Are you called to church plant? Church plants need to be started whilst there remain people who have not received Christ. No city, town or village has been entirely reached for the kingdom so there is a need for anyone called as a church planter to start new church plants. The Apostle Paul showed through Acts that planting churches was his prime strategy for advancing the kingdom and spreading the gospel. So how can we plant churches well?
Planting churches is testing work. Many church plants don’t last past the first few years. This can be due to a lack of resources, a lack of fruit, disagreement, or simple burnout. But church plants carry their own uniqueness in the early days. How can a church planter lead in the beginning in a way that best endeavors to set up the fledgling church plant for success?
Characteristics of Church Plants
- Planting churches is new and exhilarating – a new leader and new people mean a new church! There is a sense of excitement and nervousness in the church plant that comes from the sense of ‘pioneering’ faith.
- A strong sense of unity in the core group because of shared values, practices, and experiences. There is a resultant family feel generated because the same people meet regularly. This allows everyone who is consistently part of the proceedings to have a voice.
- In a church plant, all hands are on deck and everyone is involved. There isn’t the luxury of ‘passengers!’ There is an energy and excitement amongst the busyness of church life, powered by the faith of the few. These are the ones who are committed to what they believe God is doing.
- Because of the felt need for growth and expansion, the priority is on reaching new people. Ultimately, the hearts of the people are for others to join them in their big adventure, so they see growth not just amongst themselves in spiritual maturity, but also numerically.
- Church life revolves around the central gathering. In the early days, this might be a meeting in someone’s house. Over time, as more people join, this might need to move into a larger space. Irrespective of location, this meeting is where the bulk of the worship, teaching, family ministry, and guest engagement happens.
- Organisation and administration systems don’t need to be highly developed. Typically, decisions will be made on the fly by the Church Planter/Senior Leader in the moment.
- Because the size is small, money is usually tight as well. Occasionally there are a few key benefactors who are primarily funding the church plant, but not always, and it might feel a little ‘hand to mouth’. It can be a faith adventure!
Getting through this stage is key to building a healthy and sustainable church plant. On one level, there is exhilaration and excitement because of the new church planting venture. On another, it is really hard work! Perseverance and battling disappointment is key during this time. Don’t be fooled – gritting your teeth and pressing forwards is going to be a key part of church plant life!
Leading Church Plants Well
So how do you lead a church plant? How can you avoid the sadly all-too-common difficulties that those who are planting churches seem to suffer?
Influence By Leading
Because of the size of the work, everything involves the Church Planter – whether directly or indirectly. The Church Planter’s main way of influencing the church is through his or her leadership. He/She will know most, if not all, people, and all people will know him/her. Access and proximity are both easy. Because of these factors, a church planter needs to be wise in how they lead. Leading in a style the church isn’t ready for will minimize influence and cause problems. For example, being difficult to connect with or get time with will be more harmful at this stage than others. Facetime is important for relationship building and developing trust when planting churches. Consequently, a lack of facetime or availability sows the opposite feelings and will work against your efforts in how to grow the church plant.
Leaders also need to be wise in how they employ their giftings. Many of us have strong gifts that we love to use, but if we aren’t careful then we may cause more problems. As a general rule, the smaller the church plant, the more generalist all leaders need to be. As the church plant grows, specialist ministers can be released or hired, but that is in later stages of growth. Planting churches requires the embracing of a unique season of leadership outworking.
These culture-shaping decisions not only affect the leader, but also the people. An evangelistic culture that focuses on reaching new people is essential. This is especially true if the existence of the plant has come from any other reason than as an intentional church plant.
Some church plants form because people have been hurt in a previous church, maybe because of leadership excesses, or disappointment. If these congregations do not maintain a focus on evangelism, the culture they will gravitate towards will be pastoral. They’ll serve each other’s needs, protecting themselves to avoid repeating what has happened before. Church plants that start because of doctrinal differences, or divisions over teaching or theology, will gather around a teaching culture. Churches that exist because of a hunger for more of the Spirit of God, and desire charismatic gifts or experiences of God’s presence, will focus on a prophetic culture. None of these cultures is bad – in fact, each of them is essential for a healthy church. But at the start of church life, none are meant to be the central focus of a church plant. Planting churches is, by it’s very nature, a missional, outwards and evangelistic work.
The energy during this season is a whirlwind of dreams, hopes, and ‘what-ifs’. Hope and expectation will bring life to the work, so as the leader, steward and respond to it. Conversely, disillusionment and discouragement will quench joy and enthusiasm so fight them ruthlessly. Planting churches is tough, so encouragement and enthusiasm will be two of your key leadership weapons.
There is an energy and excitement and as people are drawn to what the church planter, and the people, are stirred about, the zeal is multiplied. There is a beautiful tension between the prophetic imagination and the scale of some dreams when facing the current reality of being part of only a small number of people. Any vision that is held will only flourish with the addition of more people. Whilst this season is a season for dreaming and imagining, it mustn’t take over the actual work of winning souls. Enthusiasm and passion, as well as focus, are essential as you look at how to grow the church plant.
During this stage, the church mission is the key growth engine. Adherence to it will determine if the church plant succeeds or not. If the church mission isn’t focused on reaching new people, and activity isn’t primarily geared towards outreach, over time the church plant will diminish. It will shrink as members of the congregation age or move away due to life’s circumstances.
Key questions to clarify your apostolic mission during this stage include:
1. As a church plant, who are you called to reach?
2. As a church plant, how do you reach out to them?
3. As a church plant, after reaching out, how do you meaningfully connect with them?
4. How do you stay connected to them?
The Great Commission – which is the foundation for all authentic church mission statements – is pretty clear. Jesus said ‘GO into all the world.’ He didn’t say ‘STAY and wait for the world to come!’
A clear, concise mission statement that is built on the apostolic purpose of your church will help keep this focus front and centre as you look at how to grow the church plant. It also cements outreach in your DNA early and keeps the mission flowing now as part of your church plant strategy. This is beneficial as you grow and step into later stages of church growth.
Another cultural reality at this stage of the church is the church planter-driven nature of the work. Whether a full or part-time employee or a volunteer, there will be a clear leader or leadership couple. By nature of this stage of church planting life, all the significant ministry and decisions will be placed at the leader’s feet. Whilst this isn’t unexpected, it’s important to begin modeling, training, delegation, and empowerment. The alternative is that the church planter(s) become burnt out and stressed because they are the go-to people, decision-makers, and implementors across the board.
To prevent this, give ministry opportunities and decision-making authority away to trusted, committed people. This will inject a value for empowered people – the priesthood of all believers – into the DNA of the church. Trying to do this later on, when reacting to too many demands, means a church planter is fighting against an unhealthy expectancy that has been created of the leader being the point person for all the preaching, pastoring, visiting, counselling and even maintenance! If you don’t take active steps now to create a culture the opposite of this expectancy, it will prove to be a much bigger uphill battle further down the road.
In reality, churches will not grow much past the one-hundred mark if the primary leaders keep control of every decision, every key ministry occasion, and every opportunity for influence. Anyone with any kind of leadership gifting won’t stay in that environment for long. Nor will the prophetic voices continue to speak, because they’ll know and sense there isn’t a heart for change. Empowerment is key to prevent any culture of control from rising up. So as leaders, as we look at how to grow the church plant, our role is to identify, train and release other gifted people into leadership roles. Planting churches means you are also planting leaders!
Build Your Main Gathering As You Look To Grow The Church Plant
Because of the limited time and finances available during this season, it is important that the church strategy doesn’t overcommit and have too many events or meetings. Not only will this use crucial funds, but it will tire people out who find more evenings are swallowed up with church events. More church meetings mean less time for people to spend connecting with those outside the church.
Additionally, the more meetings that run, the more meetings will naturally drift away from the focus on non-believers and centre on the people in the church plant. This subtle shift will cause the church plant to plateau if left unchecked. This may seem harsh, but it will be a natural response to voices who want more teaching, more pastoring or more of the prophetic. Again, good things but at this phase of church planting, not the main things. With these very real tensions in mind, focusing on two ‘wings’ of church meetings seems wisest.
The first ‘wing’ is to develop a strong main service. In one sense, it is your ‘shop window’ to demonstrate who you are to visitors. In another sense, it is the primary ‘family gathering’ to foster connections and community for newer people. Make it easy for you to connect with new people, but also for new people to connect with you! Let the people with you who have gifts of hospitality use them to make your meetings welcoming and friendly to all. Warmth and hospitality are powerful parts of an effective church plant strategy.
I don’t subscribe to a ‘seeker-sensitive’ model of church service where everything is geared towards non-believers. I’ve seen this ethos manifest itself as short worship, no demonstrations of the power of the Holy Spirit, and elementary preaching. The people of God – the church – gather together to worship Him first and foremost. Out from that place of encounter, we minister to other people, whether they are saved or unsaved. Therefore demonstrations of spiritual gifts and strong, excellently crafted but entirely biblical preaching are essential. However, as a missional church, you do need to be ‘seeker-sensible’. Avoid any language, practices, or behaviours that would confuse, distract or put off unbelievers. It is possible to have meetings that are accessible yet powerful – the two are not in opposition. Clear leadership can deliver both.
Develop Small Groups
The second ‘wing’ to develop are small group-type meetings. Small groups that meet in people’s homes, or another informal but welcoming location, will help build community and deepen relationships for those who are with you, and those who are looking in. These groups are ideal as a growth strategy for discipling people – whether new converts, young believers, or those with you who can be discipled in the use of their leadership, teaching, pastoral and prophetic gifts. Encourage people to be part of groups, and let them be places of life, risk and fun. All three will bring connection and growth with them. If you are planting churches, small groups are a key factor in seeing it continue to grow and increase.
Recruit Generalists To Help Grow The Church Plant
Staffing is always tricky during this stage due to the often limited finances. Employing a Senior Leader, earlier and part-time if possible, is a good move and an effective strategy. Later, increasing the hours or hiring full-time will enable the leader to exclusively focus on the church. Their role will be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades; preaching, discipleship, visiting, general leadership, and even some administration tasks. Because of the stage the church plant is at, the leader needs to accept covering a lot of bases instead of specialising in the role he or she truly feels best in. That time will come later. The original church planter(s) may not necessarily be the right person in this role, either. Planting churches is very different to pastoring a church.
If money allows, bring in part-time support who can manage administration, finances and general help in the church plant. This ensures the leader has some capacity released and isn’t spending time on these functions, away from the main focus of the work.
Avoid Becoming Inward-Looking
Because there is a core group of people wholly subscribed to the work, there is a real sense of family. A culture of family is very attractive to many people, who are seeking to belong to a community, feel part of something bigger than themselves, and have a ‘tribe’ they can support and be supported by.
A risk is that this ‘family-feel’ becomes an unhealthy clique, and the church develops two tiers. The upper tier is formed by those part of the ‘family’, who are on the inside, control the money, and make all the decisions. The lower tier is those not part of the circle of trust, who not in word but in practice are treated as outsiders. A true missional church focus on reaching new people is an essential growth strategy. Incorporating these newcomers into the church plant will prevent such an inward-looking, self-serving, church-killing mentality.
Know Your Leadership Style
Church planting is tough, and it takes certain characteristics of people to do it well. A successful church planter will need key personality traits, attitudes, and perspectives. There are skills that need be learned. Knowing your leadership style, strengths, drivers and weaknesses is essential in leading a church plant well.
Don’t go rogue! Have cover, both pragmatically and relationally. Who can you draw from, confide in, learn from, be challenged by, or share the pain with? Planting a church is not something that needs to be done alone.
Take Your Time In Launching
Just because you feel you should plant a church doesn’t mean you need to do it tomorrow. Plan. Think. Research. Recruit. Strategise. Don’t rush in. It’s easier to increase the pace than it is to backtrack.
Build A Team
Church planters who go it alone without a team are exposing themselves to a whole heap of trouble. I’ve known leaders who thought they were pioneering and heroic, but actually impacted their marriage and the lives of their children because they landed in a new city without any team or connection on the ground, and were expecting to gather people to them immediately. Gather a team, go with a team, and church plant with that team. Make sure you know what everyone brings on that team as well – many will have hidden depths that have never been expressed!
Launch With Others
Church planters don’t need to start the new work with just their family now. Who said that has to be the way? The more people you have with you, the more chance of success you are giving your church plant. A ‘launch team’ will help fund the church plant, be volunteers in the ministries, and also be those who work with the church planter in getting the word out. At least fifty people is a good target for launch teams of church plants. Less than that risks not having enough volunteers, which means your ministry efforts will lack, and people won’t come back. Get a launch team.
Build Income ASAP
Ministry costs money. Ministers also cost money. Without money, you won’t have any ministries and you won’t have any ministers! Some church plants start with a level of support, and some don’t. Either way, begin developing income streams. Build towards self-sufficiency, even if you have income support. If you do have funding from outside, be clear on when that income ends. You don’t want to be caught out and have a shortfall when it stops!
Don’t Neglect Integration
Some people will attend your church plant because you are the new and shiny thing in town. Some will go, some will stay. But at some point, a newer church plant or ministry will become the new place and people won’t come to yours anymore just because it’s novel. So work from day one on how you’ll integrate newcomers. How will you involve, invite and connect with them so they’ll put roots down and stay? Part of this process could begin to shape your discipleship pathway. Remember, the goal of planting churches is to see them become churches. That only happens if people are integrated in with you.
Resist Formalising Leadership Early
Church plants attract people from other churches who are disillusioned, discouraged, and destructive. Some of these people may be gifted, vocal, strong personalities, and have leadership giftings. But you don’t know their history, character, or background. So resist giving formal and public leadership roles and positions to people you don’t yet know. Wait until they’ve been, and stayed, with you for a while first. Do they have stickability? How do they respond to being told ‘no’? Do they seem to be seeking a platform? Are they buying into the mission, vision and values of the church plant? Moving towards forming a senior leadership/eldership team is honorable and will be right at some point – but not yet. Get to know your people first before you promote someone you might later regret!
Don’t Centralise Power
This seems contradictory to the previous point but really isn’t. A church planter (and those who are planting churches) naturally start the cycle of the church plant in the primary position of power and authority. But this can’t be the normal culture of the church. You need to give power away to godly men and women with proven character. One way you discern people’s characters is by giving them responsibility and seeing how they handle it, and how they handle feedback. Beginning to think through how you can empower others, and how you can identify and train up leaders, prevents power from being centralised and the church plant becoming a one-man-ministry show laden with control.
Give Yourself To Strategy
Strategy is essential for launching church plants well. It is also essential for your first months! What are your priorities? What resources do you have? How will your resources serve your mission? Who is with you? What do they bring to the table? Strategic planning is essential for taking a church plant, building foundations, gaining momentum, and seeing the plant become a fully-fledged church. A good strategic planning process will help you clarify what has worked, what hasn’t, what has changed, and what needs to. I’d recommend completing one within the first twelve to eighteen months after launch.
The church plant stage is a key time in the life of a church, but also a vulnerable one. The enemy likes to distract or destroy church plants and will often dangle nice, exciting ministry ideas on the path. Keep a missional, outreach focus and cultivate an evangelistic culture. If possible, bring in evangelists to teach, train, model, demonstrate and impact your people.
Resist the easier and more immediately successful results that come from exclusively focusing on the apostolic, prophetic, pastoral, or teaching ministries. This stage of church life will shape your DNA going forward. Over-specialisation in one area will lead to a deficit in another area later down the line. Have these gifts and ministries, of course, but as ‘sub-cultures’ for now. Their time for profile and development will come.
As a church planter, you must fight control and leader-centrism in church plants you lead by empowering people in ministry. Identify fellow leaders quickly and form informal teams that have genuine authority, responsibility, and accountability. To paraphrase John Wimber, get others ‘doing the stuff.’
Don’t overcommit with activities. Prioritise creating a good main service that is accessible to visitors so they can meet God and yourselves, and small groups that are discipling and training people through experiences. Think practical workshops rather than Bible studies or inward-focused sessions.
Lastly, keep pressing on. Church planting is like a snowball rolling down a mountain. It takes time to start moving, but once it picks up momentum, it turns into an avalanche! So keep going. Planting churches is God’s idea, and He is with you!