What It Means to Plant the Church

Veteran church planters talk about starting a new church from scratch.

Did you target a specific demographic for your church, and if so, how?

Smith: I think many successful church plants start by meeting in a school, not in something that looks like an existing church. Where you meet should be a place that represents the community you’re trying to reach. It wouldn’t have worked for us if we started meeting in an existing church building. Meeting in a school and homes was helpful, as was connecting to existing community centers.

And early on, we served. We did supply drives. A school in our area had 40 kids who were bused from a homeless shelter. One of the first things we did was a drive where people brought brand-new coats, hats, mittens, lunch boxes, and school supplies for these kids. We partnered with a park to put on a summer arts program for the kids. By the time our church started, we had a somewhat positive reputation because we served the community.

Mangum: Service is essential to targeting any demographic. And identify leadership within those demographics. I can’t meet the needs of an 18-year-old girl, and I probably can’t meet the needs of a 55-year-old grandfather. So we find those who can, and say, “Would you begin a ministry there?”

I don’t think it’s bad to try to create age-friendly environments, but I do think that the lost art of the American Church is that 18-year-olds don’t know how to have a conversation with 75-year-olds anymore. The spiritual longing part of me is that we would have every demographic represented. That’s what heaven looks like—no doubt about it! In reality, in the local church context, that’s really difficult. It’s hard to find low-income families when you live in a high-income area. Our church actually really struggles with that.

Burke: I’d say to church planters: Ask yourself, “Whom is God calling us to reach? How are they wired? How do we communicate with them? What do we expect this to look like two years from now?” Start working back from there.

And make sure you’re adequately resourced and prepared with staff or leadership. I think it’s a mistake to go into it saying, “Well, God is calling us to this, so it’s just going to somehow come together and work.” He gives us minds and the ability to think, plan, and strategize for a reason.

How did you develop leaders who could share your load?

Mangum: One of the things most church planters want to do is implement eldership in the first year. For us, it’s probably going to be our two-year anniversary before we [do that], because you have to let people be tested and watch them. Are they faithful in serving? Are they faithful in giving? Are they faithful to the core of your vision? Let them earn that. Let them kind of bleed into that role. And all of a sudden, you’ve got some elders on your hands.

Burke: I started taking risks on very young Christians we had led to faith. And then, I just started to equip them to lead others. I don’t think the church is typically willing to take those kinds of risks. The amazing thing is that their friends start to come because they trust them. And new believers or people who are far from God get involved in their group, and they tell their story: “Two years ago, I was right where you are!” It’s just like the New Testament letters. And it is messy! I mean, look at Corinth.

We pull [the young leaders] into small groups and put leadership training classes together. We’re trying to develop the next group of leaders by modeling for them how to do it and helping them build spiritual disciplines that will start to grow them up. And then, slowly but surely, we let them take on more and more until we say, “I think you’re ready.”

We’ve seen how people grow up pretty fast when they start leading others, even simple things like a point person leading the setup and breakdown teams. That kind of leadership helps people feel like they’re a part of it, but it also gives you a chance to see where they are and develop them.

Scazzero: And the people you’re looking for are not the “showies.” The people you think are going to be great aren’t! And the ones you would think are as slow as turtles—they turn out to be great.

For example, the guy who is now our celebration pastor is not dynamic, although he is godly and a very gifted musician. In the early days, I had people telling me to get rid of him because “you need a Ron Kenoly in here to make this place hum, Pete!” I was ready to fire him. But this guy has turned out to be so phenomenal. His gift is raising up other people, and he’s got such patience…such a man of God.

We forget that the ministry is developing people versus “if you want a great church, go hire people who have been trained elsewhere, put them together, and maybe you’ll have a big church automatically!”

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Andrea Willits
Willits’ first article post-college was published in Nashville Lifestyles, and bylines quickly became her business. Over the next five years, she served as assistant editor for CCM magazine in Nashville, Tenn., then associate editor of Outreach magazine in San Diego. Now she spends her days writing and editing from her cozy home in East Nashville, contributing to publications and companies like Outreach magazine, Christianity Today, Youthworker Journal, Christian Single, HomeLife, Collegiate, World Vision, Zondervan, Salem Publishing, Outreach Marketing and Willow Creek Community Church.