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.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

Parents, Let’s Be Honest and Stop Acting like We Know What We’re Doing

I’m a sinful parent trying to teach his sinful kids about a great Savior. My parenting most definitely will not save my kids.

3 Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church

Stop treating your local church like your high school girlfriend, and start treating it like the bride of Christ.

Community Isn't A Bed of Roses

When you live in community with others it is dirty and intimate and confronting and sharp and challenging. It also provides amazing opportunities for growth and companionship.

Church Growth - From Evidence to Action

The findings of the Church Growth Research Program didn’t reveal a “single recipe” for growth but the researchers found that there are a number of common factors which appear to be associated with growing churches of any size, place or context.

10 Reasons to Consider Church Revitalization — Even Over Church Planting

There are so many churches who are ready to grow again with the right pastoral leadership. And, I encourage some of our young, eager, pastors — even some who may be considering church planting — to consider allowing God to use you in revitalizing an established church.

Seven Distinguishing Habits of Highly Effective Pastors

  1. They have genuine enthusiasm.
  2. They are great listeners.
  3. Their identity is not their vocation.
  4. They are intentional about personal witnessing.
  5. They have unconditional love of their critics.
  6. They have a gentle spirit.
  7. They persevere.

How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting

Here are some tips for designing an effective agenda for your next meeting, with a sample agenda and template below.

Come and Die

Come and die (and live!).

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

Four Problems with Church Planting

I’m a big believer in church planting, yet I have some concerns with some of our approaches. Today I want to outline some of my concerns. On Thursday I’ll suggest some tweaks in how we plant that address some of these concerns.

1. The greatest needs are outside of North America.

Paul said, “And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation…” (Romans 15:20). While there are many people who have not been reached with the gospel in North America, I also agree with J.D. Payne who writes:

I am sometimes asked, “Where do we begin our disciple making and church planting activities?” My general response is, “The greatest needs are outside of North America.” It is in those locations that we find the greatest physical and spiritual needs. Most of the two billion who have yet to hear the good news live outside of our context.

2. Our methods are too expensive.

J.D. Greear writes:

Many church plants start with a yearly budget of $200,000 or more, which means that before they’ve even planted the church, they need to grow the church to 200+ just to become self-sustaining. For many planters, especially in difficult contexts, this is simply unrealistic. Unfortunately, most don’t recognize the mistake until year 3 when their funding begins to run out.

Another problem with this approach is the sheer amount of money it will require given the number of churches we need to plant. Southern Baptists have a goal of planting 15,000 churches by 2022. Even if every plant only required $100,000 each, that’s 1.5 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money in a day when many of our churches are plateaued or declining.

See also Trevin Wax's interview with Jimmy Scroggins.

Then there is the human cost. Truckloads of stage gear, chairs and childcare infrastructure have to be set up and torn down each week. It’s a ton of work and key volunteers can burn out easily.

3. Our casualty rate is high.

The North American Mission Board has found that the survivability rate of church plants in their study was 68 percent after four years. That means that almost a third of church plants fail. This is costly, both in terms of money and people.

4. Our models aren’t always healthy.

I can't say it any better than J.D. Payne:

We do not need another flavor of church in the Baskin Robbins of North American Christianity; we need missionary bands to settle for nothing less than disciple-making that results in new churches...

Are there times when a church should hive-off members to begin work in another area? Yes.  Is it okay for a congregation to send out a pastor with several church members to plant an “instant” church in a community? Yes, under certain circumstances.

However, such models tend to be difficult to reproduce (in view of four billion unbelievers), pose contextualization challenges, are costly, and often do not result in a great amount of disciples made.  The weight of the biblical definition for church planting is not found here.  Such models should be the exception when it comes to church planting.  Today, they are often the expectation. 

Again: I believe in church planting. We need to take seriously, though, that these four realities are keeping us from being as effective as we need to be. On Thursday, I’ll suggest some tweaks in how we can address these concerns.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

God Doesn’t Want Matt Chandler to Be Your Pastor

God doesn’t want Matt Chandler to be your pastor (unless you happen to be in his church). God has placed your pastor in your church to care specifically for you.

9 Marks of an Unhealthy Church

Here are nine marks that your church–even one that believes the Bible, preaches the gospel, and embraces good ecclesiology–may be unhealthy.

How to Be Happy When Someone Leaves Your Church

When another church prospers, I rejoice in God’s grace to them.

5 Things People Blame The Church For ... But Shouldn’t

Here’s the challenge: Be part of the solution. And the solution is not to walk away or be endlessly critical.

12 Ways to Overcome Fear and Confront like a Master

Excellence requires confrontation.

MLK on Creative Street Sweepers

Anything you do with emotional investment and creativity is a type of art, and all work is to be done in an artful — rather than merely utilitarian — way.