What Keeps a Church Planter Going?

It happens to most church planters. At some point, you wonder what possessed you to think you could start a church from scratch. All churches are fragile, but an infant church is especially at risk, and the mortality rate for infant churches is high.

I’ve heard someone say that a third of church plants thrive, a third limp along, and a third close. That means that two-thirds of church plants either struggle or fail. I’ve also heard that average church grows to only sixty people or so in the first four years. In places like Canada, that number is even lower. As I heard Ed Stetzer say recently, "Church planting is a hard, long slog.”

What keeps church planters going in the midst of the challenges, especially if you are in one of the two-thirds that isn’t experiencing rapid growth?

One of the things that has helped me is talking to small business owners in our community. Because our community is new, dozens of new businesses have started. In each case, the person who started the business has poured significant amounts of money into the venture. In each case, they are working crazy hours. In most cases, they didn’t have a hope of breaking even in the short term. In some cases, they’ve already closed. Just last week I heard of another new venture in our community that shut down.

If small business owners can pour their lives and risk everything to start a new business, why would I risk any less to plant the gospel? If they are willing to pour time and money into selling products, and sometimes fail, why would I be afraid to fail in what we’re doing?

I don’t think I’m far off in thinking this way. In 2 Timothy 2, Paul compared the risks and hazards of ministry to that of a soldier, athlete, and farmer. “I endure everything for the sake of the elect,” he writes, “that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10).

Church planting is hard, but not necessarily harder than the work that soldiers, athletes, farmers, and small business owners do. If they are willing to put a good part of their lives on the line, why wouldn’t I?

Can't Quit, Won't Quit

As a church planter, I don’t get discouraged often. One day, though, I wanted to quit. I thought of my brother, who told me that he doesn’t have any job-related stress. I wanted to take a “normal” job and be done with the pressures and demands of ministry. And yes, I realized even then that the idea of a stress-free job is a mirage that doesn’t actually exist.

Still, I wanted to quit.

As I thought about this, I began to ask myself what would change. Yes, I would be freed from some of the pressures of vocational ministry. So many other things would stay the same.

  • I would not be my own. I would still be bought with a price, called to glorify God with my body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
  • I would still be called to invest everything I have — my time, money, energy, and abilities — for maximum return for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 25:14-30).
  • I would still be called to live sacrificially as part of the church, loving and serving others joyfully (1 Peter 4:7-11).
  • I would still be called to live everyday life with gospel intentionality, entrusting the gospel to others who would likewise entrust the gospel to others (2 Timothy 2:2).

The list goes on. What would change? The option of living for myself and my own comfort is off the table, and that will never change. Whether I serve in vocational ministry or in any other line of work hardly matters. I belong to Him. The expression changes depending on my work. The calling does not.

I suppose there will be other days that I’m tempted to quit the particulars of my ministry situation. I’m glad those days are rare. Regardless, there is no quitting the calling that God has given to all believers, a calling that flows from the gospel and is big enough to encompass all of our lives from now to the grave. Can’t quit, won’t quit. There’s no turning back once the gospel grabs ahold of your soul.

Help Me Kickstart The Church Website Expert's Guide to Squarespace

As you probably know, I'm helping to start a church in downtown Toronto. To help pay the bills, I work on other projects as a tentmaker one day a week. One of those projects has just gone live on Kickstarter. It's called The Church Website Expert's Guide to Squarespace.

Here's the deal: I want to help churches create excellent, affordable websites using a great service called Squarespace. To do this, I'm publishing an ebook that will offer practical advice on how to build a great website. I've put together a website that explains all the details. I think this project will help churches, and it will also help support me in my work here.

If you're interested, would you consider backing this project? Let others know about it as well. Check out the video below, the Kickstarter page, or the www.churchwebsite.expert page.

Back to regular programming on Thursday. Thanks for your help with this!

Three Avenues to Joy

When I look back at what I’ve experienced in church planting these past two or so years, three joys stand out:

  1. The joy of risk — There’s something joyful about sticking your neck out and risking for the sake of the kingdom. It’s far more joyful than playing it safe. I don’t think I’d want to go back.
  2. The joy of evangelism — My best friends are increasingly outside of the church. I am intentionally cultivating relationships in my community and being present in my neighborhood.
  3. The joy of reliance — I am learning new levels of dependence on God. I am also much more aware of my reliance on other people for prayer support, as well as practical support.

If you want to ask me what I love about church planting, these three joys would rank near the top.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to be a church planter to experience these three joys. Sadly, I pastored many years without experiencing them as much as I am now, but they where there for the taking.

Risk. Evangelize. Rely. I’m finding that these are three avenues of joy available to all of us for the asking.

The $100 Church Plant

Think you need an elaborate plan before you can start a business? Think again. As Chris Guillebeau writes in The $100 Startup, you need precious little: a small venture, a very small amount of money, and a lot of courage.

Guillebeau identified 1,500 individuals who have built businesses earning $50,000 or more from a modest investment. In many cases, they started with $100 or less. Guillebeau focused on 50 of the most interesting cases, and has distilled the lessons into a how-to guide on how to start a micro-business. In some cases, the entrepreneurs didn’t even know they were starting a business. They started with the shortest of business plans, if they even had one. See this one-page template (PDF) for an example.

How did they do this? They focused on providing value for others. They focused on the convergence between what they love to do, and what other people are willing to pay for. They understood people’s emotions, and focused on those rather than on product features. They preferred action to planning, and got their first sale as soon as possible. They were okay with starting small if that’s what they wanted.

I first came across The $100 Startup a couple of years ago when it first came out. I’ve been working through it recently as I’ve been working on a side project. I believe that this book has huge value for church planters. I’m a believer in the value of bivocational ministry, and think this book has a lot to offer for planters and other pastors who are looking to earn income from other sources besides vocational ministry.

Can I suggest that there is also value in thinking about this approach for ministry?

Instead of dreaming of church plants that require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, perhaps there is a way to begin with a simple, reproducible model with little overhead for salaries and facilities.

Instead of developing an elaborate plan, perhaps there is a way to begin simply and to figure things out on the ground.

Instead of expecting each plant to become a megachurch, perhaps there is a place for micro-churches that spread through neighborhoods and focus on reproduction.

Trevin Wax has interviewed Jimmy Scroggins on this topic. "One thing’s for sure," Scroggins says, "traditional, funded, full-time church planters are not going to plant enough churches to truly penetrate the lostness of North America." We need both traditional church plants and what he calls rabbit churches. J.D. Payne has also written about the need for simple, reproducible models, as well as experimentation and learning. Books like The $100 Startup make me long for these lessons to be applied in a big way to church planting in North America and beyond.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a role for more traditional church plants, just like there’s a role for traditional business. But there’s also a huge role for small, micro-church plants that don’t require a lot of outside investment. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of these in the future. I hope so.