About three years ago, in the early fall of 2016, Jessie and I made one final “prayer trip” from Louisville, Kentucky back to Columbia, Missouri. We had been living in Louisville for more than six years, we had had two of our boys there, and I had loved serving as a staff pastor at Sojourn Church throughout that time. But now, we were considering a massive transition—moving home and starting a new church.
Long story short: After lots of prayer and discussion with close friends and mentors, we decided to take the leap. We let our friends and family and church leaders know that God was calling us to return home, put down roots, raise our children, and start Trinity Community Church in Columbia, Missouri.
The Past Two Years
After transitioning out of Louisville, raising funds, recruiting leaders, and taking a three-month sabbatical, we held our first Sunday night Bible study in our living room on June 11, 2017. We had nine adults and six kids, and Trinity was born. After meeting in our home for seven months, we moved our Bible study to Sunday mornings at Columbia Independent School—but we still hadn’t formally “launched” the church. After eight more months of small gatherings, prayer, and relationship-building, we held our public launch gathering on Sunday, September 16th, 2018. (We had about 30 adults and 20 kids at that point.)
Fast forward: This past Sunday, we celebrated our first anniversary* as a church! Trinity is a beautiful community and a profound witness to God’s grace! People have met Christ, found community, and grown in their faith. We are an ordinary church plant in most ways—we now have about 50 adults and 25 kids, we still rely on outside funding, and we set up and clean up a rented space each week. There is nothing impressive about our gatherings, we aren’t doing anything original or visionary, and yet we are healthy, growing, and seem to have set a good trajectory from the years/decades to come.
*So, we have been working on Trinity for two-plus years, but in terms of public communication, we’re counting from the public launch, and everything before that was “year zero.”
Church planting has nearly consumed our lives over the past two years, and we are far from done. We anticipate being in “church planting mode”—outside funding, rented space, hustle-and-prayer mode—for another two years. But there is finally some rhythm and stability to this thing, and I’m finding myself a bit reflective.
Nervously, I submit my first published reflections on church planting.
What Church Planting Feels Like
Comedian Jim Gaffigan said of having a fifth child, “It’s like you’re drowning, and then someone throws you a baby.”
That’s what church planting feels like.
It feels a lot like parenting: We put in long hours, it’s relentlessly hard work, and almost all the “payoff” is years down the road. It’s so easy to get discouraged. It’s isolating. There’s no one thing that is unbearably difficult—whether changing a diaper or planning a gathering—but it’s the thousands of little challenges that pile up, one on top of another. Planning a gathering while recruiting volunteers, making fundraising calls, building relationships with people outside the faith, managing Quickbooks, writing another sermon, picking up food, cleaning our house for community group, counseling members, meeting to support other local churches, ministries, and nonprofits, and so on. Meanwhile, everyone I meet asks, “So what do you do all day?”
Resistance in Church Planting
In Issue #2, I mentioned Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art
as one of my favorite books on creativity. In every creative endeavor (from starting a business to getting in shape to planting a church), we face resistance. The more resistance we face, the more important the work must be. He writes:
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it… If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.
There is plenty of resistance in church planting. But as Pressfield writes, “It’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.” Church planting isn’t just hard, it’s impossible apart from the Holy Spirit and divine providence (in his infinite wisdom, God lets some make it and others not). So what is the best advice I’ve received in the past few years?
Best Church Planting Advice
I have been fortunate to experience church planting firsthand (from 2007-10 at Karis Church in Columbia and two campuses at Sojourn in 2010-11). And I have an incredible set of relationships within Sojourn Network and Fellowship Associates. So, we have gotten a TON of life-saving church planting advice. Here are the five best bits of advice that come to mind:
We were told to spend more time than we thought necessary on basically everything—meeting with people outside the church, planning events, and preparing to “launch” weekly services. (I hate the launch language, by the way.) Everything I thought we could do in six months took 15 months. Things I thought we could do in year one we probably won’t do until year five. That’s fine. Drive slow, homie.
Build a team.
The old model of “parachute planting”—dropping into a city from the outside and starting from scratch—is dying, and team church planting is replacing it. Both Sojourn Network and especially Fellowship Associates are big on this: Recruit one or two other pastors, a half-dozen qualified volunteer leaders, and literally everything will be better and more sustainable.
I have one million respect points for bi-vocational church planters—who work full time while starting a church. I honestly don’t think I could do it. Instead, I have invested five or six hours each week plus a few weeks of the year to travel and raise funds (from families, churches, and networks), and that has enabled me to focus full-time on Trinity without working above 50 hours each week. Almost everyone I talked to recommended this, and if I was doing it again, I’d raise more—to pay for administrative help, probably. (Also, the fundraising is part of what humbles and matures the team, and it provides for extra prayer support from people and churches.)
Find a healthy addiction.
One of my friends/mentors told me that every lead church planter develops an addiction while planting—to alcohol, drugs, fast food, pornography, or to an emotional affair. We don’t want that. Instead, he suggested, find a healthy addiction—something that is an escape from stress, that has nothing to do with church planting, where you can just be an ordinary person getting caught up in something. For me, that’s been cycling. Three or four mornings a week, 100 to 130 miles each week, going as hard as I can every mile. I have definitely spent too much time, money, and energy on cycling in the last two years. But you know what? As addictions go, it could be worse. (Don’t worry I can totally quit whenever I want.)
Focus on your own spiritual health.
A motto in Fellowship Associates: The most important thing that happens in the first three years of a church plant is the transformation of the lead pastor. Nnngulp. The thing that most sets the trajectory for a church is not the number of people or the budget at year three. It’s the pastor’s health and humility. The point? If I need a day off but feel like it would be a setback for the church (cancelling meetings, less sermon prep, etc.), I remind myself of this and take the darn day off.
What I Would Tell a Prospective Church Planter
In addition to passing along the five bits of advice above, I’d add a few from experience here:
Don’t over-promise in vision-sharing.
I’m frequently tempted to over-promise: “Trinity is going to change your life! It is totally different! We will be the next great church in town! I hope you’re prepared for all-out revival!” But if that vision/promise/wish-dream is what draws somebody in, if we can’t deliver on it, they will rightly be disappointed and disenfranchised. A more accurate vision will be less appealing, but it will also better prepare people for reality: “We will strive to be a healthy church with a strong sense of community, and our city will be slightly better than it was before. It will take an enormous amount of hard work. Hopefully it works out in the end. How soon can you serve with kids?”
You don’t have to be an extrovert, but it would sure help.
Church planting is not primarily about fund-raising, preaching, and church leadership, although those are all involved. Church planting, in the first two years especially, is about gathering people into a completely unknown and unproven new community. Many successful pastors (especially if they are introverts) struggle as church planters, and many successful church planters (especially if they’re extroverts) struggle to transition into pastoral leadership. There is no one type of church planter, but starting a church as an introverted person has been emotionally and relationally exhausting. If you’re an introvert, surround yourself with more extroverted people on your team and pace yourself.
If you can’t recruit a team of leaders, wait to plant.
I don’t always say it so boldly, but in general, I wouldn’t fully commit to church planting (starting fundraising and gatherings) until I had two or three good leaders on board. Even if it means an extra two or three years of waiting, it will be worth it.
Celebrate every moment.
It is a struggle, but if you can pause and look for evidences of God’s grace, you can celebrate in every moment. The best thing we’ve done as a new church is to gather twice each year for a celebration dinner, where we get babysitters, go out for a great meal, share evidences of grace, and encourage each other. The “wins” are few and far between, and my goodness, you need to cling to them, because the discouragement can be relentless. (Also: prepare yourself for near-constant rejection. For every ten relationships I’ve built, one person actually visits Trinity, and maybe 0.25 joins the church.)
Cultivate good soil.
See what I did there? Let’s end here. Church planters are farmers—we are digging up hard land, clearing bush, planting seeds, and watering soil. God brings about growth, or perhaps he doesn’t. Our role isn’t to make things happen. Our job isn’t to “start a movement.” It’s not to gather a crowd, stand on a stage, and change the world. Our job is to cultivate good soil and let God do the real work—changing hearts and conforming ordinary people into the image of his Son.