Five 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.
So 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:
- 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.
So 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).
- When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with the mission statement.
And 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.
- 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.
- The Bible is sufficient for church-planting.
Sadly, 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.
- Neither did my flannel.
- I’m not sure if they were renown church-planters, but the Puritans are helpful for church planting.
- 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.
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?