhaps this is a weird one to end on, make sure you can be found.
Realize that there are probably people in the area you intend to plant a church, that are what you are. There are going to be people moving to the area you are going to, that are what you are. These people need a church. They are likely going to Google to search for something like “church __________, or churches near me, or churches in ___________”. When they do, your church needs to come up, and it needs to be toward the top of the list. This takes work. You will intentionally pursue this, or it won’t happen for a long time. Invest some time in understanding search engine optimization. It will pay big dividends. These people that are looking for what you are, typically come ready to serve and ready to give. They will often be a part of that foundation you are trying to lay. We canvass, we do mailers, we serve in the community, our folks actively invite their friends, and co-workers, and neighbors, we are regularly handing out tracts, and witnessing to people, and hands down, the number one thing that gets people to our church is Google. I would encourage you to spend some time browsing Fiverr.com. You can get great SEO work performed on your site. I have used a few different people who specialize in backlink SEO and in-site SEO. It has helped our site tremendously.
So, there you have it. After three years I probably should have more to say, and certainly there is more that could be said, but perhaps this will be a help to someone along the way. Planting a church, as I have already said, is the hardest and most trying thing I have attempted to do, but please understand it has been the most rewarding thing as well. There is no place I would rather be than where I am, and nothing I would rather be doing than this.