Rachel and I got our start in church planting in the later half of the last decade. I was in the process of graduating from Seminary, we did not really find any cushy church jobs to take (I am NOT a youth pastor), and I connected with a church-planting group in Virginia. We talked, we prayed, and we planted. We experienced the ups and downs that most every plant walks through; we navigated some well, and some not so well. We had a ton of fun, and we had a ton of sorrow. After three years, our church was no longer viable. We had no money, no staff, and most of our team had transitioned out. This is a common thing in the church-planting world. Churches start, and churches fail. We fell into the “ran out of time” failure reason: like a baby with a critical disease, we just didn’t have enough life behind us to fight off the problems we faced.
We are almost a decade removed from that time, so I probably have a better view now. One of the things that I have struggled with is the statistic that we learned before we planted, and experienced: over 50% of your team that you planted with, will not be there 1-3 years later. It seems to me this is a gigantic problem. The people you are on mission with, suddenly no longer feel like the church they poured their blood, sweat, and tears into, is for them. I have put some effort into figuring out why this is. When I look at my first planting experience, I notice an almost duplicitous aspect in my actions. In order to start our church, we recruited friends, and friends of friends. We spent time talking, dreaming, planning. We spent time together doing life. We were on a mission and we were excited about. Then something changed. We had to launch a church. Those sweet times where we invested in each other were gone, and replaced by the church grind. Once that happened, the times that I cherished most were gone. I wish I had known that time spent planning was the most authentic church I have ever experienced. Now I don’t know that this was the reason that our team moved on, but I do know that when we launched it never felt the same as when we were together in my living room. I wasn’t mature enough then, I hadn’t seen enough or lived enough to know that WE HAD CHURCH right there. (Let’s be honest, no planter goes out and dreams of planting a church of 20 or 40 with all the dang kids we had J). There are many, many things I wish I could do over again, but pushing and moving our team into “church” eats at me more than most.
As planters we are always told that more is better. We need to recruit more people, raise more money, have THE BEST worship experience; the drive is always more and bigger. I disagree strongly with this idea at this stage of my ministry. What is the best is to be on mission with a team; a team you can pour into, be real with, and love doing life with. Let me encourage the planter who may be where Rachel and I were so many years ago with this thought: Jesus loves you, and He wants your ministry to be successful. Remember though: He defines the ministry; He defines success. It may not look like you want it to; it may not be the envy of all your friends from Seminary, and it may not ever get you on stage at Exponential teaching. Take it from me, no matter what the sweet spot is, it is better than living with the “I wish I would have’s.”