Over the years I have grown to embrace a bit of a different view of “church planting.” What I mean by this is that I don’t limit church planting to just beginning a new weekend worship service. A worship service on Sunday morning may be included in the church plant, but its just that—something to be included rather than the main event. The main event, it seems to me, is the discipleship or apprenticeship of people to Jesus Christ. Maybe that’s not new to you at all, but to me, church planting can often be reduced to just starting another weekend service. So from my humble point of view, a church planter is someone who is following God’s invitation to lay down his or her life by going to a specific city, town, culture or people group to intentionally bring the good news of the kingdom of God. And just like Jesus our teacher, this will require that we lay down our lives to bring this new community of faith to fruition. More simply, a church planter is someone willing to lay down their life to see a new community of Jesus-followers established. So here are four areas, four characteristics that seem to be necessary in the life of a planter.
A church planter is someone who has a clear sense of calling from God and confirmation from their overseers.
Church planting can be incredibly difficult. We are working to establish a new community of Jesus-followers within a people-group that is hostile to our basic message. This message revolves around the idea that there is one true Lord and King, and you and I are not it! That’s not really a popular message. So the decision to plant will often be deeply and sometimes painfully tested and in the midst of hard times when growth is slow, or leaders you’ve developed decide to leave and the next steps forward seem very unclear. It is during these times that the planter will only endure if they have the sure, unshakeable conviction that, “despite what I’m experiencing now, God has called me to this!”
This kind of calling runs so much deeper than thinking church planting is just a “neat idea” or something to “try out” like you would a diet. It is much more all-encompassing than a different flow to a worship service or some fresh idea for decorating an auditorium. In fact, church planting is such an enormous venture that it requires a clarity of calling that, while not immune to doubt, provides the foundation for tenacity in the midst of adversity and disappointment. Throughout our discernment process our desire is to help our potential planters become more and more sure of this calling, this invitation from God.
The second part of the above statement concerns the confirmation from overseers. The biblical precedent to gain approval from our overseers in the church can be a huge hurdle to overcome for many of us in our fiercely independent western culture. Once we believe that we’ve heard God’s invitation, we don’t like to have to wait for anyone’s approval. But there is great benefit to the waiting time. Someone once said that “waiting time is never wasted time.” As we are forced to wait our heavenly Father is at work in our lives, on our character, and refining our vision for ministry. And from personal experience I can say that few things in a church planter’s life are better than being sent out at the right time in the right way from a healthy body of believers. Continue to trust God while you wait to be released.
A church planter has a clear vision and philosophy of ministry.
We define vision as the God-given ability to “see” what could be and as such is an essential part of the spiritual gift of leadership. Think about it this way, we are attempting to gather people together to something that does not yet exist. We can see the future church community in our hearts and minds but we may be the only ones who can. Vision, and our ability to talk about it easily and freely, is the necessary component needed to cast a compelling vision for a church that inspires others to want to join. It not only draws people to what lies ahead, however. Vision also communicates and clearly articulates the path to that destination.
Just saying “I want to plant a Vineyard church,” is not a faith-driven and inspiring vision. We must be able to ask and answer the questions of “What kind of church community? What will it look like? What kind of people will it reach? How will we gather people to get on board with that vision?” Our words are the main tool we have to communicate the vision that lives in our head. A planter must not only be able to describe what kind of church they want to plant, but they must be able to articulate it in a way that engenders faith, honors God, helps to inspire others to submit their lives to Christ and become a part of this new community.
And a well articulated philosophy of ministry describes the way we go about accomplishing the vision. This will include our priorities (the main ways we will spend our resources of time, energy and money), our values (what if feels like to be a part of this new church, the atmosphere, the ethos), the practices (the habits we wish to instill in new disciples), and etc. Thinking through all of this ahead of time, even writing it down and attaching our plans to specific dates on a calendar—creating a two-year plan—is very helpful and even necessary to being able to communicate all of this clearly to others.
A church planter must be able to gather people, calling them to Christ, to one another in community, and to serve others.
A church planter needs a proven ability to gather new people, especially those who previously do not have connection to a church. Regardless of what venue is used to express this ability, having the skills to gather people is one of the most fundamental abilities required of a church planter. Never forget that the church is the people, not the facility. It completely doesn’t matter what your building looks like—no people equals no church. And this isn’t an ability that just appears once the planter heads out the door. If the potential church planter experiences difficulties in being able to attract and gather people before planting a church, it is unlikely that they will be able to do it well once they’ve started.
A necessary part of the ability to gather is evangelism—introducing others to Christ in personal, experiential ways—and while this may not need to be the strongest gift a church planter has, the planter does need to be able to effectively introduce others to Christ. It is up to the planter to help create a culture of evangelism in the church plant, so that all those who join will naturally get involved in the process of sharing and embodying this good news of the gospel. And the planter’s lifestyle and actions speak far more loudly that their words ever will.
Secondly, our desire is to plant churches that are self-sustaining and last for more than one generation. We want to plant Vineyard churches that our children can be discipled at. And we’ve found that churches that can’t gather a significant number of people, do not stand the test of time. What is that number? Well, 100 people stands as an effective number of people a church plant must gather to be a self-sustaining and healthy church. Does this mean that smaller churches can never be self-sustaining and healthy, absolutely not. Of course this depends on the size of community and other factors, but in much of our experience healthy churches that are smaller than 100 are more of an exception than the norm.
A church planter needs to be a teachable student, a constant learner.
However much we don’t like hearing it, none of us will ever arrive at some magical point and not need to learn anything new. The most successful church planters all share this trait in common, they remain teachable. Continue to cultivate a listening and learning heart. Regularly go to others for advice, and continually explore what you are being taught. Ask questions. Press in further. Do not settle for the easy answers. And especially when the advice rubs you the wrong way, do not just walk away. Rather, begin to ask yourself and others why this advice irritates you, why does it hook your emotions.
Some of us, whenever we find ourselves struggling with something, we pull back, retreat and isolate. When this behavior appears in a church planter the plant generally does not make it. Others of us, run towards as much different advice as we can possibly find when we meet a difficult situation. This is the kind of person you want to be like. And here’s another gem, when the mentor’s you respect tell you to do something…just do it. I’ve discovered along the way that they generally really do know what they are talking about. Their school of hard-knocks has taught them quite a bit. And there are more than a few lessons you don’t need to learn for yourself.
Well, there is a whole lot more we could talk about, but these are four qualities that in my opinion, every church planter need to embody. What do you think?
National Coordinator, Vineyard USA Church Planting