Having just retired from 21 years as a church planter and pastor (you’re a church planter for about a year, then you’re a pastor, I was told), I was asked to speak to a group of church planters in Cincinnati about what I had learned over that time. I divided the learnings up into three periods of time: the early years, the middle years, and the later years. Today I’ll share what the early years were about.
The Early Years
Key Activities: The foundational years were dominated by three activities: networking, starting small groups, and crafting a good worship service. I believe these are the key activities to planting a church. The planter needs to be aggressively networking, meeting as many people as he can, five days a week – believers, seekers, churched, unchurched, it doesn’t matter. You’re getting the word out that there is a new church in town with a new idea of what a church ought to be. Small groups are where people connect with each other, and, most importantly, where they connect with the planter. Prospective members want to know three things about their potential future pastor: Can he be trusted? Does he have anything to say? What’s in it for me? They will usually get those questions answered in a small group where the planter is the leader. Our church began with a small group. It’s how we grew and small groups remain the backbone of the church. The third piece is crafting a good worship service that connects your people to the best traditions of worship and remains contemporary to its culture.
Sins to Avoid: The sins I struggled with and prayed against were: impatience, obsession over numbers, and envy. Actually these are perpetual temptations but especially strong in the early years. God will build His church, and patience is needed. Numbers are not the whole story, and the pastor can’t let himself be envious of other church planters and pastors whose attendance may be larger.
Goals: My primary goals were to lay a good foundation and pursue church health. If the church was healthy, numbers would take care of themselves (God will bring the growth).
Words of Wisdom: One of my mentors, Terry Gyger, told me in my first year of church planting that you grow a church one person, one family at a time. I needed that. I relaxed a bit and began to take good care of the people God gave us, and gave focused attention to each person, each family, that took an interest in our church.
Lesson to Take to Heart: The Parable of the Soils (And this parable helped me deal with the sins of impatience, obsession with numbers, and envy.). The lesson is that some will bear fruit 30-fold, some 60 and some 100. All who hear the word, believe it, and live it will bear fruit, some more than others, Jesus taught. I needed to be content with the fruit God gave me, and not be envious of those who appear to bear fruit 60 or 100-fold. It took me a long time to learn this lesson but it needs to be heard and applied in the early years. (I believed I was a 30, and became content with that.)
What About Vision, Mission, Values? It took a while to see our vision, mission and values crystallize. No need to have them all worked out in your first week on the field. it was a work in progress, and took a few years to emerge. It was important to get the input of my leaders on these matters as well. Lay leaders want to be included in discussion of important matters, they want to be heard, but at the end of the day they want their pastor to lead.
Preventive Medicine: Finally, once you get your vision, mission, values, and philosophy of ministry reasonably developed, teach it to your inquirers and new members. It is preventive medicine.