Reflections on Five Years of Church-Planting
Five years ago, Ashley, Lucy, and I moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Nashville, Tennessee to plant a church. We are so glad that we did. Ours is a “parachute” church plant, meaning that we did not have a pre-established root system in the city, and we only knew a few people We moved in, planted roots, and started gathering people. We have made a ton of mistakes, our character has been refined, and we have been so incredibly blessed.
Over the years, I have learned a few things that I would like to pass on to church-planters. First, a few of disclaimers: 1) I am not an “expert” in any way (e.g. our church is still very small). 2) every situation (city, neighborhood, support system, demographics) is different. These are “tips,” not formulas. 3) These tips are for you and your heart/mind. There are so many great resources about how to care for your city or your congregation. There are fewer resources about your own formation. I am convinced that fruitful ministry must come from a heart centered on identity in Christ.
So, here it goes...
1. Decide How You Will Measure Progress
Something you have to come to grips with: as an church-planter, your church growth will be slow, often painfully so. There are a variety of factors associated with this including but not limited to:
- We live in a world where more and more people are resistant to church. In this sense, church-planting is “against the tide” culturally. This movement is even stronger in urban areas and is exacerbated by the fact that urban areas are full of younger people with transient lifestyles.
- Because you are a transplant, you will more likely connect with “transplants” to your city (I wish I could say more about this…), and this means that there will be fewer “family systems” to naturally connect with your church.
There are, of course, examples of church-plants who have grown exponentially in a short period of time, but these are the outliers. Let me say it clearly because others may not: you need to assume that this will not be you.
So…decide what you are going to measure/value when tangible progress seems non-existent. How is God changing lives in your congregation? Who is that person who is part of your church who had previously given up on church all together? Focus on the enthusiasm of your leaders.
I decided that I was going to focus on formation, the daily act of gathering a congregation and pastoring them. I focused on showing up, loving people, preaching and serving communion, etc. I have two resources that I pick up whenever I am feeling discouraged by lack of tangible results: One is Eugene Peterson’s autobiography The Pastor. I pick it up, read a few pages, and I’m quickly in a much better place. The second is this documentary. Both resources focus on what it means to pastor a people in a place.
2. Hold People Lovingly And Loosely
Another scary but true statement: Everyone will leave your church at some point. And they will all leave sooner than you would want them to. We have found that this happens more poignantly in urban areas, but it true for a lot of church-plants for a few reasons:
Young couples and singles tend the be the primary demographics drawn to church plants, and their lives tend to change quickly. Planting in a city, we found that when couples have children, the draw to the suburbs becomes much stronger (space, cost of living, etc.) as well as the draw to attend churches in the suburbs. In all church-plants, you will have singles and couples in your church who feel like they need to join a “grown-up” church after awhile.
But people leave churches in general for all kinds of reasons. People will leave your church for a church that is just a little bit more trendy; people will leave your church for a church that is nothing like yours and you will be baffled; people will leave in the most kind way possible; people will just leave and never say a word. People are complex.
Also…people will leave faith altogether. You can’t blame yourself for that. One of Billy Graham’s best friends left the faith and Graham couldn’t do anything about it. Billy freaking Graham.
We have to learn to love people fully, but not put our hope, or the hope of the church, in them. It’s not a balance. It’s seeking to do both. Be kind when they leave; send them and aggressively try not to harbor bitterness. Because, here’s the thing…at some point, you will leave too, and you want to create a sending culture.
3. embrace simplicity
In church-planting, you are making a conscious choice to live simply. We moved into a tiny shoebox apartment in the middle of our city. That feels romantic in the beginning, and it is fun! But, over time, you start feeling the limits of your space. Almost five years later, we still live there.
Realize, that in 21st century America, you are a missionary, not a CEO. Ask your friends who are missionaries overseas about their lives. They know more about this than we do. Resist “keeping up with the Joneses” and avoid consumerism like the plague! You have a different calling.
We sold all of our stuff when we moved to Nashville, and bought cheap furniture from IKEA. Of course, you can replace it over time when there is more stability in your life. You will probably move to a different place eventually. But simplicity should always be an aim. Resist messages saying you have failed because of your housing situation/simple life.
With that, make a practical choice regarding your car. Will you have a car? In NYC/Chicago you may not need or want one. In Nashville, it’s pretty much a necessity. We started out with two, tiny cars. What to consider:
- What is the parking like in your city? You will be in and out of coffee shops, office spaces, hospitals, etc. Tiny cars are great for this!
- Carrying the inevitable church stuff around. Big cars are good for this; we became very dependent on people in our congregation with trucks.
- You will make a lot of road trips, especially your first year. You will go back home, go on fundraising trips, trainings, and networking meetings. You need something reliable.
There is not a right or wrong answer here. After almost five years, we now have two large vehicles, but I think having one of each would have been wise.
4. Get an Office As Soon as Possible
I always thought of having an office as a luxury a church-planter could ill-afford. What a waste!…I thought…Coffee shops have free internet, and let’s be honest, I’m going to go there anyway...I thought...Or, I can just work from home!...I thought.
Get behind me Satan! This is a lie. Let me beak down this counterfeit message:
Yes, coffee shops have free internet, but it’s inconsistent, and in the city, power outlets and seating are limited. You can’t make private phone calls (think about all the things you have to tell your mentor/coach/bishop that you do not want the world to hear), or meet with anyone without others overhearing your conversation; plus, you usually end up having to purchase two beverages a day, which gets pricey.
You could work from home, and if you are blessed with a medium-size to large home that is probably a good option; but most church planters aren’t blessed with this. If you have young children, this is a non-starter. They will want to be all-in-your business all the time. Our second year of planting, I walked into our living room and my wonderful two-year-old daughter was slamming my iPad on the concrete floor (cracked it). I realized…I have to do something different.
Office space is expensive, so you have to get creative. Is there another church that would let you rent an office from them? How about a company? The best answer for us has been a co-working space. Usually, coffee, internet, and copying are included on some level at a co-working space as well so no more overpaying at Fed-Ex/Office Depot to print church bulletins!
Do what you have to do (if coffee shops are your only option, you’ll have the grace to do that), and find out what works best for you.
5. Have Close Pastor Friends; Don’t just go to a lot of Pastor Events
We are blessed in Nashville with a variety of pastor networking opportunities. I love them and have attended a lot of them. However, I found early on that I could easily fill up my schedule with pastor networking events.
What has been the most life giving to me are the few close relationships that I have with pastor friends.
Networking meetings and events are good to compare notes, learn strategies, and help each other. All great things! But, it is important to have a few people with whom you can be completely honest without fear that they will judge you or that you are complicating a pastoral relationship.
I have been blessed with one very close friend who pastors in Middle Tennessee,. Our hearts for ministry are consistent, but our contexts are radically different. He’s been someone I can call regularly.
Other than that, cultivate friendships outside of your city. You need people who you can call at the drop of a hat, who will celebrate victories and grieve losses with you.
6. Remember: The World is Your Parish
John Wesley once said, “the world is your parish.” Don’t just limit love, care, and ministry to those in your congregation or potential “recruits.” Love the people in your city. You will get to know people at the coffee shop who will never visit your church (notice a coffee theme I got going on here?). You are not wasting your time with them. Love them! Pastor them! Care for them!
Volunteer at your local school. Be-friend local business owners. You are not “recruiting,” you are loving and pastoring them.
7. Be Vicious with Social Media
Social media is the church-planter's (or humans?) greatest friend and greatest foe. It is an amazing way to meet new people and get a sense of what’s going on in your city. You can friend people when you meet them and keep up to date. You can join community groups and find out about events going on in the city.
BUT, it will be tempting to measure your worth and success as a church-planter on social media. How many likes/followers/friends/shares/posts you have can actually drive you crazy.
The truth is, social media gives you a very small snapshot (thumbnail?) into the life of your church. It does not measure your health or success. And, it can kill your confidence and vision.
Most people don’t think about church throughout the week like you do. They don’t use social media the same way that you do. Facebooks algorithms are changing constantly so your views of your community will change. DON’T BE ROCKED BY THIS.
In fact, have disciplines for your social media consumption. Maybe only use it during office hours or on certain days. It’s not worth giving up your sanity.
8. Be Rigid with your personal and Family Rhythms; Loose with your work rhythms
Yeah, this one may be controversial, but as a pastor, your personal and family rhythms are more important than anything else. I once had a friend tell me that my only goal in the early days of church-planting should be to make sure I take care of my family. That sounds extreme, but this foundation is key. I am sorry to say, I have failed at this constantly.
Have personal devotional rhythms that are unwavering. I pray the Daily Office twice per day. I fast a meal once per week. Don’t let that slip, and when you do, just pick it back up again. I am not advocating legalism; I am saying that your habits form you. We must be formed by the right things.
Fight for Sabbath, one day of doing nothing but worship, rest, healthy play, and family time. This is going to be tough because you will probably be juggling two jobs yourself, your spouse’s work and childcare. But you have to fight for it.
Be there for your spouse and your kids. If they need you, its ok to cancel that meeting (I know, it means you miss a networking opportunity/pastoral care responsibility). It’s ok to drop your sermon prep and go home for the day. They are going through as much, if not more, transition than you are; just be there.
Bring them coffee from the coffee shop that you are working at…maybe every time. Try to stop at the Dollar Tree and get a $1 toy to surprise your little one with when you walk in. Take your kids to work with you (sometimes), so that they can see what you do. Many of my first meetings about the church were with a baby carrier in my hand.
As a pastor, most of the things that we do can wait until tomorrow. They are important, but not always time-sensitive. Mess up your schedule for your family.
See a counselor, spiritual director, support group, etc. All of it. Do it.
I hope this is helpful! I met with a spiritual director recently who said, “Church-planting is THE hardest thing to do in the world.” Ok, this is hyperbole, but it helped me a lot. Keep your head up. Keep moving forward. God is at work and you get to join Him!