10 Key Lessons ALL Church Planters Need to Know
Here are the 10 things I’ve learned while starting a new church. I put these out there with the caveat that starting new churches if far more art than science. What worked for us may not work for you, and what didn’t work for us may work swimmingly for you.
With that said:
1. You cannot plan for it.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t. I’m saying you can’t.
Despite all the emphasis on strategy that has dominated the church planting sphere for the last several years (not a bad thing), even our best laid plans will be turned over. It’s less like following a strategic plan and more like following the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness day by day.
Whatever you’ve planned should be viewed as a game plan, not a blueprint.
2. Resourcefulness is the most valuable gift a church planter possesses
I’m not talking here about spiritual gifts. I’m talking about skill sets.
People who get upset when something off the script happens will neither enjoy nor be effective at starting new churches. Much of what keeps a church going through its awkward beginnings isn’t just the enthusiasm of the church at beginning a new thing—it’s the God-given ability of the pastor to morph into McGyver—making something serviceable out of scraps when resources are extremely scarce.
3. Faith can not only move mountains, it can keep churches afloat
There will come a time in the life of any new church (and its planter) when things will be brought to the brink. There may be several such occasions in just the first year or two.
The test of whether or not one is called to do this will come, not in labs, but in the trenches of red ink, disgruntled people and discouraged staff. Staying the course because you have faith that God is going to bring a new day to the church—and doing it over and over again—is what will keep the church afloat when the spirit of the people (sometimes, including your own and those of your family) are sinking.
4. One of the biggest favors you can do for your church is say “no” to things that might pull the church off of its founding vision and philosophy
Especially in the young and vulnerable days, lots of people will have lots of ideas about what the church should be, how it should be run and what you’re doing wrong.
It’s OK to listen, but be EXTREMELY careful not to allow the vision of others to co-opt the vision God gave you when you risked everything to start the church.
Peter thought it wrong of Jesus to go to Jerusalem and die. The Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt. A majority of spies said the Israelites couldn’t take Canaan. Wise leaders listen but are willing to discern God’s voice amidst the people’s.
5. One of the worst things you can do for the church is compare yourself to others
Our young church (yet to celebrate our 3-year anniversary) has grown rapidly, but for some, it hasn’t grown rapidly enough.
I’ve had people compare us to church plants started by celebrities that boomed the day they were started, megachurches and other traditional plants that are ahead of us on certain things.
Don’t fall for it. Listen to me here: Comparisons will kill you. They will make you paranoid and potentially drag the church off course as you pursue someone else’s vision.
You are right to study what others are doing as a means of gathering new opportunities and strategies for ministries. But, don’t even think about comparing yourselves to others.
6. Who is fighting with you is more important than who is fighting against you
There will be spiritual opposition to any new church. Nearby churches will be suspicious. Dying churches will be afraid and, like Saul seeking David’s death, try to do you harm. If your church breaks denominational norms, expect bullets from that direction as well.
However, if God is for you, who can be against you? Add to that a team of loyal, gifted, spiritually-minded friends to go into battle with, and you’ve got more than enough to fend off the wiles of the Devil. God will give you what and who you need to do what He’s called you to do.
7. You will play hurt for the first several years
Every church planter walks the journey with the shrapnel of spiritual warfare embedded in their innermost parts. Embrace it as a good soldier.
God rarely calls people to do easy things. If conflict, temptations, abandonment, personal criticism or extremely challenging ministry situations are not things you are willing to accept—you should do something else.
I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s all pain. It’s not. There is great joy involved in the beautiful fight of starting a new church. However, the pain is constant enough that you’ll need to be prepared to “play hurt” quite a bit.
Marriage under stress? Sick? Discouraged? Tempted? You must overcome by the power of the Spirit.
Out of answers? They’ll come when God’s ready to give them to you.
8. No matter how much money you start out with, money will continue to be your biggest practical challenge
We started out with virtually zero money. We received one cheque of outside support from another church—and we didn’t even ask for it. Everyone else either said “no” or said they’d like to help out and never did.
I was talking to a fellow planter as we were starting and asked him what his three biggest challenges had been. He said, “Money. Money. And, money.” He’s right.
There are many reasons for this. People will walk away when they are unable to co-opt the churches direction, creating deficits or deflating progress.
If you grow, needs will outpace the growth of offerings because new people don’t give much but require much of a church. It’s one of those good problems to have. People are always more important than funds, but funds help a church serve people.
Embrace your role as missionary fundraiser. It is yours—and it’s vital. Planters who start out with outside funding often fail to develop this gift—and it bites them down the road when outside support ends.
9. The people you start with won’t be the people you end with
At least, not entirely. I know it feels like the people who are with you when you start are all as deeply committed to this as you are. By and large, they aren’t.
God will bless you with some people who really are profoundly committed and stick with you through those early years. Most won’t.
Don’t let it get you depressed or take it overly personally.
Give thanks for those that stick with you. Honour their commitment appropriately—for they are a beautiful treasure to the church, indeed.
10. Your highs and lows will be higher and lower than they are now
If I were to rank my 10 favorite stories of life-change I’ve seen in ministry, seven or eight of them would come from New Vintage. If I were to rank my 10 lowest ministry moments, five or six of them would come from New Vintage.
New Vintage Church is not three years old yet, and I’ve been in vocational ministry for 18 years. What I’m saying is, NVC has made a disproportionate impact on my life and ministry—in a positive way.
I don’t believe NVC’s impact on me has to do only with tough “circumstances.” It’s that you invest yourself in a church plant in ways you just can’t when you are new to an existing church. Here I’m referring not just to the church as an “organization,” but rather the people themselves. There is a love and concern for EVERY person that is palpable to a planter. This accounts, in part, for the extreme highs and lows of starting a new church.
[-] Would I do it all over again? ABSOLUTELY!
To those of you thinking about starting a new church: May the Lord’s wisdom cover your discernment, grant you courage and clarity, and bless every effort of yours that aligns with His Will.