Church planting is incredibly exciting, but also incredibly daunting. You don’t know what you don’t know. And even people with a lot of experience can’t know everything. That’s why I want to share a few key perspectives with you. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a leader within three different church plants. Even though I had graduated from seminary, I quickly realized that most of what I had learned there was not directly applicable to planting a church. Too often, seminary is about things like parsing Greek verbs, not about the things that make you a good ministry leader. That means that the real training ends up happening on the job. There are all kinds of “folk knowledge” possessed by experienced pastors and ministry leaders and an associated literature, but it is not the easiest to find if you don’t know where to look for it. To help remedy this, I wrote The Encounter Based Church, which guides you in building a church that reaches people effectively and welcomes the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
Looking back, here are some of the things I wish I had known when I started planting churches:
- Expect challenges. Our thinking about church planting is biased by two things. First, the zeal and excitement of doing it. Secondly, the success stories can be misleading. It’s a lot like starting your own business. We retell the stories of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, not the stories of those who didn’t make it. Something like 80% of church plants fail. I actually found this to be an encouraging point. If what you are doing feels hard, it helps you prepare better, and be ready to push through challenges.
- Go to where you have a low cultural gap. The easiest people to connect with are those who are like you. As Christians, we love to think in terms of missions, but missional leaders have learned in the past few decades that the best ministry is when indigenous people are doing the work. You are indigenous to a people group, think about how to reach your own group before you start thinking about the harder work of going to a different group. What kinds of backgrounds do you and your team have? Those will be the easiest to reach. This is not to downplay the importance of cross-cultural ministry, or “becoming all things to all people,” but remember the higher the cultural barrier, the harder the plant.
- Go where you can start with something. The first plant I was on, was not a raw plant. It was a replant of a work that someone had been working on for 15 years before we arrived. So it was a matter of bringing new resources and energy to something that existed. Our second plant we literally started from scratch, and it was exponentially more difficult. On the third plant, we had a lot of great leads to build on, which made it easier. Many church plants happen as a “spin off” from an existing church. It is much easier to turn 50 into 500, than to turn 5 into 50. If you are able to associate with a well-known and recognizable brand when planting your church, consider doing it.
- Create systems to attract and invite people. Fundamentally, church planting is a form of marketing. You need to create awareness, but also market and host events and programs that can attract people to your church. Leaders are tempted to think a lot about their building or sign, or website, and not enough about how they are actually going to develop interest and awareness beyond the facility. In this digital age, what you do in the virtual world of social media, is much more important than your sign lettering.. In addition, host events that will bring unbelievers and nominal Christians into your orbit, and if you have a building, make it work for you by doing things like lending it to a neighborhood association that needs a place to meet, such as a support group, a Cub Scouts troop, etc.
- Create easy on-ramps for people to get involved. Once people make it to your church, you need to provide easy on-ramps for them to learn more and get involved. They need to see their path forward. You did a lot of work to get them there, now work just as hard to give them a way to contribute and grow. This includes things like serving, small groups, foundations courses, etc Also, make it easy to get wins.. by limiting the duration of a group, you give people a well-defined commitment, and they can leave or sign up for a new group when they are done. Look for people who are hungry and motivated, and encourage them to initiate the things they would like to see happen.
- Design your church service to be a place of encounter. Some people place all of the emphasis on unbelievers and some on believers. Instead, look at the church as a place where the two world collide. Designing a great Sunday service is a lot like planning for a great date. If I go out with my wife and want her to have a really special time, I need to give some thought to all of the components of the experience: how I treat her, how we get there, planning the childcare, the atmosphere, the food, and what we do afterwards. None of these components by themselves is going to create a deep intimate moment, but they set the table by communicating value to her, and giving her the mental and emotional space, and the setting where she is comfortable opening her heart. In the same way, you want to design a Sunday service so that the unbelievers and nominal Christians you are hoping to reach, as well as your committed core believers, are likely to have a great encounter with Jesus. Planning the worship, message, and ministry time for maximum effect, while leaving room for the Holy Spirit to act and lead, is an art. I go into more detail on how to do this in my book The Encounter Based Church.
- Don’t take it personally. Being a leader of a church is emotionally taxing. You are a kind of adult parent. You are the person that people complain about or complain to. As just a member of a team I didn’t really see this, but as the leader of the team I get it. It can get lonely fast when things get hard. It’s important to have people you can count on to support and pray for you. Ideally these include your team, but there may be times when they let you down or even take the other side in a conflict. When such things happen, keep going forward with God and the plant. Even Jesus faced hostility and disappointment in His ministry. “A disciple is not above his master.” (Luke 6:40).
These are only a few of the things I wish I had known when I first began planting churches. Many of these lessons I learned the hard way, and I am passionate about helping other church leaders benefit from my hard-earned lessons! If you would like to read in much greater detail about building and sustaining a great church, check out my book The Encounter Based Church.