It seems that there are often no churches in our cities worth joining. I say this because I see many people planting new churches rather than coming alongside churches that are already established. It seems to be happening everywhere. I actually come from a smaller town in the Seattle area where it seemed impossible to find a church that I would have called family. So, I do get it. Finding a church that feels like family is hard.
Nonetheless, I'm tired of church planting. Now, notice that I didn’t say, “Why I am tired of church planters.” I love my church planting friends, and I want this to be an encouragement to them. This article isn’t going to be some polemic to rid ourselves of church planting, but I want to ask how we might change our views of church planting and the ways that it often manifests itself. I also want to look at the systems and measurables that we currently use.
I am not a church planter in the ways in which someone would traditionally see a church planter. I look to make disciples in the every day. I am a business owner and a neighborhood missionary. I’ve never been to seminary, I’ve never been to any church planting meetings, trainings, been assessed as a planter, or anything else of the sort. So, actually, I am pretty clueless on what it would take to try and plant a church in that sense. So, I write this a bit from an outsider perspective. I’m not saying it’s unbiblical to plant a service as it were, I just believe that we might be thinking about church planting backwards.
Here is a picture of how effective church planting could happen, and it seems to be in line with Paul’s thinking in 1 Cor. 3:6-9 when he says:
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
For the most part, I enjoy my time with church planters. They are great people who desire to see the cities they are sent to changed for the sake of Christ. This isn’t to call out church planters to say that they are evil, or doing things completely wrong; it is written from an outsider who desires planters to see what I am seeing from the sidelines. I might be totally wrong, but lately, when I see someone is planting a church, I don’t get excited. I finally started to wonder why.
Clarifying the Terms
When I say “church planting,” I want you to know what I mean. What I see around the world as I train and coach is this: a church planter is someone who moves into an area and gathers other Christians in order to start a church service. From there, they seek how they then can impact their community in a myriad of ways, but the main push will come on Sunday morning which will be the “front door” for the church.
Most church planters I see are very courageous. They take some serious risks to try and make this type church planting work. I admire them for their desire go on the frontlines and take this risk. But, what I keep seeing is that many church plants fail and struggle to keep all the balls they juggle in the air. This leads to a ton of stress, burdens, and burnout.
Church planters, consider this: what if we changed how we planted churches and how we measured them?
Please, remember that I will be painting with broad strokes in this article, and I don’t mean to say that all church planters will fit into the troubles that I mention here. But, many do. And I want to serve them.
Here are some things for us all to consider when we think of church planting.
Cart Before the Horse?
I feel as though many church planters are putting the cart before the horse. They quit their jobs, raise funds, gather other Christians, have a preview service, and then shortly start a Sunday gathering. That’s a lot of stress. But does it have to be this way?
What if you did things differently? What if instead of quitting your "day job," you decided to keep it in order to make disciples in your workplace and neighborhood? Instead of gathering Christians to work hard at starting a church service, we gathered Christians for the sake of sending them out to make disciples. This way, as we live life with those in our neighborhood we could ask ourselves, “Do they actually need another church service in this city?” The answer might be yes. But rather than assuming that right from the start and experiencing all the stress of putting together a church service (which requires ample amounts of time and money), you can live a normal life of making disciples where you are.
As the disciple-making happens in an area, maybe the people will decide that they could use you to equip them. They might even offer to compensate you for the training and the time it takes to equip others. All of a sudden, the church is deciding what they need from a needs-based analysis. They can see that they need someone to have more time to devote to disciple-making, rather than immediately assuming that they have to raise a bunch of money to make disciples in their city.
It seems to me that this might be more freeing than the first scenario. This will put you in a place to be a learner, like the disciples in the New Testament. A learner would be part of the city first, for a long time, before he decided what the city needed. A learner would learn the stories of the people and of the city to which he is sent. One would hear where the city and people needed redemption, and then apply the good news in both oral and tangible ways. Maybe one of the tangible ways would actually be a church building and a church service, but how would you know unless you’ve lived among the people first?
There are cities everywhere that desperately need a gospel-centered church that faithfully proclaims the good news. What I am hoping to see in church planters is that they truly inquire about the other churches in the area they feel called to before they assume that a new one is needed. When we plant another church service, it tells the community, whether we like it or not, that we are not unified. In some ways we aren’t, which is fine. We just want to be careful as followers of Jesus not to make the churches in our city an “us vs. them” mentality. I recently talked to a friend who doesn’t belong to a church and wouldn’t call himself a Christian or follower of Jesus. I asked him why he hates the church, one of his responses was this:
People that represent the church seem to lead with religion, not love. "What church do you go to?" "Are you a Christian?" Instead of just being good.
Another friend of mine responded with this answer:
Christ wasn't about growing an individual group; his concern was for all of humanity. Spread the word, yes, but they don't have to sit in the same building as you at the same hours on the same days of the week for it to count and matter.
We need to be about the Church instead of merely our version of a church. So, in what ways can we show the unity of the Church to our city as we desire to make disciples of Jesus? Moving into a city and starting a church service right away might not be the best flag to raise in some cities. If this is the case, how can we instead come alongside the other churches to see how we can humbly help and lead as servants?
Disciple-Making as Our Measure of Success
There are church planting networks that state that you are not officially a church in their network until you have a certain amount of adults at your Sunday service, or who’d be considered members of the church. Other groups or denominations might look to how many people has a church baptized, how many were at Sunday school, how many families gave money, etc. Many of us know the parameters of success – the three B’s: butts, budgets, and buildings.
If you measure the success of the church based on the fruit that only can be provided by the Spirit you will kill your church planters. What do I mean? I think we should measure what we can actually control, standing amazed at the greatness of our God and the indwelling Spirit when we are blessed with witnessing the fruit that God allows us to see with our own eyes.
What if we measured the success of our churches by asking this question:
How many people’s stories in your neighborhood do you know so intimately that you know exactly where they need the good news?
The reason that this is such a good measurement tool is that this gives everyone a fighting chance. This kind of measurement would require the planter (and all of us) to be doing the work we’ve been called to do: to shepherd people to the only hope we have. It requires the church planter to be involved in his people and neighborhood. It requires him to invest deeply into a few people deeply instead of to many on a surface level. It requires him to train up new people to “go and make” because the planter will not have the time to invest this type of life into thousands. In the end, if we have this as our measurement tool, we can see people being discipled instead of merely “making a decision” or just showing up to a church service.
We might see them actively bringing all areas of their (and others’) lives under the lordship of Jesus by the power of the Spirit through the good news. This is discipleship! This is what we’ve been called to do. Why not make this our measurement tool? It seems as though this was our mission given to us by Jesus. “Go and make disciples…” (Matt. 28:18-20). After this, you baptize. After that, you teach them everything that Jesus has commanded, but not before they have entered into a deep discipleship relationship with you.
The planter could feel freed to do the ministry to which he’s been called if we didn’t measure success through programs, conversions, attendance, and baptisms. These might all come, and we should be thrilled when they do; but statistics are not what they, and we, are primarily called to do. We are called to make disciples.
Discipling Like Jesus
How did Jesus do this? He spent three years with a dozen men, showing them who he was. He intimately knew their stories, and they were aware of his interest. When he called them, he said, “Follow me.” He lived life with them for awhile before ever asking them, “Who do you say that I am?” He didn’t have programs, he didn’t have buildings, he didn’t have any measurement tool besides the very fact that he knew their stories. He knew who he was discipling and for what purpose. Jesus couldn’t be a church planter in most networks today, and he would be a sorry excuse for a planter based on the measurements to which we so often cling.
So, why am I tired of church planting? Because it seems as though we have it all backwards. We are more concerned with seeing the fruit that only God can give (drawing, conversions, etc.), instead of being concerned with the very thing he has empowered us to do: to make disciples.
What if instead of starting a church service, raising funds, having preview services, and sending out flyers in the mail about the next sermon series, we decided to be disciples? I’m not vilifying inviting people to your church gatherings, but this cannot be primary.
We must decide to be learners. We learn from the other churches in the area, we learn from those in our community, we learn by walking in the ways of Jesus in the community. Then, we ask the Spirit what to do next, and actually listen to him. He might tell you to never start a service, but he also might tell you to start a service. Who knows? But, it seems to walk in line more with Jesus’s mission he gave us to focus primarily on making disciples.
Jesus said that he will never leave us alone when we are seeking his will. We’ll see external fruit, but this should not be our sole measurement of success. Our church planters should not be under such pressure to “perform” and to do things that aren’t under their control. I meet too many guys who are burnt out, their families are falling apart, they’re stressed out, and they are quite literally killing themselves because of failure. I don’t care if this is hard to quantify; we need to start dealing with the fact that we can’t always quantify what the Spirit is doing. Again, why don’t we equip our church planters how to disciple instead of how to start a church service?
Jesus created a movement and a new Kingdom where he could tell us:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Is our “kingdom of church planting” creating this type of living, or the one that rewrites Jesus’s words to say:
Come to me all you who are well rested and I will make you weary and burdened. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am merciless and prideful in heart, and you will find work for your souls. For my yoke is hard and my burden is heavy.
Seth McBee is the adopted son of God, husband of one wife, and father of three. He’s a graduate of Seattle Pacific University with a finance degree. By trade. Seth is an investment portfolio manager, serving as President of McBee Advisors, Inc. He is also a MC leader/trainer/coach and executive team member of the GCM Collective. Seth currently lives in Phoenix, AZ with his wife Stacy and their three children: Caleb, Coleman, and Madelynn. He is also the artist and co-author of the wildly popular (and free!) eBook, Be The Church: Discipleship & Mission Made Simple. Twitter: @sdmcbee.