Planting Churches vs. Planting Services

Josh CousineauJosh Cousineau is church planter of Redemption Hill, located in Auburn, Maine, and core team member of the Gospel Alliance New England. He enjoys spending time with his high school sweetheart – now his bride since 2002 – and their four children. Josh blogs at  


church plantAs a church planter over the last year, I have been blessed to interact with many different guys who are planting churches. They come from many different denominations and networks, with just about as many different styles of church that they are seeking to do. I have noticed that as I have talked to these planters and guys who are future planters, many of them are not planting churches as much as they are planting services. I know that may not sound like much of a difference, but trust me there is a big one. However, what we have done with Redemption Hill is attempt to plant a church which will have a service; but the service is not the end goal, the church is.

Planting a Service

Most people I know that are church planters actually end up planting a service. What I mean by this is that they spend their time, energy, effort, and money on the starting of a weekly meeting of some sort. This is usually called “church” and it happens on Sundays. There is music, offering, and a message, to name a few things. Once they have planted their service, they then gauge the success or failure of their plant based on the attendance to this service, how much people gave, how many people come back each week, etc. This has been the common plan on planting churches throughout the United States (and beyond). For example, I have talked to organizations that have “practice services” or “preview services” for people to come and get a taste of what church will be like. If the service is not the end goal, then why are they giving a taste of the church by showing them a Sunday service? The reason is that we have boiled down church to an hour and a half meeting, once a week.

Now I am not opposed to having a Sunday service. We started Redemption Hill with a core group meeting in August of 2011, and then we developed two missional communities that met weekly for a meal and discussion from August to January. When January came, we started gathering weekly as a church family on Sundays. We had music, a message, kids ministry, offering – all the things that you would expect to find in a ‘church.’ However, when we started this Sunday time of worship, it was without much fanfare. No press release, no promotional effort whatsoever. Actually, if you wanted to learn when and where we gathered, you would have to know someone who went and ask them. We didn't even put it on our website or Facebook page.

The reason was that we were seeking to plant a church, not a service. There is a difference. Our goal was to spend time pouring into the church (which we define as the people who are part of Redemption Hill and the global church). We wanted to help them better understand the Gospel, what it looked like to live in community as part of the family of God, and how these two things lead to us living on mission for those who knew Jesus. We were planting the church and preparing them to be the church, not just simply encouraging them to attend church. We were cultivating a heart and passion for disciples who make disciples.

Planting a Church

Planting a church will include a service that meets on Sundays (or maybe Saturdays, or who knows, maybe a Monday afternoon… okay most likely not Monday) to gather, to celebrate, and to worship Jesus – but that is not the main focus of it. Planting a church is not gauged by how many people attend the launch service or your special Easter service, nor is it a failure if you don't have explosive growth on Sunday. Why? Because the goal is not to make a great service with amazing music that draws hundreds of people to hear your amazing oratory skills; the goal is people who are built up as disciples who actually make disciples rather than just attend a killer service. Let me explain.

When one plants a church, they are actually working with the end in sight, meaning that they have a view of what the church should look like. They are working towards the future and growing people and building the team to help them facilitate that goal. When one properly understands ‘church,’ they will see that it is the people that are the church. So building a church means helping the people to see this truth and live in light of this truth. It means that the pastors’ time, energy, and effort should be poured into the people who are the church, not simply the service which is a part of the church life. Even though those who plant a service have the best of intentions, they are in essence putting all their eggs in one basket. What has happened is that they have attempted to accomplish everything a church should be in one swoop on Sunday and have failed. We likely do not have churches that are overflowing with elder qualified men and we don't have men and women who are disciples who are making disciples. One of the main reasons is because the time has been invested wrongly. It is possible to plant a service and have some people who will fulfill these things, but let’s be honest about how much time, energy, and effort it is to have a killer service with lights, projectors, fog machines, etc. Our time is often put into these tings, not the life-on-life training that comes when your focus is on the church and not the service.

I want to reiterate that there is nothing wrong with having a service, focusing on the service, or even investing time, money, and energy into it. We spend (limited) time each week working on the flow, the message, the music, and all the other elements of our Sunday gathering. But I think we miss the point if this is the main focus of church planters.

Measure Your Efforts

I am extremely grateful for the renewed passion and the many young men who are being called to plant churches throughout the world. I am excited for what is happening in networks like A29, SBC, E-Free, and others. But if a church plant is simply defined by setting a date for an event, inviting a bunch of people to that event and calling it ‘church,’ we have missed the point. This is not what Jesus called us to do. He called us to make disciples who make disciples (Matt. 28.19-20). If we measure success when or if people show up, and failure if people don't, we are in grave danger. The church is not an event, it is a called out people – a people that Jesus died for. As church planters we should be willing to invest the time into the people rather than the service.

My hope is not that you would cancel your Sunday service and go all ‘super-organic’ and neglect the gathering of the saints for simply hanging out with people as you drink beer and coffee and then call it church. No, my hope is that you would take a real honest look at your investment as a church planter. Measure the time you spend each week, the way your budget is broken down, and where the people’s time is being invested and ask: Have I planted a church or a service?