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?

Planting at the Intersection of Receptivity, Need, and Passion

Where should we plant churches? With over four billion people on the planet who are not disciples of Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility to answer this question carefully. No one has helped me think through this question more than J.D. Payne, author of Discovering Church Planting.

Payne suggests that we plant at the intersection of receptivity and need:

  • Receptivity — Where are people ready to hear the gospel? While there is a role for planting in areas with low receptivity, it is best to prioritize areas where people are receptive to the gospel.
  • Need — Where do people need to hear the gospel? Where are there a high number of people who have never heard the gospel, in contrast to areas where there are a high percentage of believers? (See Payne’s recent post on Utica as an example. I would argue that Toronto is just as needy.)

Payne argues that we should prioritize areas of high need and receptivity as a matter of stewardship. While some may be called to areas of high need and low receptivity, this is not the norm.

As I think about this, I would add one more consideration:

  • Passion — Where am I particularly suited and impassioned to serve?

This is probably worth its own post, but I have found that when God calls someone to do something, he usually also gives them a great passion or burden for that work. 

We should therefore aim to plant churches at the intersection of receptivity, need, and passion.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

What Church Plants Have that Established Churches (Often) Don't

Church plants have very little. They have little money, few people, no building, and an uncertain future. Yet church plants have a few things that older churches often don't have, and that makes all the difference.

What do church plants have? Three qualities:

  • A unified vision — Mission drift plagues many established churches. New churches typically don't succumb to this, at least in the early years. If you are in a church plant, it's likely because you've heard the vision and bought into it. Otherwise, there's little to keep you there. This is a huge advantage.
  • An outward focus — Churches tend to turn inward as they grow older. A church plant can't afford to do this, or they will not get off the ground. New churches have a focus on evangelism and blessing the community that is essential.
  • A flexible ministry model — Having little can work to your advantage. You can make changes without having to reinvent everything. Newer churches can change almost anything at a moment's notice. They are not constrained by buildings and years of tradition. New churches are nimble.

Please note: it's possible to have all of the above in an established church, but not without a lot of work. By work, I mean suffering. Established churches have more stability and resources, but these often come at the expense of the qualities I describe above.

Here's the beautiful thing: newer churches can help older churches move towards these qualities, as older churches help newer churches with prayer and resources. Both newer churches and older churches have what the other needs. Both are essential in the Kingdom.

How Every Church Can Get Involved with Church Planting

For pastors and other leaders truly committed to the church growth imperative of the Great Commission, church planting is not an option. (Thom S. Rainer)

I'm a firm believer that every church should be involved in church planting. To be sure, there are different levels of involvement. No involvement, however, should not be an option.

The Gospel Coalition has a great post on how to become a church planting church. I love the plan that Brian Howard outlines in that article; it is doable, and churches can begin right where they are and adapt the plan within their context.

In his excellent book Discovering Church Planting, J.D. Payne outlines some different levels of involvement. "The first thing that churches should understand is that there is a multitude of ways to be involved in church planting," he writes. They include:

  • calling out missionaries who will consider church planting as a ministry option;
  • providing ongoing prayer support for church plants and church planters;
  • encouragement and association with the church planting team;
  • pastoral mentoring and accountabliity;
  • training, such as paying for planters to attend conferences and training events;
  • resources and financial help;
  • constant recognition of the church planters.

Chapter 14 of Discovering Church Planting is a valuable resource on how to get involved with church planting, even at a very introductory level.

I'm convinced that this would make a huge difference. If every church did its part — even a small part — then we would continually be raising up new church planters, understanding the importance of planting, praying for church plants, and providing resources for the work.

What a great opportunity! Begin where you are, and see where God begins to take you as you take small steps to increasing involvement in the planting of churches that are reaching people with the gospel. Just as every church should be involved in missions, every church should be involved in church planting.

It's Supposed to Be Messy and Hard

I confuse myself, and I don’t think I’m alone.

When we began planting a church in Liberty Village, I was pretty sure that our goal was to plant ourselves and the gospel in a community where the gospel isn’t known. It would be messy; progress would be slow; but we would pray for people to come to know Christ and persevere even when it was hard. Out of that would come a church, if God so blessed. Failure would be a very real possibility as we live on the frontier. This is not a safe option.

Just a few months in, I’ve noticed a few things. One: I’m busy, and the busyness is keeping me from living on mission. Two: Our community isn’t as far along as we would like; some of us are living in the same community, but are lives aren’t as intertwined as I’d hoped. Three: I get discouraged when not enough (notice how slippery that term is? what’s enough?) people show up to one of our services.

If I’m not careful, I completely miss the point of what we are trying to do.

Here are a few things that come to mind as I think about this.

First, consider the possibility that this confusion may be pretty widespread. Will Mancini frequently asks pastors, “How do you want your church to be different in two years?” The most common response he receives is, “More people." (See Innovating Discipleship for more.) More people is good, but it’s only part of the picture. He lists some other possible responses he rarely hears: more desparate for Jesus, or more friendships with people far from God. It may be that “more people” is part of what we should be aiming for in two years; it may be that there are more important things that have escaped our attention. For myself: I’d love more people living in community and on mission in Liberty Village over simply more people sitting in rows anytime. I just need to remember this.

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Second, please help me celebrate the right things. When people ask how church planting is going, it’s easy to give a sanitized answer. The reality is that it is often hard. The results are not always evident. Success is not always guaranteed. The process is messy. And this isn’t when things are going poorly; this is church planting at its best. When you are planting a church that aims to be built out of new kingdom citizens, this is exactly how it should look.

That’s why I love what J.D. Payne says: expect new churches to be immature. That’s how they’re supposed to look. Or, as Tim Challies puts it, expect bad singing. Expect it to be hard. Expect setbacks and disappointments. In the middle of the risk and the messiness and sometimes apparent defeat, God does some pretty amazing things.

I spent most of yesterday reminding myself that these things are true. Pray that I’ll remember tomorrow. I have a tendency to confuse myself with the wrong metrics more quickly than I’d like.