June 18, 2014

Surviving Seed to Sapling: Lessons Learned from a 5-Year Old Church Plant-Part 2

by Eric Davis

good startI recently discovered that it’s possible to have fruit-bearing citrus trees shipped to your house. When you live far from warmth, as I do, affordable fresh fruit is a coveted commodity. So for example, if you buy a fruit-bearing lemon tree, you will typically be sold one that is four to five years old. That’s because the tree, though not old by any sense of the word, is ready to stand without lemon training wheels and lemon baby-walkers. It’s still small, imperfect, and in need of growth, but it’s alive, standing, and bearing some fruit.

Church planting is similar. Those first five years are critical and determinative. If a church plant makes it to the five-year mark, chances are it’s alive, standing, and bearing some fruit. That said, the goal at the five-year mark is more than a group of people. At five years, the goal is to have been faithful to implement and maintain biblically sound DNA from which disciples are being made for the glory of God. But, like the fruit tree, having weathered the seed-to-sapling phases, its a great time in church planting to pause and reflect on what God has done by his grace in order to prepare for additional days if the Lord wills.

In yesterday’s post, I set out to share a few lessons learned in five short years of church plant life. Here are a few more:

12.  Core team cultivation cannot be compromised.

Nearly every church plant I know of which has not survived was due in large part to inadequate core team dynamics. For example, the core team was not united in some way or not adequately equipped to make disciples themselves or had poor conflict resolution training or unrealistic expectations or some combination.

In light of that, our core team decided to spend about one year together in preparation prior to planting. Once we had all moved to our planting location, we then spent an additional several months on team-building before we officially launched as a church. To this day, none of us regret it. By God’s grace, we all still like each other.

So whatever happens, the lead planter must see to it that he loves the core team enough pour into them. If that core team is unsure about his love for them, then it may not be time to plant. He will do well to ensure they are a well-oiled, one-anothering machine with each other first. This begins by modeling to them. He must love that hard-working, self-sacrificing group of precious souls.

cultivateNow, some debate that approach in church planting. It’s said that this kind of core team exclusivity will backfire. But I’m convinced that the unrushed time of exclusive, core-team-cultivation prepared us spiritually to be biblically inclusive when we launched as a church.

Newcomers saw that our team had a love for one another explainable only by Christ’s transforming grace on sinners (John 13:34-35). Because of that, our exclusivity as a team on the front end fueled inclusivity as a young church on the back end.

Also, prolonging core team development, though delayed disciple-making in the short term, made way for it later. By God’s grace, the doctrinal, philosophical, and relational unity he created among us resulted in less time wasted with unnecessary squabbles and misunderstandings in those aforementioned areas.

That is not to say that our inter-core-team relationships have always been perfect and effortless. Far from it. But it is to say that the time the eleven of us spent cultivating unity built an unexpectedly strong foundation upon which additional disciples could be added.

Furthermore, both the things which the core team did to cultivate unity (i.e. studies on conflict resolution, love, the one anothers, spiritual gifts, salvation history) and consequent relational unity was programmed into the church DNA from the beginning. The result is that this DNA is being propagated into the rest of the church.

Not every core team will have the leisure for unrushed preparation. However, every core team must think through how they will unite and solidify themselves as a church planting team. They must think through how they will love one another so that all know that they are Christ’s disciples. I’m convinced that short-cuts here are the greatest contributors to collapsed church plants. Core-team foundational cracks will propagate into larger fractures that can collapse a church quickly. They can come in the form of doctrinal disunity, imbalanced spiritual maturity, poorly communicated roles and expectations within the core team, poor shepherding on the part of the leader, and lack of skill in biblical conflict resolution. These kind of tolerated weaknesses will quickly damage a core team and any church attempted to be planted therefrom. Hence, core team cultivation cannot be compromised.

13.  Staging out the church planting process facilitated core team strength and more effective disciple-making thereafter.

For our core team, planting meant moving one thousand miles. Prior to the move, we operated in two overall stages: team adding and team strengthening. In other words, while individuals were being added to the core team, strengthening and equipping was ongoing, all while plugged into our mother church.

Then, after the move from our mother church to the new location, we decided to partition the church planting process into three stages: integration and stabilization (stabilizing as a team while integrating our lives into the new community), Bible study (only doing a weekly Bible study to begin ministering slowly), and launch to a church (functioning as a local church). This meant that our official launch as a church was the last of about five stages.

one step at a timeThe decision was based on a few things, all under the importance of core team cultivation itself. Specifically, out from under the care of our strong mother church, we wanted to ensure we were stabilized in our life together in Christ as we integrated into the new community.

Furthermore, as a small, young core team (eleven people between the ages of 23 and 34, new couples, new jobs, new place, new baby, mostly even guy/gal split), the destabilization potential was high. Along with the fragile demographic circumstances, moving to a somewhat different sub-culture necessitated a longer on-ramp to the final, church stage.

Similarly, the reason we staged out the process was because, as believers, we have more God-given roles than “church planter” or “core team member.” We also had roles of single people, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and employees, for example. When you, as a core team, make a significant relocation from your mother church, keeping the other aforementioned variables in mind, there will typically be somewhat of a “backpedaling” factor in one’s lives. For us, adjustments were needed to grow in faithfulness in those respective roles. And this was an area where I have regrets. I did not do a good enough job helping various team members do so.

But this was Paul’s approach for Titus’ planting endeavor on Crete. In Titus 2:1-10, among other things, Paul says that these newly planted churches will have God’s kind of impact when members are God’s kind of older and younger men, older and younger women, and slaves. So, cultivating roles other than “church planter” ensured effective church planting.

14.  When you launch, it’s all hands on deck for the core team.

God’s plan is for every Christian to be an equipped ministering worker for the building up of the body (Eph 4:11-16). That’s especially true for core teams involved in launching a church. Each team member ought to have a clear role and some stated avenue in which to use their giftedness in service to Christ once the church launches. The lead guy can’t do it on his own. The one-man church-plant is often a dead church plant. For that reason, we found it helpful to do two things:

Ephesians 4First, through prayer and God’s providence, we assembled the core team with people already demonstrating some unprodded desire and ability to do the work of the ministry with others. We tried to communicate with potential team members that core team participation will be an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. We talked about both the joy and labor of using our gifts, skills, and resources to exalt Christ and build up his body. We didn’t want any core team member to feel forced into serving Christ, whether in the present with their local church, or in the future while planting.

Second, prior to launching, we found it helpful as a team to take unhurried time to study Ephesians 4:1-16. God used that great passage to show God’s all-hands-on-deck mentality for every believer in his/her local church. We then became more intentional in doing the work of the ministry to build up each other on the core team for a few months. When it seemed we were in a decent groove of doing so with one another, then it was time to launch as a church.

Again, not every team can start here. But every team can and must quickly get in the Ephesians 4:1-16 groove; understanding and living out life as an equipped, ministering worker for the building up of the body. Teams will want to allow the lead planter to push pause on other things for some core team cultivation in this.

15.  Biblical conflict resolution must be taught and modeled from day one.

It’s been said that, “You are either about to enter a conflict, in a conflict, or coming out of a conflict. Or a combination of the three.” It’s life between Genesis 3 and Revelation 20.

Prior to planting, we witnessed a few terrible local church explosions which then frightened us into getting more equipped in biblical conflict resolution.

Prior to the final stage, the core team took unrushed time in a biblical conflict resolution study. We would not do anything different. I cannot stress how important this was for us. Now, that study has been lengthened and turned into a mandatory, dialogical study for all of our community groups. We can’t avoid the sparks and fires of conflict. But we must do everything we can to be peacemakers.

16.  Sanctification is not reserved for “after we get them in the door.”

I’ve often felt such a pull to do whatever it takes to get the church going and numbers growing. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. But Paul speaks to the importance of sanctification in church plants in the book of Titus, for example. It is in some sense the church-planter’s manual because Paul left him there to get churches going in every town, then explained what that looks like in three short chapters. Among others, Paul explained that impactful churches on Crete would be the natural result of holiness in the lives of every member (Titus 2:1-10). He didn’t tell Titus, “Ok, start attractional to get them in the door, then, start talking to them about holiness when they’re up for it.”

This was critical for me to learn. Sanctification is not “something down the road,” or, “when the numbers are stable.” It’s more a spiritual thing than numerical. And commitment to spiritual growth together will ensure that any numerical growth is, by nature, of the Spirit.

 17.  Smaller flocks are easy for wolves to eat.

And they will try. Wolves arise from everywhere. But they seem to enjoy church plants and core teams, perhaps, because they are bite-sized. Watch out.

18.  Contending for the faith as a seed and sapling proved surprisingly fruitful.

Which shouldn’t have surprised me because it’s a command, after all.

contendAs souls were added, we discovered that the theological and spiritual spectrum was as far as the eye could see. It was daunting and overwhelming at times (and still is). The temptation was to avoid loving them by detouring the addressing of error until a more opportune time. But it was unavoidable and unloving to detour the next verse in Sunday’s exposition. And the questions kept coming.

So, we got to witness the surprising strengthening of the sapling which God accomplished as theological error was necessarily addressed. Strong relationship bonds were formed as core team members pursued uncomfortable, iron-sharpening conversations behind the scenes with their new disciples.

Those whom the church plant gets to shepherd will have likely been confused by the prevalent, local errors. As Spurgeon said, “It’s easier to crush the egg than to kill the serpent.” Error will come from within and without. Dealing with error at three will pay dividends at thirty. That sapling needs to be nurtured so it can stand at five and fifteen and fifty.

19.  Expository preaching is central to planting.

More than almost anything, I have been encouraged by the fruit God has brought about through week by week expository preaching. Few events in church life can accomplish so much.

In church planting, I’ve found that there is often a pull to stray from Scripture in search of a methodology to weather the seed-to-sapling battles. Expository preaching keeps a leash on the church so that it cannot stray far from the sure path of God’s word.

In the ups and downs of planting, core team battles, financial worries, and low attendance, for example, doubt and discouragement can run high. We wonder if we’re “doing it the right way.” Expository preaching is the go-to stabilizer and encourager for the plant because God’s word is the right way. As the planter and the plant hear from the word each week, doubts and worries about methods and schemes will be quieted by the confidence and freedom of knowing that God’s truth is held high through the word each Sunday.

Again, because there is often a restlessness in the seed-to-sapling development to produce numbers, I found that church planting can bring a loud, frequent summons to scratch various relevance itches. But expository preaching eliminates the itch without scratching it. Unrushed unpacking of each verse week by week will be used by God to ensure that there is no irrelevant moment in the developing church plant.

preachFurther, through the five-year mark, you’ll likely see a decent ingathering of souls to Christ, from both churched and unchurched backgrounds. By the Spirit, hearts will be awakened to the life and light of God’s word. As such, old misunderstandings are uncovered. New questions are asked. Correct worldviews are formed. So it’s a critical time to bring stability to new converts. Expository preaching is essential here for many reasons. What you same them with, you save them to. It teaches them how to read and study the word. It gives them great joy as they discover that Scripture authoritatively and clearly bears on everything pertaining to life and godliness.

Expository preaching also settles the authority question in the developmental stages of the church plant and beyond. Whether the authority of the planter himself, the core team, core team development, the doctrinal statement, discipleship methods, outreach, or the right to be planting in the first place, exposition establishes that God and his word are the only authority we have.

Further, the time of unrushed exposition is a key time of doing community. We’ve discovered that meaningful biblical community need not only be a time in which people are addressing each other. Far more is when God is addressing us all, the same church, under the same Lord, by the same exposited Word, experiencing the same ministry of the same Spirit.

Expository preaching also helped us prevent the bait-and-switch temptation common in church planting. You know: “make the Christian on-ramp easy for seekers, and later, some time, when it’s convenient (and it never is), give them the fine print about church discipline and doctrinal statements and confronting sin and church membership and submission to elders.” But exposition calls us to the Spirit’s word, where every week we will have to see, read, hear, and apply every verse, and the next one and the next one. Matthew 18 comes eventually. So does Hebrews 13:17 and Galatians 6:1-3 and Luke 9:23 and Ephesians 5 and Hebrews 3:12-14 and all the rest.

Overall, expository preaching is to church planting what baby walkers and milk and pediatricians and parents are to 8 month olds.

20.  Multiplication cannot be forced.

And if it is, then we ought to wonder if multiplication really happened. The core team has got to be careful about attempting pneumatological engineering

A daughter church is a fine goal. But setting rigid time frames by which the church plant must plant can be a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit. He is the one who regenerates, sanctifies, and gifts. As such, he determines when another round of equipped equippers will be ready for the rigors of core-teamery and beyond.

21.  Consider consistent corporate outreach conducive to your area.

Skiing and firewood are a part of our culture. So, among other things, we found it helpful to design two particular corporate evangelism events involving those cultural elements. Our church loves to gather for these times. And some unbelievers in the community have come to expect, and even anticipate, them.

22.  Acts 17 was not written about my context.

dispensable23.  Church planters are unique as snowflakes. And as dispensable.

24.  God knows what he is doing and is in control.

25.  Thank you cards are a worthy investment.

26.  I had to really grow in learning how to equip people through delegation.

27.  No matter how many we have, or don’t have, we must train leaders to equip others.

28.  Annual man-retreats up in the woods with our leadership team are one of the most important events of the year for the health of the church.

Love both the body and soul of those leaders you’re developing. They pour out their lives day in and day out.

29.  “Whoever will do it” may not be the one to do it.

30.  It’s probably worth your time to create your own church membership study guide.

yes please31.  Coffee.

Once I repented of my scoffing, one of the better church-planting investments I made was a conical burr grinder.

32.  Waiting to teach the “harder” things will backfire.

Those strong, thick, bent trees you see on high alpine ridges were not planted in windless, 74-degree greenhouses. They were exposed to real life elements right away. Winter didn’t wait a few years before it came upon them.

faithful over attractionalNew disciples don’t need to know everything at once. But we should be careful here. An upfront, “here’s who we are” approach eliminate surprises and even expedites growth in Christ. Some of the strongest people in our church are those who were exposed to things like church discipline and reformed soteriology within a few months of conversion.

Josh Blunt humbly tells the helpful story of what happened when his team implemented a biblically faithful ecclesiology a few years into the plant. However, this came after they had implemented an attractional model. Goats were scattered and the sheep were gathered; so much so that the plant had to be absorbed by another congregation.

Faithful will do over attractional. Whatever should be the church norm in twenty years, get it in the church DNA now, while you can. It’s a matter of trusting God.

33.  Fill the incense bowl.

church planterSome of the best advice I ever received (though not always followed) was from a seasoned church-planter: “Set aside an hour with God per day.” After all, the incense bowl could probably use some topping off.

34.  Love people.

35.  Fight to not leave your first love.

Feel free to share any lessons you’ve learned along the way in church planting.

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.
  • Greg Pickle


    These are fantastic posts. Thanks so much. As a junior church planter I have seen the value of many of these things already (especially #12, 13, & 14) and am taking notes on all the rest.

    So cool to hear about “The Jackson Hole Church Plant” for all that time in Crossroads ministry years ago, and now to read these posts. The Lord is gracious!

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Greg. Where are you guys at these days? Blessings to you brother.

      • Greg Pickle

        Knoxville, TN, where we lived before seminary. Spent five years after seminary at a church with another TMS grad (Chris Riser) in the next county over before they sent us out to plant in February.

  • Michael Roe

    Eric, thanks for these great posts. This is excellent. I’m in an established church but many of the things you have mentioned apply in that context too. Thanks for being humble enough to share the bruises along with the bright spots. Grace to you brother.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Mike.

    • J Stricklin

      I agree with Mike. I’m in an established church (not far from Mike) and these principles are excellent for seeking to revitalize and refresh a church. Thanks Eric.

      • Eric Davis

        Thanks for the encouragement J.

  • Becky Buczinski

    I love these posts! What a joy it was to be a part of this ministry for 4 years. We learned so much. Chris and I were just reflecting on how gracious the Lord was (and is) to lead you to love us so well. I think your love for your church and the leadership the Lord put under you was a HUGE reason why this church plant was successful. We think about you guys almost every Sunday and a big part of us wishes we could be there worshipping with you.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Becky. We miss you guys all the time. Your competent service for Christ is still being used mightily. Grateful for you

  • Brad

    Great post! I’m realizing how contextual everything is! I’ve been a part of an inner-city, cross-cultural church plant the past couple of years, and our experience is much different than yours! Our context is very similar to Acts 17 and we have dealt with many demons, idolatry, and persecution! But at the end of the day, I resonate with so much of what you expressed! Blessings!

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Brad. Sounds like you guys are in the thick of it. What a blessing. Keep laboring hard for Christ’s glory.

  • steve sanchez

    Good tips! I am one of those guys sent by my Mother Church, but went out alone. we’ve been at it for about 8 months and it’s tough. I’m supported and I’m submitted, still, it does get a bit discouraging. Any tips for those with out “Launch” teams?

    • Eric Davis

      Steve- would like to talk with you more about that. Shoot me a follow on my Twitter, & I will message you. You bring up a great question.

  • Lee

    What does biblical conflict resolution look like?

    • Eric Davis

      Lee – are you referring to our particular study? Or conflict resolution from Scripture in general?