This post is the last in a four part series for aspiring church planters. For the other posts in this series use the buttons at the bottom of the page.
Not all Christians are called to be pastors. Not all pastors are called to be lead pastors. Not all lead pastors are called to be church planters. “Church planter” is a subgenre of lead pastor, which is a subgenre of pastor, which is a subgenre of Christian. So it’s important for an aspiring planter to first answer the question, “Am I gifted and called to plant a church?”
But even if the answer is yes, his discernment-of-calling work is not yet done. There’s one more reality he must face and one more question he must answer. The reality: not all church planters are equally effective in all contexts. The question: where am I gifted and called to plant a church?
Not all church planters are equally effective in all contexts.
How wisely this last question is answered will usually determine a church planter’s vitality. Highly gifted men can still struggle when mismatched to context. On the other hand, a God-given contextual fit can launch a wonderfully average pastor into lifelong ministry. So how can a church planter discern a call to a particular people and place? Here are three ingredients for answering the all-important question, “Where am I gifted and called to plant a church?”
#1 – Cultural preparation
In his must-read book Church in the Making: What Makes or Breaks a New Church Before it Starts, former church planter Ben Arment studies church plants that grew to sustainability and those that did not. He notices that compelling vision, great faith and plenty of money are not the deciding factors. Instead he identifies three other ingredients that are more likely to make or break a church – “Good Ground, “Rolling Rocks” and “Deep Roots.”
“Good Ground” means that a community is spiritually receptive; the soil has been cultivated so that the gospel and a new church are readily received. “Rolling Rocks” means that the church has social momentum, enough people to create an inviting community. “Deep Roots” means that the church’s vision is not a generic import; it’s derived from deep local understanding. At least one of these is present in all of Arment’s examples of vital church plants.
As I read Arment’s work, I notice that all of these ingredients are about the planter’s cultural preparation for a specific people and place. Has he prepared the soil? Does he have a social network in the city? Does his vision come from local knowledge and experience, the kind you can’t find on census surveys?
When considering where to plant, this means two things: (1) We should consider places where God has given us local knowledge and relationships. Most likely, these will come from experience in the area. Don’t discount your hometown or a city where you’ve spent significant time. (2) Parachuting into a city where we have no history or relationships is the hardest job in ministry. Of course, God calls some planters to do just that! And some are especially gifted for this challenge (see Paul the Apostle). But we should open our eyes wide before we jump: we’ll have to do the hard, slow work of preparing the soil, building a social network and understanding the local culture. Parachute planters should be prepared to invest years in their new city before seeing significant fruit.
#2 – Readiness to sacrifice.
Paul famously forfeited the custom of earning a living from ministry in order to offer the gospel “free of charge” to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:8-18). While this is often used to validate bi-vocational ministry, I think it also teaches a more important principle: a church planter is so burdened for the locals that he’s willing to suffer for them. (Related side note: in my observation, bi-vocational is sometimes an excuse for planters to avoid the suffering called “fundraising”).
All effective gospel ministry requires sacrifice, and willingness to sacrifice is often a sign of calling.
All effective gospel ministry requires sacrifice, and willingness to sacrifice is often a sign of calling. This means that a church planter should not dismiss a particular place just because it’s not a place he “likes” or where he “feels at home.” It also means that he can measure the strength of his calling by his threshold for sacrifice.
Here are some questions to help measure this readiness: what will annoy me about daily life in this city (possible examples: small houses, expensive cost of living, traffic, no coffee shops within 10 miles, weather, homogenous culture, multi-ethnic culture)? Am I willing to patiently endure these inconveniences in order to do ministry here? What are the idols of this culture? Am I ready to pastor people through them, without becoming self-righteous or angry? What are the risks of planting here? Are we OK if we fail? What kind of work would I rather not do, but I’ll have to do, in order to plant this church (possible examples: social networking, fundraising, pastoral counseling, crossing cultural boundaries, learning a new language)? Am I willing to do it without complaining?
#3 – Co-laborers called to go with you.
The Antioch Church of Acts 13 appears to be the first intentional church-planting church in history. They established a pattern that got repeated throughout the Apostolic Era: Barnabas and Saul were sent out together (perhaps they learned this from Jesus, who sent out his disciples two-by-two in Mark 6). Even as Saul became the famous Paul, he was never a lonesome hero, riding solo into the Western frontier. He traveled and pastored with peers and protégées – Barnabas, Silas, Judas, Timothy, John Mark. On the rare occasion he found himself alone, he waited for the others to catch up (Acts 17:5).
God often calls pairs or teams together. He can use this to affirm a calling to a particular people & place.
From this pattern, we can observe a principle. Stated negatively: If you think God is calling you to plant a church in a particular place but he hasn’t called anyone else to go with you, he might not be calling as clearly as you imagine. Stated positively: God often calls pairs or teams together. He can use this to strengthen and affirm a calling to a particular people and place.
Why is this important? On the one hand, self-deception means that it’s possible to “hear a call” from unsanctified ambition and mistake it for the call of God. Imagine how encouraging it must have been for Saul – an admittedly proud man – when Barnabas affirmed his ministry in Jerusalem (Acts 9) and joined him in his first missionary ambition (Acts 13)! On the other hand, discouragement and difficulty can cause us to lose sight of a genuine call. Imagine how reassuring it must have been to Titus when Paul reminded him of his calling to plant among the liars and lazy gluttons of Crete. (Titus 1). And imagine how strengthening it must have been to Timothy – an admittedly timid man – when, beset by false teachers and controversy, Paul reminded him of his calling to Ephesus (1 Timothy 1). All of this was possible because Paul, Titus and Timothy were not isolated parachute church planters. They were co-laborers in the gospel!
For the other posts in the Aspiring Church Planters series use these buttons:
Hunter Beaumont is Lead Pastor of Fellowship Denver Church in Denver, CO. Hunter is a outdoorsman who is mediocre at several Colorado pursuits: snow skiing, road cycling and fly fishing. He has a MTh from Dallas Theological Seminary and was a CPA in his previous life.