Over the past 10 years I've had the honor of assessing, training, and speaking into the lives of hundreds of church planters here in the mid-Atlantic, and around the world. Though my current role doesn't include the oversight of church planting, I still love these God-called men and women who risk much to establish more and more outposts of God's Kingdom.
There is no mission without the church, and the church moves forward best by multiplication, which means that all who love Jesus should also love church planting. Some of the most joyous experiences of my ministry have been watching the birth of new churches.
Conversely, the most painful conversations I've had over the past decade involved conversations with planters who failed. I"m sometimes asked what I believe are the most common pitfalls of those who don't make it. My top three are below:
1. They have a vision for the church, but not for the community. In his book Winning, former GE CEO Jack Welch laments the overuse of vision and mission statements in the business world. I share these lamentations because I have seen winsome statements crafted by church planters in their training that have little to nothing to do with the area they are seeking to reach. Simply put, many church planters I talk to know how many they want to show up, they know what kind of building they want, and of course, they know what their salary should be. The problem is that these ideas are seldom expanded to include how the church system they design will impact the community around them. Rather than start with an understanding of the community, they start with inserting a foreign church system into the community.
Those tempted to define their church's vision in this way should read Bob Lewis' book The Church of Irresistible Influence. To make short a long story that is worth the read, Lewis' Fellowship Bible Church of Little Rock, AR came to the conclusion that although their attendance exceeded 3000 people every Sunday, if their church disappeared the city of Little Rock would not notice, which made their church a failure by default. The subsequent story of their efforts to become a city-impacting church is inspiring, and worthy of emulation.
Any church planting vision that is worth the paper on which its written will have an "end game" that reaches beyond the walls of a building and sees the transformation of an entire community by the Gospel.
2. They depend too much on the denominational system, The truth about denominations--and those of us who work for them--is while we can be a great help to you, we can also handicap you, especially if you depend on us too much.
This is particularly true of the guys who go "full time." The temptation is to act as an employee of the system rather than the church planting missionary God has called you to be. My most frequent recommendation to church planters is that they begin in a bi-vocational role. Intentional outside employment is good and healthy. It gets you into the community, and forces you into relationships with people who don't know Jesus. In addition, it tests your stamina and resilience. While planting a church, I worked two additional jobs while simultaneously finishing a doctorate. Needless to say, I have little tolerance for guys who think they can't do this unless they are doing it full-time.
But regardless of whether you are full-time or part-time, from day one you should refuse to see yourself as a denominational employee. To be sure, if part of a denomination, you are accountable to those who support you. At the same time, God has called you to plant a church, which means that if you are spending more time around the office than you are in the field, you aren't fulfilling your calling.
3. They have unrealistic expectations. My book Planting Churches in the Real World deals directly with this issue. Too many guys come to the field having read Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley and others, and they think they will be next in line. Subsequently, when they haven't broken the 50 barrier after their first year in the field, they feel like a failure. In addition, there are a few denominational folk out there who also make them feel like a failure, when the truth is that their plant is simply the "norm."
A few years ago, Leadership Network found that new churches whose attendance exceeds 100 after four years are a small minority. The problem is that when church planters read the stories of Northpoint and Saddleback, they forget that people love these stories because of how extraordinary they are. If you are a church planter, know that while I pray you are indeed one of those exceptions, more than likely your experience will be quite "ordinary." Just remember that throughout the Scriptures, God used ordinary people, places, and events to accomplish great things, and don't give up!