Musings on Church Planting
So, you’re thinking about planting a church. That’s a great idea! You’re not alone. Aspiring to establish a new church is a good and necessary work, as we join others through the centuries in the regular exposition of Scripture, the development of a disciplined body of believers, and the right practice of Christ’s ordinances for His church. But before you go too far, let’s consider a few issues that might help your plans.
Evaluating the Reasons
It is important to evaluate your reasons for wanting to plant a church. I’m always encouraged to hear men express a desire to plant a church. Yet, I realize that in every case, the motives may be less than appropriate to begin such a noble task. Ask yourself some searching questions: Is my desire to plant a church simply a reaction to being wronged in another pastoral setting? Am I angry or bitter over the way that I’ve been treated and assume that planting a church will avenge my hurt? Am I secretly (maybe even unconsciously) hoping to “kick sand” in some opponents’ eyes by planting a new church in their neighborhood? Have others convinced me to plant a church because of their reaction to previous church hurts? Do I have a genuine burden from the Lord for planting a church? Is there a need for planting a church in my area? Am I doing this for convenience or because I recognize a genuine need for a new work in my area?
Some of these questions may be unsettling. But consider what church planting involves: you are seeking to establish an outpost for God’s kingdom in the world (1 Peter 2:4–10); you are seeking to develop a body of regenerate members who will live in unity and mutual trust (1 Peter 1:22–23; Colossians 3:10–17); you are seeking to be salt and light in your community (Matthew 5:13–16); you are seeking to baptize disciples and invite believers to the sanctity of the Lord’s Table (Mathew 28:18–20; Luke 22:19–20). While such a work is noble and necessary, it is still a difficult work. Will it be made more difficult due to mixed motives that underlie the rationale for planting the church?
Learning the Right Lessons
What have you been learning about the church and pastoral ministry? In all likelihood, you have already walked through varied church experiences. You may have been a senior pastor seeking to lead a church through theological reformation, and in the process, you were shown the door. Sometimes the appropriate move is to plant a church built upon a solid theological foundation. Consequently, your motivation for church planting increased! Yet even with this, it is vital that you do not jump into a new church start as a reaction to those rejecting biblical theology. It may be that their reaction has become a divine springboard for launching you into planting a church. However, even with such a God-directed motive, learning lessons from previous experiences will prove indispensable for the new church.
It would be helpful to make a list of the things that you have learned about yourself, local churches, pastoral work, pragmatism v. biblical practice, church leadership, decision-making, leading worship, and relationships that have come out of your past experience in pastoral ministry. This is important, especially in thinking through what you would have done differently, why you would have done it differently, what you would have done precisely the same way, what you could have done differently without compromising truth and perhaps ameliorated some of the difficulties in your situation. In many respects, when you are at the starting point of beginning a church, you have been handed a gift—that of stopping and thinking about church ministry in a new light. Step back and take a fresh look at the church from a biblical perspective. Recommended books to simulate your thinking include Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004, expanded edition) and Philip Ryken’s City on a Hill: Reclaiming the Biblical Pattern for the Church in the 21st Century (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2003). These are good starters for thinking about the church and how you need to direct your energies. A couple more books to help you think through on your own role as the pastor are Thomas K. Ascol, editor, Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2004) and John Armstrong, editor, Reforming Pastoral Ministry: Challenges for Ministry in Postmodern Times (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001). These books may help sharpen your thinking in evaluating your ministry as you begin a new church.
Rather than rely on your memory from the things you read and evaluate, take the time to spell out in writing your own understanding of the church. Lots of strange ideas float about the evangelical airwaves these days, so take no chance on being misunderstood. Write your own statement on the theology of the local church and pastoral ministry. Out of this you might also pen a philosophy of pastoral ministry statement that clarifies how you think the shepherds in the church are to function.
Ah, Yes, Finances!
Church planting is a great idea until finances are considered. Unfortunately, many superb ideas have been shattered due to lack of finances. You may find this to be the most difficult thing in getting started in planting a church, especially one built upon a reformed theological foundation. Some church planters begin with only their own family. Others have a few other families or individuals interested in speculating on a new church. Be forewarned: not everyone that talks about planting a new church is willing to put his money where his mouth is! You will need to outline some of the initial and projected costs for beginning. You will need a regular meeting place, chairs, tables, equipment for childcare, hymnals or song sheets, printed materials, some type of sign to announce your location, and maybe even a few spot ads in your local newspaper to let the community know about the church. And what about your personal financial needs? Depending on the size of the initial core group, you may find bi-vocational ministry to be a necessity as you begin your efforts. Are you willing to do this for the sake of planting a new church? Here’s where you will need to make much use of plural leadership in the church.
The best approach to church planting originates out of the burden and support of another church or churches. Here you begin with a natural financial and accountability base. A sponsoring church may supplement the core group’s gifts and even take care of some of the major needs, such as paying for temporary meeting space or providing the church planter’s salary. If you are burdened to plant a church in a particular area, contact other churches in the region that might be open to discussion as a partner in the work. Your local association or state convention office might also be willing to pitch in with much needed finances for the early months. Beyond this, you might network with other like-minded churches outside of your area that share your burden for a new church.
Dialoging with Your Core Group
Assuming that both you and the others that want to join you have a similar burden to plant a church, dialogue on what you believe about the Scriptures, the gospel, the local church, etc. so that you know you are in agreement on the essentials of the Christian faith. Be careful of presuming that everyone is on the same page theologically. Some have good hearts but poor understanding of foundational doctrines. Others have a theological agenda in church planting that may run contrary to your own understanding of Scripture. Open dialogue is essential with your core group. Put everything on the table. Write a doctrinal statement or adopt one that is closest to your group’s theological convictions. Out of this, develop a philosophy of church ministry statement that assures the entire group agrees concerning what the church is to be and how it is to function. Since with any new church start, core members come from varied backgrounds, it is important to develop some kind of statement about church polity. You need to work through the questions: how is the church governed? Who are the church’s leaders? How are they to lead or rule? How are decisions made in the church? How does one become a member of the church? What are the expectations of members? You will find some help in Mark Dever, editor, Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life (Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform [now, 9Marks Ministries], 2001), Mark Dever, A Display of God’s Glory: Basics of Church Structure (Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001), and Phil A. Newton, Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005). You will also want to avail yourself of some excellent articles on the 9Marks Ministries [www.9marks.org] website that deal with the church and leadership. Print selected articles and pass them among the core group to read, reflect upon, and discuss.
When to Start
Project a reasonable timeframe for beginning the church. I am amazed at those who announce one day their intentions to begin a church’s first service the next week! In God’s wisdom, upon the conception of a child, nine months normally pass before he/she is fully developed and ready for public involvement. That’s a pretty good timeframe for birthing a new church, as well! Your situation may vary, but I think that it is safe to assume the need for 6-12 months for planning, preparation, prayer, and working out the details for a new church. You will probably meet for Bible study and discussion for several months before hanging your shingle out that a new church has begun. I also recommend that you pay attention to the time of year that you are beginning your new church. The summer months tend to make a fragmented beginning since so many people travel during that time. From Thanksgiving to Christmas also seems to be rocky times for new churches to get off the ground. One new church start in a university community waited until the start of the school year in September before launching their public ministry. My own church began on Easter Sunday; others have started around the first of the New Year.
Waiting time is not wasted time. Lay the groundwork for the church by wisely training your core group in the Scripture, evangelism, church ministry, church polity, discipleship, etc. You can also use this time to begin to spread the word that you will begin a new Southern Baptist Church on ______ Sunday. During the months that precede your first public Sunday, make full use of personal contacts, interviews and articles in the local newspaper or radio interviews to get the word out in the community. Design flyers that catch the eye and clearly convey your intentions for beginning a new church in the area. Your goal must be to let the community know that a new church will be starting on such-and-such a date.
Assuming that you intend to establish a church that is theologically reformed, you will need to communicate this in the community without being manipulative, resorting to crass methods, or appearing to be “in-your-face” with your approach. Start on the positive note, that you are seeking to begin a new church that emphasizes expository preaching, God-centered worship, historic Baptist doctrine, mission opportunities, Christian discipleship, and other distinctions. The fact is, as one planting a reformed church, your great goal is not to hoist a Geneva flag but to be biblical, through and through. Announcing the start of a “Five-Point Calvinistic, London-Baptist-Confessing, Historic-Charleston-Association-Minded, Hymn-Singing-Only, No-Compromising Southern Baptist Church,” may close many more doors than it opens! If your goal in planting a church is to reach only those who have already come to terms of agreement with reformed theology, then maybe you ought to stop before you begin. While there may be need for such a church, it seems that a better goal is to be faithful in teaching others, even those with an undiscriminating theology. You are seeking to reach unbelievers with the gospel of Jesus Christ. You are also seeking to be a haven for Christians that have grown tired of the circus-sideshows that mark many churches. Some of these Christians do not know reformed from non-reformed theology, but they are hungry for God’s Word—and teachable. Be careful that you do not block their visit to your church by the use of too many buzz-terms that might put them off before they have the chance to realize that you only desire to faithfully teach the Scripture and lead others in following Christ.
By All Means, Be Flexible!
No church is ideal. You will have to make some adjustments and maybe operate outside your own level of comfort, and so will your core group. You will have to make the most of temporary space. Yes, there will be inconveniences and adversities. You may even find it necessary to meet at out-of-the-ordinary times. But make the most of it. View it as an ongoing challenge and a chance to build the unity of the body as you labor together in Christ’s name. At the start, you may not be able to have a full-blown, typical church schedule. For that matter, you may not ever need to have the typical schedule. Focus on the essentials: worship, exposition, teaching and training disciples, prayer, leadership development, building relationships, local outreach, and missions. This may mean that you use a local school or daycare or funeral home or theater or civic building or unoccupied house or Jewish community center or Seventh Day Adventist Church to get started. You will likely spend plenty of time in one another’s home. Invest in people rather than buildings. While a good meeting place will be important, never let it overshadow the relationships that you are building with others in the body of Christ.
A few years after our church began, an eager seminary student asked me the most important word that I had learned in church planting. Without hesitation, I replied, “Details!” With that in mind, let me close with a few details or priorities for you as the pastor of a new church: preach, teach, pray, lead, endure, and pay attention to details!
Do not attempt to be a one-man show. Engage others in the work of planting a new church. Call upon them to stand with you upon the faithful promises of Christ in the gospel. Exemplify in practice what you are teaching in precept. Keep growing personally, learning from others, and aiming for the glory of Christ in all things.