When I was first assessed as a church planter I remember people often asked me if I thought of myself as an entrepreneurial type. I believe it was a fair question.
It was fair in part because of my background. Imagine the question asked with eyebrows raised: you think you’re an entrepreneur? At that point I’d never started anything in my life besides a long sequence of degree programs. My full-time work had been as a small cog in a large university wheel that didn’t need me to keep rolling. Like most grad students, I was all too happy to keep reading and writing and teaching in the narrow lane of my chosen field, talking only to the few people who were already interested or the slightly larger crowd who were assigned to pay attention. Whatever a typical church planter may be, I didn’t fit the mold.
But that common question made sense, given my background, because of a common assumption that lies just beneath its surface. I believe we often assume church planting requires more entrepreneurial skills than other pastoral contexts. Is that a fair assumption? Should church planters be entrepreneurs?
IT CAN BE HELPFUL
Of course, the answer to that question depends on what we mean by entrepreneur. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as a “person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.” At Harvard Business School, an entrepreneur is one who pursues “an opportunity beyond resources controlled.”
These definitions come from a business context that doesn’t map exactly onto a local church context, but you can likely see why we associate church planting and entrepreneurship. Church planters set something up from scratch. They do that where they’ve identified an important opportunity, some sort of gap in what’s already available. And they often have to be comfortable making up for limited resources with their own time, sweat, creativity, and flexibility.
As a church planter, you have to be willing to do whatever needs to be done. You can’t rely on a well-oiled machine in which you have a limited role to play, doing only what you’re good at while other specialists handle everything else. Because there are no systems in place, you have to be able to plan, to see the big picture, and to recognize what steps to take in what order to reach your goals. You’ve got to deal with constant context-shifting, and you can’t be above the range of menial tasks each day might bring.
BUT IT’S NOT NECESSARY AND IT’S NOT SUFFICIENT
All that said, I’m living proof that new churches can thrive without entrepreneurial pastors. You just have to have the right leaders around you. A plurality of elders is a beautiful thing. None of us is meant to be self-sufficient, and my fellow leaders have filled out the many gaps in my own experience and instincts.
But my personal experience is almost beside the point. Being wired as an entrepreneur is not necessary first and foremost because God doesn’t say that it is. An entrepreneurial spirit isn’t on any list of biblical qualifications. It can certainly be helpful in a church planting context, but any advantage is prudential, not biblical.
You can lead a church plant and not be an entrepreneur. But you shouldn’t lead a church plant if you’re not a pastor.
After all, “church plant” is itself a bit of a misnomer. It’s a statement about chronology, not ontology. Church plants are churches, and churches don’t ultimately need entrepreneurs. They need pastors. They need someone to teach them the Bible. To counsel them toward lives worthy of the gospel. To equip them for their ministry to each other.
Of course, in frontier settings, some people need to go from place to place starting new churches, like Paul did. Maybe that’s what God has called you to. But one of Paul’s top priorities was securing pastors for the churches he planted (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). And in the meantime, both face-to-face and through his letters, he did the work of a pastor himself.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ENTREPRENEURIAL TYPES
If you’re drawn to church planting because of your entrepreneurial itch, because you enjoy the thought of a fresh start with new challenges, you’ll be vulnerable to a unique set of dangers. Here are a couple questions you should consider before you take up this work.
Why do you want to plant a church?
Entrepreneurs see opportunities in market gaps. They recognize some unmet need, some untapped demand, and they figure out how to fill the void. For some entrepreneurs, what the gap happens to be is less important than the fact that there’s a gap. One writer for Forbes.com says the entrepreneur is driven by “a primordial urge, independent of product, service, industry or market.” They’re not necessarily more drawn to one product than any other. They just love the opportunity to start something in uncharted space.
But that motive will never be enough in healthy church planting. Instead, you must be driven by a love for local churches and the specific work of leading one. If your primary motive is the thrill of a new venture, you’ll probably struggle with the mundane, long-term work your church will need, the sort of work that is the essence of pastoral ministry.
You’ll need to give in-depth attention to the details of people’s lives. Those people may not show much progress for a long time. They may not submit quickly or easily to your counsel. But this is the work of pastoral ministry in any healthy church. Perseverance over the long term, if God allows, is the path to the greatest fruit in the lives of your people; it’s also the path to your deepest joy.
What makes your new church necessary?
I’ve said that entrepreneurs see opportunities in market gaps. They develop and then offer products that aren’t available yet. That’s true in church planting, too. But we must be careful how we identify both the gap and the product we want to offer.
The only good reason to plant a church is that a specific geographical area needs more healthy churches than it already has. By “healthy church” I mean a weekly gathering where people hear and respond to God’s Word on his terms. I mean a community that brings God glory by the quality of its life together. A culture where each person takes responsibility for the discipleship of others, and where that discipleship equips and mobilizes people for ministry where God has placed them. What healthy churches share, in every time and place, is far more important than any contextual features they don’t share.
If the gap you want to fill is more specific than the healthy local church-in-general, if it’s about some innovative approach to ministry you bring to the table, then you’ll probably be emphasizing things the Bible hasn’t prescribed and God hasn’t promised to bless. And if your goal is to set your new church apart from the church down the street, then you’re going to risk divisiveness.
You may also face another temptation on this front: you may see yourself as the unique product the market is missing, the object of its untapped demand. The Oxford English Dictionary online offers one sub-category to its definition of entrepreneur: “a promoter in the entertainment industry.” My sense is this shade of meaning may be there, at least under the surface, when we insist that a church planter must also be an entrepreneur. We may believe that what a church plant needs to be successful is the right front-man, a charismatic personality as the face of the church.
But if you’re the product you choose to promote, then you’re entering a lose-lose scenario. If you fail, you’ll have no one else to blame—and if your church takes off because of you, you’ll have built it on something other than biblical community. You will have won glory for yourself, not for God.
Credit for the success of any church plant is a zero-sum game. After all, if we’re to be faithful church planters, we must agree with John the Baptist: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).