By Jacob Dahl, Ellensburg Site Pastor
There is a big difference between planting a church and planting a church-planting church. Around year three, new church plants must ask themselves this question: Will we play it safe and grow bigger, hoarding leaders and resources to ourselves while clinging to the comforts of addition? Or will we release control, send our very best people away and continually embrace the thrill of multiplication?
We see this tension in our goal to plant 21 churches by the year 2021. We aren’t going to wait until our churches are bursting at the seams to plant again. We aren’t going to wait until we have enough money and resources to purchase buildings and necessary gear. We are going to do it when we have ready leaders. This kind of vision and urgency have become the driving force that has created a multiplication DNA in our people.
Here are three things that have become keys to catalytic movement in the early years of church planting.
2. LEADERSHIP PIPELINE
In a recent study by Lifeway, they found that the odds of survivability increase by over 250% in church plants that offer leadership development training. We have found that a leadership pipeline is absolutely essential for any church planting endeavor. It may feel slow at the beginning, but early investment into young leaders begins to shell out serious payoff in year three. It takes a systematic approach to developing people the way Jesus did.
In a recent Leadership Network talk, Will Mancini claimed Jesus founded the movement of Christianity on a leadership pipeline, and said:
The church today has practically abandoned the original pipeline vision of Jesus, and substituted it with something more culturally attractive. Rather than developing people we manage programs, rather than building leaders we build worship centers. We have traded the pipeline of Jesus for the platform of cultural Christianity and as a result the church in America is over programmed and under discipled.
He goes on to outline a “pipeline manifesto” in the New Testament:
Luke 6:12 → Jesus chooses 12 out of the multitude (hundreds) of disciples
Luke 8:1 → Jesus does the heavy lifting, healing people while the 12 watch
Luke 9:1 → Jesus gives the 12 power and authority and sends them out
Luke 10:1 → Jesus sends 72 to proclaim the kingdom and heal people
Acts 1:15 → 120 leaders gather in the upper room after ascension of Jesus
Acts 2:41 → 3,000 people saved at Pentecost
Consider what happened in the third year of Jesus’ ministry: after skyrocketing to influence and gaining a massive platform, just when things start gaining traction he begins to hand over the most precious and eternally significant task to a dozen mostly blue collar, ordinary men. Jesus could have continued to preach to large crowds and gained a larger following, but instead he chose to give away his leadership because it would not only lead to exponential growth, but it would outlast his earthly life for thousands of years. Mancini points out that in the platform paradigm the ratio of leaders to people would be 1:3000 as opposed to 1:25 in a pipeline paradigm, showing us that if we truly want to reach the world it will come by way of a leadership pipeline, not a preaching platform.
The reason many churches don’t develop a leadership pipeline is often because they are afraid to let the rookies play. What ends up happening is young leaders are asked to sit on the sidelines and watch the game be played by paid professionals. We value program excellence over people development. We think we’re saving rookies from failure but what we’re really doing is robbing them of opportunities to grow until eventually they get bored and leave. Failure is an invaluable and inevitable piece of leadership development. Withholding opportunities “until they’re ready” just means delaying inevitable failure of learning to lead. All veterans were at one time rookies who were given the chance to play, make mistakes, and receive coaching and correction on their way to a high-impact future.
For our church, giving underclassmen opportunities to exercise spiritual leadership early and often is now paying huge dividends—they have now become our best leaders, many of whom are spearheading new church plants.
There’s a reason why church planter training is often called “bootcamp”, because much like young cadets preparing for battle, men and women across churches and denominations are bracing for impact on the mission field. One of the common factors in every church plant is getting metaphorically punched in the face (but also quite literally for some friends we have who recently planted a church in downtown Portland). Our friend Brian Frye, national collegiate strategist at NAMB, often quotes Moneyball in reference to pioneering new movements: “The first one through the wall gets their nose bloody.”
Church plants that thrive and go the distance are led by teams of people who are able to take the punches and pick themselves up off the ground over and over, year after year. Theological training is integral but resilience must also be present. Communication skills, funding, and buildings are all helpful tools in the belt of a church planter, but without resilience you won’t make it beyond the first few years.
No one modeled the “beaten but not broken” resiliency required of church planters better than the apostle Paul. This brother endured lashings, beatings, stonings, and mockings. Nonbelievers degraded him and believers deserted him. He spent three decades on the run from the authorities. Loneliness and anxiety were often more commonplace than his next meal. Yet through it all Paul still writes with battered hands, “we do not lose heart.”
Research has shown that grit is more important than IQ or talent when it comes to success in school and business, and the case could be made for church planting as well. Psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals”. More than being mentally tough in the moment, grit embraces challenges over the long haul, never quitting until the prize is achieved--even if it takes years longer than anticipated.
Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks, talks about how the idea of grit was central to building a championship team and program. When you build a team full of gritty people, what happens is that you create an “iron sharpening iron” context. When one player works harder it pushes the guy across the line to work harder. Collective grit becomes crucial to the growth of the team.
It seems to me that we can really find ways to instill a mechanism of resilience by training people that they have the abilities that allow them to maintain hope. It’s about hope. The reason you bounce back is because you know you have a chance. You believe, or you’ve been connected to a bunch of people that believe, so you go along with them. There’s a hope, an undying sense of belief that, ‘Of course we can come back, of course we can overcome.
In the early days of church planting, you have to “overcome” nearly every day. Heartbreak and criticism abound. People bail on you. Venues fall through. There’s never enough money. Everyone wants to quit. The pressure begins to build.
The key as a team is to collectively fix your eyes on true north and never look back, to set your faces like flint and let nothing sway you. If you don’t have a fire in your bones, the harshness of church planting will eventually wear you down into the dust. For your ship to reach the shore of victory, you must stock the hull with theological and gritty ballast, raise the sails of passion and zeal for the lost, and let the wind of the Holy Spirit billow you to kingdom impact.
Embracing a life of resiliency and grit on the missional frontier may mean “bearing on your body the marks of Jesus” like Paul, but that sacrifice paves the way and makes inroads for the gospel to continually transform new lives for many years to come.
3. PERPETUAL PIONEERING
In Ephesians 4, Paul lays out the five ministry roles (modeled in fullness by Jesus) that are designed to synergistically lead and equip the church--Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers (or APEST).
Apostles, Prophets and Evangelists naturally pioneer new ground, start new communities of faith, and take the gospel to new lands to engage unbelievers. They act like spiritual entrepreneurs. Shepherds and Teachers naturally develop the ground taken by the “APEs”, cultivate relationships in existing churches, and root the gospel deeply in the lives of believers. Hebrews 12:2 gives context for this ecclesiological rhythm when it points to Jesus as both the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith”.
It’s self-evident that the current posture of the church in the West is dominated by developing. You can trace back the absence of pioneering and what Alan Hirsch calls the “exiling of the APEs” to the beginning of Christendom around the time of Constantine, when the church was brought from the margins of society to the very center. What we saw was a dynamic and thrilling enterprise that flipped the Roman empire upside down be reduced to a safe, institutionalized, missionless church. There have since been occasional surges of pioneering missionary movements in the past, but by and large the original apostolic nature of the church has been buried for thousands of years.
The recent church planting surge in the last 15-20 years has helped awaken many people to the need of pioneering new communities of Christ. There is hope on the horizon that the Western church will regain its missional impulse.
Here’s the kicker: every church in history was started out of pioneering, but eventually ceased to exist most likely because somewhere along the way someone who was leading that church stopped pioneering. When you stop pioneering, you start turning inward, focusing solely on the needs within and forgetting about the mission around you. And when you stop reaching the world around you, your church will shrink continually with every passing generation into inevitable nonexistence.
The reason why pastors and church planters stop pioneering is usually pretty simple: it’s just plain harder work than developing. The natural human tendency is to gravitate away from chaos and toward comfort. This is primal. So once a new church finally reaches a point of stabilization, it’s easy to begin moving away from the mission and into maintenance.
Even in our third year as a church plant, we could already feel the magnetic pull back to development. Starting a new church is emotionally exhausting, costly to your personal finances, deeply straining on your family and relationships. So once you’ve endured and survived the initial beating of the first few years, everything within you cries out for relief. You begin to think to yourself, “Finally I can take a deep breath, relax and just ride the wave of momentum…”
And this is precisely why starting another church within three to four years, and subsequently more churches after this, is so crucial in perpetuating the missional impulse the church had when it first began. If you aren’t careful, you will eventually join the graveyard where thousands of churches throughout history “overdeveloped unto death”. Because our church set a goal of planting again within three years, it never allowed us to settle into missional complacency. We kept our edge by leaning heavily on people with APE giftings who kept pressing the gas pedal on reaching new people and multiplying everything.
It’s easy to have urgency in year one because you’re in survival mode. Maintaining urgency over multiple decades, however, takes a top-down institutionalization from the stage, to discipleship, and everything in between.
Alan Hirsch’s books The Forgotten Ways and 5Q