What it takes to plant churches
My sense of church planting begins with introducing myself and the Lord who is with me. Like God became incarnate in Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwells in me, a human. So church planting is personal -- just like Jesus walking around Galilee; we're walking around being one with God; God is walking with us and we are walking around with the Lord. When Jesus talks about planting the word about his work, planting the Word Himself, in the world he says it is like a seed going into the ground and "dying." I find the process just that painful and just that joyfully regenerative all the time.
Paul talks about sharing the sufferings of Christ. "Filling them up," being planted again and again. Very specifically, for me, part of that suffering is the need to keep introducing myself to new people and new situations and not hiding out in or merely enjoying the little group of people who already "get me" and love me. I am doing that again right now as I tell you about Jesus in me. This blog is one way to “get out there.”
During each era of my life in mission, I have discovered things about Jesus in me that have proven valuable for church planting. As I tell you about a few of them, I hope you will consider how you might introduce yourself with what you’ve got.
It all started with that college Bible study. I was called to be a church planter early on. Jesus used the most inept evangelist ever to win many of my dorm mates to Christ. In my sophomore year, I started a Bible study to disciple them. It grew by my junior year to two apartments and 50-100 people coming every Monday. I have not forgotten what it was like to feel twenty – ready to invent the wheel.
What did I (and my friends) have?
- conviction that “if it is true for me it will be true for everyone”
- trust in the presence of God, not our skill
That's all great for church planting. We thought, "There is a great movement of goodness in the world and we have found it."
I went to seminary. I was called from planting a new youth group with the Assemblies of God back to the college church who had lost their beloved youth pastor a few months back and a lot of their kids. At the first meeting I led we had four people. When the church blew apart about seven years later they did not fire their boy (lucky me!) with everyone else. Plus, there were about 200 kids from jr. high through college. They were about a third of the church.
What did I (and a very beloved team) have?
- I had added a wife who added incarnational evangelism as a concept to my sense of mission. When we discovered Anabaptists, we began calling the idea "invasive separatism."
- Tons of energy
That's all great for church planting. We lived like, "Life in Christ is a big party and you are invited."
The first church planting
We finally decided that the group of us who lived and worked together at the center of this youth ministry were not going to make it into the next act of this Baptist church. So we got them to send us to plant a new church. It was their first and maybe last multiplication. We had never heard of a church multiplication but we did not want to be responsible for a church "split." We traveled together for another seven years or so and the new congregation is still going.
What did I (and this remarkable congregation) have?
- We discovered that we were a group who had the same odd flavor mix that the Brethren in Christ has. Mostly we were Anabaptists because of our simple, straightforward Bible reading – we were doers of the word. But we had the Baptist pietism flavor and I, especially took holiness flavor into Pentecostalism. That and some great practices we discovered (like the Love Feast) seemed perfectly suited for what we postmodern types were looking for.
- We already had community.
- We just wanted to do it; we did not have to do it. It was all new and exciting to us.
- We liked being real.
That's a great combo for church planting: a convicted core team doing their own thing based on a dream, not just an application of a program or a duty to some principle.
Circle of Hope
During our short stint in the BIC homeland we were called to explore urban church planting (when it was not so fashionable!). We thought God was calling us to one of the mega cities of the third world. But we finally ended up, to our surprise, in Philadelphia. We thought we could contemporize BIC thinking to meet urbanites where they lived. It was a mid-life leap for me: all my training and experience were put to the test. I liked that. I became a Christian by having my new beliefs put to the test and they survived. I still do not want to be part of an institution that is not constantly being tested to see whether it deserves to survive in its environment.
What did I (my family and the small core team) have?
- Willingness to risk it all
- Supportive friends and family
- A vision
Hot, dusty, delighted when we took a new risk in 2005.
When I came to Philly I had a simple conviction. I was not a likely candidate to win a bunch of people to Christ from scratch and form a church. I thought I was sent to catalyze what the Holy Spirit was already doing. I would introduce some people to Jesus and include some ready-made partners, but who I would mostly find were people who had an idea that what I was talking about was what they were looking for. They would mostly be burned out evangelicals, dissatisfied Catholics, under-used twentysomethings who Baby Boomers would never let drive the car, and people who were spiritual but who had never met an authentic Christian before, people who wanted the church to be a good thing but just hated it. I parachuted into Philadelphia and wandered the streets for a few months and, sure enough, I met a lot of these people. From September through March we gathered a formation team, formed four cells and were ready to have a public meeting on Palm Sunday.
What did we have?
- Encouragement from successful people that we could do it. I had an almost slavish humility in practicing what others had learned.
- A good plan – and that we did our plan. We had good, practical goals; we considered the barriers to meeting them; we had actions steps for how to accomplish what we considered. It was a serious project -- and still is.
- I had a very supportive wife and family. My sons and their wives are stalwarts in the church and my youngest son is our newest pastor.
- We listened to the call and were there when the Spirit was beginning to move. As a result, we have been copied relentlessly. And that is great.
What do you have? What do we have now? What is the Spirit doing and how are we moving alongside? Yes, we answered that call and those questions in the past. But Jesus is dying and rising all over the region and the world right now. How are you and I planting the church with him?
How will we introduce ourselves and the Lord who is with us? As God became incarnate in Jesus, we are his body, filled with His Spirit. Church planting is personal -- just like Jesus walking around Galilee, Circle of Hope is Jesus walking around the Philly region. I find it painful. But I also experience resurrection in myself and others through that suffering. My true self is put into action and grows in the process of getting out there with Jesus. For the joy of that re-creation, we endure the cross.
Further thoughts on church planting: