Lessons from a Venezuelan Church Planter

I had lunch with a church planter in Venezuela in the early days of planting Liberty Grace Church. Like us, he had experience in planting in a condo community.

I was deeply encouraged by what this church planter told me, and I think of what he said often. Here are the top five lessons I learned from that lunch.

  1. Distinguish between planting season and harvest season. As a pastor of an established church, I’d largely been living in harvest season, based on the sowing work others had done before me. As a church planter, I’m in planting season. My Venezuelan friend told me that if I forgot that I’m in planting season, I’d get discouraged by the lack of fruit. Don’t expect a harvest when it’s time to plant, he told me.
     
  2. Think years, not months. While some church planters see rapid growth, my friend told me it took seven years for him to gain traction. Looking back after those seven years, he could see tremendous progress. In the middle of the seven years, though, it sometimes felt like nothing was happening. Unless you’re reaching the already-reached, we have to think years, not months. (David Fitch says that church planting is a minimum ten-year commitment to a place, and I think he's right.)
     
  3. Don’t expect skeptics to attend the worship service. My planter friend told me that worship services are good for the team, but not as great as an evangelistic strategy. In a secular and skeptical society, he said, we will not see droves of skeptics running to church services. He wasn’t arguing against making our services friendly to outsiders, but he cautioned against seeing them as the connecting point with our community.
     
  4. Find connecting points. Canadian Christmas traditions seemed to gain people’s interest in Venezuela. My friend capitalized on those as a way of connecting with as many people as possible. He told me to take advantage of any opportunity to find connecting points with people and use them to build relationships in the community.
     
  5. Look for credibility gaps. This planter’s neighbors wondered what he did with his time. When he told them that he was starting a church, he got blank stares. Eventually he took a job and became bivocational, and found that he gained a lot of trust and credibility in the community. His lack of a job (other than church planting) hurt his credibility, and he didn’t even know it. While the issues are different in every community, it’s important to look for the ways that we’re losing credibility, and address them.

I’m convinced that we have lots to learn from church planters who have experienced some of the challenges of planting in harder areas. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from my Venezuelan church planting friend.

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Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Four Adjustments in Church Planting

I’m a big believer in church planting, but I have some concerns about some of our current approaches. I wrote about them on Tuesday:

  1. The greatest needs are outside of North America.
  2. Our methods are too expensive.
  3. Our casualty rate is high.
  4. Our models aren’t always healthy.

I’m familiar with some of these realities, because I’m neck deep in them myself. I believe we need to do better. I’m no expert in how to do this, but I’m thinking through a few ways that we may be able to take a more effective approach.

1. Prioritize areas of greatest need.

We need to reach people everywhere, but we should prioritize places with the greatest need. This means a continued emphasis on church planting overseas, as well as in the most unreached areas in North America. For instance, J.D. Payne has listed the most unreached counties and metro areas in the United States. In Canada, I’m pretty sure you can add downtown Toronto, Québec, Newfoundland, and many other communities to the list. We should pay careful attention to the areas of greatest need and plant churches there if we are to follow Paul’s example (Romans 15:20).

2. Develop lean models of church planting.

Ed Stetzer talks about opening more lanes in church planting:

We've adopted a mentality of "clergification," believing that the only people who can plant churches are full-time, paid pastors. As a result, we have a long line of prospective planters (because church planting is definitely the hot thing right now) all waiting for someone to say, “You're clergy. You're full-time. Here's your money.” And there's not enough money for all of them. We've bought all the church planting that we can buy, and that's not enough to start a church multiplication movement. So there they are . . . thousands of planters, stuck in line waiting for their turn and their funding. Unfortunately, many times, we let one's funding determine one's calling.

The solution is the same as Wal-Mart's. We need to open more lanes. I'm not saying to get rid of the fully-funded lane. We need to keep that lane open while we redirect some other people towards other lanes. For example, we need to create a strategy that helps some pastors become bi-vocational. We need to help them find other jobs and teach them how to lead a church while doing it. Another lane would provide permission to ethnic leaders to go ahead and plant churches rather than having to walk through several layers of Anglo hierarchy to do so.

As Payne says, "Jesus said to go and make disciples, not wait for pastors to plant churches."

There’s going to be a continued role for full time vocational church planters, but this alone won’t get the job done. We need cheaper, more reproducible models too.

3. Reduce the risk.

Church planting will always be risky, but there are ways to reduce the risk. We can lower the dollar threshold needed to plant a church, making it less likely that the new church will go broke. We can incubate church planters within existing churches, growing their leadership until they are ready to plant. As we enlarge the church planting table, we can also open more models that have a lower failure rate. We can prioritize coaching for church planters. We also need to actively learn from other planters and organizations on how they mitigate the risk. This is especially important if we are going to focus on the most unreached areas. The risk is already high; we need to do everything we can to reduce it.

4. Focus on the harvest.

J.D. Payne’s definition of church planting is right: it is evangelism that results in new churches. What if church planting focused only on reaching the unreached in a people group or a community? This would take longer, but it would truly be closer to the biblical pattern of church planting. It would be less about branding and worship services, and more about evangelism leading to the birth of a new church community.

We talk about multiplication, but our current approaches to church planting in North America make it hard for this to happen. I long to see church planting that prioritizes the areas of greatest need, uses lean models, mitigates the risk, and focuses on the harvest rather than the already-reached

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Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Cross-Cultural Ministry at Home

Someone has started a Facebook group for debating current issues in our community. It’s a church planter’s dream, because it regularly confronts me with the reality that people think very differently than I think they do. That’s something I need to know.

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto. I’ve lived in the Greater Toronto Area my entire life. And yet, I’m involved in cross-cultural ministry right in my own backyard.

What happened? Three things. I’ve physically moved, and that means that I live in a new community with different values. I’ve aged, and that means that I’m learning from a different generation than my own. And society has changed. Even if I stood still, society hasn't, and that means trying to catch up.

I’m not alone. Matt Galloway, host of the Metro Morning radio show in Toronto, tweeted as he watched the Grammys with his kids:

I can relate, but it goes much deeper than music. It has to do with worldviews and values.

What does this mean?

It means that we need to remind ourselves regularly that we are sojourners and exiles here (1 Peter 2:11). Because I’ve lived here my whole life, it’s easy for me to think I know the culture more than I do. We need to pay attention to the subtle cues of cultural misalignment. They’re everywhere.

It also requires that we learn. It means asking lots of questions and listening well. Sometimes the best and hardest thing that a preacher can do is shut up and listen. It also means that I read widely, including the magazines and newspapers that people in my community are reading, especially the ones I don’t want to read because I don’t like what they say.

It also means that we need to learn to communicate to people who think differently than I do. Tim Keller talks about distinguishing between “A” doctrines (commonly held beliefs that line up with Scriptural teaching) and “B” doctrines (areas in which culture and Scripture disagree). He advises us to ‘float’ ‘B’ doctrines on top of ‘A’ doctrines, looking for ways to build the truth they don’t accept on top of the truth they do. This isn’t the entire answer, but we must give thought about how to communicate into a culture that’s different than ours.

Finally, it means that we need courage. Douglas Groothuis writes:

Christians should know what they believe and why they believe it. As they grow in their confidence that Christianity is amply supported by reason and evidence, they should likewise grow in their courage for the Christian witness. The stakes are too high to be ignorant or cowardly.

We need the courage to engage rather than simply withdrawing, even when things get challenging.

Cross-cultural ministry is great. We just have to remember that’s what we’re doing, and learn to do it well, even at home.

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Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

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?

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Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

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.

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Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.