I am not a church planter. Let me clarify—I don’t call myself a church planter. I have worked at two different church plants and have poured thirteen years of my life into resourcing and supporting the development of church plants, but I still don’t call myself a church planter. Perhaps this is because in the church we often fall subject to the misconception that church planters are wild-eyed entrepreneurs who flout traditional convention for the sake of creativity and innovation, start conversations with complete strangers daily, and are admired for their risk-taking. Or maybe this is just my own insecurity talking, because I do not see myself as possessing those gifts!
Yet the Lord in His wisdom has seen fit to reshape my life and my heart towards church planting. Over the passage of time, I have come to the conviction that every minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ must, in fact, become a church planter. Given the exceedingly low rates of church attendance in our country and the rapid secularization of society, Canada needs the gospel of Jesus more than ever, as many Canadians are generally unaware of who Jesus is and why his existence might be relevant to their life.
On top of this, COVID-19 has completely upended the usual rhythms of the Church, deeply disrupting our common life together, and further reducing the number of people who feel comfortable worshipping God alongside other people. Add this factor to the many other obstacles we face when trying to present the gospel, and it adds up to a tough season to be labouring for the growth of the Church. Yet that is our mission, and planting new churches is a part of that mission.
Advice on Church Planting Today
In light of these tough conditions under which we labour, I humbly offer these few bits of advice on church planting today:
1. Have a good team. Don’t do church planting (or any ministry for that matter) alone. Make sure you have people working with you that you can be accountable to and who will support you. This is so important. Ideally, find people who have very different gifts from your own, but who are similar in terms of their faith, goals, and focus. Ensure your mission or purpose statement is crystal clear, and make your identity as a church together transparent.
Find as many lay leaders as you can to join and support you. Train and disciple them. Whenever people leave (given the high cost of living in Victoria, this regularly happens to us!), be sure to train up two new people in their place. Retreat together, share life together, build trust and accountability with one another. Survey the various giftings of your group and build your mission around that.
2. Pray. Prayer is the first thing to do in the morning and the last thing to do at night. Pray alone, pray with your leaders, pray with your wider church community—pray without ceasing! Saturate every meeting with prayer and set aside special times to pray for a particular purpose or need. I’ve been surprised by how common it is for churches to motor ahead with a sudden inspiration before stopping to pray. Whenever you can, invite God into your daily activity, and seek His wisdom as often as possible. Lift up each other’s needs and ask for God’s provision for the hard work ahead.
One thing that the pandemic took from the Church was the joy of mutuality, and times of prayer are often when that is most felt. When we re-gathered, prayer was the thing our leaders were most hungry for, alongside times of worship. Be sure to pray for your leaders to encourage them and to further their ministry.
3. JESUS. You need him, so stay close! Sometimes we get so lost in the work that we neglect the One who sent us. Make sure that you set aside regular times to be with the Lord and enjoy His presence. Since the pandemic, I’ve taken up a regular regime of daily walking, sometimes multiple times a day, to be alone with God, to pray, and to marvel at His creation. Thankfully, living on the west coast, I will never run out of good routes.
4. Bring a friend. At our church plant, The Table, we learned this principle about three years ago. One of our team members gave ( and continues to give) a majority of his time to new missional experiments, and often when he started something it initially had a good response. But when there was no one else to share the work with, it stagnated and he was never free to move on to new projects. So, we made a new rule: for every new idea, he had to find two people to partner with him in order to make it happen. To this day, if he can’t find people that like the idea enough to join him, we don’t do it. A co-worker, Josh Wilton, often says, “there are a million good ideas, but it doesn’t mean that you have to do all of them.” Having this litmus test of finding other leaders to participate helps weed out the ideas that are not for us, at least not for right now.
This also means that if you are lean on resources, whether it be money or people, you focus your best resources on the best idea. Each year as you discern the work God has for you to do, brainstorm all possibilities, then whittle the list down to two or three ideas and see if there are people willing to commit to any of them. Your best ideas will rise to the top as people choose to commit to them.
And be sure to save the ideas you don’t try this year for the future! Keep a running list of things you would love to do and wait to see if God sends you the right leaders to make it happen. We had long wanted to do a meal-based evangelism course, and after several years of waiting, God sent a cookbook author into our community. We knew the time was right. She loves the chance to cook for groups of people and her meals are stunning—what a gift! Thanks to her presence in our midst, we can now host the course we’ve dreamt of for several years because she is part of our leadership.
5. Rest. Even Jesus took naps. If the season of COVID-19 taught us anything, it taught us that we never know what tomorrow brings, but it helps to be well-rested. Church planting too often leads to burnout. We start thinking there is no one else in the world that can do the work we do, and we fail to trust that God will take the responsibility for building His own church. He will provide the people and means necessary. Over-extending ourselves is a waste of our energy and is to believe the lie that the church only grows based on our human effort.
This past summer I took a sabbatical. At the time of planning, I didn’t even really feel like I needed it, but it turned out to be the perfect time to get away. This meant I was pre-empting my own need by making provision for rest for myself and my family. My time away helped lower any anxiety I had about what would happen to our church post-COVID-19; because I wasn’t at work to do anything about it, I just had to trust that Jesus was looking out for things. Taking times of rest means that we submit to the refreshing truth that God is the Lord of the universe, and we are not.
6. Don’t get too ahead of yourself. Plan for the next twelve months, then reassess. Too often in ministry we get too far ahead of what’s before us and we waste our energy. Right now, the Church is in an extremely uncertain position due to COVID-19, so we shouldn’t plan long into the future anyway. Short-term planning allows us to reassess and refocus as needed, rather than commit ourselves to an eventuality that may never happen. This also provides some checks and balances along the way as we embark upon new projects. Be sure to gather with your team and decide what fruit you need to see in order to keep committing to your work.
Our church plant has learned a hard lesson on this front. We have made a few attempts at launching a second site for our church with mixed results. Year by year, we kept trying to push forward without seeing much fruit being produced as a result. Finally, we agreed as a team that we simply don’t have enough leaders nor enough commitment from new members to make this a live possibility for now. For the time being, we have put this dream on the backburner and hope that God might revive it in the future. The old saying that “we make plans and God laughs” is very true. We cannot assume that things will go according to our plans, so be sure to leave lots of room for God to bring clarity and sharpening of purpose.
Church planting isn’t an easy calling. Yet it is one of the most rewarding, whether you are the main initiator or a member of the team. Each of these positions is necessary to make ministry happen. Focus yourself on finding that team to partner with—pray for God to provide the people you need, and then invest in relationships with those people.
Ultimately, the past two years have taught me to stay close to Jesus and to wait on Him.
It is a miracle when anyone, much less a non-believer, comes to Christ. And when Christians mature in their faith and draw closer to Jesus, that is a miracle, too. Everything in our culture is distracting and dissuading people from doing just that, so marvel at the miracles that happen in your midst. Christ is building his church—praise God!