It was Acts 29 and Mark Driscoll that first attracted me to church planting, and it was Steve Timmis and the evolution of Acts 29 that kept me interested. Over the last 15 years I’ve served at churches being planted and built as a congregant, a community pastor, an executive pastor, a lead pastor and a coach for church planters.
Over the last five years, I’ve watched founding pastors leave their church plants at an alarming rate, watched church plants close, merge, re-plant, and a number more simply struggle to survive. It’s hard to make an impact on others when you’re in survival mode.
I don’t fault these pastors as much as I fault the trends and the system that promotes a type of church planting that is no longer necessary and funding mechanisms that are outdated, unfocused and ineffective. Millions of dollars have been given toward church planting, but few churches, denominations and networks can even tell you the impact of those investments.
No doubt, God used these plants, pastors and founders to change hundreds of lives, but it’s time to re-evaluate our methods and models for the future of church planting. I suggest three needed changes that will help church planting, church planters and their families move beyond survival into an ability to plant churches themselves.
1. Indigenous Over Transplant Planters
An indigenous planter calls their neighborhood home, while a transplant church planter needs to spend years—usually three to five years, sometimes longer—adapting their lives to make their planting neighborhood home.
For a number of years, there was no choice. Cities around the country and the world still needed transplant church planters to get the movement of the gospel started. They often parachuted in knowing no one, or if they came with a team, watched as their team all left leaving them behind. But any current church planter and pastor is indebted to the efforts of transplant church planters who broke up the fallow, hardened ground of their cities so the seeds of the gospel would bear fruit.
While it was necessary, we’ve entered into a time where it is no longer necessary to move out of the place you call home to plant a church. For those of you who feel called to do so anyways, I’ll address that in the third section.
Now, we need to disciple, develop and empower indigenous planters. We need Christians who grew up in neighborhoods needing churches, who have been discipled by local churches and church plants.
An indigenous planter brings the benefit of knowing the language of the people, so they can bring the language of God’s kingdom into their context with ease and with power reaching their neighbors. An indigenous planter knows his neighborhood’s blessings and curses, so he doesn’t have to take the sometimes years-long process of getting to know the neighborhood. An indigenous planter also knows what it takes for the neighborhood to be home, to live there successfully, and knows what actually needs to be changed, not what a transplant would like gentrified for their own comfort.
Existing pastors and planters may face challenges discipling an indigenous leader who will know more than they do, but the expansion of the kingdom is worth overcoming that insecurity and taking the risk on a local leader.
2. Funding Infants Over Funding Babies
The funding mechanisms of church planting are focused on new churches. This is natural, as new churches, like new start-ups, have no money to fund their goals. While it is natural, church planting funding should either consider the longevity of their commitment or allocate a portion of their funding for infant churches, not just for baby churches.
Church plants face many challenges throughout their young history, but one of the most overlooked challenge is the infant church plant phase. The phase where the church needs to be self-sustainable, but also needs to add staff to grow beyond their infant phase, which requires costs that push them beyond self-sustainability.
There are three benefits of investing in an infant over a baby church.
The first is the record of faithfulness. A church plant able to get to the infant stage has to have demonstrated a record of discipleship, mission and faithful witness to the neighborhood causing growth. There is a decreased risk of funding a non-viable or ineffective church, because you have seen the fruit.
The second is a benefit of further church planting. These infant churches have seen the fruit of church planting and often still have the passion to plant new churches. They know what it takes to plant an effective church in their city, and funding them can lead to future church planting efforts that are as effective as they have been.
The third is the long-term impact from helping the infant church become an established church. We will always need church plants, but more than that we need effective churches that are faithful for generations. Some modern church planting is due to population growth, but much of church planting is the result of dying churches who were ineffective at discipling the next generation. Did they lack the funding to hire additional pastors and ministers to promote the discipleship of kids, youth and adults?
A change to the church planting funding mechanism can put the energy of money behind the effectiveness of discipleship. Funding infants over baby churches is an easy adjustment to fund the growth of God’s kingdom.
3. Send Pastors Over Planters
This third change assumes that many churches, networks and denominations will send church planters to new cities and that the need for planters may outpace the ability of local churches to develop indigenous churches.
This change is focused on sending people to become local pastors before they become planters. I live in NYC and the most effective church planters are those who have been ministers and pastors at local churches before they planted their churches. These people embedded in local churches served as volunteers and supported local pastors while getting opportunities to lead, preach and teach in their local context.
These planters had the ability to develop relationships with their neighbors, establish their presence as leaders who want to know and bless their neighborhoods, and adjust to their new homes. Many of them planted their churches with new and non-Christians from their neighborhood rather than bringing a community from another church.
We cannot settle for simply planting new churches as a metric of success. We must adapt our strategies to make sure the emphasis aligns with the heart of Jesus Christ. The call of Christ is to make disciples knowing that will grow God’s kingdom and lead to new churches.
These three strategic changes can contribute to a healthier future for church planting.