Between my experiences in church planting over the last decade, and the people I know at school and at various gatherings, and just my life in general these days, I meet a number of people who take some measure of interest in church planting. Which is great! I love talking about it, and expect that I'll be talking about it a lot here. But I have picked up the habit of beginning by warning people that if they intend to get involved in church planting, one of the most important things they need to do (aside from prayer and normal planning matters) is adjust their definition of success.
What I mean by that is actually fairly simple: success in church planting is more about faithfulness to the call than about money raised, or seats filled at launch, or baptisms in the first couple months. These things are important, we should strive to be actually making an impact on the lost in our cities, but for a church planter the primary means of measuring our success is whether or not we are doing what God has called us to do. Let me point you to some examples.
One church that was deeply important to my growth as a Christian and to my move toward full-time ministry was a decent little church in the middle of the Pioneer Valley. This church was planted about ten years before I arrived at it, and wasn't what most people would consider a successful church. It still relied on donations from outside (and still does, to some extent), people mostly in Texas and Oklahoma that believe in the mission and faithfully give month after month. Why? Well, when the original team came to the area, they had very southern ideas about church planting methods, and none of them worked. But in working near a major college campus there, they found themselves acquiring a handful of students. At first, the temptation was to turn these students around and use their energy to recruit adults and get the type of people they had been told to get: stable families who can invest for multiple generations and can be convinced to give enough in tithes and offerings to get the church financially sound within a few years.
But nothing they did in that sphere worked, and more students were beginning to show up. The day came when they had to take a step back, realize that God was actively giving them a body of new believers that needed to be taken seriously as disciples, and give up on the idea of making a church that looked like what they had always been taught was a successful church. In the years since redefining their idea of success, that church has never reached full financial freedom, still holds more students than locals, and watches its population turn over almost completely every four years. But hundreds of people have come to Christ, been put on mission, and sent out as maturing disciples to impact the world wherever they went. The church has seen massive returns on their investment in the lives of people who would have been largely ignored in a different model, and God has been glorified throughout.
My third church planting work was also the first one that I led. My wife and I returned to a town that had already seen a church plant fold after the planter walked away from the faith, because we knew the work wasn't done and that we were being tasked with doing something about it. We went in with high hopes. God was going to do amazing things in that city through us! It was going to be awesome, we were going to really make an impact and start a church that would be in a prime position to send new plants out throughout a region seriously lacking in active churches. We met regularly with another family who had signed on to the work. We did the legal stuff to make it a real church. We bought supplies and started doing meetings outside and inviting people to join us. And...nothing happened.
In our prayers, we felt convicted to really give the task our all, for a short time. We didn't know what would come of that, but we were willing to do it. I was working at a college and got laid off every summer, and it was appearing that my time at that job was coming to an end anyway, so we talked and prayed and pondered and came to the understanding that when I got laid off, instead of picking up sporadic hours or looking for something else, I should devote my time to the work for the entire summer. Treat it as my job until September, and then revisit and see what God was doing. So we did. We bought some more supplies, especially Bibles, and I began making daily trips downtown and praying over the city and talking to people and seeking opportunities to share the gospel. An opportunity came to attend an upcoming conference as a church planting pastor, and I leapt at it. It wasn't until the following February, but man, think about how far we may have come by then! And then my health rapidly deteriorated. And problems started arising, and by the time September came around, we seemed to have actually gone backward.
When we took all this to God and got confirmation that our time working in that town was over, at least for now, it was heartbreaking. I felt like we'd failed. I didn't know why God would have even called us to the work if He didn't intend to do anything with it. But then some other things started to happen.
We had had what many would call a real failure under our belts, and it tested us in a big way. And it wasn't until we were dealing with that that we found ourselves more committed to church planting than ever. This was the first real confirmation that we weren't just following a fad, but that God had really placed something on us that could burn bright and survive even a catastrophic collapse of everything we thought we knew. We needed some time to recover, but we were hungry for what God had lined up next. The months passed, and I had trouble finding a new job, and our reliance on Him became ever more apparent, to the point where what resolve we had to make things work for ourselves was broken. We came to really understand that God will provide, even if we don't see any way for Him to do so.
When I went to that conference, wearing a badge that labelled me as the pastor of a church that no longer existed, I was confronted with a host of opportunities and lessons and was able to connect with God about the mission and my place in it in ways I never had before, and I realized I never would have been there if it hadn't been for that plant. And then, when we had the chance that summer to meet with another church planter and offer our help if needed, and our brief lunch meeting turned into a two-hour blast that revealed that this was where God wanted us next, I learned that God had not wasted any effort. The supplies we still had from our plant met needs this new plant had, and my experiences gave me insights that pastor was eager to hear. We were a month into working at that plant when we realized that our closed church had, among other things, prepared us for this specific opportunity, and our willingness to follow every step He laid out for us and then apply it all where He intended meant that we had been, in the end, successful. We faithfully did the task set before us, and there is nothing more that could have been asked of us.
I wrote the following a year ago in an attempt to explain one aspect of this:
Consider the church in America.
There are places in this nation where the land is soft and yielding, where you can throw a hundred seeds, and ten good plants will sprout, and a thousand weeds, and the church will praise the massive amount of growth.
And there are places in this nation where the land is rocky and dry, where you can throw out a hundred seeds, and ten good plants will sprout, and they will stand alone in an otherwise barren field.
And it is growing increasingly frustrating to see people from the first land mourning how hard it is to see growth in the latter, and proclaim that they alone can farm it.
People come to church planting with settled ideas on what success looks like, and as someone working in New England, this is nowhere more apparent than in the people who come from the south and expect their systems to work here the way they do there. I can't count the number of times I've listened to people from the south talk about how churches in the northeast are dying and need some of whatever is working in the south when they first arrive, and then bemoaning how hard the soil is and how the gospel just can't penetrate the culture after they've been here a little while.
Listen: the ground here is tough, but it will always feel more tough when you use the wrong tools and expect a crop that doesn't grow in it.
What is happening is that people come here expecting to use the systems they've always known and seeing the results they've always seen. And if they don't adjust their definition of success, to at least accommodate the possibility that the church will look a little different once it gets going, they will always feel like a failure. It is always more important to faithfully follow the call on your life, and to find how to get the gospel to people in your context, and to nurture whatever crop may grow from it, than to make your dream church or a copy of the church that sent you. Do not change the message of Christ; but learn to recognize what you are used to from your culture rather than from the Bible, and be prepared to lose those things in the face of a different culture. And when God closes a door, or a church plant, don't jump straight to looking for a window. Be sure you are on the path you are supposed to be on, thank Him for using you in the way He has, and then start looking for what He has next. Learning to follow His leading, regardless of outcome, will put you in a better position than anything else you can ever learn.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation