Honest Church Planting

Although all the chapters in Rico Tice’s new book Honest Evangelism are good, one chapter in particular stood out to me. It’s chapter 7, called “Getting started (or re-started).” It outlines the changes that have taken place in culture over the past few decades, and how this affects the way we evangelize.

Tice writes in the context of the United Kingdom. He argues — correctly, I think — that the U.K. is a couple of decades ahead of the United States in these trends.

In the 1950s, people generally believed “in a Creator God, the notion of sin, and in the truth that Jesus is God’s Son.” When people heard the gospel, many were ready to respond.

By the 1990s, people were hardening against Christianity. It was harder to get them to come to a special service, or to hear a visiting evangelist. Some blocks (objections to Christianity) had to be removed first before the gospel could gain a hearing. In particular, Tice describes four: Christians are weird; Christianity is untrue; Christianity is irrelevant; and Christianity is intolerant.

When people met Christians, saw the way that they lived, and heard answers to their intellectual issues, trust would build. People would then sometimes be willing to give the gospel a hearing.

Twenty years later, Tice says, “people are on a totally different road.” Our culture is now defined by tolerance and permissiveness. People no longer engage with faith in order to accept or reject it. They simply dismiss it out of hand.

As a result, Tice says, two things are true. First, witnessing takes time and effort:

Research suggests that when people put their faith in Christ, on average it’s taken two years from the point when they came into meaningful contact with a Christian who witnessed to them — and that time period is growing. Witnessing is a long-term commitment to invest in a relationship, to pray tirelessly, and to speak the gospel over and over again, patiently and persistently. It is a journey of gospel conversations. It really does take effort.

Second, it takes us bringing the gospel to them. “It’s harder and harder to take people to hear the Bible taught; you need to take the Bible to them…Evangelism takes time, and evangelism takes friendship.”

These are great insights, and they make a lot of sense to me. I would add an additional note, though. How do you plant a new church in light of these realities? You plant relationally, and you plant patiently.

  • Plant relationally — Many will not come to a church event. Relationships are key in sharing the gospel.
  • Plant patiently — Growth will probably not be rapid. Our expectations need to be realistic. We need to be in it for the long haul.

We need to be honest about how evangelism and church planting are changing. Both are still important; in fact, they are more important than ever. But they will both look different than they did even a few years ago.

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.

Four Biggest Lessons

Tomorrow marks a year since I finished at Richview and began the process of planting a church. It’s been both the most exciting and the most difficult year of my ministry so far.

A year in, here are the four most profound lessons I’ve been learning.

  1. Spiritual attack is real. I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of attack in the past year. Our family has been through some intense periods of suffering. I’ve been learning the truth of what Spurgeon once said: “When you sleep, think that you are resting on the battlefield; when you walk, suspect an ambush in every hedge.” Church planting is a battle.

  2. Idolatry is rampant. I can’t wait to read Jared Wilson’s forthcoming book The Pastor's Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry. The reason: it’s so tempting to find my justification in ministry, either past ministry at Richview or my current performance as a planter. Of course, my justification can only be found in the finished work of Christ, but I’m often tempted to look elsewhere.

  3. Busyness is a struggle. I honestly thought I would have more time than when I pastored an established church. Was I ever wrong. I am currently recalibrating my schedule because the work is so intense, and things can get out of control very quickly.

  4. Planting is an overflow of one’s relationship with Christ. Adam Sinnett told me this, and he’s right. “Fight to remain Jesus-centred, not planting-centred,” he told me. “It is easy to make planting the focus, and miss God.” It’s probably the best advice I heard all year.

Planting is for Every Church

My latest column at ChristianWeek:

I used to think that church planters are deviants—nice people with a rebel streak. I liked them, and I admired them, but I couldn't relate to them, and I certainly didn't want to join their number.

Tim Keller, a pastor and church planter in New York City, changed all that. I read an article of his called "Why Plant Churches?" (PDF) and I still haven't recovered. Church planting, he argues, is the biblical strategy for reaching people with the gospel. Church plants reach people that established churches won't.

Church plants are also the best way to renew established churches. Keller answered every objection I had to church planting, and he convinced me to see church planting as essential. It's not for deviants; it's essential for every church.

I remember sitting in my office a decade ago while pastoring an established church. A friend of mine had just planted a new church. We had a huge building, money in the bank, and a couple hundred people. They had a dozen people meeting in a basement.

A decade later, that church plant has outgrown the established church I pastored, and they have also planted a number of new churches that are also growing. While I'm still convinced that we still need to work on renewing existing churches, I began to appreciate church plants like never before.

I also remember sitting in a meeting with two pastors of established churches and three church planters. As we talked about our churches, the two of us from established churches struggled to articulate our vision. We lacked clarity. The three church planters spoke with great clarity about the vision of their churches. I walked away from the meeting wondering how their vision and clarity could rub off on us.

I've come to believe that every church needs to be involved in church planting. It's not just because I'm now a church planter—it's because I've spent 20 years pastoring established churches, and I now realize what I was missing.

First, church planting is strategic. In every city and town, we need new churches to reach the people that existing churches can't. According to Keller, the average new church brings in six to eight times more new people than an older congregation of the same size. I agree with Peter Wagner: "Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven."

Secondly—and this is new to me—church planting benefits established churches. My mother is often asked why she seems young for her age. She has a one-word answer: "Grandchildren." Because she's investing in the lives of those who are young, she's stayed young. Every church was once a church plant; the way to maintain some of that energy is to continue to live close to the youth of other church plants.

Church planting isn't for deviants. It's the way to reach new people, and it's the way for the established Church to maintain its vibrancy. Church planting is for every church.