June 17, 2014

Surviving Seed to Sapling: Lessons Learned from a 5-Year Old Church Plant-Part 1

by Eric Davis

5-year-old cancer survivor plays pilot for a dayFive years old. Whether humans or trees, it’s a unique developmental milestone. By the time it’s reached, a degree of discovery combined with struggle has been weathered. In many trees, for example, this delicate, seed-to-sapling stage requires the utmost care and attention to survive. Every variable—soil, sunlight exposure, water, support, etc— has to be dialed in if they will survive the fragile seed-to-sapling stages. And if they do, by five years of age, they are able to stably stand on their own.

Humans are no different. The first five years are critical. Just look at the groggy-eyed, young moms and dads around you. And it’s often said that five years of age is that developmental stage when what kids think they can do and what they actually can do is beginning to line up. They’re figuring out that they can’t fly off the jungle gym. Less attempts are made at riding the trike down the stairs.

Gods graceSo it is in the life of a church plant. If you’ve made it that far, you’ve weathered the uncomfortable and delicate seed-to-sapling stages. Your core team probably still likes each other and has even reproduced itself a few times over. If the church plant is stably standing and bearing some fruit, then you’ve probably weathered a few storms; perhaps almost been toppled by them. You’ve seen a lot of people come. And a lot go. Even had to church discipline a few souls. You have seen that every variable needs to be biblically calibrated by God’s grace.

The church I get to serve is about to turn the green age of five. As such, it’s an opportune time to reflect on lessons learned along the way. Now, though turning 5 is somewhat of a milestone, many more milestones are yet needed. So these are merely some pit-stop lessons as a plant seeks to stand on its own. Hopefully there will be many more. But in the meantime, here are a handful of lessons learned from a 5-year old church plant:

  1. Ordination and affirmation of the lead planter.

For us, this was a deal-breaker. Our core team decided that we would not launch until the lead planter could get ordained in our local church by existing qualified elders. If not, then it did not seem God’s blessing was on planting because we would not have our elders’ blessing. And though that ordination process took an extra year, we do not regret it. Spending more time than less to get equipped and affirmed was exactly what we needed.

AffirmationSo apart from salvation, we learned that it starts here for a church plant. From seed to sapling, the need is for biblically qualified leadership. The plant needs a guy who has been shaped for the task in the Holy Spirit’s guild, the local church. Since church planting is fundamentally elder/pastoral work, the lead planter ought to be equipped and confirmed for pastoral ministry. The Apostle Paul raised up and installed biblically called and qualified man for getting churches going in Galatia, for example, and commanded Titus to do so in that church-planting onslaught on the island of Crete (cf. Titus 1:5).

And we ought not trust ourselves for that affirmation. Nowhere does Scripture suggest that any element of life in Christ is a lone-ranger endeavor. And certainly not the pastoral work of church planting. Discerning one’s qualification to plant is a community endeavor. For church planting, that starts with the planter immersed in his mother church, wherever possible, and ordination by existing qualified leadership.

Further, ordination roots the lead planter’s credibility in God, rather than a feeling; closer to objectivity than subjectivity. It ensures we can identify a community of existing called and qualified men from whom we’ve hatched.

2. The planter doesn’t build the church.

And we sure will try at times. But we make pour substitutes for Jesus Christ. I’ve had to watch what I say at times: “Let’s be about building…,” “We’ve been building…,” etc. It’s a fine line to walk. The core team is so exhausted at times, they only feel like they’ve been building.

But church planting hinges on that sacred anthem from our Lord, which is every church planter’s lullaby: “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt 16:18).

  1. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with the mission statement.

the right wayAnd I did, and still do, doubt. “I tried [insert church-planting gimmick], like [insert church-planting gimmimitician]. Why is this happening…again?! How come it’s not working?!” In those moments I wish I would have just taken a deep breath, prayed, and read the mission statement again: “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20).

That’s it. Make disciples. And wherever we go, Christ has sovereign authority over that place. How many panic, pragmatic-caused wrong turns I would have avoided if I would’ve stuck to the mission: make disciples.

As we learned, the implications of this are huge. It really does mean that Christ’s church is the sufficient organism and disciple making the sufficient method to address the greatest problem in the world. It means that we need to rethink the idea of Christian soccer teams and cooking clubs and rock climbing groups. It means, as a church plant, the only Christian club we need create, or be a part of, is the one for which Jesus died and is building, the church.

So, again and again, our core team found it invaluable to return here. We spent much time studying and restudying the “what” and “why” of church-planting in context of redemptive history. Doing so served as needed calibration back to the simple mission: disciple-making.

  1. Church-planting is harder than I anticipated.

We had many warnings about this prior to launching. And I suppose there’s only so much an unweathered sailor can comprehend. But I don’t think it helped fantasizing my name into all those church planting success stories I read prior to launching.

Though I should have, I did not anticipate the level of  work. Our core team has spent countless hours praying, studying, setting up chairs, tearing them down, following up with visitors, confronting, encouraging, exhorting, crying, laughing, serving, assimilating, teaching, evangelizing, and on and on. And even to this day, the second and third tiers of church members, for example, continue to do so, as normal in any church.

Furthermore, the work level necessary in church planting, in itself, can be a source of division and disintegration of core teams. We have to watch for it and prepare. If a team is not willing to take a personal hit, and be inconvenienced as a lifestyle, they should rethink their involvement.

  1. The Bible is sufficient for church-planting.

SufficientSadly, this isn’t always assumed in church planting circles. Though never doctrinally, I found myself functionally wavering here sometimes. Pragmatism looks like it works. The lack of church planting verses can be frustrating.

But that’s where I went wrong. When church planting becomes too much about church planting, pragmatism is born. But it’s not some elite kind of ministry which the Spirit forgot to inspire. It’s just a part of local church ministry. We have plenty of verses on that. The main things in any church are to be the main things in a church plant.

Similarly, the sufficiency of Scripture can be curtailed when the plant becomes a fulfillment of “our vision.” We church-planters have to stop saying and writing and putting on our websites statements like, “God gave Pastor _____ a vision for ____ Church. So he planted it, and, behold, it happened.”

Our respective church planting endeavors are not our vision, but something more profound: what the Bible commands. Church planting is too important to be restricted to an individualized, personally-packaged vision. It’s embedded in God’s redemptive plan for the universe; a pre-planned means of redeeming his elect. As such, church planting is much less about our personal vision, and much more a part of the global mission from the sufficient, inerrant word of God.

  1. KindaMy tattoo didn’t help me be more missional.
  1. Neither did my flannel.
  1. I’m not sure if they were renown church-planters, but the Puritans are helpful for church planting.
  1. Better to avoid statements like, “We do things a bit different.”

10. Don’t be new.

Going into the plant, I was tempted at times to be fresh instead of faithful. But there’s a danger in that, especially since planting is all about the new: the new church, the new website, logo, building, community groups. It’s all new. But in the new, there must be the old, the eternal. Every new sapling was taken from an old, fruit-bearer.

Piper once mentioned that C.S. Lewis greatly served our generation by liberating us from chronological snobbery. Some of these biggest snobs can be church planters. We’re often disgruntled with how everyone before us has failed to do church. Nineteen hundred years and they almost got it. So we’re coming in fresh.

But the fresh words for church planting are the old words of Scripture. Every day I see how I must connect myself to what the Spirit has been doing to glorify Christ in his building of the Church for centuries and to embrace doctrine that has been exegeted, meditated on, believed, checked, scrutinized, and lived for a long time. If we’re neat because we’re new, then the basis for our church plants will be more about the new than the Savior who makes all things new.

Steady11. Strength and longevity do not happen overnight, or without a fight.

My favorite trees are those gnarled pines you see on high alpine ridges. They don’t look as pretty as a daisy, but they are strong. Their fixed position is like a linebacker in a ready stance. That’s why you will see them there in the winter, still standing. But it didn’t happen overnight or without a fight. It was a slow, daily battle, filled with the battering wind.

We can’t expect anything less in church planting. There are no “Ten Easy Steps to Strong Churches,” because there are no easy steps and there are way more than ten. It involves a core team and leadership team dying daily in a thousand ways because Christ already died once and for all.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share a few more things we learned surrounding issues like core team dynamics, the centrality of preaching in planting, and more. In the meantime: what lessons have you learned in church planting or revitalization?

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Ted Bigelow

    Hi Eric,

    RE: point 5 – the Bible is sufficient for church planting

    “Our respective church planting endeavors are not our vision, but something more profound: what the Bible commands.”

    Could you point out the passages that command planting churches, or exemplify it, in places like Jackson Hole, where churches already exist.


    • Eric Davis

      Hi Ted-

      Good question. And I think I’m having deja vu here?

      I would say, generally, that churches should be planted where disciples need to be made in a place qualifying as “all nations” (Matt 28:18-20).

      • Ted Bigelow

        Eric, could be.

        Can you show how taking the gospel to “all the nations” (Mat. 28:18-20) sufficiently teaches planting churches where the body of Christ already exists? It would seem to imply the opposite – taking the gospel to people who haven’t access to the good news of sins forgiven.

        If the only qualification for planting a church is you or I determining a place where “disciples need to be made,” can you show where in the NT that is both clearly commanded and taught in example? If not, then in what way do you justify “the Bible Bible is sufficient for church-planting?”

        Your statement above doesn’t seem to reflect the kind of theological strength that the sufficiency of Scripture provides. How is it that every place where you or I decide what disciples need to be made qualifies as a “nation?” Is that what Jesus meant in Mat. 28? If so, and that includes any area where Christ has already planted His body, then why don’t we see the apostles or their disciples planting churches where churches already exist, with accompanying precepts to do the same?

        When the claim is made the Scripture is sufficient, doesn’t that imply it is also obvious? In other words, someone as slow and plodding as me could read it, understand it, and do it.

        Mat. 28 justifies many kinds of ministry activities that aren’t even mentioned in the context. From parachurch discipleship movements, to Mom’s preschool programs at church, to infant baptisms, Mat. 28 is used to provide them all with theological validity. So if the Mat. 28:18-20 is sufficient to teach what it doesn’t specify (church planting where the body of Christ already exists), then who is to say these people are wrong to turn Mat. 28:18-20 into a wax nose?

        • Greg Pickle

          Hey Ted,

          Just some thoughts concerning this question: “…why don’t we see the apostles or their disciples planting churches where churches already exist, with accompanying precepts to do the same?”

          I think there is a pretty simple reason for this: when the apostles were still around, if there was an issue with a local church, they would take matters into their own hands, either by visiting themselves (Paul in Corinth) or sending in the SWAT team (Titus in Crete, Timothy in Ephesus). In those cases they either corrected the church problems themselves (Paul) or appointed qualified elders to deal with the issue (Titus).

          But what do you do in a situation where 1) there aren’t qualified elders and 2) the church isn’t willing to listen to apostolic authority as found on the pages of the New Testament, so as to appoint such elders?

          Clearly the solution is not to say, “We will let a group of wolves lead what they call a ‘church’ that is not doing anything like what Jesus commanded, and we will not invade their territory.” But this seems to be the necessary conclusion from what you are asserting (I am glad to be shown otherwise).

          The question then becomes: At what point is the “church” situation in a specific place unrecoverable without starting a new work? And how bad does a church have to be before it is not actually caring for the needs of Christ’s sheep?

          I think it is foolish to plant overlapping churches when they are both faithful to the Scriptures. Most of what is being done today is to cater to niche markets in the same geographic area. This is patently unbiblical, and rests on faulty presuppositions.

          But to look at a location and say that there simply is no reasonably-faithful biblical ministry going on there, and then to plant a church, is simply not forbidden by the Scriptures, and can be used to carry out many of its commands.


          • Ted Bigelow

            Hey Greg, brother,

            No, we never let wolves stay in authority over God’s sheep, and you may enjoy reading Paul’s plan on how to keep that from happening here (http://www.churchsonefoundation.com/pauls-reformation-on-crete/).

            But what made me jump into our brother’s blog is the claim that Scripture is sufficient in his church planting, when he has done something it never advocates: planting a church where the body of Christ already exists.

            It’s all too easy to bash pragmatism, wave the flag of sufficiency, and do our own thing, truly believing Scripture is behind us, and yet be blind to the reality that the Scripture nowhere advocates our activities.

            Along the same lines, you present the argument that potentially undermines the doctrine of sufficiency by assuming, perhaps, that the New Testament doesn’t have an incredibly robust answer to this:

            “But what do you do in a situation where 1) there aren’t qualified elders and 2) the church isn’t willing to listen to apostolic authority as found on the pages of the New Testament, so as to appoint such elders?”

            I’m guessing your answer is probably, “plant a better church.” But that is not Scripture’s answer, and if you believe the Bible is sufficient, you’ll not rest until you find not only the answers to your questions, but the rationale behind God’s work among the churches that honors the Lord of the Church.

          • Eric Davis


            In response to your comment, I forgot to mention that Jackson Hole is not actually a town/city. It’s an area in which a handful of towns/villages are situated. We originally planted in a town in which there was no existing church.

            But more to the point of wax noses. From our previous interaction on this issue, I can tell that this is an important issue for you. And I understand that there are no doubt places and ways in which an add’l church plant is unnecessary. But, in the context of the NT, Matt 28 is a sufficient answer to your question. There are complex situations in which works have been attempted, lasted for a bit, crashed, burned, sheep not really made, chased away by wolves, apostate organizations existing under the banner of “Christianity,” etc, etc, which might merit a plant. And as we discussed this a while back on a previous post, you do not agree w/ my position here and I do not think the answer to the question is as you present. Church planting is not a run to put our name on a mountain peak. And Paul praised God for others w/o the apostolic title preaching the gospel. Thanks brother and blessings.

          • Matt Mumma


            There a few issue here brother.
            1) You need to be careful and consistent with your use of the word sufficient. You make it seem like the Bible must give explicit chapter and verse for planting a church in a particular area. Or maybe I am not seeing that right. Now, I fully believe in the total sufficiency the Bible, but we need it be clear on what that means. The Bible is not sufficient to help me fix my car, nor does it say that I should even drive one. But it does help me in how I respond when the car breaks down. The Bible does not tell me where to plant a church, or where I cannot for that matter, but it does tell me how to do so. So, please don’t bring up the sufficiency issue in regards to where to plant a church.

            2) Have you ever been to Jackson Hole? Have you done gospel work here? Have you see the mess that some of the churches you mentioned have created in this town? Have you had to shepherd the countless people who have come from surrounding churches that have never been shepherded? Have you spend sleepless nights talking to person after person about wrong and heretical theology that is espoused in many of the churches that you mentioned. Sure other churches preach the gospel and we have friends who attend other churches, but it is honestly hard to tell if the true gospel is preached when talking with other “believers” in this town. Sure other churches evangelize, but why are they many churches in Jackson that are not growing or have not grown in the last 7 years? Or the ones that are growing, are the people actually hearing the gospel? Or is it the cool lights and emotional fix they get. Again, it is honestly hard to tell. But, then again, sometimes is not. The glory of God and the gospel is lacking in this town,

            Now, hear me again. I am not saying that Cornerstone is the only church in Jackson. However, before you start to make claims that there are other churches is Jackson so we should just move on, why don’t you come here and minister for awhile and see what the religious/church culture is like. In my option (or more importantly in God’s opinion found in His Word) it needs to change and that is why we are here, and we pray that we will be here for a long time.

          • Chrispychinski

            I’m thankful for our likemindedness brother. I’m also thankful that you are willing to sufficiently respond 🙂

          • Ted Bigelow

            Hi Matt,

            Thanks you for the warning on being consistent in the use of terms like sufficient. I will try to pay special attention to that. Good word.

            No, I don’t see the Bible as giving a word on church
            planting in a specific area, but rather expressing sufficiency through both precept and example, read here
            (http://www.churchsonefoundation.com/precept-and-example/). Scripture provides us, as individuals and churches, with convincing doctrine and duty through its
            own cross-contributing detail so that we may come to a proper understanding and not live in presumption.

            In the matter of planting churches, there is no precept and example to advocate planting churches where the body of Christ already exists, and a great deal in the NT to hold back Christians from doing it (again, found in both precept and example). As I mentioned to Eric above, to use Mat. 28 as a claim that he and others are justified in planting a church where the body of Christ already exists is contrary to that passage, and speak quite ill of the doctrine of sufficiency. I asked him for direct passages on planting churches. He provided one in return, and it doesn’t even mention planting or churches. That’s far from the doctrine of sufficiency.

            No, I’ve never had the pleasure of even driving through such a beautiful place as Jackson or Wilson. My loss. Even more, I’ve never had the ministry of reconciling saints or teaching them godly ecclesiology that shuts down schism and promotes the kind of maturity Paul writes of in Eph. 4:13: “the mature man.” But if my experience counts for anything, then yes, I’ve got more scars than some, and have led an entire church through grave sin with others (http://www.gracechurchministry.org/about-us/about-us).

            My counsel is not move on, Matt, nor do I think I
            suggested such a thing. Instead, gain a clean ecclesiology from the Scripture based on passages that really teach it. You will find it will lead to greater clarity
            and unity instead of presumption.

          • Chrispychinski

            Hey Ted,

            Are you from Jackson? You seem to have much insight about the place. The churches you posted are 3 perfect examples of why Cornerstone needed to be planted in Jackson Hole. Your definition of a “church” must not rely to heavily on the sufficiency of Scripture. Just because believers might be attending a specific congregation of people doesn’t qualify that particular congregation to be a new testament “ecclesia.” Does the sufficiency of Scripture mean that what is not explicitly laid out is wrong? I doubt you would pin yourself into that corner. To sufficiently address this fallacy would need more than I’m willing to write in a blog response. May I exhort you to apply the same amount of concern to personal humility as you do to espousing your wisdom through blogs.

          • Ted Bigelow

            Hey Chrispy!

            You are right. Defining what a church is, is, what it is all about (http://www.churchsonefoundation.com/when-is-a-church-not-a-church/).

            PS. I’m not so sure the regenerate in those other churches would take it so well that you don’t think they are NT ecclesiai. But then again, maybe they are more humble and more like Jesus than you and I put together.

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