Planting a Church And…

This is my first post in my Confessions of a Church Planter series.

When Darryl and I first were throwing around the idea of starting a church we went to a conference in Toronto called Mosaic in 2005. We hadn’t really understood what we were getting ourselves into. We walked in and were bombarded with a lot of “church planting professionals” with their multiplication tables and growth strategies. The entire experience was odd (yet forming and important which i’ll share in another post). This was the first time I had ever seen anyone, or considered the idea of church planting as a career. We saw and heard the testimonies of church planters who had planted tens upon hundreds of churches.

The impression that we got after a while was that church planting was a career choice. You go to school, take your church planting exams, you find a denomination that will throw thousands of dollars at you, you make sure you take a salary and then go out and rock the city with your new awesome church. This is why there was “professionals” because it was a set role and there was ways that you could get better, and eventually so good that you can travel the church conference circuit and tell everyone else how to follow in your footsteps. I was amazed at how much money was being thrown around, and that people actually got a salary to start their church. This was beyond my imagination at the time.

I would have been twenty at the time, and I can honestly say I never expected to make a dime from planting a church. I didn’t go to school to get a job, so I got to skip that whole awkward stage of graduating school and realizing that I needed to scan the market for the best candidate church for me to go to and lead their people. So this idea of starting churches and getting paid to do it was foreign to me.

Five years later. Four years into a church plant. The whole idea is still very foreign.

I have now seen way too many “professionals” and amateurs storm into a city with their awesome ideas and set up their “church” while getting paid by some organization or denomination to do their job. I take issue with this for a lot of reasons.

1. This pastor has nothing to do with the city a lot of times, no connections, no relationships, no investment, no love, no attachment. It’s impossible to start a healthy church in a city without a love and investment in the city.We got lucky with this one. We never wanted to be church planters. We wanted to “plant a church in Sarnia.” There is a crucial difference in that. This automatically gave us a connection with the city because this was about the city before it was ever about the excitement of starting a church. We love Sarnia, we lived here, we want to be in Sarnia, we think that the church is the hands and feet of Christ and offers a glimpse of Christ and we think that is the best way to reach Sarnia. We seem to have gone in the right order.

2. The pastor doesn’t already have a community in the city so they end up making it from scratch, so it usually ends up consisting of already seasoned Christians, yes-men and people that already “get” the pastor’s vision of what he’s trying to do. This is one that took us a bit longer to realize. We met in a living room for four months, then moved to rent space at a drop-in center. In this time, the only people that would ever show up to be a part of us was Christians from other churches that wanted to check us out or disgruntled Christians who found refuge in our style. This isn’t really starting a church at all. It’s mostly all transfer growth (except for the few token stories you tell, which every church in the world has) and your community very quickly becomes set in a direction that is built around pleasing and entertaining Christians. Our problem is we didn’t have our roots down anywhere. Yes we all lived in different neighbourhoods, but the thought never crossed our mind really to plant in any of them, because we didn’t really know anyone and we had no idea what it actually looked like to start a church from scratch. We didn’t start off to great. Grace found us though and we eventually got ourselves a storefront downtown Sarnia. It’s taken us three years, but we have planted roots, we have built relationships, we are now an intrinsic part of a group of people who are nothing like us and we love them and they love us. There is still a lot of problems, for instance, none of us actually live downtown; none of us. There is still a separation of the downtown community and the church community. I would say though that since we moved downtown things have improved quite and those two worlds are colliding more than ever and as we plant more churches in Sarnia, we will have learned from these failures and learned from our luck and think this one out a bit more.

3. Pastors end up depending on outside of their community to do what God has called them to do inside of little communities. This pastor shows up in a city he has no history with, no connection with any group of people and he’s paid by an organization who has no relationship with the city either; well nothing more than a market survey statistical report and a few dead churches that have buildings lying around. If the church fails, if something happens that makes the budget fail, the pastor really has no investment whatsoever or reason to stay. The community really has no reason to keep him around either, they weren’t really doing anything to keep him there. I think pastors, and senior leaders should be more of an earned role rather than a stated one. By this I mean that churches end up being planted a lot more from the ground up and slowly as the pastor starts to actually pastor people, churches begin to form and build around and protect and support the people that are important to them. This means spiritually, financially, emotionally and relationally. The relationships with these leaders are never forced, but trust eventually grew and these leaders become integral part of the life of the community and the community becomes an integral part of the leader’s life. Our model worked a bit different, where the denomination helped us out at the beginning and then weened us off for 4 years until now starting in January we are expected to be completely self-supporting. This is a rough transition, but I think it’s an important one.

Let’s say that all this actually happened. Professional church planters now look a lot different. They are folks who have discovered pockets of the empire that have been abandoned and then dive head first in to live there. As they are there, building relationships, organizing justice, and living they eventually begin to see the need for a community that follows Christ to be formed. So they begin to form it, in and amongst that community of people that is already there. They don’t need flyers because they know everyone. They don’t need a salary because they were already there doing whatever they were doing to survive before. This is why I entitled the post Planting a Church And…, because I think healthy churches are planted by people who already have something on the go. When someone tells me that they planted a church in a city I want to be able to say, “and…” as if there is more to the story then they simply dropped in and started a church out of nothing.

If life already exists with or without this new church, planting a church springs out of actual relationships and need, not just some outside idea or demographic survey. So if the church “fails” then you are still there, still in your relationships, still with whatever job you were working, still with all the other things that happen in neighbourhoods. I think the failure rate of new churches would drop significantly if they were only started by folks who already lived in that neighbourhood for two years.

I’m just throwing that out there.

3 Comments

  • Some good stuff here. However, what if someone is genuinely called by God into a city they are totally unfamiliar with? I guess there’s exceptions?

  • Hey JT, Joe pointed out the same thing after he read this, so let me try to explain my tactic.

    My hope in making strong statements like above is not to create a new set of rules to control how everything begins and ends. Rather, I like to suggest guidelines because I think they point out the weaknesses in the current way we do things. So if a guideline is created in saying that someone must live two years in a neighbourhood before they plant a church in that neighbourhood then when that does not happen, at the very least we have this nagging reminder at the back of our minds about what we need to balance the equation. So if you jump right into a city to plant a church, I hope that this post doesn’t make you feel bad that you didn’t follow the rules, but rather it points out what other things might be helpful to get involved with and do so as you don’t fall prey to the same pattern as is everywhere else and you take the necessary steps to actually dig roots, build a community and care about the area you just jumped into.

  • i wonder if a lot of these issues that you’re highlighting is due to the fact that we’ve seen church planters and pastors primarily as entrepreneurs as opposed to…well, pastors. not to say that there aren’t any entrepreneurial elements to planting a church, but its seems the overall assumption in recent decades has been that pastors are executives first and pastor second. this works fabulously for the start-up phase where they require things to get going, but it tends to fair miserably later one when the community needs a curator/shepherd.

    and i realize that both are probably needed, but i personally would like to see more weight placed on the pastoral side of being a pastor.

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