Editor’s Note: Acts 29 will be releasing 12 Planting Pitfalls, a video series hosted by Jeff Medders this fall. Stay tuned to hear more from Dan Steel in these videos!
It’s not pleasant to consider why church plants fail. But if we’re aiming for God-glorifying success, it’s a worthy—if sobering—exercise. In the previous article, we looked at potential pitfalls that spring up from inside the church relating to character, gifting, unity, family, and priority.
Now we’ll turn our attention to pitfalls that arise from outside the church.
It’s “success” stories of church plants that get platformed at conferences. Many want to replicate them and we all secretly dream of leading them. Yet they are the exceptions rather than the rule. But because we only hear the success stories, we’re often not honest enough—until it’s too late. We must make it ok for people to talk about their struggles.
One of my encouragements in receiving stories from around the world has been the opportunity to create a culture of honesty where people can talk openly about their experiences. It’s been a privilege to come alongside those who’ve been brave and vulnerable enough to reach out.
- Have you ever spoken in-depth to a church planter who has significantly struggled? What did you learn? How will their experience shape your expectations?
- Why do you think we generally don’t hear much about plants that don’t go well?
One Australian planter told me that his church closed after eight years. During that time, 38 other plants launched and subsequently shut down in the same neighborhood. 38 different networks and tribes (many from overseas) saw this area as strategic. Indeed, his plant struggled partly because early participants were tempted by newer churches with better offerings and opportunities. When a church has the vision to plant into an area without much knowledge, the kind of church they plant will likely not match the kind of church that’s needed. At its worst, church planting can then be more about staking our flag in a strategic area rather than seeking to reach people for Jesus. Local, contextualized knowledge is vital.
It’s not pleasant to consider why church plants fail. But if we’re aiming for God-glorifying success, it’s a worthy—if sobering—exercise.
- What do you make of the desire for networks or denominations to plant churches in strategic centers? What kind of places are seen as strategic and why?
- Who has shaped the vision of your plant? You? A leadership team? The core group? The congregation? The denomination or planting network?
Parent Church Relationship
My eldest daughter is 18. At times, she feels ready to leave home—especially in the COVID-19 lockdown season. Similarly, the plant and parent church relationship can be complicated. The plant might want independence as quickly as possible while the parent church doesn’t want them to move on too quickly and endanger their best possible chance to thrive. A number of planters advised “memorandums of understanding.” These written agreements describe what ongoing support—financial, relational, or otherwise—will look like for the new plant.
- If you’re planting from a parent church, have you discussed expectations about how they will support you and for how long?
- Is anyone within the core team coming because they are frustrated with the parent church? How can you help them to leave well?
Copy and Paste Syndrome
Some planters are genuine “blue-sky-thinking” innovators. They can understand an area, think outside the box, and plant a church that’s appropriate and fruitful in that context. But in my experience, most church planters are magpies, borrowing ideas and models. Assumption is key here. Incorrect assumptions lead to problems sooner or later. You may have seen a plant work well or even led one successfully, but to assume that the same model will thrive anywhere is naive. How well do you understand the new area and people? How well do you know your core team and the gifts and capacities they bring with them? How well do you know yourself? Simply copying and pasting, without understanding differences, is dangerous.
You may have seen a plant work well or even led one successfully, but to assume that the same model will thrive anywhere is naive.
- How well do you think you understand the area into which you are planting?
- What planting models or examples have most shaped your methodology? Where do you doubt that they’ll work in the way you want?
One planter commented, “We are desperately in need of new ways of thinking about church planting. We need many forms.” This is helpful because we don’t always have what we think we need. Sometimes our expectation of planting (usually with all the bells and whistles—a venue, lots of people, all the ministry areas covered, and plenty of money) doesn’t happen. In his sovereign plans, God doesn’t always provide what we want, and even allows what we don’t want. Why? We need to remember, in the mystery, to cling to the sovereignty and promises of God even through unfulfilled wants or unforeseen challenges. Will we trust his plans and purposes rather than our own? This is not the time for trite answers. It could be that the church plant was more our plan for our glory than his plan for his glory. Or it could simply be that we must endeavor to bow to his painful providence.
- What do you want for the church plant (desirable) and what do you think you need (essential)? Why have you made these decisions and distinctions?
- How resilient do you think you are as a planter?
- What do you think the Lord is teaching us when we don’t receive everything we want? What are you tempted to do and feel at that time?
Will we trust his plans and purposes rather than our own? This is not the time for trite answers.
The daily Christian life is a battle and will be until Jesus returns. Church planting is no exception. Various forms of opposition were painfully evident in this study. Consider the following examples.
- Satan is real, and he hates local churches. He will endeavor to bring a plant down. Planters need a category (and strategy) for this very real opposition.
- The world also opposes planting. In the study, opposition varied from individuals who didn’t want a church meeting near them to direct government intervention.
- Other local churches can also be in opposition to a church starting in their neighborhood. Sometimes, to be brutally honest, that might be legitimate—especially if it’s a gospel-preaching church that ends up struggling because there’s a newer option. But often the opposition from within a locality or denomination can be particularly painful, especially if there are huge proportions of the community who need to hear the gospel of Jesus.
- What ministry opposition have you encountered?
- How do you cope with conflict and opposition? What areas of conflict are especially difficult for you to deal with? Why?
- How proactive have you been in reaching out to other local churches? How can you, as far as possible, model gospel unity?
I certainly don’t have all the answers. I’m just beginning to work out what we ought to be asking. But a great question for Acts 29 must be how we, as a network, can talk more about the hardships and difficulties of planting. This conversation will help those who are preparing to plant and those who are currently struggling.