As a church, we’re a little more than a year away from turning 10. That’s hard for me to believe, for it seems like just yesterday there were six of us around a kitchen table committing to planting a church, not knowing if anyone else would even join us. But they did. Through regeneration and relocation, God birthed a body to the glory of his name in the power of his Spirit and whose head is his Son.
Frequently, I receive the same question. It goes something like this: “So what advice would you give me if I was going to plant a church?” Sometimes it’s worded like, “What do you wish you would have done differently?” or even “What things would you not change if you did all again?” However the question is asked, it always prompts me to take a look in my rearview mirror and think about the ups and downs, failure and victories, good and bad, wins and losses. Hear this clearly — all of those have been part of the journey. Hurts, joys, valleys, mountaintops — you travel through them all.
In mentally rummaging through this trip, I began itemizing the things — positive and negative — that made those miles bearable or horrible. What did we do that showed itself to be invaluable? What should we not have done because it proved too costly? What would I encourage others to do? Not to do? Well, here’s the list, raw and uncensored.
First and foremost, church planting is a supernatural endeavor; it is a work of the Spirit of God, and this understanding should pervade and overarch everything you do. Natural elements like strategy, demographics, location, finances, personalities — all that may have a part in the equation somewhere, but the hard truth is that nothing of any real value will occur if God’s Spirit doesn’t empower, anoint, and gift the people for the task of making disciples for the glory of God. That’s why the church planter and church planting team have to exhibit incredible discernment and courage in following God’s leading. Yes, God’s direction! Not yours, the latest author’s, the trendiest speaker’s, the popular podcaster’s, or the techiest Tweeter’s. So ask yourself — can you detect clearly the voice of the shepherd? Do you hear God’s Spirit as he speaks and leads? Do you pray regularly for God’s unavoidable power? Do you seek the spiritual gifts most beneficial to the church? Are you filled with and controlled by God the Holy Spirit? Is prayer, individually and corporately, more than a way to open meetings? Do you blatantly and boldly ask God to show you what to do with full faith that he will? And with full intentions to obey unconditionally?
Here’s why such questions (and others like them) matter: Church planting is currently in vogue; it’s trendy and popular. Fadish. The church planting market is flooded with tips, tricks, and tools to do exactly that – plant a church – in “three easy steps” (hyperbole intended). But without the breath of God upon our souls and efforts, it’s a dead, religious exercise. Should you read books on church planting? Yes. Attend seminars on launching a church? By all means. Seek a mentor to help you with leading a new body? For sure. But all of those fall a far, distant second to the preeminent voice you need to hear – God’s! – and the indispensable power you need to have – His Spirit’s!
This is the single overarching, non-negotiable conviction I — we — had as we took the step of launching a new church: God’s voice above all other voices.
You see, there’s no cut-and-paste option for church planters. Sure, you can implement the principles below, but exactly how and when and where — well, that’s the joy of the journey! That’s the adventure of hearing God’s voice in specific, precise ways — above the noise of all other voices and vices — so that you are supernaturally gifted and corporately crafted for maximum impact right where you are. And make no mistake — every church plant journey is specifically individual. Precisely unique. Customized. And as it should be. For God is bringing together and building up a specific gathering of grace-saved followers — his family — who will spiritually reproduce, not a franchised entity of mere physical beings who will only produce.
Now to the list (finally!).
1. Prioritize preaching. You’ll soon discover there are many things you can do when the church gathers together. But what is it that you must do? I believe the answer centers around the preaching of God’s Word (1 Corinthians 11-14, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus). Whatever you do, don’t minimize, negate, or lessen the expectation that, whatever else we may do in this church, this we will do in this church — deliver God’s Word!
This is one of the primary points of Paul’s letters to his two young pastors, Timothy and Titus. Phrases like “Preach the word,” “Teach sound doctrine,” “Guard the trust,” and “Give attention to the public reading of Scripture” indicate that God’s Word is the priority when the church gathers. This is the target for the preacher — to sound the call. Teach the text. Trumpet the message.
If you don’t love to preach and teach the Bible, don’t plant a church. If six months into your endeavor you are already dreading your main job — delivering the Word with passion and precision — well, the writing’s on the wall. That’s why I ask all future church planters one question: What’s your favorite thing to do? If the answer isn’t preaching, don’t plant a church.
Remember — God’s Word preached and taught is truly what people need and actually want (1 Thess. 2:13). If you underestimate this foundational principle, you will undermine the very church you are planting.
2. Keep preaching and pastoring connected. While a “clear voice” is important, so is a “strong shoulder.” They go together in church planting. Paul describes this so well in 1 Thessalonians 2, where he openly lays out how he delivered God’s Word and his own soul as well. Ivory tower proclaimers don’t cut it by themselves, but neither do walk-in-your-shoes pitiers. You need a combination. Voices that call out for action, and hands that show them them how.
I encourage church planters to use each one to help the other. In other words, as you preach and people respond, serve them the best you can. Walk with them as a brother or father. Because your Spirit-empowered preaching will cause hearts to lean in to you and your team, use those opportunities to help them put the Word into action.
Conversely, often you’ll discover your best preaching points and specific applications via your time with people. I by no means am encouraging you to “rat” from the pulpit; that’s not at all what I’m saying. I’m simply saying that being with people will clue you in to their needs, hurts, desires, and frustrations. As you faithfully deliver the Word week after week, God will use those real life moments to make your preaching more tangible.
3. Embed shared authority into your new church’s DNA. I believe plurality in church leadership is a core value taught in the New Testament. Identifying and training men as elders, developing a staff team, delegating assignments and authority to deacons and other trusted leaders — these are ways to keep the church from becoming all about you.
Be aware that, as a church planter, it will be about you to some degree. At least initially. If you get comfortable with this, enjoying the credit and kudos, you’re buying into a very fickle form of security. People change and situations morph; you won’t always be the hero. So don’t mount the white horse at all. Share authority biblically and wisely. Celebrate the team as well as the players; especially rejoice with the success of others. Lead, but don’t be lord.
A serious warning: Plurality is messy. We have been at it for a few years now, adjusting things and tweaking elements, and I’m finding that this principle is not easily mastered. Why? Because the only “organization” in America that operates in this way is the church. So yes, shared authority is messy. Is it worth it? You bet!
4. Avoid the tendency to copy. This is hard to fight against because it is so prominent today. We see or hear what’s working well and so we believe that if we copy it, we will be as sucessful. Add to this the squeezing demands of time, and you will feel very tempted at various points to “reprint” what someone else did. After all, “why re-invent the wheel?” Well, before you become just another cookie-cutter church plant with a cool name and logo you bought off some Web site, dig your heels in to the specific place you’re planting and put in the time and work to pursue what God is calling you to specifically.
In other words, create, don’t copy. When I have stayed true to this principle in my leadership, our church fares better. There is less pressure, no comparison, and the health of the body is more evident. When I have caved and tried to emulate something I merely envied, or even allowed a staff member or leader to do this, things ramp up artificially and many begin to feel like rats on a wheel –lots of movement with no real progress.
Creating your unique God-led culture is all about the how. It’s not about the what. We don’t create doctrine or invent church practices; we don’t decide the mission. God has done that. But we do have some freedom in the way we go about them in this time and culture. In fact, if you came to FFC, you’d discover a culture with, to some degree, its own lingo, expectations, style and preferences. In that way we’re different. Yet, we’re not different in that we have been given the same mission and mandate as every other body of believers. But instead of copying the way they go about the mission, we craft our own way that fits where we are and who is here.
5. Think systems, not situations. You’ll always be changing how you do things if you base your decisions on situations. Whether its training leaders, counseling people, or hiring staff, your best avenue for consistency is to think systematically not situationally. Granted — this doesn’t solve every dilemma. But it will ward off most of the ones that could bring about real harm.
How will you handle reports of abuse? Who receives financial help? What initiates church discipline? These are the kinds of issues that require systems. And remember — whether you like it or not, each decision sets precedence. So if you want to set up good precedence, think systems, not situations.
6. Structure for growth. Probably one of the more evident things we did early on was expect growth and plan on it. This showed up in how extensively we formed our first staff, when we planned our service times, how we formed our budget, even how we set up our shepherding and discipling avenues. Here’s why: More than anything, transitions are where churches lose ground. So if you can reduce the amount of transitions, you reduce the loss of momentum. So structure for what is to come, not just what is there now.
7. Refuse to believe a building is your answer. No matter how much a young church may embrace its portability (assuming that’s your situation), the stark reality is that most of your people will get weary of what they perceive to be “temporary.” They will inevitably, at least here in America, begin to long for a permanent place. While that’s not sinful, it’s not a solution either. Churches don’t “get healthier” just because they own a piece of property. Brick and mortar don’t equal life and vitality. While a building may be in your future, keep reminding your people it is just a tool, not a treasure. Our real treasure is Christ, and the place we meet is just a way to help us spread the news about the incredible value of the real treasure we have — Jesus!
Here’s a real-life reflection: We purchased an old warehouse about 3 years ago. And though it seemed like, in the days of renting, that we were setting up and tearing down for a long time, the truth is we didn’t. In fact, if I remember correctly, the average rent time for most new plants is about 8 years. Yet, we moved in after only 6. Was it right? You bet! God provided in a supernatural way, we’re debt free currently, and our people are quite content. But what is so ironic is that our growth rate slowed once we bought. Those two things may or may not be related; I tend to think they are to some degree. But regardless, we have had to work just as hard for what really matters even with this building as we did when we didn’t have the building. My point? A permanent place is not a problem solver. It’s just a problem relocator.
8. Commit to intense honesty before your people. If there’s one thing I can do well, it’s this: I can be honest with our people. Not only do I want to, but they want me to. Likewise, I encourage our leaders to do the same, usually reminding them to “address the obvious.” Nothing fatally sabotages leadership quicker than pretense. Dishonesty. Fakery. A “sales” job in church. I despise it as a shepherd, and you can bet the sheep do as well.
Adopt this mindset at all times. Minor goofs, major mistakes, accidental blunders, big visions, money matters, leadership realignment, future plans … just tell the truth. Be honest and give it to them straight. Here’s what I’ve discovered will happen as you do: Trust deepens and credibility rises. If you avoid the hard things and try and shift the blame, people can spot this and will actually find a way to make it stick to you harder and longer. But if you will humbly own what’s wrong, embrace it and talk about it, people, oddly enough, will work overtime to keep you from taking the fall. Bottom line? Tell the truth, don’t sell the truth.