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Michael Gatlin

Michael Gatlin

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At a recent workshop on church planting, I fielded questions about church planting that we thought might be helpful for a wider audience. If you’ve ever had some of the same questions, here are some thoughts to get you started, or to help you continue your discernment process. And we’d love to have you join the discussion!

How do you decide where to plant a church?
One of the conversations I often have with potential church planters is the one centered around location—where am I supposed to go plant the church I feel like God is calling me to plant?

I love the way that this discernment process is much more about our relationship with God and our discernment with other people than it is about only sticking pins on a map.

When we look at Paul and Barnabas, God lead them from place to place, sometimes with dreams or sometimes they wanted to go somewhere and the Holy Spirit somehow stopped them. I love the way that this discernment process is much more about our relationship with God and our discernment with other people than it is about only sticking pins on a map.

Just like in most of our life with God, there’s no simple mechanical formula for deciding where to plant a church. Sometimes God sends you to a place that you really like or sometimes it’s a place or a people group that God begins to put on your heart. Other times it’s an assignment that God gives and he just tells you where you’re going. The key thread in each of these examples is this: God is the one directing our lives, not us.

Some of us expect big neon lights with God saying to go to a specific place, but instead, God highlights categories or characteristics of the place you’re supposed to go. He may tell you to go to a small city or a big city, to a certain part of the country, a college town, or a place close to your family, and as you sift through the options, you’ll often narrow down to the place he’s inviting you to go. Church planting is so unique and I believe the way God calls us into it is tailored to what each of us needs to continue to simply say yes to him.

What if you feel called to church plant, but you don’t want to do it?
A lot of times we don’t want to church plant because it feels scary. We’re afraid of failing, afraid of rejection, and afraid of the unknown. Many of us think we’re not good enough or not qualified. Much of the time, we can feel this way because the enemy of our soul is out to discourage us. He comes with half-truths that begin to make us feel this way. He starts with something that’s true, twists it a little bit until it’s a lie. If you can learn to separate them, you’ll do well.

For example, when the enemy says, don’t do church planting because you might fail, what’s the truth? You might fail. He’s right! But, the lie is that you shouldn’t even try. Think about it: when God sent Moses out, he never actually promised him that it was going to work. When God sent out Barnabas and Saul, he never told them that they’d be successful, right? God is just asking for obedience. God doesn’t promise our definition of success.

Our job is just to separate the truth from the lies we hear and then to be faithful to whatever our Heavenly Father is asking us to do.

Do you have to have certain strengths to plant a church?
There are certain strengths or skills that most church planters do have. Because church planting is entrepreneurial in nature, there are some specific things that make it easier or that help plant a healthy church. This is where our 10 questions come from. You can see them here.

If you don’t see these skills in yourself right now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not a church planter. It may be that God is inviting you to grow in these areas. I suggest entering into a discernment process, and here’s one of the first steps; look over the 10 questions mentioned above and prayerfully journal your answers. Ask God to highlight specific strengths as well as opportunities for growth. Don’t gloss over anything. Pay careful attention to whatever the Holy Spirit reveals. Then go to someone that has spiritual authority in your life, a small group leader or a pastor, and ask them to do the same, to read through all ten questions and jot down how they see your strengths and opportunities in the light of church planting. After you’ve both done the homework, you’re ready for a few crucial conversations and some growth in self-awareness. Compare your answers, ask for specific assignments to aid in growth, and get ready for some fun!

Where do you get your first group of people for your church plant?
You have to meet people and invite them into it! In my first two years in Duluth, I had a goal of meeting 100 new people each week. I know, it sounds and was crazy! But I didn’t just meet them, I wanted to have a conversation with them that was Godward. If I wanted to meet people in their twenties, I hung out on college campuses, in coffee shops, or in local watering holes. I coached soccer and hung out with my kids at the park and met many families. At the end of two years, I realized that I’d only accomplished my goal of talking with 100 people weekly twice. But even in my worst weeks I still talked to 20-30 people and I discovered a grace of God to do this each and every day.  It was awesome and exhausting and incredibly life-giving al at the same time. Over that couple of years, our community grew from 40 to 120 people who were regularly involved.

So what about you? Where do you hang out? How can you begin interacting with a larger number of people and still develop intimate, transformational relationships that go deep? 

Once you start, how do you get your church to grow?
One of the ways I approach church growth is to relentlessly focus on church health. You make sure you have good connected relationships, worship where people can experience the tangible presence of God, Holy Spirit inspired hands-on prayer ministry, clear and practical biblical teaching on the kingdom of God, and a focus on reproducing healthy leaders. That alone ought to keep you busy for the first few months!

The number one thing I look for is that people’s lives are being transformed by the gospel of the kingdom and they’re becoming more like Jesus. If you’re focused on creating healthy community, you usually can’t keep people away.

Then the next thing you have to think about it is what in our system or structures makes it difficult for people to come. If you only have enough chairs for the people who are attending, you have a problem if new people visit. I guess they’re supposed to sit on the floor? I’m continually looking at every system we’ve got, and asking, “if that area doubled in size, what would it break?” Then I go about adjusting those systems to accommodate growth.

Intersted in More?

Check out the How to Plant a Healthy Church Podcast for more answers!

Michael Gatlin co-pastors the Vineyard church of Duluth, with his wonderful wife Brenda. The Duluth Vineyard is an amazingly creative and diverse community of disciples who are learning to live out the reality of the presence and power of Christ in northern Minnesota. Michael is also the national coordinator for Multiply Vineyard: a team of men and women located throughout America that encourages, trains, and empowers local churches; as they multiply disciples, leaders and churches.

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