I’ve worked with a lot of church plants. And, I’ve been involved in two — as a planter. Every planter goes into the process hoping to see lives changed with the Gospel. Hoping to grow. Some work. Some don’t.
Why is that?
Well, of course, there are spiritual factors at work. Some sow seeds and others reap harvest. Sometimes God uses the plant in a unique way — that doesn’t produce huge numbers of attendees. And, frankly, sometimes the planter had no business planting. It was never really what they were called to do. It looked “exciting” from the outside — all the “cool” people are doing it, but God had a different plan for the planter’s life.
But, speaking specifically about strategic type of reasons a church plant doesn’t grow, I’ve observed a few things.
Here are 8 reasons a church plant may not grow.
You live by someone else’s rules. I’ve seen it so many times. A church plant has the rules of the denomination or an association and they simply don’t work where they are located. The plant doesn’t contextualize the structure to the culture and community around them. The exact same model won’t always work in two different church plants — even across town from each other. Principles are often transferable, but not necessarily practices.
You try to be like everyone else. This is similar to number one but has to do more with the planter. The planter has a vision but it’s someone else’s vision. They have a desire to look just like someone else they admire. Every plant needs it’s own vision birth by God in the heart of its own planter. The truth presented should be the same as every other church plant, but the style of deliverance will have some uniqueness to the planter.
You depend too much on outside funding. Rather than developing givers and volunteers from with inside the plant, the plant waits for the outside checks to come. The problem with outside funding is that it eventually disappears. It is rarely sustainable long-term. And, if not careful, the planter becomes dependent on these resources. Obviously there are exceptions. Some plants may never be able to fully fund themselves. But, in my experience, many times this problem exists because the planter has not discipled the people attending in the area of giving.
You build programs over relationships. This is a common problem I’ve seen too. A church planter enters an area, implements a few programs, and believes that people will naturally acclimate to those programs. And they may for a short time. But in the end programs will not sustain people. Relationships will.
You worry too much about structure. You’ll get there. And you need structure. But, especially in the initial days, focus more on loving a community. Then building structure. My advice, is to have some basic structure in place, but not have that structure so rigid or controlling that you can’t adapt quickly to the needs of the community. Then spend your greatest energy loving people.
You waited for them to come to you. You thought “new” would be enough. Build it they will come works in the movies. But, that doesn’t even work in established churches anymore, why would it work in church plants? The future attendees in any church are usually outside somewhere waiting to be asked. And, sometimes they don’t even know it. It’s our job to go find them.
You didn’t protect yourself and your family. We can’t count the number of church plants that never really accomplished all that they could have because the planter wasn’t healthy enough to see it through. It could be a moral failure, burnout, or a family that is falling apart under the stress of the plant. (Let me speak specifically into this one. Every planter needs mentoring, discipline and accountability. From the start. Not after the need is discovered.)
You held too tightly to your way. Church plants can recruit entrepreneurial leaders. It’s a natural attraction. Given the authority to actually lead this can be one of the most powerful benefits of the church plant. When the planter ignores this and keeps people from feeling empowered, growth is limited to the church planter’s abilities. The planter should certainly control — or maybe the word is protect — the theological foundation, but implementation of vision should be shared with others.
Those are just a few observations. As with the purpose of this blog, they are meant to be helpful. If God has called you to a church plant — plant well. I’m pulling for you.
Recently I wrote “20 Things God Might Say”. It was a popular post. All were designed to be easily tweeted with a simple copy and paste.
I thought there might be a companion post. I believe, based on Scripture, that we can trust God not to say some things — especially in these days of grace.
Here are 25 things you’ll never hear God say:
“Oh yea. I forgot about her.” #ThingsYoullNeverHearGodSay
“Well I don’t know what to do now.”
“I’m so worried.”
“I just don’t understand him.”
“Don’t call me again until you turn your life around.”
“This one’s too big for me.”
“That’ll make me love you less.”
“What did you say your name was?”
“Forgive me. I made a mistake.”
“I just need a vacation.”
“I’m so tired of being interrupted.”
“This one’s beyond me.”
“I can’t take it anymore!”
“I’m sorry, I can’t take your call right now, but if you’ll leave your name and number…”
“That little sin won’t matter.”
“I give up!”
“Since the world is changing so fast, I’m thinking about changing my ways.”
“I wish I had thought of that!”
“I need your help to make it happen.”
“I’m so confused.”
“I’m all tapped out for this month.”
“Don’t blame yourself. That one was my fault.”
“I didn’t know anything about that.”
“I’m a little behind the times.”
Any you’d add?
I was once asked to help a church process how to get younger people to attend. After we discussed some change recommendations a man pulled me aside and said, “Son, we don’t need no fancy ideas around here. We like being a small church.”
I soon learned he represented the feelings of the church as a whole. They thought they wanted to reach younger people, but the truth was — when faced with change — they were really satisfied with the church as it had been for many years.
There’s nothing wrong with being a small church. Let me say that again — There is nothing wrong with being a small church. In fact, in some communities, what is considered small is actually large by comparison to churches in larger cities. I’m not opposed to small churches, but I do have a problem with some small church mentalities.
I think there is a difference.
As long as there are lost people nearby, I believe the church has much work to do. And, any organization, Christian or secular, that refuses to accept some changes will stop growing and eventually die.
The fact is that growing a church is hard work. It’s relatively easy to keep things small or stop growth.
In fact, I can come up with lots of ways I’ve seen that keep a church from growing.
Here are a 21 ways:
- Make the entry to serving in the church lengthy or complicated
- Develop followers not leaders
- Squelch any dream except the pastor’s own
- Refuse new people a voice at the table
- Make sure everyone knows who is in charge — and it’s not Jesus
- Cast your vision — but only once
- Only do “church” inside the building
- Demand that it be done the way it’s always been done
- Give up when change is resisted
- Make excuses when things go wrong
- Quit dreaming
- Resist any organized system, strategy or plans to grow the church
- Stop praying
- Insist you have all the answers before you “walk by faith”
- Never challenge people
- Treat new people as outsiders
- Always refer to the past as the good times
- Put more energy into structure than serving
- Allow gossip to fester
- The ministerial staff does everything
- Be stingy investing in the next generation
Whenever I do a post like this I get a common — and expected — question. Well, if these are ways not to grow a church, then what are some ways to grow a church? And, that is one of the main topics I write about in other posts. But, for simplicity sake, try doing the opposite of some of these I’ve listed and see how they help the church to grow.
What am I missing? What else will keep a church from growing?
I spent most of my adult life outside vocational ministry. I’m amazed at the opportunities God has given me in ministry, but in many ways I am still a newcomer. I have just over a dozen years in this career. It’s challenging in some ways, because I see things differently from some who have only done ministry, but it also gives me a unique perspective from some pastors. I sat “in the pew” far longer than I’ve stood “behind the pulpit”.
One thing my experience has done for me, especially since I’ve become a pastor, is to help me realize how much I didn’t understand about being a pastor. Like the feeling that work is never done. Like feeling you are never really “off”. Like knowing people are going to be upset with every decision you make — and balancing whether to move forward or give into their frustration. Like the pressure of “Sunday’s coming”. (Pastors — know that one?) Like carrying the weight of everyone, but sometimes feeling you’ve got no where to share your own struggles. Stuff like that.
The “fun” stuff I didn’t know prior to being in ministry. Plus, in the business world, we handled problems so differently from how they are typically handled in ministry. A lot faster sometimes.
I also spend a lot of time investing in other pastors. It fuels me personally. I’ve learned some of their challenges. Some of their concerns. Some of their wishes.
Along the way, I’ve learned some great lessons of what it takes to build a healthy church — many I didn’t previously understand — even though I was very active in the church. Things look different looking at the church from this perspective.
So, if I were ever on the other side again — and I was back “in the pew” — I’d change a few things about myself.
Here are 10 things I’d do differently if I weren’t a pastor today:
I’d make church attendance a priority. I’d build my week around the services of the church, knowing how vital every person is to the body. I’d understand what an encouragement it is to the pastor when people give the same priority to church that they give to other places in their life.
I’d love my pastor. I mean really love my pastor. Knowing how many expectations are placed on the pastor, I’d be among the group that’s always ready to help, but, recognizing he’s only one imperfect person, not one to get my feelings hurt if the pastor didn’t do everything I hoped he would.
I’d be a generous giver. Understanding that there are really a small number who financially support the work of the church, I’d be a Kingdom investor.
I’d be an ambassador for the church. I’d use my influence in the community and where I worked to bring people to church and Christ. I’d look for people I didn’t know on Sunday mornings and try to help them acclimate to the church.
If I had a problem with the pastor, I’d talk to the pastor. Not his wife. (That’s always a bad move.) Not other church members. Certainly not the community.
I’d try to get less upset about things that impact only me — that are mostly matters of personal preference.
I would pray bold prayers for the church. Daily.
I would support the pastor and his family. I would understand he couldn’t be everywhere, and never make him feel guilty for not being where I hoped he would be.
I would smile when he preaches. I’d give visual witness that I was paying attention. I might even say “Amen” when appropriate. Oh yea..definite amens.
I would serve where needed. In fact, I’d volunteer without being asked.
Pastors, anything you’d add to my list?
I’ve often heard people say you can’t measure discipleship. I don’t know if that’s true.
It is true that you can’t necessarily put a number or percentage on discipleship growth, but you can tell — over time — if it has happened or is happening.
Here are 10 indications a church is making disciples:
Those who have been in the church the longest complain the least. - Do everything without complaining or arguing. Philippians 2:14
The leaders of the church are most likely to give up “their” seats, park further from the building, or do whatever is necessary to help the Body. – The greatest among you must be a servant. Matthew 23:11
The church celebrates most when those far from faith come to faith. In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! Luke 15:7
Members care that others needs are met more than their own. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. Philippians 2:4
The church is willing to make sacrifices to attract the lost – And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Acts 15:19
There is joy even during suffering – Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds. James 1:2
The teaching is a balance of truth and grace. Jesus came full of grace and truth. John 1:17
The financial needs of the church are funded, with people willingly sacrificing. No one begs for money. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart–not reluctantly or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7
There are no petty disputes and grudges among the people of the church. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up. 1 Thessalonians 5:11
The church takes care of each other well. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. Acts 4:34
Let’s keep this going. These are a few that come to my mind. There are others. Prayer. Forgiveness. I’d love to post again — maybe “21 Indications a Church is Making Disciples”. Add one of your own in the comments. (And, give your Bible reference.) I may choose yours for my next post.
I have a strong word of encouragement to the introverted pastor.
Be extroverted on Sunday.
You can do it.
Every time I post about introversion I hear from pastors and church members who talk about how introversion negatively impacts the ministry of the church.
I get it. I really do. In fact, I am it. On a scale of 1 to 10 of introversion — if there were such a scale — I’m probably a 7 or 8. And, I can be a 9 some days. So, I understand.
But, the interaction we have with people is a key role we play in growing and leading the church. I’ve written in numerous posts that just because I’m introverted doesn’t mean I don’t love people. There may be some pastors who don’t really love people — and I personally don’t see how they can be very successful if that’s the case — but introversion is a personality trait. It’s not an indicator of how deeply a person loves people.
I love people. Really. Especially people who are excited about what God is doing in their life. That motivates me. My introversion, however, if I’m not careful, can keep me from interacting even with people I love.
If you asked most people in the churches where I have served as pastor, other than those who know me really well, they are surprised I am an introvert based on my Sunday interactions with people. I’m very extroverted on Sundays.
So how do I do it?
Here are a few thoughts.
You have to be intentional. You have to work at it. I’m not saying it will be easy, but is anything worthwhile ever easy? I realize that Sunday is coming. I plan my week around it. I have lots of introverted during my week. For example, I am very careful what I plan for Saturday night, because I know I need to be at my best for Sunday. It is rare for me to schedule a large social gathering on Saturday nights, for example. In fact, I’ve found that Cheryl and my Saturday date days are the perfect preparation for an extroverted Sunday. (Obviously that’s easier for us now as empty-nesters, but I was equally protective of my Saturday night when we had children at home.)
Your family will have to cooperate. This is the hardest one, because it obviously involves other people. The key for us is that my family knows me as I know them. They understand that Sunday takes so much out of me mentally and physically. They realize I need time to recover from a very extroverted Sunday. The ride to the restaurant for Sunday lunch is usually pretty quiet. Over the years, when the boys were home and now that it’s just Cheryl and me, my family has learned that if I have my introverted recovery time I’m more engaging with them the rest of the day. It is a way they partner with me in ministry. (I sense a need to clarify. My family understands my introversion — but I don’t think they ever feel slighted because of it. That takes intentionality too.)
Realize it’s for a purpose. When I taught a very large Sunday school class (over 100 people), every week I’d leave the room as I was praying at the close of my lesson. It seemed the humble thing to do, and I was sincere in that, but honestly, it was the “safest” approach for this introvert. When I came into ministry and was in my first church, I continued this practice. I would “escape” during my prayer to the back of the sanctuary. A dear older deacon pulled me aside one day. He gently, in a very helpful way, said, “Ron, if as you’re praying you’ll walk to the vestibule and be there to shake people’s hands as they leave, they’ll be more likely to return the next week.” I’ve been doing that ever since — and how right he was. One of the most frequent comments I receive from visitors is how they enjoyed meeting the pastor. I can’t imagine it any other way now. It fuels me and them. I remain thankful for the wisdom of that deacon.
Rely on Holy Spirit help. The pastor that inspired me most in my spiritual walk when I was a 20-something year old trying to figure out my life direction emailed me recently. He had read one of my introversion posts and wanted to echo the sentiments in it. He said he has always marveled at how many introverted pastors he has seen God call to lead in the church — even very large churches. He wrote, “I’ve been an introverted pastor of large churches for 39 years now. Before every service I’m saying the same thing, ‘God, I can’t do this—now what are you going to do about that?!'” His humble surrender to God’s hand has shaped some powerful ministries under his leadership. I loved being able to email back to one of my mentors that I’ve had a similar prayer every Sunday — for a few less years.
Just as Moses, Gideon, and others led through what they felt would handicap them in following God’s call, introverted pastor, you can do this. With God’s help, an understanding family, and some hard, purposeful, intentional work — if God has called you to it, He will equip you. Surrender to His strength and will.
And, the reward is worth it!