I recently spent some quality time with one of the best church planters in a particular city. In just a few years he has planted almost 10 campuses or extensions of the original church he started almost 10 years ago. He was also involved in a prayer meeting with other church planters for several years. When I asked him if this weekly prayer meeting was still functional, he told me that it no longer exists because most of these planters are no longer ministering in the city and that many of the churches are either closed or are led by another pastor. He said that he has almost no pastor friends left in the area.
As I mused over this, I realized that much of what is called church planting by denominations and/or institutions often lacks biblical precedent and principles. The reason why so many fail in regards to church planting, in my particular city, is because potential lead pastors are recruited from other parts of the country and they come into a daunting, complex city that is alien to their own social context. Hence, they are stepping into a church culture that is foreign to them. Just giving theological/methodological training and sponsoring them financially is usually not enough to trump the other factors related to city planting such as: leadership development, raising a family in a secular environment, the high cost of living, finding affordable places to rent for a congregation, etc.
From my observation, most of the church plants in New York City don’t even last three years. Fewer still last a decade. Of course, Jesus told us to go into the entire world and preach the gospel, but we also have to learn the environment before attempting to establish a beachhead. Perhaps many of these leaders would be better off serving as an associate pastor for many years in a city church before attempting to lead one right out of the gate. The exceptions to the rule are if they come with an already established megabrand (e.g., Hillsong) or they have an enormous amount of resources and can afford to purchase their own building and support full-time staff in addition to the salary of a lead pastor.
When my wife and I planted Resurrection Church in 1984, we had no money and we did not own our own building, but we were used to the culture of our city (we were both born within a few miles of our church plant) and we had already raised up a small team of disciples we led to Christ the previous years through street evangelism. Hence, I can speak from experience as a church planter.
The following are some of the principles necessary to plant churches according to the New Testament biblical pattern:
1. Church planters were sent; they did not just volunteer to go.
The apostle Peter was told by Jesus to strengthen his brethren and to feed His sheep (Luke 22:32 and John 21:15-17). He had a divine commission to minister to the flock of God and call the Jews back to the Messiah (Galatians 2:7). The apostles Paul and Barnabas were sent out to plant churches by the leaders of the church of Antioch (Acts 13:1-2).
Consequently, it is important that a person has the blessing and confirmation of their local church before they attempt to plant a local congregation. This is necessary not only for prayer support and accountability, but also as a way to discern the will of God and make sure you are hearing His voice correctly.
2. Church planters were nurtured first under apostolic church leadership.
Peter and the original apostles were trained for more than three years under the chief apostle, our Lord Jesus. Barnabas and Paul were trained by the Jerusalem church apostolic team (Acts4:36-37; 9:26-29) and also refined their leadership skills for several years in the Antioch church (Acts 11:23-26) before they were sent out. Bible school and theoretical training are not enough; you have to serve in a local church for many years under tried and true senior church leadership before you are seasoned enough to plant and lead a congregation.
3. Planters had a clear leading of the Lord that was confirmed by the church.
Some folks come to New York City to plant a church because of the emotional excitement of ministering in the most famous city in the world. Some no doubt think they are going to become famous and make a name for themselves in ministry. I would advise against planting a church unless other unbiased mature Christian leaders also confirm it. The risk is too great to miss God in this kind of endeavor.
Planting a church is a life-altering decision that will affect your family, marriage, finances and emotional health. It is hard enough to attempt to do when you have the grace and calling of God, but when you are not sure of this and it is mere emotion, you will not be able to stand firm when the fires of testing come your way.