It’s easy to over complicate the call to ministry. But there’s nothing particularly magical about discerning it, even when it comes to church planting. And we need not put out a fleece or wait for a vision. In fact, if you’re looking for that, then you’re probably looking in the wrong place. The call to plant a church is similar to the call to pastoral ministry since a church-planter, by definition, will do all that a pastor does, though a bit more. Church planting, then, is fundamentally pastoral ministry, which makes discerning the call simpler than we might think.
Here are 5 criteria to help discern the call:
1. Current shepherding and leadership competency.
Before a guy sets out to plant the most sacred institution in the universe, his skill and giftedness should already be evidenced.
How is he, by God’s grace, already effectively shepherding souls in the church? Does he share the gospel with people? Has he effectively shepherded people in the local church setting, for example, in a home group? Can he walk with people through marital struggles? Does he know how to grieve with people and do a funeral? Does he know how to have a relationship with unbelievers who aren’t like him? Do people benefit from sitting under his teaching and discipleship? Or is he the guy that the flock has to tolerate? And are people regularly trying to quietly leave his shepherding sphere? Can he admonish the unruly, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, and be patient with everyone?
And is he humble enough to admit that he has a ways to go in all of this, evidenced by a pattern of taking advantage of avenues to grow as a shepherd? Or does he have an arrival-mode mentality? Is he socially awkward? Since church planting is about people, he’ll need to grow out of this. And how is his family doing? If he’s single, how about his roommates or his discipleship group? Is his presence a benefit to them?
And is he gifted and trained in preaching? The pulpit is critical to a healthy church plant, both for evangelism and equipping the saints. Some competency in this area is necessary prior to planting.
Furthermore, can he persevere without being too easily discouraged? Is he a visionary? Is he ok with not being financially well-off? And will he be able to handle, and shepherd the core team to handle, the rigors of starting up ministries from nothing?
And speaking of the core team, much of the strength of that new church will depend on that team. Will he be able to lead them through the rigors of core team dynamics as they set out into the exposure of the world as a sapling church?
Best case scenario, some, or all, who might be the future core team are already being shepherded by him in some capacity and can say, “By God’s grace, that guy competently cares for my soul.”
The previous point necessitates this one. The necessity of discerning competency in shepherding requires local church leadership affirmation. No guy should assess himself in isolation, then proceed to plant.
As Spurgeon said:
“I had sooner accept the opinion of a company of the Lord’s people than my own upon so personal a subject as my own gifts and graces. At any rate, whether you value the verdict of the church or no, one thing is certain, that none of you can be pastors without the loving consent of the flock; and therefore this will be to you a practical indicator if not a correct one” (Lectures to My Students, 30).
The best people to help him discern that are his local church leadership who know him. Before a guy thinks he’s called to plant, he needs to ask the leadership in his local church questions like, “Do you think God has gifted me in shepherding, demonstrated in this church by a pattern of effectively ‘exercising oversight’ (1 Pet 5:2)?” and, “Do I competently shepherd souls, not ‘lording over them,’ but as an example (1 Pet 5:3)?”
This assumes that he is a churchman; he loves the local church and his elders see that with clarity. They know him and he knows them. They love him and he loves them. It would be bittersweet for them to see him go. Though the guy is not indispensable, there should be a ministry void when he leaves.
And it’s best to take this step in discerning the call as early as possible. Please brothers, let’s avoid the lone-ranger church-planter mentality. Despite some of the church-plant calling advice out there, the call will come through transparent, godly, mutually-accountable, one-anothering community in the local church. I’m alarmed at the growing aversion professing Christians have towards local church membership. Even more alarming is to see this now and then among those looking to plant churches. Such an attitude demonstrates that they’re not called. The church planter loves the church; he’s immersed in the local church, a member, a servant, known, and accountable to the authority of his elders, otherwise, his calling, at best, ought to be suspect.
It’s surprising how many people are talking about the call to plant a church without mentioning the key criterion: is he elder-qualified and have existing, called and qualified elders recognized this? If he is, has he been ordained yet?
Now, a guy might be called to plant but not yet ordained. He might still pursue the planting process provided that his local church leadership has affirmed him to do so. He might be in the ordination process, for example. If one is not available to him, he ought to pursue it through other avenues such as another local church close to his.
We are hard-pressed to make the case that a guy is called to plant a church who cannot get ordained. It’s one thing if he hasn’t yet been able, but quite another if a good elder team who knows him will not ordain him.
Ordination is the idea of the formal recognition of the Holy Spirit’s work of calling him to pastoral ministry through existing called and qualified elders. It’s the way God works. Christ appointed the Apostle Paul to his apostleship, yet he was formally commissioned by a plurality of leadership for his first church planting journey (Acts 13:3). Paul then ordained Timothy and Titus. Timothy and Titus were to ordain others. Those others were to ordain others, and so it continues.
“But isn’t ordination for elders/pastors only?” Not every elder is a church-planter, but every church-planter needs to be an elder, by nature of the work. Church planting involves all of the normal ingredients of pastoral ministry: shepherding, leading, evangelism, preaching, administration, and counseling. Since these are pastoral in nature, the man must be elder-qualified (1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9, 1 Pet 5:2-3). Elders and pastors are not self-nominated or self-appointed. For that reason, the call to plant needs to come through the Spirit’s work in the context of the local church. Ordination is the confirming of that call.
Some reject this along the lines of, “Well, we’re more about letting the Holy Spirit discern the call and less about men through ordination.” This is unhelpful because it assumes that the Spirit works independent of his word and those he indwells and guides through his word. The Spirit spoke all of the helpful ecclesiological stuff in the NT. Plus, it’s the Holy Spirit who calls and qualifies the man (Acts 20:28). And it’s existing called and qualified elders in a local church who recognize what the Spirit has done in the man’s life. Which means as far as discerning the call to pastoring and planting goes, the most in-line-with-the-Holy-Spirit way to do it is ordination through existing called and qualified leadership.
There may be a case where his leadership affirms his desire to plant but they want to take a little more time to ordain him. The man needs to be humble enough to embrace that. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little more time for some spiritual seasoning through leadership. Church planting is a rough endeavor. He’ll be glad that his leadership slowed him down a bit for the same reason a SEAL takes a little more time for training before he’s parachuted at 2am into the middle of the Indian Ocean, 200 miles from nothing but pirates.
Consider that the Apostle Paul, a competent church planter, did not plant a church until he had been saved for well over a decade. And he was an Apostle. So as a rule, erring on the side of a little more time for growth under the care of one’s elders, than less, is going to be beneficial for the well-being of that future church. And that’s what a called planter wants. Ordination, then, is a critical step of accountability and recognition for those who want to avoid playing fast and loose with the Lord’s church.
4. He wants to plant a church.
He should have an unforced, Spirit-given desire and excitement for the work of the ministry (1 Tim 3:1). This will be evidenced, in part, by shepherding and pastoral competency. A biblical desire for church-planting will include more than the desire to shepherd the flock of God, but it will include at least that. He should be excited about the pioneering aspect of it, such as starting new ways of outreach, training up leaders, and meeting new people in a new place.
He’s prayed about it, searched his heart, and can say with integrity that God has given him this desire.
5. Others want to plant a church with him.
If he has a family, they are on board, and especially his wife. His wife needs to like him, be shepherded by him, and enjoy the ministry. This, too, should be confirmed by leadership who know him and his wife well. His wife should have some competency in discipleship as well. She’ll be greatly needed in the church planting process.
Also, a potential core team needs to like him and desire to plant with him. Unless he’s an Apostle, and he’s not, I would be slow to recommend that anyone plant a church alone, without an equipped, united core team. He’ll need a plurality of giftedness and skills. They will need to have air-tight unity, maintained and furthered, in part, by his shepherding giftedness. A case can be made that most church plants fail because of poor core team dynamics. So in discerning his call, it should be verified that he’s gifted and trained enough to keep the team together.
In addition to this, as the man discerns his calling to plant, he ought to consider a few related points:
1. A desire for a specific location need not constitute the call. I omitted “Location” as a criterion because it’s not a must in discerning the church plant calling. It’s important, but places in need of solid churches are not hard to find on the planet.
More important than place is the guy, just as a sought-after NFL draft pick can go to just about any team. Talent, not team, determines his capability. Similarly, the Apostle Paul was called by Christ and could go anywhere and be faithful. He just needed to pick a place and have the means to get there. Not everywhere worked out, but many did. Lack of fruit in Athens didn’t mean he wasn’t called. Once a guy meets the above criteria, he can easily pick a location with the help of leadership.
2. If the church plant fails, that does not necessarily invalidate his calling. The latest statistic I heard was that 80% of church plants never materialize into a church. He has to be prepared for this. If it happens, he should not automatically conclude that God did not call him and, with the help of church leadership, he should examine himself to see where he may have erred. But it is not necessarily a ministry failure. What constitutes failure is unfaithfulness to Scripture, for example, disqualification of elder criteria. Many ministries of godly men over the centuries who were called, like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Jonathan Edwards, did not see numerical growth or receive positive response. Even so, God called them and they glorified him in their ministries.
3. Even if a guy seems to plant a booming church apart from discerning his call in a biblical way, that does not mean we should make the way he discerned his call our fixed principles. In church planting, we should be slow about asking, “Well, what did awesome-church-planter-guy do that worked?” then indiscriminately adopt his methods. Instead, we should ask, “What did he do that was biblically based, and how can I apply that in my situation while being faithful to Scripture?”
The call to plant a church may not be as complicated as we think. But let’s do what it takes to respect the Lord’s care for the only institution he promised to build and bless as we discern the call to plant biblical churches and help others do the same.