Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the Covenant Seminary blog. It has been republished here with permission.
Prior to assuming the presidency at Covenant Theological Seminary, I served as pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas, for nineteen years. For the first several years of my tenure there, however, I was Redeemer’s church planter. Hardly knowing anyone at all in San Antonio, we began the church as what was called a scratch plant, starting with a small Bible study of only a few families. Without a doubt, God blessed our efforts. I can think of no other reason to explain that blessing other than his matchless, infinite grace. Dare I say, church planting, at first, was fun.
In those days, perhaps more than today, it was easy to romanticize the role of church planting. Church planting, it was thought, allowed us to avoid the “baggage” of the institutional church. It was pastoring in its “pure” form. Church planting was where the “action” was—gathering in trendy, urban spaces, cultivating evangelistic encounters with those other than believers, and dreaming about generational impacts. It was heady, spiritual stuff.
To be sure, there is some truth here. Yet those naïve assumptions to which young church planters are given are far from the whole story. At some point church planters must embrace real-world-church-realities if our church plants are going to survive. In fact, if I may be so bold, the same things that make for good churches usually also make for good church plants. They aren’t so different, after all. With that in mind, I’d like to briefly share three insights that will help your church plant survive.
1) Focus on transformation, not merely information or strategy.
Because church planting is about starting something new, it can be tempting to think that being the most innovative or having all the “smart” answers will make one successful. In the end, however, healthy people (not only healthy pastors) are what make for healthy churches. Therefore, an important prerequisite for a flourishing church plant is people who are being changed—lives converted and lives renewed—through the indwelling Spirit and the powerful good news of the gospel.
When I started Redeemer Church almost twenty years ago, I educated myself on the unique cultural context of South Texas. Of course, I performed demographic and ethnographic reports. I also thought deeply about strategy and ministry philosophy. Nevertheless, when we devote too much attention to such things, the transcultural aspects of the gospel can be minimized. Indeed, fundamental to any church planting effort is the faithful practice of the ordinary means of grace in the lives of its participants.
Vision statements, slick websites, and hip venues are helpful, but not nearly as much we sometimes think. For a church to grow and make an impact, a living community of kingdom-minded believers must form. For that to occur, there must be clear, relevant, and Christ-centered proclamation, and gracious, gospel-health must emerge and grow among the members of the church plant. In a word, transformation, not merely information or strategy, is where it’s at. This idea is at the heart of Paul’s assessment of the church he planted in Thessalonica:
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (1 Thess. 1:4-5).
When people are changing through the Spirit’s empowering work, churches grow. This might be compared to walking into a well-furnished, architecturally sophisticated home. Though beautiful, unless the relationships there are healthy the home will never be enjoyed. In the same way, churches with great theology, relevant visions, and on-point ministry philosophies will only be as impactful as the community is healthy. Therefore, church plants must focus their efforts on the transformation of its members if they are going to endure.
2) Focus on a positive vision, not reactive responses.
Secondly, flourishing church plants cultivate a positive vision rather than a reactive one. To be sure, the lowest-hanging fruit we speak of when starting anything accentuates how we’re not like our “competitor” down the street. In church planting, however, that narrative not only can give short shrift to the unity of the church but also quickly wears thin as people eventually begin to evaluate their church on its own merits. Throughout my time in San Antonio, but especially at the beginning, inquirers would often ask whether we were for or against this or that issue. Though the issues ranged from worship styles, theological positions, leadership philosophy, or practice of mission, it was clear their focus was on ensuring that all the right boxes were checked. Upon further investigation, too I often learned that a negative previous experience lay underneath the questions, and the person’s goal was to make sure the past was not repeated.
For a church to grow and make an impact, a living community of kingdom-minded believers must form.
While we can be sympathetic to those impulses, when they hold sway over all else it becomes problematic. Churches that start in reaction to a disappointment at another church, no matter how significant or painful that experience may have been, or churches that unduly emphasize a particular ministry preference at the expense of everything else, are almost always doomed from the start.
By contrast, the mission Christ gives to the church does not start with who we are “not,” but whose we are—the Lord’s—and what we are called to do—the Great Commission. No matter how important or passionate we are about our preferences, be it worship style, evangelistic method, or notions on child rearing, etc., the gospel orients us first to Christ’s mission for the church in the world to make disciples of all the nations. The call of the church must always start with this positive vision, and then attend to the particulars of specific application in a particular context. Inverting that order almost always ends up leading churches to focus on the minors rather than the majors, sabotaging overall health.
3) Focus on excellence without being superficial.
Finally, church plants inherently require planters to weave together a certain degree of excellence or performance with a level of organizational ambiguity. A minimal structure is necessary to be effective, but it must also be flexible enough that it does not choke emerging networks of relationships. Often planters swing to one of those extremes. Church plants that emphasize program excellence too much can unintentionally communicate a spiritual superficiality or an organizational rigidity that makes it difficult for new believers and attenders to open up and share about their lives. When that occurs, deep relationships and growth in the gospel get short-circuited. On the other hand, church plants that only emphasize an organic and unstructured ministry philosophy can unintentionally make it difficult for participants to connect to the church and understand how they can get involved. Ironically, those organizations feel too insider-ish because the web of relationships is so thick and visible “doorways” are so hard to find.
The answer, of course, is to prioritize both excellence and authentic relationships. Churches, like believers, must do all things “in word or deed” to the glory of God (Col. 3:18). That means we must attend to a gospel excellence in what some may consider more mundane matters common to organizations—like worship guides, nurseries, communication emails, and the like. On this the late Eugene Peterson is helpful. Though his focus is on churches valuing place, his insight applies more broadly to the priority we ought to give to all aspects of embodied ministry practice.
We sometimes say, thoughtlessly I think, that the church is not a building. It’s people. I’m not so sure. Synagogues and temples, cathedrals, chapels, and storefront meeting halls provide continuity in place and community for Jesus to work his will among his people. A place, a building, collects stories and develops associations that give local depth and breadth and continuity to our experience of following Jesus. We must not try to be more spiritual than Jesus in this business. (Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus is the Way, Eerdmans, 2007, p. 231)
Nevertheless, focusing on excellence must never become an end, otherwise relationships suffer and so will the church plant. Church planters must constantly weave an organizational intentionality with a relational flexibility. If some church planters need to be reminded that they ought to have a work schedule and cast a specific vision, others need to ask themselves, “Can I get interrupted?” Or “can my plans be adjusted?”
Jesus, of course, models this for us perfectly. Though resolutely committed to the ministry purpose given to him by his heavenly Father (cf. Luke 9:51; John 6:38), Jesus constantly allowed himself to be interrupted to shepherd the sheep (Matt. 14:13ff; John 4:6ff) and draw them unto himself.
God is the chief church planter.
The truth is that our Lord God is the chief church planter and architect for ministry. As the apostle Paul reminds us,
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building (1 Cor. 3:5–9 ESV).
Ultimately, whatever work we contribute is toward building and growing God’s church. We are just day-laborers. He graciously allows our best-laid plans to be a part of his blueprints. Even so, he gives the growth, and he is the one who will see his work through.
It was difficult for me to leave the ministry of the church I planted over nineteen years ago. Until Covenant Seminary came calling, I had never pursued another ministry call. But after much prayer, my wife, Tara, and I felt the Lord’s will was for us to take up this new work. A key aspect God used to change our hearts was knowing how pivotal seminaries are to training future pastors, church planters, and missionaries. Now that we’re here, I could not be more excited to join Covenant in training up the next generation of ministry leaders to help guide God’s church.
Tom Gibbs is the president of Covenant Theological Seminary.
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash.