What It Means to Plant the Church

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

What were some of the real challenges you faced during your first few years?

Roberts: I was frustrated because my church wasn’t as big as this guy over here who [was sexually immoral] or this guy who was going to jail for embezzlement. I thought, They are growing huge churches, and I’ve been faithful. Why aren’t you blessing me, God? I felt angry with Him. And at that point of brokenness, this question came into my mind: “Bob, when will Jesus be enough for you?” I had substituted the ministry for Jesus.

Scazzero: By year five, [our church] crashed. Even though things were tremendous on the outside—people coming to Christ, God moving—internally, things were not so good. I was exhausted. All my joy was gone.

What happened internally?

Scazzero: We were expanding too fast. We planted this church and grew to 100 people the first year, and the second year, we grew to 200 people. The third year, we planted a Spanish congregation. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to go slow and do it well. Build quality. There’s no such thing as an instant church. It’s an illusion. It takes slow discipleship mentoring. I was allowing a lot of craziness to go on. And my wife got to a breaking point, and she said, “I love you, but I’m leaving the church and going to another one.”

You know when you think you’re at rock bottom, but you’re not? I ended up in a therapist’s office. My wife and I went away for a week, and I figured that would fix her—and then she’d get back to the church, and then God would fix the church.

To make a long story short, that didn’t happen. In fact, my wife got even more honest with me—the most honest moment in our marriage. And that’s when I realized that you couldn’t have a mature spiritual church that doesn’t have emotional health.

Mangum: I’ve learned the same thing. About seven weeks ago, I came down with the flu and was in bed for seven to eight days. I lost almost 20 pounds, and honestly, I think it had less to do with the flu and more to do with me trying to be all things to all people for one year!

It’s like every church planter has this moment of realizing, “I don’t control this! I have no part to play except to be a conduit of what God is speaking, and nothing else!”

Scazzero: That’s hard—you want to be the one succeeding. But what is success? I’ve learned that success is being faithful to what God wants you to do at the time and place He wants you to do it. The evangelical culture says you have to be Number 1, and you’re failing compared to everybody else. But a lot of church planting is waiting on God, waiting for God. You can build a church with 1,000 people, and God says, “I never asked you to do that. I asked so-and-so to do that. That wasn’t your job.”

Character comes first. Anointing comes second. Results and growth are not the criteria for a great church anymore.

Roberts: I think we have an old model of success. We’ve turned the ministry into this superstardom stuff. So everybody wants to be Number 1. In my day, we were looking at the church of 2,000 and going, “Whoa.” [Church planters] now are looking at a church of 10,000 or 20,000.

So how can you tell if your church plant is successful and healthy—aside from numbers?

Burke: You need spiritual tire kickers, or seekers, rubbing up against the body of Christ in your first year, or you’re going to have a hard time making an impact on the culture. Figure out how to get seeking people in there from the start and let them mingle among you and even advise you as to “Would you bring your friends to this?” The first 100 or so people who come really define what [your church is] going to be.

Smith: If you’re gathering people on Sunday, but you can’t gather them at other times for outreach or discipleship or other ministry initiatives, your church is unhealthy.

And your people must begin to own the vision and the purpose for themselves so that, ultimately, you as the church planter are not carrying the full weight of the vision and purpose by yourself.

Burke: I agree. Being able to allow other leaders to rise up and hold the vision and values and move things forward without you having to push them—that’s where many churches get stuck, because the point leader has to do it all or be it all. And it’s really hard to let go.

Another thing that indicates a healthy church is a holistic approach to evangelism—seeing evangelism happening as a process rather than just an event. Realizing that people move step-by-step along the path until they come to a point of faith, and then they have to keep taking steps of trust after that.

As far as being healthy as a whole, you need community at the core. Find a way of being in each other’s lives, being authentic, sharing real struggles, learning how to do the “one another’s” of Scripture, and really be the body.

You’ve also got to have an inspiring, life-giving worship service that communicates to the culture. If your church is really being built out of people who are coming to faith, then they’ve got to understand and be inspired to want to do life with God.

Roberts: At Northwood, we want to see community transformation. I think the great tragedy of today is that we are planting churches and doing evangelism without changing society. How can that be?

We also want to see churches pick a hard place in the world and work there. It should be a place where you can use your church members [vocationally] as opposed to just religious work. That’s what we do—this year we’ll have 20 or 30 small trips to [our chosen country]. We work with world leaders and educators and business people.

Mangum: Your people should be living out the term “missional church.” They should minister in their sphere of influence as well as they do in Uganda for a two-week trip.

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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.