I’m 0–2 in church planting. That’s right, of the two church plants I have helped start, I have also been the last guy standing, turning out the lights, and locking the door one final time. Now granted, the second of these church plants actually became a full-fledged church, the kind with members and deacons and elders. We covenanted together and shared in the Lord’s Supper. We supported a missionary, we saw conversions and prayed for more, we wept over the sin and hurt of others, and we rejoiced together in one another’s triumphs. The whole deal. But in the end, this work closed as well.
I bring this up because, in the process of starting and ending, you learn a lot. You make some progress, you bang your head, get some bruises, and learn from it all–hopefully. Consider these scrapes and bruises as the testimony of lessons learned along the way. Either from personal experience or observing other churches, there is something to be gained in all of this.
1. Gathering The Wrong People
A new church doesn’t have the advantage of a proven reputation in the community. It doesn’t have a public testimony, faithfully displayed over the years allowing the surrounding community to know what you are all about. All that a new church has is its current members.
Therefore, gathering a group of people who are fed up with church, in love with “small church,” on the run from a string of churches, or just fascinated by shiny new things will seriously plague church health. No church is ever going to have perfect people, but gathering members who are covenanted together and rowing in the same direction is a vital piece. Gathering a crowd is easy. But a healthy church is more than a crowd.
2. Focusing On People Alone
People are important. Pastoral care is important. One-on-one discipleship is important. But if this is the dominating focus of the elder’s week, especially the preaching elder, the church will struggle. There is one essential conviction that must pulsate within the life every pastor and member: the Word of God builds the church.
Therefore, one of the best things a new pastor can do is preach good sermons. And in part, good sermons comes by carving out sufficient time for study. If the tyranny of the urgent and the endless list of people’s needs consumes the calendar week, church health will flatten.
3. Focusing On Sermons Alone
Pastors are not bookish sermonizers locked away from the messy lives of others. Pastors are shepherds who care for sheep. Therefore, it is vital that the preaching pastor spends time around the kitchen tables, in the backyards, and daily lives of individual members. Many church plants are small, and that advantage allows a pastor to realistically know most everyone in the church and visit them regularly. By neglecting this responsibility for unnecessarily extensive study time, the health of the church will suffer.
Preach better sermons by caring for members by listening to them and praying with them. A preacher will be at his best when he is a faithful pastor among his fellow brothers and sisters.
4. Selecting and Affirming Elders
Elders are the God-given leaders of the church. Their influence and importance within a church cannot be overstated. Therefore, having the wrong men in such an influential position can mean certain misery, or worse, being in disobedience to God’s Word. After all, the biblical qualifications for these men (1 Timothy 3:1–10, Titus 1) are not mere suggestions, they are Christ’s clear commands for how he wants his church to be ordered. A church plant should consider seriously just who it is they are affirming for this position.
Perhaps the greatest challenge within the context of a new church is the question of these men being proven. Time just seems to work differently within a church plant. Weeks can seem like months, and some early milestones feel monumental. So just how long should an elder be observed and known within a local church before being affirmed as an elder? After all, some character qualities and qualifications cannot be known over a few lunches or small group studies. It is at this point right here where the necessity of a sending or initiating church comes into play. So much of the murky waters of identifying elders early on are clarified by sending the newly formed church plant with qualified elders who have been known, affirmed and serving faithfully.
5. Finding Agreement on Paper But Not Practice
The saying “time proves all things” should be a chapter in every church planting manual. A church can begin with a well-crafted vision statement and publicly visible confession of faith yet wrongly assume that the mere presence of those statements will produce doctrinal and philosophical unity.
It gets even more complicated when these statements are particularly vague, especially on essential matters, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To say that you affirm The Gospel Coalition’s statement of faith is terrific–if you want to gather a bunch of people who hold to a variety of positions on baptism. But, the real fun begins when it actually comes time to approach the table (who should partake?) and the waters of baptism (who should get wet?). It is right here, at this critical intersection of belief and practice that many a church unravels.
Assuming there is unity within a young church just because the documents exist, or have even been read through often proves disastrous as time moves on. Church plants should not only have clear documents statements of faith, but those guiding documents should also regularly be taught, explained and referenced.
6. Flying Solo
The blunt reality of church planting is that the vocational elder/preaching elder ends up doing most of the work. You become a generalist. You can stack chairs, dabble in graphic design, run a spreadsheet, troubleshoot a temperamental soundboard, and pray for the dear widow after service while simultaneously making a mental note of the Lord of the Flies vibe coming from the children’s class. Church planters are used to doing a lot, usually bearing the brunt of the heavy lifting.
Here’s the problem: isolation can become a way of life. Just because you are not surrounded by multiple staff members, a pastoral assistant or other pastors throughout the week, it does not mean you must labor alone. Unfortunately, I have observed a cynical aloneness amongst some church planters, and it is not good. Eventually, you end up becoming a committee of one, making important decisions without the counsel of others. You form opinions based upon your own limited perspective. You make judgment calls and assessments with bias. Flying solo will kill you, and possibly the church.
Find a pastoral network or association. Find veteran pastors. Find like-minded churches. Go learn from them, be honest with them, and ask for help. Don’t make the same mistaken assumption as Elijah, you are not the only one out there. God is smarter than that.