If you pay any attention to the land of church planting, you’ll quickly begin to wonder if business mogul Jim Collins has taken control of its command center. Phrases like “customer-to-owner,” “church launch,” “preview services,” and “entrepreneurial” have become ubiquitous, whereas those wonderfully powerful phrases we hear from Paul—“ambition to preach the gospel,” “shepherd the flock of God among you,” “preach the Word!”—seem to have been forgotten.
This is unfortunate, because what’s needed to plant a church isn’t the wisdom of Jim Collins, but the gospel of Jesus Christ and the word that testifies to that gospel. A cheap shot, I know, but listen—if we’re going to enjoy the pleasure of God in planting a church, then we have to ignore whatever practices of men that promise to gather crowds quickly and instead mine the depths of God’s Word in order to build a people intentionally.
Below I offer three principles we should all consider so that we might plant churches for the infinite pleasure of God’s glory over and against our own profit.
Bible Not Business
God’s Word is sufficient, even for church planting. Whatever practices we need to give ourselves to are right there in the Bible, so long as we take the time to see them.
Discipleship, membership, preaching, discipline, elders, deacons, ordinances—all these things are spoken of plainly in the Bible. Each of them is a good gift from God that functions like a prong to fasten the church to the very same gospel she’s called to proclaim and protect. In other words, things like membership and elders aren’t just features we work into a plant after we’ve gathered a crowd; they’re necessary ingredients that make up the compelling community that illustrates the character of God to a watching world.
The average church planting book gives little attention to describing and understanding what a church actually is. With good intentions, no doubt, these books often encourage church planters to prioritize profitability, such that “success” means getting as many people into the room as quickly as possible so they can attend your service. Usually, biblical markers for defining a church as a people—holy, set apart from the world—is at best a distant voice. Sometimes, it’s not heard at all.
What is a church? Why does the church exist? What has God told us will mark his people? What should be taught? Who should lead? What should these leaders look like? What is success? The Bible has careful instructions on all of these things, which means it’s more than sufficient to be our church planting guide.
Pastors Not Presidents
We may be familiar with Jesus’ last words to his disciples, but what are the last words of that great church planter, the Apostle Paul? “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Paul pleaded with these pastors to be shepherds who care, who love the flock that Jesus spilt his own blood to save.
Planters should not be entrepreneurs beginning a lemonade stand for Jesus. They should be pastors who gently handle the sheep of Christ and passionately push the glorious news of the gospel to places and people yet unnamed.
Visitors and church members should know we’re not in it for a bigger platform. Instead, our lives should communicate our care for their souls. People can find magnetic and tantalizing personalities who are devoted to a specific good or service anywhere, but the church should offer something different. People are tired of being gamed for other people’s profits. They want physicians who listen, honest car mechanics, politicians who get their hands dirty, and baristas who know their name. It’s hard to find those kinds of leaders in the world, but people interested in the gospel should be able to find integrity in any leader of Christ’s church.
Let’s stop all these questions about being “entrepreneurial” and let’s ask more questions about whether or not prospective planters love and care for their wives and their kids. Let’s ask them about the last time they got a phone call late in the evening and they took it, gladly, because they wanted to serve those in trouble with the gospel. Let’s ask planters if they’d be content with a little so that the Lord might entrust them with a lot.
Relationships Not Rivals
Before we chose to plant a church in Washington DC, not only did we talk to denominational leaders, we also—and more importantly—talked to godly people who actually lived here and were working. We did this for a few reasons.
First, we wanted to respect those who were already here. Secondly, in light of that, we wanted to hear from them if there were any gaps in the city that we could fill with a healthy, gospel-preaching church. We didn’t want to preach the gospel where Christ had “already been named” (Rom. 15:20). Our lives are short, and the Lord has entrusted a lot to us. So we made it a priority to go to an underserved place, no matter whether or not it was a known or popular city. In fact, we actually had a couple other cities on our radar that we pulled away from because it seemed a lot of good work was going on there and it was going to be difficult to find a spot.
I see CVSs, Walgreens, and Rite Aides popping up everywhere—right on top of one another—in order to try and take the market share as rivals. Unfortunately, I sometimes notice the same thing happening among church planters.
Instead of building relationships, they listen only to their own camp, like a denominational leader who doesn’t reside there but has “jurisdiction.” Other church planters don’t even ask questions about oversaturation because they assume every city is under-served and in need of their help.
But look at the Apostle Paul. One of his great joys was the fellowship he had with other churches. We miss out on that when we see others as rivals instead of family members to love, serve, and learn from.
Indeed, one of my greatest pleasures in church planting planting has been partnering together with a family of churches in the same city, “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). We work together, not apart. The more we talk and listen to one another across denominational lines, the more the gospel fans out across the world, rather than pile up in one place.