Personal Things I Learned While Church Planting
In 1987, when I was 18-years old and still in high school, a friend approached me with a wild idea.
Why don’t we plant a church?
Now, when I was 18, I thought I could do anything! I was young and passionate and adventurous. I was, and continue to be, filled with a God-inspired vision for a Spirit-filled, Bible-believing, disciple-making, missional church.
So, for the next 7 years, we threw everything we had into church planting.
My friend became the senior pastor, and I served as the associate pastor, with a focus on youth and young adults. Together, along with many others over the years, we gave so much of our lives to planting this new church in Western Sydney.
From the ages of 18 to 26, church planting was my life. I worked a fulltime job to support myself, but, along with my friend, gave ever spare moment and ounce of energy into planting this church in Sydney.
In 2004, at the age of 26, after 7 years of church planting, I decided to step out of my role in this church plant, so that I could go and get training at theological college.
I was tired. I felt underprepared theologically and pastorally. I needed to get training, and recharge and retool for a lifetime of ministry and service.
It was a good decision. My experience in church planting made my years at theological college much richer and more meaningful. And my training at theological college has further launched me into pastoral leadership, writing books, and leading within an Australian theological college.
In this blog, I reflect on some of the lessons I learned while church planting.
These are just my lessons. They may not even reflect the feelings of the rest of our church planting team. And, I suppose writing them down is cathartic for me.
I won’t pretend my 7-years of church planting compare with the experience of those who’ve done church planting longer-term.
But church planting was so demanding, so difficult, so exciting, so painful, so joyous, so all-consuming, that I feel the need to reflect on some lessons I learned.
Some Personal Lessons from Church Planting
Here are some personal things I learned while church planting.
Church planting isn’t about church planting.
It’s about discipleship, love, mission, gospel, and the kingdom of God. My neighborhood doesn’t need another church. It needs a community of disciples, who join in the mission of God, who commit to a distinct life together, and who love their neighborhood and their neighbors.
Church planting is many competing experiences and feelings at once.
It’s exciting and terrifying, fun and tedious, inspiring and deflating, growing and declining, relational and lonely, pioneering and shepherding, meaningful and heartbreaking, and so much more.
Church planting often makes you feel like you are out of your depth, out of your comfort zone, and out of your mind.
You try so many things that fail. Some succeed. You take so many risks. Some pay off, and some are a disaster. You wonder whether you’re out of your mind, but you keep trying anyway, clutching to the vision God has placed in your heart, your love for God’s people, and your passion for your neighborhood.
Church planting makes you feel like an imposter.
Somewhere deep inside, you wonder whether people will discover that you’re not up to the task. You don’t have the skills, the vision, the training, the temperament, or the wisdom. And everyone is on the verge of finding this out. You’re not an imposter. So, the Spirit keeps challenging you on this insecurity. He invites you into a different sense of self, and into an identity rooted in Christ. The Spirit keeps whispering, “Will you let this go and trust in me?”
Church planting needs a community of disciples, a community of leaders, a community of neighbors, and a community of churches.
These three things are necessary for a church plant to thrive (and each is an interconnected community): disciples, leaders, and neighbors.
Church plants need a community of disciples, who celebrate the Lord’s Supper, pray, fast, read Scripture, share communal meals, share economic resources, and serve each other and their neighbors.
Church plants need a community of leaders, who release us from thinking one or two people can build a church. This community of leaders expresses the fivefold gifts: pioneers, prophets, shepherds, teachers, and pastors.
Church plants need a community of neighbors, who remind us that God was working in their neighborhood long before we arrived, and he’ll be here long after we’re gone. Our neighbors help us see the kingdom of God among us. We join with our neighbors in discovering God’s presence, reconciliation, hope, love, and restoration.
Church plants need a community of churches, who connect us into the broader Body of Christ. We need this community of churches and their leaders—supporting us, standing with us, cheering us on, admonishing us, and helping us see our place in a bigger picture.Church planting is joining with our neighbors in discovering God’s presence, hope, and love. Click To Tweet
Church planting is about the dismantling of dichotomies.
Sacred/secular, evangelism/justice, pastoral/planting, etc. None of these dichotomies makes sense after a while, and you realize that if you don’t let them go they’ll derail and disfigure the community.
Church planting is about praying like you’ve never prayed before.
You are so out of your depth, you have so many needs, and you’re so dependent on God, that you start praying and fasting like crazy. You come to understand, in a practical and tangible way, that you are utterly dependent on God and on prayer.
Church planting depends on hospitality.
It feels like people enter every part of your life. You either embrace a deeper commitment to hospitality and welcome, with appropriate boundaries, or you’re in deep trouble. You discover that everything depends of hospitality: community, worship, mission, discipleship, leadership, witness, and more. This isn’t a one-way hospitality. People (in the church and the neighborhood) welcome you and embrace you in humbling, astonishing ways. You discover the centrality of hospitality to life, faith, community, and witness.In church planting, I discovered that everything depends on mutually dependent hospitality. Click To Tweet
Church planting is about reflective engagement.
In church planting, you discover how interconnected action, community, theology, and mission are. Each deepens and relies on the other. Action and reflection go hand in hand, and those who don’t seek to make the most of that quickly get into trouble.
Church planting is about holy discontent.
You are restless with the status quo. And you keep asking God to help you bring change and hope and renewal. This holy discontent burns in your heart and shapes so much of what you do and how you pray and speak and act.
Church planting makes you realize how dependent you are on others.
Want to discover how inadequate, unprepared, ill-equipped, and broken you are? Plant a church. This is why church planters need training, support, encouragement, connection with other planters, coaching, and mentoring. This support needs to come from established churches, other church planters, training groups, denominational bodies, and more. What do you discover you need? Advocacy, friendship, feedback, encouragement, training, finance, peer-to-peer conversations, accountability, resources, partnerships, and more.
Church planting helps you discover the power of stories.
For me, it was a revelation to discover the power of story. What I realized, is that my story, the church plant’s story, the neighborhood’s story, the culture’s story, and God’s story all intersect and inform and shape each other. Church planting made me think a lot about the power of these interdependent stories.
Church planting takes a pioneering, apostolic, entrepreneurial spirit.
We often think of this as a “maverick” spirit. But it’s not. The apostolic, pioneering types in Scripture weren’t isolated mavericks. They served in team. They joined in a community of apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists. They welcomed accountability and obligation. And they took risks, broke new ground, pioneered new communities, and refused to be constrained by small thinking. Pioneers aren’t mavericks, but they are ground-breakers, and they are crucial to the future of the church. And they often engage in social and business entrepreneurship. They often combine church planting with bivocational life, fundraising, and launching startups and charities and other kinds of organizations.Pioneers aren’t mavericks, but they're ground-breakers & crucial to the future of the church. Click To Tweet
Church planting tests and deepens your trust in God.
You struggle for money. You feel out of your depth. You worry about your family. You feel like you’re taking three steps forward, then two steps back. And you learn to trust God. At its heart, church planting is about learning to pray and to trust.
Church planting is like sailing.
You are constantly maneuvering the vessel with the wind. Together, as a community, you are constantly discerning what the Spirit is saying to you through meals, prayer, service, neighboring, Eucharist, Scripture, culture, suffering, and more. You can’t be rigid or inflexible or too set on one course. You need to tack with the wind of the Spirit.
Church planting is a team sport, not an individual sport.
Charismatic, dynamic, talented, individualistic, egotistical, narcissistic, and extraordinarily gifted people don’t make great church planters. Great church planters embrace a confident humility. They understand that the health, vitality, and mission of the church depends on team, community, humility, relationship, and, most importantly, love.
Church planting is about learning to have open ears and eyes.
For me, it was about learning to hear and to see. What is God doing? What is he saying? Where is he leading? How is he present in my neighborhood? Where are the signs of hope in my city and neighborhood? What are my neighbors doing and saying and hoping and feeling? How can I hear and see?
Church planting needs large doses of play.
After a while, I was tried and overworked. I forgot how to play. I’ve come to the conclusion that long-term, sustainable ministry requires large doses of play. All the talk about self-care feel a bit boring to me at times. But I’ll take play any day!
Church planting depends on imagination.
There is where beauty, art, literature, theology, creation, architecture, stories, films, and more come in. Healthy church planting requires fertile imaginations. Without imagination, how do we creative, innovate, pioneer, and find beauty and meaning.Church planting needs large does of play, imagination, courage, and love. Click To Tweet
Church planting is deeply relational.
Here’s the thing. No church plant will survive without deep friendships, healthy marriages, careful parenting, intentional neighboring, and a multitude of other relationships. This is one of the most relational vocations and calls one can imagine. A ferocious commitment to relationships is critical to church planting.
Church planting shows you the power of forgiveness.
I made many mistakes. I hurt people. I broke promises. I didn’t act with integrity. I showed terrible leadership.
But, I also did many things well. I helped people. I kept promises. I sought God’s help. I tried hard to show the true nature of Christlike Christian leadership.
In all of this, I learned the power of forgiveness. I saw the extent of people’s grace, patience, love, and hope.
Church planting is a very personal experience and story.
Some experiences are common to all church planters. Many experiences and stories are deeply personal and unique. We all need safe spaces, to tell these stories, and encourage and support each other.
Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.
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