What It Means to Plant the Church

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

Looking back, what do you wish you’d done differently?

Smith: Sometimes, I would prematurely put people in positions of leadership because I was just so excited that someone wanted to join and be a part. So instead of just giving opportunities for people to serve, I felt this need to give them titles that would encourage them to stay. Later, you might get to know the person and realize that you don’t share the same theology, vision, or values.

Also, steer clear of feeling pressure to act like or play to church people and make it feel like what they consider “real church” right away. There were people who wanted me to start worshipping every Sunday right from the beginning. They wanted to know, “When are we going to do baptism?” or “When are we going to do stuff so we’re a real church?”

Remind the already churched people coming alongside you that they’re the servants and not the customers.

Scazzero: I would’ve trusted God a lot more. I think a lot of my feverish activity was fear-based. I didn’t take Sabbaths. I cheated—because God forbid I trust Him to build a church. I didn’t let myself feel depression, anger, or sadness. I was a machine—“Get it done for God!” [I encourage others] to be obedient and slow down and not do activity out of anxiety.

Mangum: I agree—don’t fall into the intoxicating desire of wanting to be bigger and better quickly. It’s in the Western-cultured American Church mindset to build bigger and better and stronger, as opposed to making disciples.

Get your core group—find those three or four people who can really replicate the vision you have in your heart. And meet with them as much as it takes. Pray, fast, create disciplines in them that you want done in you. And then three, four, five months down the road, you don’t have three or four people running the show and most people just following their lead. Instead, you’re empowering people with the Gospel.

Burke: At Gateway, we took too long to define our spiritual formation process or discipleship. It just happened one-on-one early on, and then we grew and grew, and the larger you get, it’s harder to know if discipleship is happening. You have to start getting more organized about how you guide people through spiritual formation so you know they’re actually growing up in Christ.

I had done Campus Crusade and Navigator stuff—you know, a lot of the really cognitive discipleship—and there is a place for that, but I don’t really think that’s the way people truly grow. The way they truly grow is they hit some wall, and something painful happens in their lives. And if they respond to the Holy Spirit, it guides them in a path and actually grows them up.

Usually, people have to be in the right context of relationships to not kick against it but go with it and respond to the Spirit. And so, how do you do that? How do you make a curriculum out of that? What you can do is provide the right context. So we get to create the right culture or relational environment where people can and will respond to God’s Spirit tapping them on the shoulder. We come alongside each other and provide disciplines or resources to help each other respond to the way God is trying to grow us…I wish we’d had that early on; we just didn’t.

Roberts: I would’ve tried to understand the kingdom of God. I knew about it theologically and exegetically, but I didn’t have a clue about what it means to live the kingdom of God. For me, church planting was the Sunday event: How many people can I get there on the weekend? All I knew was the Gospel of salvation. I didn’t understand the Gospel of the kingdom of God, that it was supposed to mean personal transformation.

My paradigm was we started churches to reach lost people. That’s not biblical. If you go back and read Acts 11, what you had were radically transformed laymen who were excited for God, who got persecuted and shipped off to Antioch. They wound up sharing their faith with the people they worked with. And there was so much transformation that took place in their lives. The next thing you know, there were so many of those people that they formed a church. So church planting is a result of evangelism. We’ve reversed it. We’ve said, ‘Church planting is what we do in order to do evangelism.’ But if it’s not birthed out of evangelism, what is the ultimate goal of that church? What is its long-run durability? And is it ever going to transform the community?

Mangum: If a church planter does not have spiritual intimacy with God at a high level, the church will be an absolute failure. Either it’s going to shut down, or it’s going to keep going when it shouldn’t. If you don’t have spiritual vitality, you have nothing to offer.

What things really worked for you? What actions would you recommend to other church planters who are just starting out?

Smith: One of the things I’m really glad I did was take time early on to create an exhaustive vision and ministry plan for the church. It’s important to have a short (one page) and long (10 to 20 pages) version that lays out the vision that God has given you—what sets your church plant apart. Whenever God opened the door, I could share the plan with people who might want to be involved.

I also didn’t feel the pressure at the beginning to start gathering people every Sunday morning. The first three months, we had a series of home gatherings—mainly a dinner on Sunday evening and a Bible study where I shared the vision of what this church could be. Then I launched what was called a “preview service” once a month for three months. After that, we finally had our “Grand Opening Sunday,” the official launching of our church when we started meeting every Sunday. By the time we had our first service, we had more than 200 people.

Mangum: There’s one thing you have to get over quick: Not everyone is going to think you are the greatest church ever. You have to let people walk in and walk out. If you don’t hear from them, you love them, you e-mail them, you call them, and pour into them. But you have to be able to release people.

It’s a hard, emotional thing. Your insecurities come out. You try to convince people to stay as opposed to trusting the Spirit of God to romance their hearts.

Scazzero: Yes. When you plant a church, everybody comes with his or her own agenda. And the best thing that can happen at a church plant is that some people leave. Their vision is not within your larger vision. It’s not that you’re a narcissist; it’s just that God called you to plant the church.

Mangum: Also, when people come to [your] church, they come with expectations. You have a family that has a couple of high school kids, and their first question is “Do you have a youth ministry?” And everything in you says, “Oh, we want to start one.” Then you give them this false hope. Four months later, you don’t have the people to lead it, and you can’t lead it yourself, or you’ll go crazy.

In the first 12 to 18 months, find two or three vital core ministries and say, “We’re going to do this with excellence.” I’ve found that people are more forgiving of the idea that you’re waiting to start something good than seeing you start something before its time and failing repeatedly.

Roberts: We have church planters start a small group and multiply. If they can’t do that, why do they think they can start a church? We help them identify what style they want to do—postmodern, house church, simple church. But we don’t get into models. We’re into design. So you’ve got to know who you are, what your gifts are, and what your community is like.

From day one, I did nothing right. That’s why we started training church planters. [We teach them to] know everything there is to know about the kingdom of God. Don’t just read Dallas Willard, read his footnotes, and that will take you to some incredible people like E. Stanley Jones, Foster, Bonhoeffer, Tolstoy, and God forbid, Gandhi (who meditated on the Sermon on the Mount on a daily basis). You’ve got to have a theological base for what you do.

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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.