New churches tend to attract three kinds of people: those from other churches who are excited by your vision and respond out of a sense of call; those not currently engaged in a church, who are intrigued by the idea of something that doesn’t look like “church as usual”; and those who are dissatisfied and looking for a good reason to leave the church they now attend.
New churches need folks from those first two categories. As a planter, you should be praying diligently for the Lord to send a few spiritually mature folks who have born fruit in other vineyards and who have the capacity for watching where God is at work so they can join him.
These are people who have contributed positively where they currently serve and are invested deeply enough in the Body of Christ to care about the expansion of the gospel through new works. Their call isn’t so much away from the church they now serve as it is toward the vision you’re casting and the sense of call they feel to do a new thing. Celebrate their participation. We need the wisdom, experience and support these folks can bring.
New churches also need that second category of people — those who aren’t currently involved in a church, who are intrigued by the idea of something that doesn’t look like what they already don’t want to attend. These folks bring fresh perspectives to the table. They generate fresh energy as they reconnect with Christ and find personal meaning by being involved. It is important that they be discipled (not just used); their presence will help you stay true to what is relevant, practical and transformative. We need the grounding this group brings.
[tweetthis remove_twitter_handles=”true”]When a new church opens its doors, it will attract folks who are chronically dissatisfied.[/tweetthis]
That third category is a challenge (and a reality) for church planters. When a new church opens its doors, it will often attract a group of folks who are chronically dissatisfied. They tend to change churches often and their stories often include complaints about church leaders and tales of crises in which they are involved. They will show up at a new church often because they are looking for a way out of where they were. Even if they don’t have a history of church-hopping, their dissatisfaction with former churches bleeds and can be a distraction to your work.
These folks can be deceptive, even if they don’t mean to be. They will be the ones who tell you early and often that you are brilliant, that you’re the first one who has ever gotten it right, and that they are finally — after years of searching — in a place where the spirit of the Lord is moving.
It is tempting to believe them. After all, you actually do believe in your vision. You actually do believe you have heard a unique word from the Lord about how to “do” church. And you actually do sense the Spirit of the Lord is upon you. Who would start a church who doesn’t believe all those things?
The fact, however, is maybe not so black and white. While you surely do have a vision, passion and leading, you are not served well by having anyone place you or your vision on a pedestal. I often said, in the early days of our church plant, that I wished people wouldn’t put me on a pedestal, because it hurts a lot when they knock me off!
And they will. The first ones to take a swing will often be the very ones who brought anger or discouragement with them from previous church experiences, the very ones who used to call you blessed.
While we can’t bar the doors when they show up, there may be a few things we can do early on to cultivate a healthy and constructive culture, one that promotes mature communication, healing from past hurts, and a spirit of humility.
I offer the following suggestions for cultivating a healthy climate of grace while discouraging the dysfunction that often accompanies those with a critical spirit:
- Strongly resist sharing negative stories from past church lives. And strongly resist conversations that focus on comparing your church with others. I laid down a hard, fast rule early on in the start of our church: no negative comments about former churches. We simply didn’t allow it and when those comments were shared, I stepped in and stopped the conversation. We serve no positive purpose by talking negatively about another church – even those of which we’ve been part and where we were hurt. Our negative comments about the Body of Christ can hurt others. We must be sensitive especially to the members of our new church family by not involving them in the conflict of another church. To do so only plants seeds of bitterness in a fresh field.
- When you sense that someone is dealing with genuine hurt or bitterness over a past situation, talk with them personally and pastorally. Pray with them, and encourage them to pray toward sincere and complete reconciliation with former pastors or parishioners. Ask them how often they are praying for those folks and for that church. Hold them accountable for praying God’s best over those situations.
- Continually remind folks that the only person we can change is us. If we can’t seem to think kind thoughts or say nice things about the people of another church or group, then why is that? What is the real source of that anger, that pain? What repentance needs to happen? What practical changes? When someone shows up at your door with unresolved anger, consider that a discipleship opportunity.
- When someone lets you know that they’ve come to you from another church, do the right thing and be in touch with the pastor of that church before pursuing this person seriously. Give that pastor an opportunity to be in contact. You’ll want them to do the same for you one day.
- Likewise, encourage that one who has come into your fellowship to make an appointment with their former pastor to discuss their differences and make peace. Sometimes going back is the best way to move forward. If we are still angry with someone at another church, then perhaps God is calling us go back, offer forgiveness and get closure. Even if we don’t go back to stay, it is both wise and biblical to go back and make peace. In making amends, we discover that we don’t have to keep talking about the past because we’ve made peace with it.
Your new church will have plenty of challenges, without adding to them the presence of unresolved anger, a spirit of competitiveness or immature gossip about the Body of Christ. Those attitudes will choke the Holy Spirit’s ability to move – both in individuals and in the church. Teach this truth to your folks, and challenge them to reconcile every unresolved issue.
We find healing in stepping outside ourselves and becoming fully a part of the work going on around us. As planters, we have an opportunity to change the spiritual atmosphere of a church by setting healthy habits early on and insisting on them from those who commit to our communities.