I’ve been involved in church planting for 8 years, but I realized that I’ve never done any formal study on the subject. After all they don’t teach this kind of stuff in seminary (usually, apart from a special course). Too often, seminary is about parsing Greek verbs and understanding the filioque, not about the things that make you a good ministry leader. That means that the real training ends up happening on the job. There is all kinds of “folk knowledge” possessed by experienced pastors and ministry leaders and an associated literature. Perhaps it’s just because pedagogy often lags behind practice. Also, as you know there are some things that require you to actually have some experience before the learning can really take (hence why most schools want people to have work experience before their MBA). So if I had learned a lot when I first started on the church plant thing it would have just been a theory to accept or reject against my understanding of the Bible, but now I have to test it against what practically happens. So there will probably be more follow-on posts, but here are some of my initial reflections:
- Church planting is hard. Our thinking about church planting is biased by two things. First, the zeal and excitement of doing it. Secondly, the success stories. It’s a lot like starting your own business. The Bill Gates stories encourage you to do it, but that’s the .0001% case. Something like 80% of church plants fail. I actually found this to be an encouraging point. If what you are doing feels hard and it’s helpful to know it actually is hard. I feel more realistic about the entrenched long term mindset that will be needed to pull it off.
- Hard places are hard. I have been attracted to and surrounded by people who are also attracted to something other than “move to white suburbia anywhere USA.” We don’t want to just open up another franchise, we want to change things. The catch is, that the easiest way to start a big church is to move into one of those areas. In fact, the majority of people who have randomly found out about us are from those areas. We chose to be here on the edge of the city, which is harder for all kinds of reasons, the biggest of which is that the ready made, reasonably healthy church people mostly live not exactly where we are. Not that the goal is to reach church people, but you need a core of them to start with.
- Most plants start with something. The last 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. What we are doing in Cincinnati is literally start from nothing. Many church plants happen as a “spin off” from an existing church. This means that the challenge is to turn 50 into 500. Our challenge is to turn 5 into 50. It’s made more difficult by the fact that we are not associated with a well-known and recognizable brand. On the other hand, we’ve gotten a lot of leads from our association with Curry Blake. He has a national draw, and people are always looking to connect with people who believe in his message.
- People don’t just bang on your door. Leaders are tempted to think that having a building or a sign, or mailers, or a great website will draw people, but generally speaking these are kind of “side items.” They will help bring a person or two, but they are not going to build a church. To build a church, you need a group of Christian who believe in your message, and you need a strategy that is going to bring unbelievers and nominal Christians into your orbit.
- Not every visitor is a great member. A segment of people who are willing to visit a tiny church plant are willing because they are disgruntled in some way. They don’t like the established church, it’s not working for them, etc. For this group, the problem is not with the church, it’s with them. You don’t want people who you have to bend over backwards to please or accommodate. They will only exhaust you and blow others up. Warning signs are people have been to a zillion churches recently or who introduce themselves with a complaint about the last church. So you are really on the look out for people you can add to your vision, and body. You need folks who can walk with you through the bumps associated with planting a church.
- Church service is for the uncommitted. That’s right. Most hardcore Christians get bored at a regular service. They don’t need (or want) to hear another message on tithing, or general exhortations about obeying the Bible, etc. They aren’t obsessed with having their kids well-entertained a church, etc. HOWEVER, these things are very important to the less committed, And most Christians fall in this bucket. If you start a church that only accommodates the hard core, be prepared to be small. That’s not the real answer though, because these people need to the hard core folks to pull them and their children into a more serious walk with God.
- Get tough, pastor. Being a leader of a church is emotionally taxing. You are a kind of adult parent. You are the person 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 gets lonely fast when things get hard. It’s important for the team to respond together whenever one comes under attack. I think this is what Jesus was looking for out of his closest disciples in the Garden. They let him down, but your team can learn not to. You will have your kindness returned with evil, and you will be required to do the right thing back. You have to learn to become emotionally flat line regardless of what happens. Jesus even says to rejoice when these things happen. Wow, I’m not there yet. But I realize I have to be unfazed when someone blows up their lives, or leaves the church. That’s the way it works. I’m gong forward toward God and so is the plant.
More to come…