How to Plant a Church, Not a Service

Six years ago I used to meet regularly with eleven other church planters in the Birmingham area. Of those eleven other pastors, ten are no longer in ministry. That's pretty astounding. Four left due to moral failure. Four churches just died. Some others moved away. But, you would have never thought that at the time. You would have looked around and thought, "These are very capable people who love the Lord; very bright-eyed and excited about what God was calling them to do." And then they just one-by-one started dropping until we looked around and, "We’re one of the only ones left."

Now, it's not because I think Redeemer did many things that right, I mean, it was the Lord’s favor. He spared us from a lot of things. I made a lot of the same mistakes as these other church planters made, and for some reason we were able to survive those. But church planting is hard. It is extremely hard. It's joyful, but it's hard. So I’m writing to you not as a “Master Planter” or because there was twelve of us and I'm the one who survived; therefore I want you to learn from my wisdom.” No, not at all. I don't come to you as a “Master Planter.” I've made mistakes and I hope you can learn from those mistakes. We've had some successes and I hope you can learn from those as well. I simply want to share some of the things that we have learned over the last seven years in planting.

Not Planting a Service, Planting a Church

The question I want to answer is this: How are you to plant a church instead of just planting a service? And, the reason that I want to answer this is because I think a lot of pastors go into church planting, but really their heart is that they just want to put together a really good worship service. That's really where their heart is.

How are you to plant a church instead of just planting a service?

For instance, you might be passionate about expositional preaching and having really good preaching, and so you want to start a church. But, if all you want is your own pulpit, that is a horrible reason to plant a church. There are plenty of other pulpits out there that you can go to, but don't plant a church just so you can have your own. Or if you're passionate about good liturgy or good music, don't plant a church in order to have that.  Instead, find a church that you can plug into and be a part of that because church planting is so much more than just having the desire or the ability to plan and to prepare for what makes a really good worship service. You are not an event planner; you're a church planter, and these are two very different things. Now, planning a good worship service is of course going to be a part of church planting, but for those of you who have just started church planting or are thinking about it, you are gonna be surprised by how little of your time is actually devoted to that.

In our early years of a church plant, I spent more time cleaning up than “church planting.” I spent more time cleaning toilets, more time vacuuming, more time moving furniture around when it was meeting at our house, and moving furniture outside every Sunday, clearing our house of furniture, then having to move it all back in the next day, more time trying to cook meals for people, trying to find babysitters (which can take an enormous amount of time!), etc.  And then, you would think, "Oh gosh, now I gotta plan a service!" There is just so much more involved in church planting than what's sexy. And so, make sure that you're not just excited about putting a good service together, but that God has really called you to start and grow something new. 

The Number One Thing

Let me ask you a question. What do you think is absolutely necessary in order for you to plant a church? What is necessary? What are the essentials? That's a very probing question for you to consider. Years back I was speaking at another church and a man in his twenties approached me about his calling to church plant and how he was hoping to be able to plant this church within a couple years, but first he was still trying to raise money in order to get the plant started. So I responded, "How much money are you trying to raise?" He said, "Well, you know you can't plant a church unless you raise 70,000 dollars." And he was very specific about this number, and I said, "Well, what's the 70,000 dollars for?" He goes, "Well, you have to have branding and a website. Branding and a website you just can't do for under 70,000." And he was dead serious about this.

Hear me, I don't want to put down the need for a good website; it's the front door of your church in our day. And I don't want to put down branding or $70,000. But, is that what is absolutely necessary in order to plant a church? Is that what Paul went around doing, "I gotta get the $70,000. I gotta get the branding." He says, “We're the scum of the earth.” Imagine that logo!  Branding is necessary for a business, but it's not necessary for a church.

Write this down. The number one thing that you need in order to plant a church is this: unchurched people. You need to be around unchurched people. There need to be non-Christians or maybe Christians who have fallen off the map and aren't plugged into a church, and if you're around those people then that's a good place to start a church. That's what is needed.

Unchurched people will come to your church not because of your branding, not because of a logo, not because of a great website, or any kind of mail-out, or flier. They're gonna come if they're personally invited. Now, those who are already part of a church and are maybe unhappy or grumbling, they might look at your branding, and your logo, and all that stuff and they might come. And if that happens, all you have done is shuffle sheep around, but you have not started a new herd.

And let me me tell you what, if you were to look at the church planting history in Birmingham, that is largely what it is - shuffling of sheep around to all different pastures, but there's been no new herds. And so, we're trying to bring in new sheep here. If you bring in discontent and grumbling sheep from other churches, and that's who you're pulling in as your core, then after the honeymoon stage is over you are in for a train wreck  because those people will be gone. You don't want to start your church with people who are discontented or people who are noncommittal. They're gonna leave your church just like they left the other one. Now I now realize early on, that beggars can't be choosers. You're just desperate for anybody to come through your doors. But you want the right people! Don't be scared to send people away. (If) People come to your church from another church, ask them, "Why are you coming? Why are you coming? I really think you should stay where you are and get plugged in there."

One of the larger churches here in Birmingham got started not by trying to develop a new herd but by branding. I was working at another church, and they took our church’s e-mail list and e-mailed everybody in our church inviting them to their service. That's how they got started. That's not church planting; that's church assaulting! That's kidnapping people. Don't do that, because then the non-Christians are going to sit around thinking, "Is that all churches do? Cannibalize one another?" That doesn't preach the gospel.

Here are six things that I would like to encourage you with when thinking through church planting. They have nothing to do with planning a service, nothing to do with your preaching, nothing to do with music, nothing to do with your liturgy, but they're equally important. Here they are.

Nobody gets the church they want

This might be one of the most important. You need to realize that nobody gets the church they want. Nobody. That's the first thing I told our people when they were gathered together in our living room that first time, and they were so excited that they were finally gonna get to be a part of this new church and stuff. First thing I said was, "Guys, I want you to listen to me. Nobody here gets the church they want. I am planting this church and I'm not gonna get the church I want, all right? Because I have no idea what the Lord's going to do in our midst.  So what we’re going to do is pray right now that God gives us the church we need. And we’ve got to confess that we don't even know what that is right now.” And let me tell you that as Redeemer began growing, it definitely was not the kind of church that I would have thought, "That's exactly what I want to be doing." But now, as I look back on these last seven years, it is exactly the church I have needed in my growth. God gave me what I needed, but not what I wanted.

Build a firm foundation

Second, do not focus on numbers. As a matter of fact, I would encourage you to start small. Start as small as possible. Satan can destroy a church a number of ways, but he's really narrowed it down in the last 2,000 years. His two most effective ways are these: 1) he's either going to get nobody to come to your church or 2) he's going to get everybody to come to your church. It's likely going to be one of those two things. That is how Satan likes to destroy churches at the start.

Planting a church? Start as small as possible.

(If you) try to start large by having an enormous launch — maybe trying to get 100 people there for the first time or something like that — a type of grand opening event if you will, then just be careful. I'm not saying that it can't work, but just be careful because this will bring with it so many issues. Who are your leaders? How will the people who come be discipled? If you're larger than what can meet in your house, then where are you going to go? Where are you all going to meet?

Think about building a church just like you would build a house. When you build a house, you're not already thinking about the additions, you're not thinking about the renovations. When you start building a house, you're thinking about the foundation. You just want to make sure you lay a really good foundation, and it takes a lot of time to do that, and once that good foundation (which is slow process) is laid then you can start building out. But, focus on small and laying that good foundation.

After three years at Redeemer, we had seventy people. Seventy hard, fought after, sought after, meet in coffee houses, bringing in, exhausting yourself trying to find seventy people! Last week, at Redeemer, we had about 500, but the foundation was there. It took a long time of going slow and concentrating on that before the Lord opened us up to larger numbers. And, I loved those early years when I would be able to look out, and if we had a new person I instantly knew who they were. I knew they'd be sitting next to the person who brought them. All of our growth was relational growth, which is so instrumental when you're planting a church. 

Invest in your leaders

Number three: invest in your leaders. As soon as possible, identify elders. Now, I realize that early on you might be lacking in both the quantity of available men and the quality of available men, but it's something that you should do as soon as possible.

Think about Paul. He would go into a place and be there a month and he's already establishing elders. These people had never heard the gospel. It can be done. When we started Redeemer, within weeks I identified three guys and I asked if they would be provisional elders. They weren’t officially elders, but I told them I would call them “provisional elders” and ask them to do this for the next year. I put a time limit on it. I said, "Just a year." Maybe you could say, "Every three years you rotate out." Don't worry you can always adjust that. If they're good, you keep them. But, this way it gives you an out. If they're really bad elders, well they're gone in a year.

And when I think back on the guys we chose, they were just kids! Not literally - they were actually men, but they were kids compared to who they are now. God grew them just like he grew our church.

Now the first thing I would do with these guys is I would meet with them outside on Sundays and I would go through theological training. We had our long theological statement that we had written up, and I went through it with them line by line so these guys understood it and would be able to teach it. I picked guys who were not like me. Actually, I picked guys who were really, really not like me; guys who could oppose me, who were vocal about things that they might not like about me. And, I brought these guys in early on into just about every single decision I made. That was one of the most valuable things I did. I brought them into every single financial decision I made in the first year.

So, they were involved in all the big things. Example - Right when we started the church I said, "When it's time, you guys set my salary." I didn't get paid by the church for the first nine months, but when it came time I was like, "Y'all set my salary. I have nothing to do with it”, and I never have since. And then, I got them involved in the smaller things. I would ask them, "Can I get a computer? Do you want me to get Mac? Do you want me to get a PC? It's up to you guys. Can we buy some folding chairs? Can I buy some books in order for me to study or do you want me to go to the library and just check them out." Every. Little. Thing. "Can I have money to go to the coffee houses to meet with people? Can I have money for lunch?" I brought them in on every single thing and they would tell me what I could spend money on and what I couldn't.

I remember one of our bigger purchases was a keyboard. We sat around for two weeks, discussing and debating, because it was about $2,000 dollars. Early on as a church we asked, "Is this something we should buy?” “Well, I don't know.”  “We're gonna use it 52 times a year, but it'll pay out. And if we're here around for five years, well gosh, that's using over 250 times." And as they're talking about all of this stuff, I'm just letting them decide. It was a good purchase, and it was their decision. I brought them into financial decisions, then I would also bring them into pastoral decisions and issues. I would let them know about the counseling needs in the church, the evangelism needs. I would send them after people instead of me going after people.

Early on, we would have some married couples who were in trouble. And after I would meet with them I would say, "You really need to get together with this couple here." And I would trust the Lord in that. That way the elders weren't always looking at me. I began turning their focus outward to where they were starting to be shepherds for the people, not looking to me for everything. I would constantly run sermon ideas by them. What do you think about the structure of the service? What do you think about how we run our nursery? Should we have a nursery? I would be open to them about my personal struggles. In all of these things, I'm just inviting them into every single decision.

Why?  Why did I do this?  I did this for a number of reasons and I really would encourage you to do so as well. One reason, is accountability. You need to guard yourself. You really need to guard yourself. They guarded me; they held me accountable. Two, it gave them ownership. This was now their church and not just the church they attended.  This is what they were now a part of. Third, it gave them an understanding for everything that is necessary in the church.  As a result, 3-4 years later, they're not surprised by expenses; they're not surprised by what it takes when you have to pay for different babysitters or when you have to buy certain things because these elders have been seeing these expenses from the very beginning. It gave them great understanding of what's involved in running the church. And finally, I did it for the health of the church. It makes your church healthy; if you don't invest in leaders early, you are going to build a church that is built around your personality.

Your goal as a church planter is within three to five years for you to be able to be hit by a bus and your church goes on and thrives without you.

Your goal as a church planter is within three to five years for you to be able to be hit by a bus and your church goes on and thrives without you. I'm not saying that the goal is to be hit by a bus, but it should be a goal that it can function without you. But if you're making every decision, and everything is running through you, how can it? And I can encourage you with this -God will grow up these men in a hurry. Trust that.  He will. He'll grow them up in a hurry. This is one of the reasons I love church planting: God unleashes gifts in people that you could not imagine. They grow up so quick. When you plant a church, yes, you're gonna have a ton of needs, but trust that God will equip the people he brings. He will equip those leaders to meet those needs.

Two final things about choosing your elders. Ideally, you would like to find elders that are highly qualified, and are very capable with high character. But, you might have a shortage of people who have high character and who are also capable, and I would say if you had to choose between the two; something we've decided to do is choose character over capable. Pick people who have a high character not just people who have a lot of gifts. Don't pick somebody who's a fantastic teacher, but might be arrogant, or pushy, or used to getting their own way. Pick somebody who is humble, highly esteemed by those around them, a person of high character.

Second, pick elders who will demonstrate hospitality. It's one of those gifts or one of those qualifications for elders in Titus and 1 Timothy that they need to be hospitable, but it's one of those things we often overlook. But it is one of the key gifts your elders need to be using in planting a church because you and your wife are going to be having so many dinners. Your house will now an event house, okay? It's no longer yours. You're just gonna be having so many people over for dinner. Since starting Redeemer, my wife and I have had over 500 people over for dinner; easily over 500. I was writing this and I was like, "I think I could put a thousand. But, I'm just gonna cut it in half and say 500 people over for dinner." It gets tiring. And by getting elders who are hospitable, they can start doing that for you. You don't have to have every new person into your church over to your house. They start having them into their house.

And let me tell you - this guards your wife not just physically from having to constantly host, but mostly emotionally. The people who you usually invite over will be a visiting couple or individual to your church, and you will pour out your heart to them over dinner. You tell them about the church. You’re trying to bring them in. And then...they leave; they don't stay. Anybody who has church planted knows this is the constant activity of a church planter. And your wife takes it so much harder than you do. My wife will attest to this. In some ways, she feels like she failed; that somehow it was a rejection of us that these people left the church and went some place else. And, when it happens over, and over, and over again, you find yourself getting hardened to it. So, you want to spread that out with your elders; make sure they're hospitable people. 

Don’t have a vision

Number four is this: hold your vision loosely; better yet, don't have a vision at all. Hold your vision loosely. If you’re a church planter you will know that the number one question you are asked when you meet with somebody for coffee, or lunch, or have them over for dinner is this: What's your vision? Besides the questions that sound like, "So, what do you do for a living?" Or "How do you make money?" The “What's your vision for the church?” question is one you are seemingly asked at every single meeting.

Now when that question is asked, my advice is this: resist the urge to give them a really concrete, narrow answer. And here's why: in the early days you have NO IDEA what the vision for your church is. You just don't. Until God begins bringing people in who are going to shape that. You don't know if God is gonna flood your church with rich people, poor people, black people, white people, Hispanic people, people from the suburbs, people from the city. You have no idea. And you don't know the giftings of the people that God's going to bring, why would you set a vision that's in this direction when God gives you people who are all gifted another way? Don't do it. You might be a church who is flooded with a bunch of artists, musicians. Or you might be a church flooded with accountants. You could have two totally different personalities. Be patient. If you cast a specific vision too early, it is going to pigeonhole you, and you might also quench the Spirit.

Your church planting ‘vision’ is likely going to be reactionary to your past church experiences.

For instance, you might want the vision for your church to be, "We're the downtown church that crosses racial boundaries, while ministering to the homeless. That is who we are." And you're going to pound that into the people in your church plant. But what if, just what if you have no homeless people? They're either all black or all white. What if you don't have that? All the sudden, what the people God's brought to you doesn't at all match the vision you've been casting. And this has happened. Some have been in churches where this has happened, in which the church has had to shift visions two or three years in, and it completely destroys the church. Too many of my church planting friends have had churches implode because they have tried to change their vision one year into the plant because they weren't getting the people that they originally thought they would get.

Another reason you shouldn't set a vision so concretely so early is, your vision is likely going to be reactionary to your past church experiences. And it's likely going to be reactionary to the other churches around the area where you're planting. It might be dressed up in some positive language, but basically you're going to say, "Our vision is to not be that. Our vision is not to be like the church I grew up in." And, you don't want to have a vision that's just reactionary. Trust me, when you're just starting off, that is what shapes you. It shaped me more than I wanted to confess or admit, and God showed me looking back how much it was really shaping me. Much of what I viewed as “church” was really reactionary to my past experiences or to the churches around me.

The ‘vision’ you should cast is the gospel.

The vision you should cast is the gospel. The gospel works in any context and it works with any people. The gospel is going to transform hearts. It's going to shape your church to be the people that God desires them to be. This gospel is not helping the homeless. It is not racial reconciliation. It is not reaching out to artists or reaching out to the accountants. It's the gospel that needs to be the foundation of your church because if you decide something else needs to be the foundation or something else really needs to be the vision that you keep pushing, you very well might be a church that's based on works and not on grace and the gospel. And along with this preaching of the gospel, you need to both expect and to preach that the Holy Spirit will cast your vision. He's going to be your guide. A real vision is caught by the church and not just taught. See what God blows your way.

Make missions part of your DNA

Number five: make missions part of your DNA. If you want evangelism and world missions to be a part of your church you’ve got to start at the very beginning. You have to plant those seeds early and not wait. I say that as someone who isn’t an idealist. I realize, from experience, that this is going to be a great sacrifice for many. In our first four years as a church, we didn't save any money for the possibility of having a building someday. We never met budget during our first four years. In our our second or third year, our staff had to decide “Do we keep an office or do we keep supporting our missionaries?” We gave up our office. We said, "We're not going to pay rent for an office." We were the vagabonds. We just had to find places to work because we gave up our office. It wasn't easy, but we wanted from the very start to model sacrificial giving towards missions for our congregation.

Let me ask you, what does it say to your church if you decide to wait to give to missions until after you have found your building, after you've got your good offices, after you've bought your new sound system, your nice new projector? What is says to them is this: "Okay, Pastor. You're asking me to give to missions, but first I need to get my dream house. First, I can get all the furniture I want. I could get a state of the art entertainment system. I could get all these things, and once I am provided for, then I will start to give to missions." Demonstrate early on that those things are not necessary.

I love that our first couple years as a church we didn't have a digital projector. We found an overhead projector at a garage sale, the kind where you had to manually switch transparencies, for five dollars. That's what we used for our first couple of years. It still puts words on the screen, okay? We're doing that instead of buying a nice $1,000 one because we wanted to use that as a teaching tool for our church. I was like, "This was $5 and we gave $995 to missions. I just want you to know early on where our priorities are in this just to try to model.” And it was interesting that this beat up projector kinda became a symbol at our church for how we were going to do things and where we were going to put our money.

Don’t get angry

Number six. Do not get angry with your attendees or your staff for not understanding or seeing all of the needs at your church. It's taken me awhile to get here. I've failed at this A LOT.  When you are a planter, you see everything that needs to happen. Everything! You notice the place in the carpet that wasn't vacuumed. You notice if a certain flier wasn't put out or a sign-up sheet for something. You notice every little thing. Well, you know what? That's because you're the planter! Guard yourself against getting really angry at either your staff or your members for not noticing those things as well. A bitterness can start to creep in if we’re not careful. But our people don't see those things. As the planter you are going to be the one that sees and notices all those things. So, ask God to give you extraordinary grace in that. 

Enjoy every season

Church planting is like parenting: The days are long, but the years are short. Enjoy every season.

Finally, enjoy every season. Church planting is like parenting. The days are long, but the years are short. You're going to have long days, and then you're going to look back and be like, "Oh my goodness, where'd the years go?" Enjoy every season. As I look back through our years at Redeemer, every season was special, though I didn't appreciate it as much at the time.

When we were meeting in our house, it was just so beautiful. And then, when we spent two years meeting in a gym, I look back at that fondly. I didn't appreciate it at the time. It was a special season. Enjoy every single season as God is growing this and moving you forward.