The denomination wanted representation in Anytown. There were other local churches, but it was shortsighted not to have one of their own there. And he was the obvious choice to lead—a visionary leader, successful, and dependable. He went through a couple of seasons on the edge of burnout, but wasn’t that normal?
Their vision to reach a diverse community was exciting! The parent church wanted a longer lead time, but there was momentum building. God provided a building (pricey but perfectly located), and they spent thousands on a beautiful website, church merch, and the best coffee in town. Everyone would remember this launch.
They had some opposition from the local community and from other area churches, especially when members left to join Christ Church. That made ministers’ gatherings awkward, so he opted out of them, growing self-sufficient and protective. There were some encouragements, but it was all harder than expected. He felt increasingly stretched and anxious, impacting his home life.
In one heated church meeting, some people vehemently disagreed about childcare on a Sunday morning. He reacted defensively. A number of members resigned, leaving ministry teams and the church budget stretched. This was not how it was meant to be. He’d never heard of a church plant not working—and never dreamed it could be his.
A year later, the church decided to quit.
Christ Church Anytown isn’t a specific example of a struggling church plant, but a combination of many. Many new churches don’t thrive—we just don’t hear about them. I spent the last year studying 80 church plants from around the globe that haven’t gone as planned. It is my hope that we will listen hard and prayerfully learn from their stories.
From these conversations, I’ve categorized the reasons why plants struggle with obstacles that come from inside and outside the church. This article explores five pitfalls that arise inside the church, and in a follow-up article, we’ll consider pitfalls from outside.
We easily admire gifting over godliness. We want the omnicompetent-visionary-pioneer-preacher-superhero, and we often overlook character. In a surprising (or perhaps unsurprising) number of cases, the key complication was the church planter’s sin—either as an initial catalyst for the collapse or in response to other issues.
Root character issues produce ugly fruit, sometimes seen in massive overwork. We become burdened and isolated, unable to delegate because no one else would do it the way we want
Only Jesus was perfect. But undershepherds must take the leadership qualities listed in Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Peter 5 seriously, reflecting the beauty of the Chief Shepherd.
Root character issues produce ugly fruit, sometimes seen in massive overwork. The drive to succeed leads to an unsustainable pace and pride. We become burdened and isolated, unable to delegate because no one else would do it the way we want. Like Gollum, we grow unwilling to share “our precious” church with others. The result is exhaustion and burnout.
But Christ’s church is not about us. We’re not the Chief Shepherd; Jesus is. It’s not our glory, it’s his. It’s not our church, it’s his. For sustainability in church planting—and pastoral health—we must equip and enable others to steward their gifts as they serve.
- How much has the gospel shaped who you are as a planter? Do you know your besetting sins? Does anyone else?
- Church planting must be a team effort. Which friends can encourage you to keep going but also know you well enough to ask hard questions?
- Who can you help flourish as you share opportunities for service within the church body? Who can you invest in, that they might go on and surpass you in your ministry?
- Consider reading Lead by Paul Tripp, and prayerfully engage with the questions it asks of your heart.
I was staggered by the number of conversations with struggling planters about disunity. I shouldn’t have been. From my own church-planting experience and the Scriptures, I see Satan’s well-worn tactic. He seeks to undo what Jesus has done and fragment what Jesus has united. The disunities were sometimes theological and sometimes cultural, but always ended up being relational. In a newer, smaller church—where agendas can be smuggled, voices loud, and relationships not yet formed—factions and cliques are especially damaging.
In the early days, it’s tempting to take whoever comes instead of proactively communicating the church’s stand on theology or culture. But this can lead to problems. There can also be particular problems when leaders are raised up without sufficient preparation or depth of relationship.
- Which issues or perspectives have the potential to divide within your church plant?
- How can you practically encourage loving unity?
We’re all given various gifts, strengths, and weaknesses. Yet the expectation of an omnicompetent planter can make us want to give the impression that we are, in fact, omnicompetent. Many planters realized that their weaknesses led to problems as the church developed. Some struggled with the weekly Bible teaching, others with evangelism. Some found administration hard. Some struggled with pastoral care while others lacked the leadership gifts needed for a team to flourish. Often these issues were most pronounced when the focus was on an individual leader rather than a complementary core group functioning as a diverse team.
- If you could construct an ideal launch team, what gifts would you need to supplement your own? Why?
- How much of a team player are you? Where do you find it hard to collaborate in leadership or ministry? Why?
Marriage is hard. Ministry marriages are (possibly) harder, and planting ministry marriages are likely even harder than that! One in five planters mentioned the significant detrimental effect planting had on their marriages and families. Though exciting, planting is busy and stressful. It frequently involves changing cities, schools, or even countries, limiting outside support networks. It’s essential to include one’s spouse from an early stage in the recruitment and assessment process, and to pursue coaching, support, and care. One planter advised, “Love Jesus, your wife, and your kids more than you love planting.”
In our quick-fix, fast-moving culture, patience is vital. Hold your nerve. Trust God to do what he promised to do.
- If you’re married, how supportive is your wife of this church plant on a scale of 1–10? How does she view her role? What will (and won’t) she be involved in?
- If you’re a parent, how will you prioritize your children? How will you model the joy of gospel service to your family?
In the hard ground of the increasingly secular West, we can drift into trusting things other than the gospel to bear fruit. We can begin to look longingly for the proverbial “silver bullet” as the means for growth rather than the means of grace God has provided. A number of planters noted that the way they spend their time during the week reveals this. When your to-do list is long, how much time do you give to prayer and preparing to preach? Are they squeezed in around everything else? God creates and re-creates by his Word. In our quick-fix, fast-moving culture, patience is vital. Hold your nerve. Trust God to do what he promised to do.
- What tempts you to seek to grow the church through something other than the Word of God?
- How does your calendar each week reflect your priorities?
Remember, we have an enemy devoted to the destruction of our churches. Let us beware of these pitfalls from within the church that, left unchecked, can have a disastrous impact on a new church plant. And let us press on in the strength God provides to wisely and effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ.