Overheard, as a North American Church Planter
One of the #1 topics of conversation that I share with would be church planters is about expectations. And rightly so. 10 years ago my wife and I loaded all our possessions into a 24′ U-Haul and drove from Fort Worth, TX to Covington, LA to start a church on the Northshore of Lake Ponchartrain. We had no idea what to expect and were full of faith and a great deal of naivity as we began the journey. My wife and I have often unpacked our journey by thinking through the things we’ve overheard in 10 years of church planting. Here’s a few of those that may give you some hints about expectations:
“We’ll try to have someone there to help you unpack.” Expect to be alone.
If you’re a church planter, you’re the initiator. Don’t expect others to prioritize your vision or values. If they do, you must communicate well to them. Proverbs 13:2 says, “from the words of his mouth, a man will enjoy good things.” If you don’t communicate, you’ll travel alone. And until you communicate, you will travel alone.
For us, we arrived in Covington and hoped for help never showed up. Around 11pm the first day, Heather and I threw our mattress on the floor and crashed having unpacked 75% of our belongings alone. It would be two more days before we would meet someone from our partnering churches. The next morning, our neighbor came over and helped us unload the heaviest of our furniture. And we were able to begin casting a vision to them. Two months later, a Bible study started in our neighborhood, and neighbors began putting their faith in Christ. But those first few nights would be our first lessons on the loneliness of starting something new. The loneliness of shepherding and entrepeneurial ministry can be stifling. Get a coach or mentor, join a network, talk through the frustrations and expectation malfunctions. It is not good for man to be alone on this journey.
“I think we can handle that area on our own.” Expect to be misunderstood.
If your going to plant a church in North America, don’t expect every colleague to be receptive of the idea and of you. Unfortunately, us pastors often see church planting as unnecessary or a necessary evil, because we see it through the lens of how it will effect me and my church instead of a path toward more people coming to Christ. I was at first dismayed by this attitude, but began to see it as another objective in the process – to bring more people on board with God’s mission to multiply His church.
I also believe that part of this mindset is a result of a severe lack of vision on our part, especially with churches in the south. A church plant or mission church for many is a small red brick building that our men built last summer in a poor community for a struggling congregation. And that’s how it should be and that’s how we like it. They are there to make us feel good about our church, as a place to give our used Sunday school material, and not necessarily as a serious partner in the Great Commission cause. I felt hemmed in by this lack of vision at times in our journey. Especially when I was asked at one point, “do we need another ‘little’ church in that area.” Don’t get hemmed in by wrong headed or low expectations. Learn to ask the right questions about your community and let the fruit of your labor and God’s story of His work through you lead others to see the necessity of church multiplication.
“I didn’t know churches helped people.” Expect to find opportunities
I hate to admit it, but at one point, I began believing that maybe we didn’t need to multiply and the whole thing was a lost cause, but then I began getting out and meeting people and I saw the divide between the opinions of the Sunday morning faithful and the other 80% of the people in the community. One particular conversation I had with a leader in our community drives the nail home for anyone trying to answer the question, “Why do we need new churches?” I gave him my short spill about planting a new church in the area and asked him my standard question for community leaders, “How could a church help you?”
His honest reply has been foundational for me over the last 10 years. He said in all seriousness, “I didn’t know churches helped people.”
Personally, He had been deeply offended and hurt by churches. Professionally, he had reached out to churches for help with community events only to get turned down again and again. Over time, he had lost confidence that the Church was on his side. That conversation led to a personal friendship that grew very deep and led to open doors into the community including our new church’s first meeting place along with countless opportunities to show Christ to people in our area.
Almost every church planter I’ve talked with can point to one relationship or one event or one big break that opened the door for movement to begin. It’s like the Apostle Paul finding the prayer group by the river led by Lydia, or Phillip happening upon the Ethiopian eunech reading the scriptures, or Peter looking up and seeing the doors of the prison cell are wide open. If God calls you to reach a community, you can expect Him to open doors into and already be working in that community. The work of the church planter is to be intentional, look for those open doors, and prepare to be used in tremendous ways.
“Here’s my deal – $270,000.” Expect God to provide.
For 54 months our new church met in the bay of an un-airconditioned Fire Station. We had prayed and sought for land and space in the area where our denomination had asked us to plant. Then in May of 2005, my phone rings and a local business owner whom we had befriended and served on a number of occasions said abruptly, “$270,000.” She owned a business on the busiest highway, in the very center of our community. As we investigated her offer, we learned the property was worth at least twice as much and she’d been offered three times as much, but for some odd reason, she wanted us to have it. We worked with partners to purchase the property and began preparing the building for a place of worship and we held our first worship gathering there on July 26th, 2005. That date is significant to everyone in SE Louisiana, because on August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated our entire area. The day before the storm I realized how God had provided. Our new building had a 125K Diesel Powered Generator, a full commercial kitchen with 1,000 gallon propane tank, and it was in one of the highest areas of the community. I think we were the only church in our parish that was able to have worship gatherings IN AIR CONDITIONING every Sunday after Katrina. Many meals were served, volunteer groups were housed, and people were saved. And that Fire Station was rendered completely inoperable by the Hurricane. A good friend of mine says, “God gives you what you need, when you need it.” Church Planter, you can expect Him to do the same for you.
“I think you dropped the ball.” Expect to be criticized.
One of the toughest seasons of the journey for me personally, was when body life began to be solidified and difficult decisions had to be made. Purchases that not everyone agreed with, lifestyle issues that led to church discipline, relational issues in the body that threatened division. If you’re a leader, you can’t avoid having fingers pointed at you during these seasons of body life. And as a church planter, you may suffer sleepless nights, because you gave someone influence and they weren’t ready and now they’re turning on you or others or they’re overwhelmed and burning out. Or because someone got mad and left the church, but kept the directory, and now is having dinner parties in your dis-honor. Or because you have to ask someone to leave for reasons that shouldn’t be aired in public. Or because someone comes to you and announces they’re leaving the church right before you supposed to get up and preach a sermon on unity. You could run from all of this and just sink into a people pleasing mode, trying to make everyone happy, and keep as many butts in the seats as possible. Or you can learn, grow, admit mistakes, confront divisiveness, correct sinfulness, forgive those who trespass against you, and count on Christ to grow his body in his way. I’ve still got some learning to do on this one.
“If it hadn’t been for Hope Church…” Expect to make a difference.
For me as a church planter, these five words bring chills and tears – “If it hadn’t been for…” Why? Because I can remember when there was no Hope Church or Bridge Church. And I can remember how many times I wanted to say no and I wanted to give up and I lay awake at night asking God why we’re not making headway. In his book Failing Forward, John Maxwell says, there is no such things as failure, only those who quit too soon. Don’t give up. God’s called you for a reason. There are those in your community who are waiting on you to bring Good News to them. Keep fighting, keep praying, keep planting seeds. You can and will make a difference.