On Being a Church Planter
What is it like to be a church planter? How does one prepare for the task? As we begin to discuss this topic, recognize that there are relatively few resources on church planting, and even less on the nature and character of a church planter, from a confessionally Reformed point of view.
Instead, we are left to sift through the haystacks of church growth propaganda for the needle of applicable truth. My goal here is to give those who seek to minister among our confessionally Reformed churches as church planters, or as ministers of churches that will support church planting, some material from which to develop a passion for spreading the Reformed faith in our generation.
The focus will not be on the "how" of church planting. It will instead be geared towards the person, personality, and character of the confessionally Reformed church planter. In attempting to do so, my goals are to prepare some for the arduous task of church planting while at the same time warning others against going out as church planters. Church planting is difficult and trying work physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The motto of the Marines ought to be that of the fraternity of church planters: "The few, the proud..." Few will heed the call and be able to meet the challenge, while others will be needed in the important task of supporting church planting.
What I am presenting comes out of my own reading of Scripture, the confessions, and church history, as well as my own experience and the experience of other church planting colleagues. Understanding that everyone comes from a particular point of view which has been shaped by particular experiences, will help you to see this for what it is: one man's reflections on the ministry of church planting, which, Lord willing, may apply to a broader audience.
The principles found in Acts 2:42 lay the groundwork for everything else a church planter does. This passage is such an important programmatic text for the life of the church. Here we see that the church is firmly based upon three principles: the church is a theological, liturgical and communal institution and organism. Luke's words are not only an historical description of what the earliest New Covenant community was like, but they also apply to so many areas of what we are doing as pastors and church planters. For example, our corporate worship is based on these principles as it is to be doctrinal, liturgical, and communal. As well, our Christian life is found in these principles as we "devote" ourselves to theology, liturgy, and community as Christians. Finally, in membership classes what we are doing is to initiate new believers and new members in these three principles. As those who are going to be sent out as church planters in areas with no confessionally Reformed churches, we must keep these three principles always before us as the first things, the foundations of our life and ministry.
1. Devoted to Theology
Church planters must be devoted to the apostles' doctrine, that is, their teaching, their theology. As such we confess all that is taught to us in the Word of God, but we do not confess it according to our interpretations. The Spirit of God has led His Church into all truth (John 14:26, 15:26). You are starting something new, but what you are starting is not new. This is why a church planter needs a deep-rooted appreciation for the catholicity of the Faith as found in the ecumenical creeds. This is why church planters must be absolutely convinced and confident in the Reformed confessions and catechisms because they agree with the Word of God.
One of the things a young church planter will learn and experience is that everything is theological and that theology gives stability to everything. An example of this was a recent evening in which I received several phone calls in the span of five minutes that four of my parishioners had all gone to the hospital. Although overwhelming, what gave me confidence - and sanity - was the doctrine of God's fatherly providence. God reminded me that we live coram Deo not only in theory, but also in practice.
Another aspect of being a theological church planter is how this commitment is applied in preaching. A church planter must view himself as God views him as a minister. The metaphor of the prophetic herald is so prevalent for the pastor in Scripture. We need to recapture that consciousness as we go out to minister in a post-Christian world. We are prophets who proclaim a message of Law and Gospel to the world around us - a Law which no one cares about and a Gospel which no one can believe (Psalm 2:1-3; Romans 8:5-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14). Church planters should have a sense of urgency in our preaching for many reasons, including the fact that no one may show up next week! A church planter is, as Paul called Timothy, an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5), one who spreads the evangel, the Gospel. You will be an evangelist, announcing the news of the King and His kingdom. You will be a missionary, going someplace near or far with the mission and purpose of speaking that Word. You will be a pioneer, trailblazing a path for the coming of Christ's kingdom of grace among the kingdom of Satan, "the god of this world" (2 Corinthians 4:4). You are not starting a social club, you are not trying to draw a crowd; instead, what you are doing is theological as you confront "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4).
2. Devoted to Liturgy
A church planter must be devoted to "prayers and the breaking of the bread." A devotion to the public worship of the Triune God and a passion for it that is passed on to others. From the outset of a church plant, make it a non-negotiable principle to emphasize the Lord's Day. This is who we are as Christians and this is what we do - to be called to ascend the heavenly mountain of God (Psalm 24; Hebrews 12:18-25) so that we can fall before the throne of God in confession and be welcomed around the Table of the Lord in thanksgiving as we receive His grace. Once this is established, then maybe, just maybe, you can add a midweek Bible study or activity for your members and their children.
Be confident in Reformed worship. Not only is Reformed theology different to most people who will come to our churches, but our worship is strikingly different. The reason it is different is because our theology is different. Our worship is a result of our theology, not in spite of our theology. The content of our theology drives both the content and form of worship, and these cannot be divorced. We worship the way we worship because we believe the way we believe, and vice versa.
As a church planter, my favorite topic of study is the history of Christian worship and the forms of historic worship. I would encourage you to devote yourself to the writings of Hughes Oliphant Old but also to the writings of the Reformation on worship. In my study I've found that we as a Reformed people have always been a liturgical people, even more so than we are today. All the churches of the Reformation had common worship, meaning they had set liturgies, forms, and prayers. What has been amazing to me is that in translating these historic forms of worship to my setting we have drawn the exact same people that the new "Emerging Church" movement is seeking to draw. Those young twenty-something who yearn for community, transcendence, and stability are drawn - not repelled - by liturgical worship. As an illustration of the power of historic and transcendent forms of worship upon our post-modern culture, think about the fastest growing religion in North America - Islam. Among American males who convert, most say that they have left unbelief or transient "Christianity" because of the transcendence of worship, structure of the prayers, and the rigorous life of morality.
3. Devoted to Community
The third principle to which a church planter must be devoted is the community, your parish. The early church was "devoted," they were steadfast in their love of "the fellowship." Church planters must be tireless in visiting their parishioners, getting to know them, counseling and catechizing them from the world's ways to the Word's ways, and living among them in their highs and lows. As shepherds we must know our sheep by name intimately, just as our Chief Shepherd does (John 10:3).
Another way we see the community of the saints illustrated in the New Testament is through hospitality. Church planters need to set the example of hospitality by being hospitable to our parish. By doing so, we will live transparent lives in community with our parishioners, will build community, build trust, and build a godly atmosphere in which to labor and pray.
All of this is to say that the church planter must be the most convicted and principled man among our churches. He is not a man that will represent His King if he caves in to pressure and the persecution of those with whom he speaks such serious words.
Aptitude Principles (1 Timothy 3:2)
Those are the foundational principles for church planters. As well, the church planter must have certain aptitudes, that is, certain skills, gifts, and personality. In thinking of this, recall that Paul exhorts Timothy to lay before the congregation those men who not only desired to be overseers, but also were "able to teach" (1 Timothy 3:2). Elders must have the desire but also the ability to apply that desire in their work. So too it is with church planting.
1. Passion for Church Planting
Church planting is not for every seminary graduate. One must have a passion for non-Reformed people who wallow in works-righteousness evangelicalism as well as for unbelievers. You need to see yourself as a prophet, bringing a foreign, yet needed, message. If you desire to be a pastor in a large church, or to be an associate pastor who does a lot of counseling, for example, do not take a call to a church plant. It is not just a job, but a calling and passion. We see this in the example of Paul, whose "heart's desire and prayer to God" was for unbelieving Israel to be saved (Romans 10:1). His passion for establishing new churches is seen when he says,
I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named...Romans 15:20
His final goal was to pass through Rome and go to Spain, the outmost edge of the Roman Empire and the known western world (Romans 15:24).
2. Ability to Handle Disappointment
Disappointment comes with the church planting territory. As my congregation was getting off the ground and beginning to grow, I twice came back from vacation to the news of serious sin within the church that came to the surface while I was gone. There will be visitors to your church who will never return, who will call you "Catholic," who will hate what you say from the pulpit. To this I was given one of the most important pieces of wisdom I have learned. It comes from my colleague and friend Dr. R. Scott Clark, who related to me that when he was church planting he had to learn that he wasn't the Holy Spirit. I needed to learn that also. This is part of what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 3:5-7:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters in anything, but only God who gives the growth.(ESV)
Church planting is God's work. You are His servant, sowing and watering seed. As such, your mindset must be for the long term. Week-by-week people will come and go, but if you have your eyes on the goal of planting, watering, and establishing a solid, confessionally Reformed church you will be able to handle the ups and downs of the work. It's not about you anyway, it's about Christ: "For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Another way to cope with struggle and sadness is to develop close relationships with your classmates and future colleagues. Rely on them for counsel. Use them as sounding boards when you are down and desperate.
3. Ability to be a Self-Motivator
As a church planter you are a pioneer, beginning a work that no one else has done, so that others may follow. One aspect of having a pioneering spirit is to be self-motivating. It boils down to this: if you are not a hard worker in your day-to-day life as an employee, husband, father, etc., then do not think you are called to be a church planter - let alone a pastor!
Each week there are two sermons to prepare, Bible studies to teach, phone calls, visitors to follow-up with, counseling, fellowship to facilitate, meetings to chair, as well as the normal things of life. In many respects you are on an island. There is no pastoral "staff" to rely on, and no time for an office mentality, where you can take breaks and chat with people. It's just you in your study or on the road doing what needs to be done.
4. Ability to Delegate
In line with being a self-motivator is the ability to lead your parish by delegation. Learn to give up things that hinder your work. If it is possible organize a steering committee under the oversight of your local consistory to be an advisory council and to take many mundane tasks off of your hands. As well, recruit parishioners to deal with everyday tasks.
So you are a "one man show" in many respects, but you cannot get comfortable in being the one man. We are not micro-managers or tyrants, but pastors. Things like the font of the bulletin, organizing snacks, nursery workers, church banking, etc. are not your responsibility. Although you may have to do many of these things initially, make a commitment to turn things over little by little as God brings people to your congregation.
5. Ability to Handle Stress
Finally, the ability to handle stress is important for a pastor, but this is especially the case for a church planter. Even-keeled, patient, and a calm-head are crucial. Develop a hobby. Learn to "get away" from time to time.
Church planting requires certain abilities, a particular personality and temperament. May we all examine ourselves, our gifts, our abilities, our personalities, so that God may raise up a generation of zealous, confessionally Reformed church planters and established pastors and churches so that His Kingdom may spread "from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more!"