There are so many different ways to plant a church and so many different context and circumstances in which a church may be planted. As the pastor of just one particular kind of church plant, I was blessed to be able to celebrate our church’s particularization (full recognition as a member congregation of our Presbytery) this past December. I’ve been asked on several occasions about lessons learned. These are the ones that consistently come to mind.
Know Who You Are
From the very first conversations between the core group and me, we were clear about the philosophy of ministry. Was I a good fit for this core group of people and the vision they had for a church in their community? This meant I had to know who I am as a pastor – my strengths and weaknesses, my values and convictions. And it also meant the core group who was calling me had to know the same about themselves. I knew that my philosophy of ministry is focused on the centrality of the ordinary means of grace – that God builds his church (numerically and spiritually) through the proper use and application of the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer as well as the loving and consistent use of church discipline. Sometimes I and others who share this philosophy of ministry refer to it as simple ministry. Simple, in this case, means uncomplicated rather than easy. After serving in several very large churches I also knew I wanted to minister in a smaller context. As a shepherd, I value the ability to know the sheep placed in my care – to know their names and hopes and celebrate with them and mourn with them. And, if it is God’s will, to do so across more than one generation. Longevity in my calling isn’t entirely up to me, but it is something to which I aspire. Were these a good fit for the core group? It turns out they were. Of course, we had long conversations on this topic and other values were fleshed out, but it has persistently paid dividends. So many decisions about what the church will do and be – what its mission is and how it will execute it – are decided right there in those first few planning meetings. The more you can flesh these principles out up front, the more heartache you will save everyone.
Be Honest About Who You Are
It can be overwhelmingly tempting to try to be what everyone wants in a church. The problem is that it’s not only not possible, but there are some strange ideas out there about what the church should be. Figure out early on who you are. What do you value as a community? What will your worship look like and why? What ministries will your church engage in (and which will it not)? And what does it look like for these things to unfold over time? Be very clear with yourselves about this and then communicate it clearly and often. There are people who will visit and never come back. That’s ok. There are some who will stick around for a while and try to change things. They hear what you are saying, but they aren’t sure you mean it. In most cases, they too will eventually leave. We have had some suggest that we offer a much more contemporary style of worship – something being done well by many other churches in our area. I have been told I should try to be funnier when I preach. I don’t resent those who give such feedback. However, because we not only know who we are, but have also been clear about it, neither I nor my session feel compelled for a moment to give in to these polite demands. If you know who you are, and your vision and values are convictional and based upon the authority of God’s Word, then you can trust God will bring to your ministry those sheep – both lost and found – who need the message and the ministry you offer. Taking this approach will help you avoid conflict as you move forward.
While I could be referring to numerical and financial growth here – and patience is indeed needed in these areas – what I am primarily referring to is spiritual growth. As with virtually everything else in our lives today, instant gratification is the norm. I can be in conversation with someone who recommends a book, and nearly without breaking eye contact order the book from the Amazon app on my phone for delivery the next day to my doorstep. In such a fast-paced and stimulus-filled world, the often slow and difficult work of growing spiritually (and leading and ministering to a group of people who are also growing spiritually) can be discouraging. I find myself in regular need of reminding that the growth in grace of God’s saints is a slow process that involves a lot of failure. I know I am not alone as a pastor when I confess that I am too often exasperated by failure in those that I am called to care for. Their failure – as is my failure – is a means by which God is sanctifying them for himself. Rather than be exasperated, we as ministers should be patient and point them to Christ. This is true in any pastoral ministry, and not just church planting. But in church planting I wonder if we don’t lose sight of it even more easily. We are often in a hurry. A hurry to grow. A hurry to arrive. We have big plans for God’s church and failures slow us down. Don’t forget that you are there to shepherd the sheep.
A Church Plant is a Church
And that leads me to my final lesson learned (at least for this post!). Church plants certainly have challenges that established churches usually don’t. And being a church planter probably requires a higher threshold for risk and a better than average work ethic since we usually don’t have someone looking over our shoulder every day. At the end of the day though, the work of a church planting pastor is the work of a pastor. We baptize, preach, teach, lead, counsel, pray, marry, and bury. Don’t lose sight of the everyday, wonderful, beautiful, hard, discouraging, sanctifying work of the gospel ministry. Our sheep aren’t a means to an end. They are the reason we are there.