Interested in planting a church? Wrestle with these questions first.
Why do I want to plant a church?
If it’s because you’re frustrated with your current church, don’t do it. If it’s because you think this is the trend, then please don’t do it. If it’s because you have figured out a better way to ‘do church’ after 2,000 years of saints getting it wrong, then for the sake of everyone around you and your own soul within you, do not do it.
If it’s because your heart is breaking for a people or a place, this might be your calling. If you have an unshakable burden, then listen. If you sense the Holy Spirit drawing and pushing and shaping and prodding, then obey. If you have heard God calling you to go, then gather your courage and go in His strength. If you answer this question well, then you have set into motion the solution for nearly every other question you will face.
What if I fail?
I’ve heard some church planters repeat the mantra, ‘Failure is not an option!’ Guess what, they’re wrong. Failure is a very real possibility. The numbers are staggering proof. For me, I knew this was a real calling when I embraced the reality of possible failure, and knew I had to do it anyway. When I got over what others would say if it didn’t work, grow or last. When I gave up on the fear of what a failure would mean to my future prospects and how that would look on my record. When I was willing to obey even if it meant failure, that’s when I realized that there is no failure when I move in obedience to His will. Even if the launch falls flat or the people don’t come or the doors close.
Who is my team?
You need a team. You have to have a team. Don’t even think about trying this alone. But be obsessively picky when you choose your core team. Who embodies the DNA of the church you want to plant? This team will set the framework for who you will become. Resist the temptation to gather warm bodies so it looks like you have momentum. The wrong team members will choke momentum. Who gets it? Who lives it? Who would you trust with your life? Who has the passions and gifts that compliment your weaknesses? Who would you want beside you for the most difficult, testing, threatening, and rewarding adventure of your life? That’s your core team.
What is the mission?
Why are you here? What is the driving motivation of this local and specific expression of The Church? What is the unchanging anchor point as you innovate and experiment? What is the God given, Jesus centered, Spirit empowered mission? Your vision and your mission are not the same thing. Vision is a compelling image of where you are headed. It is writing future history. But mission is the clear, simple driving force that will get you there. Vision is out ahead of you. Mission is behind you, with two hands in your back, pushing you forward. Vision is imagination. Mission is memory. Your mission will root you in purpose and clarity when your future vision is clouded and out of reach. It will hold you on course when both failure and success hit, when discouragement and expanding opportunity distract. Vision is what you hope to become. Mission is who you are every single day.
(Note: Your community should know you by your mission. But remember that on a personal level your mission is not your identity. Sounds confusing, but here’s what I mean: your identity as a church and as a leader is in Christ. That is who you are. You are not your church plant. You are not your mission. You are His and He is yours, regardless of the outcome or influence of the church.)
Where will I plant?
The poet Alexander Pope said, ‘consult the genius of the place.’ Great advice for planters. In this calling it is vital to cultivate a strong sense of place. A theology informed by the Incarnation should produce a kind of spiritual ecology and geography. The soil matters. Listen to the culture. Learn the language. Observe the natural rhythms. The culture doesn’t get to shape your message. It doesn’t change your mission. But it should have a say in how you express it. How can you proclaim the Gospel in a way that is authentic to the place? If the Gospel is planted in your soil, what would grow up? What does a truly local church look like in your context?
(Oh, and you should google Wendell Berry’s essay on the difference between a path and a road.)
How will I measure?
How will you gauge the progress of the mission? How will you know if you are moving in the direction of your Spirit-inspired goals? If you are planting in an unconventional way or in an unchurched culture or among a people on the margins, then please don’t measure your progress by the same old conventional means. Counting attendance and counting the offering alone will not give you or your support team a realistic picture of what God is doing in your midst. Sure, count attendance. Because people matter and it is a measure of who is connecting with your mission. But curate the stories of those people and celebrate the ways that grace is transforming them. Count the offering because it points to how people are surrendering their hearts, practicing generosity, and investing in the Kingdom. But celebrate the pennies that your homeless friend dropped in the plate out of an all-in spirit of sacrifice.
How will you measure? Create new ways that truly gauge your mission, and communicate that. Measure salvations, baptisms, discipleship, conversations, community, engagement, strategic partnerships, questions, coats and cups of hot chocolate given away, and stories from the real lives of real people. But whatever you do, don’t measure by what someone else is doing. Comparison steals your joy and undercuts your calling. That is their story. Celebrate it. And be true to the stirring story God is writing through you. It’s tailored to you. And trust me, you’re going to love it.