Should you plant a new church?
The need is obvious. But the specific steps of planting a church that worked in one community probably will not work in yours. Principles transfer; models do not. Instead, what is important is a discernment process to confirm if God is indeed calling you to a new church start-up. Without confirmation, you will likely start for the wrong reasons or quit when the honeymoon ends. Yet, with such confirmation comes faithfulness and eventual fruitfulness in the lives of others. You will discover it is imperative, therefore, that you, as a potential planter, discern if new church development is indeed God’s will for your community.
Different approaches, same calling
“Every true disciple is born into the kingdom of God as a missionary.”1 Our identities as children in God’s kingdom and involvement with His mission are inseparable. Jesus describes this connection when He says, “ ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere’ ” (Acts 1:8).2 This calling includes church leaders who, in God’s design, also take the lead in equipping fellow believers for disciple making (Eph. 4:11, 12; Matt. 28:18–20). This vital call does not necessarily mean to plant a church, although in some cases, this will be the outcome. The call is to follow Jesus.
While Jesus calls everyone to a life of mission, no one in Scripture is called specifically to be a church planter.3 Jesus said, “ ‘Make disciples’ ” not “plant churches” (Matt. 28:19). This simple fact should keep us from over-glorifying the work of new churches over existing ones. Mission-shaped church plants (new church development) and the transformation of existing congregations (redevelopment) are simply two different tools with the same purpose—to make disciples.
A discernment process to hear God’s YES
The conviction to be involved in new churches unfolds differently in every leader. Nevertheless, there are transferable principles that can guide you or the organization you lead in prayerful assessment. Even if your mantra emphasizes that “we work with the willing,” these principles can help the willing to be more prepared, as 80 percent of new churches die within the first five years.4 The leadership necessary to initiate new churches is related but distinct from that of existing congregations.5 A church-planting leader’s conviction should be clearly understood, easily articulated, and routinely reviewed. Taken prayerfully and in conversation with those whom know you best, these principles can help potential leaders hear God’s YES (an acronym elaborated upon in the following sections) to new church development.6
Yourself: The way God wired you
Catalytic innovator. An important trait of effective church-planting leaders includes that of being a catalytic innovator.7 They catalyze or start new things, and innovate or bring about changes to the established order of things. The following questions are helpful in discerning this trait. Do you have a history of starting new things from the ground up? Can you learn from failed experiments, hitting the reset button until you find what works? Just because you recognize God is staying with you does not mean an experiment will not fail, and just because an experiment fails does not mean God is not with you. Do others know you as a risk taker? Are you able to dream big and start small, avoiding both naïveté (refusing to start small) and complacency (failing to dream big)?
In my own growing up years, I found myself involved with new start-ups through business, music, and creative outreach. Some of the most effective church planters previously worked in youth ministry, as innovation is not only tolerated but required in both environments. While fine distinctions can be made between spiritual gifts, natural abilities, and acquired skills, several assessment tools exist for you to discover how God has wired you in regard to the catalytic innovator and other traits.8
Vistion caster. Like pastors of growing congregations, church-planting leaders are strong vision casters. In both contexts the leader uses symbols, stories, or words to describe what God is doing (Deut. 6:6–9; Hab. 2:2; Rev. 1:1–3). In both settings the leader develops practical strategies out of a vision for the lost. Unlike an established church where an existing team discerns God’s vision together, the vision God places in the church planter’s heart gathers the team. In my own experience, I have realized the need for the vision to be cast around the gospel, not any particular methodology or approach. In an earlier church plant I was involved in, it morphed from a house church to small groups at parks to a soup kitchen adjacent to a homeless shelter. We grew from eight to 50 in three years with 21 baptisms, only three of which had any previous Adventist background. Since God’s vision for our plant revolved around the gospel, we were able to adapt our approach in response to the changing needs of those we were reaching.
A review of failed church plants revealed that one of the top ten mistakes is a leader with a fantasy statement instead of a vision statement.9 Are you pursuing a fantasy or do you have a vision in your heart that God placed there? If so, how will you communicate this vision in compelling ways?
Friends with non-Christians. Those who start new churches love God by spending time with people far from Him (Matt. 9:10–13; Rom. 5:6–8; 1 John 4:20). They know that in order to be a mission-shaped church, their calling to live as people sent of God is more important than methods or techniques (John 17:18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21).10 A simple index of a missional life is what I call the “cell phone test.” If someone wants to plant a church but does not have a non-Christian in his or her cell phone contact list, he or she cannot be ready to lead. Several years ago, while scrolling through the contacts on my cell phone, God revealed my hypocrisy in this area and also brought about a radical change in my perspective and lifestyle. My cell phone is now full of people in my community with whom I spend time, and they come from a diversity of ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Right now, an unchurched family in our neighborhood, after moving out of the state three years ago, plans to move back. The father contacted me to say that the first thing he wants to do upon returning is bring our families together for a meal. If you sense God’s leading towards new church development, you will ace the “cell phone test.” You will not rely on money to outsource the development of a contact list. You will pray for open doors and nurture meaningful relationships with those outside of your faith tradition.
External: Others recognize what God is doing
The second marker in hearing God’s YES is external. While God’s calling does not originate from humans, you will find this is recognized through the affirmation of denominational structures, the formation of a team, and previous fruit in the lives of others.
Affirmation from denominational oversight. The early Christian movement affirmed the apostle Paul by recognizing his call to the Gentiles and sending him out from Antioch to disciple the nations (Gal. 2:1–10; Acts 13:1–3). While open doors come in all shapes and sizes, if God calls you towards church planting, others will affirm this calling. Have you developed a relationship of trust with the leadership of your church or denomination? Do those whom God has placed in roles of oversight know of your interest in church planting? Does the way you express your passion make it difficult for them to work with you? Are you flexible in regard to timing and location? If your denominational leadership does not seem supportive of your involvement with church planting, this does not necessarily mean that God is not calling. In conjunction with the other principles in this article, the answer could be “No,” “not now,” or “Yes” in a different context.
The formation of a team. If God wants to establish a new congregation in your community, you are not the only one He is calling. The role of a church-planting leader includes finding others whom God is also calling. Work with denominational leaders to find others involved in church planting. The size of the group is not as important as their development into a team. Alongside a shared doctrinal foundation, there are two compatibility questions the leader must pay attention to in gathering teammates: Do they like the vision, and do they like you?11 If someone likes the vision but does not get along with you, he or she will not stay around. Conversely, if you have a great friendship but the individual sees no need for the vision, he or she also will not be a teammate. The formation of a team is a key marker in a leader’s call to a new church start-up.
Previous fruit in the lives of others. Has God already used you to bring about change in the lives of others? Have you reached people outside of an existing church? These questions point toward an external confirmation in the type of ministry necessary for new church development. Missiologists tell us that a change in geography does not magically create a change in the character of missions. Also true with church planting: many holy experiments have failed, in part, because the leader had no track record of caring for the lost.
Stirring: The unceasing passion of your heart
The third and final marker in hearing God’s YES for church planting is a passionate stirring of the heart. Fueled by a deep walk with Jesus, God’s call creates an urgent hunger for what can be in the life of a leader.
Have a hunger for what can be, not a distaste for what is. While not uncommon for leaders of new churches to be dissatisfied with the status quo, this dissatisfaction can drive them to contextualize the gospel to the unreached. However, if they are primarily motivated by what they are against rather than what they are for, they are living off siphoned energy. It is only a matter of time until these leaders discover that distaste for their previous church experience does not attract the community. Effective church planters know that the gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives, not the venue or methodology (1 Cor. 15:1–5). New people will come to church plants, all with different reasons for being there. However, the church planter’s internal hunger and greatest joy must be to see transformed lives. Changing the way people view church is not as important as seeing God change their hearts.
Biblical devotional practices. The source of all vision, power, and personal renewal in a leader’s life comes from being with Jesus (Mark 3:14). Listening to Jesus through biblical devotional practices is about having Christ formed in you by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:27). Planting a church is a roller coaster and those high and low points have left many burned out and disillusioned. A faithful leader—through a lifestyle of biblical devotional practice—knows that Jesus alone satisfies (Isa. 55:1–3). In my life I call this “the three Rs”: daily renewal, weekly rest, and a quarterly retreat. I am learning that the solution is often not to work harder but lean harder on God through prayer. Reflect upon the supremacy of Jesus in your life. Does your spiritual boldness match your social boldness? Is your default mode to plan things to death or pray them to life? Does your weekly flow include both a devotional life as well as a life of devotion?
Urgency. A dream without action is just a wish. Like Jeremiah, who describes God’s call as a burning fire that cannot be contained (Jer. 20:9), those that God calls to church planting cannot be silent and passive. This urgency is not merely an emotional experience but an unceasing conviction that creates radical commitment. This urgency will keep you awake at night and shape the way you live in your community. Planting a church cannot be something trendy that you would like to do before you die, but must be something you are dying to do right now. How urgent are you about being engaged in church planting? Is your urgency more about having your own way or being obedient to God? Are you willing to say No to other opportunities in order to say Yes to the growing pains of developing a new church?
Far from a simplistic checklist, these principles represent a discernment process whereby you, or someone in the organization you lead, can hear God’s YES to church planting. When this type of assessment is paired with coaching and training, support systems can be developed to empower new church-planting leaders. Has God wired you for a new church start-up? Is there external confirmation? Does your heart have an unceasing internal stirring? If you can say YES to all three markers, move forward. Proceed with a humble confidence, knowing the One who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (see Phil. 1:6).
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 195.
2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture passages are from the New Living Translation.
3 The initiation of new ministry through apostolic gifting, while evidenced in the lives of Paul and others whom God used to raise up new churches, is related—but not directly parallel—to our modern notion of a church planter (Acts 13:1–4; Eph. 4:11, 12).
4 Acts 29 Network, accessed July 2, 2013, www.acts29network.org.
5 For a landmark multiyear and cross-denominational study on the traits of effective church-planting leaders, see H. Stanley Wood, ed., Extraordinary Leaders in Extraordinary Times, vol. 1, Unadorned Clay Pot Messengers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).
6 I coined the acronym YES to conceptualize the principles it contains, based upon wide exposure to church-planting research and literature, multiple conversations with church planters, and my own experience.
7 Wood, Extraordinary Leaders in Extraordinary Times, 36–49.
8 Online tools such as www.strengthsfinder.com, which reveals an individual’s top five natural strengths, can be paired with spiritual gifts inventories to assess church-planting competencies.
9 Bill Easum and Jim Griffith, Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008), 22, 23.
10 Darrell Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 3.
11 Tom Nebel and Gary Rohrmayer call this the “compatibility matrix” in Church Planting Landmines: Mistakes to Avoid in Years 2 Through 10 (St. Charles, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 2005), 44–47.