In the movie Forest Gump, Lt. Dan Taylor and Forest Gump have this exchange:
Lt. Taylor: “It’s pretty basic here. Stick with me and learn from the guys who have been in country for awhile and you will be alright. There is one item of GI gear that can make the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks…Always change your socks whenever we stop…and try not to do anything stupid like getting yourself killed!”
Gump: “I sure I hope I don’t let that man down.”
When I was a young Church Planter, one of the first things I wished I had believed in was Kingdom Centered Prayer. Now don’t get me wrong. I prayed. I prayed a lot. Desperate prayers. But my prayers were more along the lines of, “God please bless my thing going on here” rather than, “Lord, do Your thing and make Jesus famous however You want that to happen.”
I prayed for God to bring people to the church. I prayed for God to give me solid leaders so that the new plant would make it. I asked God for many things so the church would grow. I dreamed large dreams of a healthy, thriving congregation. It never occurred to me that my prayers were not Kingdom Centered: “Our Father, your name be made great. Your Kingdom come and Your will be done. You do Your thing through me, whatever your will is for me and Your Church.”
A Planter I coached once, said, “I was under the delusion that if I had a confirmed call to church plant, passed assessment and got dozens of people to sign up to pray and send financial support then surely God must have approved my vision for the new church. I was even humbly careful to say, ‘God didn’t speak to me in an audible voice but I’m sure this is a vision God gave me.’ I thought I was right on track and God would do what I expected.”
We all know Spiritual warfare is real. The enemy hates the church and does not want more churches to be planted. He will attack the planter, his family, and the core group in any way he believes will destroy the church plant. It is an issue that distinguishes a new church plant from the start of any secular endeavor.
The enemy will not play fair either.
He’ll go after your self-esteem. One seasoned Church Planter told me: “I confess, Satan talked to me after every sermon I ever preached! He said things like…’Man are you an incredible communicator! Your church is so lucky to have you! That was better than ____could preach.’ Or…’You should have emphasized this over what you said…you missed it man…no body was listening…you didn’t get one positive comment. Hey you didn’t get even one comment. You should have studied more. You blew it in the first service but it was ok in the second.’ Satan talks…and I too often listen. My insecurity haunts me!”
He’ll go after your family. In my years of working with planters, assessing, coaching, building networks, and consulting with new churches, more often than not, the wives or children of the Church Planter get sick with what some have started calling “church planter wives disease.” It’s a strange sickness that challenges their ability to help. They have conditions that linger and are not easily diagnosed. One Planter’s four-year old got cancer during the gathering phase.
Sending prayer letters or emails can be a white-wash for covering up your need for prayer
Often we are tempted to tell people what we think they want to hear. We think they ONLY want to hear about successes and how great everything is going. It gives them (and us) the false impression that we have everything together and they bet on the right horse with their support money. It really robs people of the opportunity to pray for miracles.
One Planter wrote me: “My first church plant did not go well. It closed in one year. Then we immediately started another one and it struggled for years. But in the middle of the failing, I got honest and started emailing more frequently requesting prayer I really needed. I prayed for God to convert people (we’d only had 1 conversion in 14 months of evangelistic work). I prayed for God to lead us to local people who could help lead and that we’d connect with people of other races. These were all things I originally was too proud to ask for. And God answered the prayers of His people. Not because I was good – in fact I was pretty helpless – but because it pleased Him to make His name famous.”
The very real and present danger in the life of a Church Planter that his heart becomes cold and his life with God loses its vitality, pliability, and centeredness on God’s grace, his holiness, and the Spirit’s work. Working out of one’s own ingenuity, natural ability, talents, and fleshly effort is the bent of every human heart.
Secondly, I wished I had believed that I had nothing to prove...
A Church Planter Story -- Jim had started Redeemer’s House about six years prior to calling me. He spoke about his passion, his vision, and all that had transpired the last five years of worship. The church was averaging 200 people in regular worship. He had a couple part time staff guys and one full time assistant. In many respects, it had been a good ride but he was tired. He wasn’t sure about the future of the church. Then he said one of the most common beliefs I hear from planters in the 5th to 7th year of their plant: “I think I might have taken this church as far as I can. Maybe I need to leave and let the next guy take it to the next level.”
Have you ever had that thought? If you are in (or have been in) the critical 5-7 years post launch of your church I suspect you have. If you have just started or in your first years you might as well get prepared. Unless the church takes off like a rocket — and the average church plant after 4 years is 100 people — you will probably think just as Jim did.
I completely understand the why for thinking this way. In fact, there may be many reasons. Some Planters experience discouragement. The church you now lead is not the one you envisioned six years ago. You had hoped for people to be more engaged, committed and generous. You thought there would be more conversions to Christ. People you loved and helped have left.
For other Planters it is just plain tiredness. Let’s face it. Starting a church is hard work. For some it’s the new challenges of managing people and things that have to get done. Maybe you are better at vision and ideas and managing people is boring and difficult for you.
I suspect that you are probably in the weekly grind of sermon and services prep—the relentless return of the Sabbath—and there’s little margin for thinking and visioning. You grab ideas here and there from podcasts or articles in Church Planter Magazine but you don’t have time for thinking and praying.
Plenty of Church Planters have other valid reasons for thinking about letting the next guy work on the new church. For Jim, the main reason was not having a facility to use every day of the week. The people were worn out from setting up and breaking down each Sunday in the middle school cafeteria. However there was a deeper, internal stress that, “Well, being totally honest,” he admitted. “I thought we would be at a thousand people by now. All my experience has been in a very large church.”
Apart from the early launching of first services (even if you started as a Missional community for several years, at some point you “went public” and invited people to worship God with others) in the story of your plant, this 5 to 7 year period may be the most critical time in the life cycle of the work. My experience has shown me that when a founding pastor leaves, the church will lose between 25 to 30% of its people. Sometimes the church loses 50% (depending on the guy that follows the founding pastor). That is a hardship hardly anyone can overcome.
Longevity of the founding planter is a key component—not a guarantee—but a key nevertheless in a church with sustained health, reproduction and growth. Thom Rainer pointed out, “Long pastoral tenure was not the single most answer to struggling American churches….long tenure is one of the key requisites for churches to move from goodness to greatness.”
So what can a Planter do?
Your health and the health and thriveability of your family is most important. No magic wands can be waved to make that happen. A church planting Gospel Coach can help a lot. If you don’t have one, don’t delay. No matter how great a planter you’ve been so far, a Gospel Coach can help with the health and sustainability you need. I’m not talking about a life coach or a buddy that’s planted before. Even the best golfers in the world have a golf coach. You need a church planting coach that is able to bring the gospel to bear on all aspects of your life — Relational, Personal, Missional and Spiritual.
I like what Chris Wright wrote about the mission of the church—“It is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world, as that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission—God’s mission (The Mission of God, 62).”
One of the essential ingredients in you seeing health and reproduction is to review and renew the mission God has for your city and what place your church has in that mission. This happens with times of prayer and renewal, first with you and then with your leaders. I suspect they are not sure what the core of the mission is that you are on now. As you seek the Lord together you will get shared ownership of the missio dei. If you need help, that is available as well.
Don’t leave. When I ask the planter who is thinking about leaving, “What do you think the next guy will have to do to grow and become a reproducing church?” The majority have listed several things they know need to be done. Well, why not do them yourself with the leveraged leadership you’ve earned? Most Planters leave before they get a return on their relational investment is realized. You won’t begin to get the return on those investments — married couples, counseled people through bondage and addiction, buried loved ones, baptized and discipled — until after the seventh year. If you leave at year 5, 6 or 7, you lose the return.
Have a health assessment done for you, the leaders, and the church. Like going to a physician for a check up, this can get the true reading on where you are as a church and help bring renewal and hope for the present and future ministry in the city God has planted you. You can learn more about church health assessment at www.churchleaderinventory.com.
God’s calling is God’s enabling. As I’ve written elsewhere, you are perfectly righteous in Jesus so you have nothing to prove. You are eternally loved so you have nothing to fear. You are completely forgiven so you have nothing to hide.
Remember, you don’t have to plant a church alone. Never before have there been more resources for training as there are now. If you want to have a Gospel-centered church, it’s important to have a gospel-centered coach. Church Planter Coaching is an intentional Gospel conversation with focused discussions about the planter’s relational, personal, missional and spiritual life. Click here to learn about CMM's Next 5 to 7 ministry for church planting pastors today!
Dr. Tom Wood
I've been in the Church Planting business my entire career. I want you to know, you don't have to plant a church alone!