The Death of a Church Plant – 7 Ways to Avoid it

It’s not that difficult to kill your church plant with your two bare hands. I know what I’m talking about. I’ve almost done it a couple of times in the course of planting several churches.

In the Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men, the character Lenny is a very loving but not a smart man who is capable of going too far in his love – even to the point of smothering to death the thing he loved. Like Lenny, we are capable of killing the very thing we dearly love.

To avoid killing your church plant ponder these thoughts.

1. Be a Pastor-Evangelist, not a Pastor-Chaplain.

In coaching church planters over the years I’ve seen that a high percentage of them were once upon a time Pastor-Chaplains. They were like 99% of pastor – maintainers – those who are satisfied with the same ‘ol, same ‘ol, things not moving forward. Those sorts of pastors have a peculiar way of teaching. They carry about a set of values concerning the Kingdom that is unique to them but a very different way from those who are bent on expanding the Kingdom who see things operate in an expansive way. In almost every way, they are the direct opposite of every aspect of what Paul told Timothy to walk in, when he said, “Do the work of an Evangelist.”

One of the leading reasons church planters suffer and go on to fail is that planters try to plant with the mindset of a typical Pastor-Chaplain.

A Pastor-Chaplain’s natural strengths are nearly the opposite of what is required to successfully plant a church. To get a church going it’s necessary to GATHER, GATHER, GATHER (feel free to write that out in capitals on a Post-It and place it on your screen to get the point). Based on their natural orientation, chaplains don’t gather people. They maintain people.

In Paul’s last letter he offered Timothy his final counsel. Nearly his final words were, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4) to this young mentee who hoped to reach all of the area around Ephesus. To Timothy the calling was to be more than a single-dimensioned pastor but a hyphenated role – a “Pastor-Evangelist” as Paul called him to be.

It’s difficult for a church plant to succeed when it’s led by a pure Pastor-Chaplain.

Do you want to reach your city? Do you want to build a church that is going to reach out or are you going to settle for one that is going to “go deep” (code for “inwardly focused”).

If you are going to reach your maximum effectiveness you need to allow the Spirit to mold you as a leader into a role that will reach out and become as effective as possible in reaching your city.

You say, “But I’m not an Evangelist. I’m an introvert. Don’t you get it? I can’t do that sort of thing.” Timothy wasn’t an extrovert either. If he had been one, Paul wouldn’t have exhorted him to take up the call to reach out.

He is the Potter. We are the clay. He has the ability to shape us into different kinds of leaders – to become what it takes to meet the need at hand.

2. Pray, but not too much.

Similar to the point above, it’s possible to overemphasize preparation only to cop out on action. Some, but not all certainly, will say they want to spend their time praying instead of participating in the practical actions of what it takes to extend the vision and mission of the new church.

Is it possible to pray too much? Yes and no. Of course, we can’t spend too much time in God’s presence agreeing with him for what he has in mind to do in this world.

On the other hand, prayer is sometimes used as a code word for, “I don’t want to go into action. I don’t want to participate in what the rest of the church is doing to make a difference.” Every church I’ve been in has had people who have felt called to “Intercession” or some other word they may choose to use instead of choosing to do outreach. I’ve tried to bring those folks along to simply intercede while others do the outreaching. They can stand afar and pray for the success of the outreach(es) without talking or even making direct contact with others. I’ve seen these folks consistently be unwilling to go out and give all sorts of reasons for that – usually that amount to, “I don’t feel led” to do this. Some will go as far as to say, “God hasn’t given me permission to go out” (uh what?)

3. Adopt a new mission statement: “Work in moderation.”

I’ve made the mistake of overworking many times. Sometimes I’ve gone for a couple of years without taking a vacation. At those times Janie just rolled her eyes and took off with the kids and had a good time without me! Looking back I realize I was a knucklehead – maybe even a weirdo.

That church grew large and it benefitted greatly from my dedication and the tireless days, weeks, months, etc.

All of us will eventually move on from our churches. Some of us will leave feet first, but make no mistake about it – you will move on.

When that day arrived for me, people showed up to thank me. There was a big white cake that said, “Thanks Steve and Janie.” People gave little gifts. The only gift I remember now was a stainless coffee pot we still have. Nice tokens to leave on, but guess what. Not a single word was spoken about missing all of those vacations. No one except Janie knew or noticed what I poured in so that the ramp up of the church could happen.

Of course God noticed it all and in the end I did it all for Him anyway. It’s always nice to hear someone remind me about the jewels that’ll eventually be in my crown, but that doesn’t make up for the price I paid along the way – the pound of flesh that has been extracted for living life in that imbalanced way.

I don’t know you, yet I do know you. Most church planters are wired pretty much alike. You wouldn’t have joined up to change the world if you weren’t a fairly driven person. Don’t fall prey to the temptations I fell into. Like me, in the end, no one will be there to thank you. No one will hug you.

4. Prepare…a little.

Every place I’ve planted a church or where I’ve introduced that notion of kindness outreach I’ve heard people bemoan, “We’re not ready to do outreach yet. We need more training.” I don’t necessarily say it to them but I think about the Seventy Jesus sent out in Luke 10 to prepare the cities and towns where he was about to go to do ministry. Do you think those people felt prepared to go out? Absolutely not! I imagine many of them were ticked at Jesus for sending them out in their unprepared state, yet they came back with great enthusiasm.

When people talk about not being “Ready” I sometimes ask exactly when will they be ready? Could they let me know when we’ll hit that point of readiness. I’ve never gotten a clear answer on that. People usually shrug their shoulder and say something like, “I’m not exactly sure, but when we get there we’ll know.” Translation: “Never!”

Virtually all churches and leaders in those churches live by motto “Ready, Aim, Ready, Aim, Ready…” At no point do they get to the third step – pulling the trigger to “Fire!”

My motto is the opposite: “Ready, Fire!, Aim.”

To compensate for human fear, let’s just pull the trigger, even if we feel we’re not quite ready yet. “But we might make mistakes.” My response is, “Of course we will. And the problem with that is…?”

Let’s make enthusiastic goofs, then let’s learn from them, smile, drink some coffee, have a taco, then let’s move on to the next experiment.

I love the attitude G.K. Chesterton conveys with this:

“Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong”

Let’s make some great mistakes together with enthusiasm.

5. Don’t overdose on leadership books.

I’ve read lots of leadership books over the years but reading books like these can easily become a substitute for making and carrying out great decisions. For now, read less and do more.

At crucial times in the development of your plant, times that demand action, it can be a mistake to read too much about leadership. It’s safe to live in theory, but it’s risky to make actual decisions.

I recently looked at some of the bios of my followers on Twitter. I was surprised at how many described themselves in connection with “Leadership” in some way such as “Leadership guru” as one guy put it or another guy said he aspired to be the “World’s best leadership coach.” I love the intentions of what those sorts of guys write, but it’s not difficult to make leadership a theory versus an operative factor that is realistically walked out. In other words, real leaders tend to not have a lot of time to read many books about leadership because they are too caught up leading.

Lead more than read about leading.

6. Don’t be patient with your worship.

Build amazing worship today if not sooner.

I heard a nice planting coach say, “Keep working at your worship. Keep at it, bit by bit. Develop it so people can sense the presence of God during worship in your gatherings.” He was a nice guy. I’m not as nice as him sometimes.

It’s not the overall counsel I have a problem with, it’s the speed and tone he shared that I struggle with. Forget the idea “Patiently.” Totally go for it. Without strong worship you are sunk.

You need to develop strong worship ASAP – in fact, yesterday is about the time you need to shoot for. As the saying goes, beg, borrow or steal – whatever it takes to get the greatest level of worship as quickly as possible. Spend whatever it takes to get that leader to your place. Someone will loan you the money or the money will simply appear as you step out on faith. Just get started. Your plant won’t flourish without rockin’ worship.

7. Live Missional. Don’t talk Missional.

On second thought, it would probably be smart to just drop the use that word entirely. Don’t get me wrong.

An almost unending stream of books has come out that explore the need to focus the Church’s attention on those not connected to Christ. Fantastic! The only problem with all of this talk about the “M” word is that much of the it has not translated into actual face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, personal encounters with the Lost and the Poor. Clean up projects, for example, are a great way to build a bridge into the community, but the goal is to ramp up to making physical contact with the Poor and the Lost. Jesus spoke of this as well as modeled it pretty much each day of his three-year ministry.

He made it clear that we are to do the stuff mentioned in Matthew 25 that described what Jesus did (visiting, hurting when they hurt, bringing them drinks of water, welcoming them, clothing them, inviting them in when they are strangers) one on one – and not sending them to people who “do that sort of thing.” None of it was sending it. It was bringing it.

The more you talk about something without putting it into action, the more you simply instill a layer of fear into people. It’s far wiser to make a beginning effort, to step out and do something, probably before you feel you are fully ready, even if you fail in stepping out. Let’s live as risk takers who don’t walk in a spirit of fear.

Ready, Fire!, Aim