By David Jackson, BCM/D Missionary for Church Multiplication
Have you ever wanted a “do-over” in ministry? A second chance to apply the lessons you learned later in life to an experience you encountered earlier? Most of us have, at some point in life, wished that such was, in fact, the case. We’d have attempted a different strategy perhaps, or applied another tactic in an alternative way or at a separate time. It might have made a difference; I suppose only eternity will tell.
The leadership in many church plants is like this. As entrepreneurs, they are always looking for “an edge,” someone or something to inform them that while they are charting an unknown way, there are dangerous waters ahead. There are resources that deal with this, and in fact, recently I shared about some of the mistakes I and others made during our church planting experiences, in hopes of keeping you from doing the same. Those mistakes focused more on the planter, and not on the plant itself.
These mistakes are often accompanied by other mistakes made by the plant (to be sure under the direction of its leadership, including first and foremost, the planter). In these mistakes, decisions are made that affect the entire organization and its viability, sometimes for years to come. These are the mistakes that I seek to address here.
Delayed start of small groups. There is much written today about the “launch” experience in church planting. While much of church planting would reject the premise that such is needed (more about that in a minute), hindsight almost always tells planters that launching before having a small group network in place will only create an event, performance-based church experience and not a faith community journeying through life together. Adding a small group strategy later on is much, much harder, since participants have trouble “buying in” to something that seems so important now, but didn’t seem necessary from the beginning. This mistake is serious, because it creates the mindset and lifestyle that church is a Sunday only experience.
Premature or post-mature launch. Some church planting experts today suggest that a public launch (similar to a “Grand Opening”) is a Boomer phenomenon or a part of a modernist mindset about church, and should summarily be discarded. Perhaps. However, there are many places in our convention where this strategy will still work effectively. The key is making sure the plant waits long enough, but not too long. If that sounds confusing, it’s because there is no science to this. It’s an art and is intuitively determined. What I can tell you is that the new church shouldn’t launch until critical mass has been achieved (usually thirty-five is a minimum, but 50-60 is better) and the people are excited about it. On the other hand, if the plant waits too long it will lose momentum that the launch could bring. This is typically noticeable when enthusiasm for the future starts to wane or early adopters give up on the vision and begin to leave.
Not prepared for everything after launch. This is huge. So much energy and effort are put into the first Sunday worship experience. Planters dream about it, parent churches help prepare for it, participants are readied for it. But what happens after that? Significant and strategic follow-up needs to take place within the first forty-eight hours or the impact on newcomers will be lost, and plants may never get a second chance to build on that first impression. Add to this reality that additional Sundays start coming for the church every seven days. This means preparation and implementation systems have to be in place to enable the plant to make forward progress within the appropriate amount of time or the church will struggle. So, plan ahead as far as possible to minimize the “rush” of each subsequent week and the follow-up needed.
Over-structuring the new church. I knew a church planter once who had less than 50 people in his plant, but the new church had already adopted a set of bylaws that anticipated 28 different committees and teams! Over-structuring takes other forms too, including putting others in positions of responsibility too quickly, or the feeling that the plant needs to be a “full service church” and providing additional ministries and programs before it’s really ready and capable. These mistakes will slow down the new plant’s ability to be responsive to needs, will make “form” more important than “function,” and can result in major burnout by leaders, or worse. The rule of thumb is this: use the minimal amount of structure necessary to enable the plant to function as God wants, and nothing more.
Accepting any warm body that comes along into the membership/leadership of the new church. I know the pressure personally: the church is so small, and it needs everyone it can reach to make it viable. That’s a tension all planters have experienced, but don’t give in; rather, resist it! If the plant doesn’t screen well all newcomers coming to the church, experts indicate that within two years of the public launch, someone else will attempt to “hijack” the new church and take it in another direction. A planter could be dismissed. The new church could split. In order to keep this from happening, use the plant’s vision, values and philosophy of ministry (why the church does what it does the way it does it) as the filtering agents to assist in determining who should be a part of the core group and leadership. In these early stages and at this level of responsibility, be willing to let people go elsewhere if they don’t agree with what God has directed the church to be and to do already. Otherwise, the consequences could be devastating.
Refusing to heed the advice of others who’ve gone before you. The final and potentially fatal mistake some plants make is to believe that their situation is unique and incomparable to what other plants have experienced. Leaders who feel this way are often unteachable and are convinced they are better than those who’ve made such mistakes. They are the ones who will discard the wisdom of others who’ve preceded them and thought enough to set up markers to warn future plants of the impending dangerous reef ahead.
“If I could do it over again,” don’t have to be the words on the lips of any church plant. Instead, learn from those who’ve gone before, and make sure these mistakes don’t happen to your new church.
David Jackson is the Missionary for Church Multiplication with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (410) 977-9867.