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What It Means to Plant the Church

When sensing God’s unique call to plant a church, most pastors are full of dreams about the church and culture they want to cultivate. But even the loftiest dreams are not enough. The task of church planting requires seeking guidance from those who’ve been there. Outreach sat down with five veteran church planters—Bob Roberts of Northwood Church in Dallas, Efrem Smith of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, John Burke of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, Pete Scazzero of New Life Fellowship in Queens, N.Y., and Jeff Mangum of The Vista Community Church in Round Rock, Texas—to dialogue about what they did right, what they would do differently, and how they walked through the challenges of the first few years.

Planting a church requires significant personal risks. What were some of your initial struggles and fears?

Bob Roberts: In terms of difficulty, I think church planting—on a scale of one to 10—is a 10. It’s a difficult thing to do in and of itself, but you’re not just planting a church. Most guys who do it are young, so you’re doing life, too—learning how to be a husband, how to be a dad, how to grow your church, how to be a person. For the first time, you’re really out there.

John Burke: I thought I knew what it took to start a church, but actually, it was 10 times harder. We had no money. No team. No core. We had nothing. How in the world is this going to come together? That was a big fear.

Efrem Smith: In the beginning, I was serving as an associate pastor at a historic, established church. Early on, I had all these fears: How are you going to start a church from scratch? What if people don’t come? What if it fails? What if it doesn’t grow? What if people don’t feel compelled to the vision? How am I going to support my family?

I was fortunate to have some pastors and denominational leaders pray with me through it, coach, and mentor me. I feel like you should not plant a church without a team that’s mentoring and coaching you.

If you were mentored through the church-planting process, how did that impact you and your ministry? Would you recommend church planters find mentors?

Pete Scazzero: Yeah, you definitely want to have some older mentors in your life. And it would be great to get some therapy.

For example, I’m afraid of conflict. Let’s say I’m the classic pastor—telling everyone, “Whatever you want.” I’m taking care of everybody, I’m overly responsible, and I don’t have the guts to say, “You know what…you need to leave.” I couldn’t; I was an appeaser. And so, when you get into some work like [therapy], it helps…[Because] who you are is the key to that church plant. The church will only be who you are as the leader.

Burke: I interviewed or called every young leader I could find who had recently planted a church and just barraged them with questions. I didn’t find just any pastors. I found others who had planted a church similar to the one I wanted to start—a church for unchurched young adults.

So I would say find four or five people who are just a few years ahead and doing something similar to what you’re wanting to do. And then keep bugging them. Emerging Leadership Initiative is an organization I started with other church leaders to help equip…Acts 29 is another one [you] could tap into. And Leading Edge Ministries has a lot of good resources out there.

Roberts: I also try to have, for me personally, four to six mentoring relationships at all times. Find people you really look up to. I have some guys who mentor me at the point of marriage and family, another who will mentor me at the point of theology, others at the point of management. You need multiple mentors. You can find a pastor to talk to, but if he’s not somebody who has been a planter, then you’re in trouble.

Jeff Mangum: I have a church-planting coach now. He’s an absolutely phenomenal man. We meet twice a month. I regurgitate everything going on in me, whether it’s about church or not. And it has been the best emotional, spiritual, and financial investment I’ve ever made as a church planter, by far! There is great power in knowing that you’re not the only one feeling these fears or having these doubts.

I also made a lot of phone calls to church-plant pastors from every denomination, saying, “Hey, what are the big snares that I need to be aware of?”

Did you target a specific demographic for your church, and if so, how?

Smith: I think many successful church plants start by meeting in a school, not in something that looks like an existing church. Where you meet should be a place that represents the community you’re trying to reach. It wouldn’t have worked for us if we started meeting in an existing church building. Meeting in a school and homes was helpful, as was connecting to existing community centers.

And early on, we served. We did supply drives. A school in our area had 40 kids who were bused from a homeless shelter. One of the first things we did was a drive where people brought brand-new coats, hats, mittens, lunch boxes, and school supplies for these kids. We partnered with a park to put on a summer arts program for the kids. By the time our church started, we had a somewhat positive reputation because we served the community.

Mangum: Service is essential to targeting any demographic. And identify leadership within those demographics. I can’t meet the needs of an 18-year-old girl, and I probably can’t meet the needs of a 55-year-old grandfather. So we find those who can, and say, “Would you begin a ministry there?”

I don’t think it’s bad to try to create age-friendly environments, but I do think that the lost art of the American Church is that 18-year-olds don’t know how to have a conversation with 75-year-olds anymore. The spiritual longing part of me is that we would have every demographic represented. That’s what heaven looks like—no doubt about it! In reality, in the local church context, that’s really difficult. It’s hard to find low-income families when you live in a high-income area. Our church actually really struggles with that.

Burke: I’d say to church planters: Ask yourself, “Whom is God calling us to reach? How are they wired? How do we communicate with them? What do we expect this to look like two years from now?” Start working back from there.

And make sure you’re adequately resourced and prepared with staff or leadership. I think it’s a mistake to go into it saying, “Well, God is calling us to this, so it’s just going to somehow come together and work.” He gives us minds and the ability to think, plan, and strategize for a reason.

How did you develop leaders who could share your load?

Mangum: One of the things most church planters want to do is implement eldership in the first year. For us, it’s probably going to be our two-year anniversary before we [do that], because you have to let people be tested and watch them. Are they faithful in serving? Are they faithful in giving? Are they faithful to the core of your vision? Let them earn that. Let them kind of bleed into that role. And all of a sudden, you’ve got some elders on your hands.

Burke: I started taking risks on very young Christians we had led to faith. And then, I just started to equip them to lead others. I don’t think the church is typically willing to take those kinds of risks. The amazing thing is that their friends start to come because they trust them. And new believers or people who are far from God get involved in their group, and they tell their story: “Two years ago, I was right where you are!” It’s just like the New Testament letters. And it is messy! I mean, look at Corinth.

We pull [the young leaders] into small groups and put leadership training classes together. We’re trying to develop the next group of leaders by modeling for them how to do it and helping them build spiritual disciplines that will start to grow them up. And then, slowly but surely, we let them take on more and more until we say, “I think you’re ready.”

We’ve seen how people grow up pretty fast when they start leading others, even simple things like a point person leading the setup and breakdown teams. That kind of leadership helps people feel like they’re a part of it, but it also gives you a chance to see where they are and develop them.

Scazzero: And the people you’re looking for are not the “showies.” The people you think are going to be great aren’t! And the ones you would think are as slow as turtles—they turn out to be great.

For example, the guy who is now our celebration pastor is not dynamic, although he is godly and a very gifted musician. In the early days, I had people telling me to get rid of him because “you need a Ron Kenoly in here to make this place hum, Pete!” I was ready to fire him. But this guy has turned out to be so phenomenal. His gift is raising up other people, and he’s got such patience…such a man of God.

We forget that the ministry is developing people versus “if you want a great church, go hire people who have been trained elsewhere, put them together, and maybe you’ll have a big church automatically!”

What were some of the real challenges you faced during your first few years?

Roberts: I was frustrated because my church wasn’t as big as this guy over here who [was sexually immoral] or this guy who was going to jail for embezzlement. I thought, They are growing huge churches, and I’ve been faithful. Why aren’t you blessing me, God? I felt angry with Him. And at that point of brokenness, this question came into my mind: “Bob, when will Jesus be enough for you?” I had substituted the ministry for Jesus.

Scazzero: By year five, [our church] crashed. Even though things were tremendous on the outside—people coming to Christ, God moving—internally, things were not so good. I was exhausted. All my joy was gone.

What happened internally?

Scazzero: We were expanding too fast. We planted this church and grew to 100 people the first year, and the second year, we grew to 200 people. The third year, we planted a Spanish congregation. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to go slow and do it well. Build quality. There’s no such thing as an instant church. It’s an illusion. It takes slow discipleship mentoring. I was allowing a lot of craziness to go on. And my wife got to a breaking point, and she said, “I love you, but I’m leaving the church and going to another one.”

You know when you think you’re at rock bottom, but you’re not? I ended up in a therapist’s office. My wife and I went away for a week, and I figured that would fix her—and then she’d get back to the church, and then God would fix the church.

To make a long story short, that didn’t happen. In fact, my wife got even more honest with me—the most honest moment in our marriage. And that’s when I realized that you couldn’t have a mature spiritual church that doesn’t have emotional health.

Mangum: I’ve learned the same thing. About seven weeks ago, I came down with the flu and was in bed for seven to eight days. I lost almost 20 pounds, and honestly, I think it had less to do with the flu and more to do with me trying to be all things to all people for one year!

It’s like every church planter has this moment of realizing, “I don’t control this! I have no part to play except to be a conduit of what God is speaking, and nothing else!”

Scazzero: That’s hard—you want to be the one succeeding. But what is success? I’ve learned that success is being faithful to what God wants you to do at the time and place He wants you to do it. The evangelical culture says you have to be Number 1, and you’re failing compared to everybody else. But a lot of church planting is waiting on God, waiting for God. You can build a church with 1,000 people, and God says, “I never asked you to do that. I asked so-and-so to do that. That wasn’t your job.”

Character comes first. Anointing comes second. Results and growth are not the criteria for a great church anymore.

Roberts: I think we have an old model of success. We’ve turned the ministry into this superstardom stuff. So everybody wants to be Number 1. In my day, we were looking at the church of 2,000 and going, “Whoa.” [Church planters] now are looking at a church of 10,000 or 20,000.

So how can you tell if your church plant is successful and healthy—aside from numbers?

Burke: You need spiritual tire kickers, or seekers, rubbing up against the body of Christ in your first year, or you’re going to have a hard time making an impact on the culture. Figure out how to get seeking people in there from the start and let them mingle among you and even advise you as to “Would you bring your friends to this?” The first 100 or so people who come really define what [your church is] going to be.

Smith: If you’re gathering people on Sunday, but you can’t gather them at other times for outreach or discipleship or other ministry initiatives, your church is unhealthy.

And your people must begin to own the vision and the purpose for themselves so that, ultimately, you as the church planter are not carrying the full weight of the vision and purpose by yourself.

Burke: I agree. Being able to allow other leaders to rise up and hold the vision and values and move things forward without you having to push them—that’s where many churches get stuck, because the point leader has to do it all or be it all. And it’s really hard to let go.

Another thing that indicates a healthy church is a holistic approach to evangelism—seeing evangelism happening as a process rather than just an event. Realizing that people move step-by-step along the path until they come to a point of faith, and then they have to keep taking steps of trust after that.

As far as being healthy as a whole, you need community at the core. Find a way of being in each other’s lives, being authentic, sharing real struggles, learning how to do the “one another’s” of Scripture, and really be the body.

You’ve also got to have an inspiring, life-giving worship service that communicates to the culture. If your church is really being built out of people who are coming to faith, then they’ve got to understand and be inspired to want to do life with God.

Roberts: At Northwood, we want to see community transformation. I think the great tragedy of today is that we are planting churches and doing evangelism without changing society. How can that be?

We also want to see churches pick a hard place in the world and work there. It should be a place where you can use your church members [vocationally] as opposed to just religious work. That’s what we do—this year we’ll have 20 or 30 small trips to [our chosen country]. We work with world leaders and educators and business people.

Mangum: Your people should be living out the term “missional church.” They should minister in their sphere of influence as well as they do in Uganda for a two-week trip.

Looking back, what do you wish you’d done differently?

Smith: Sometimes, I would prematurely put people in positions of leadership because I was just so excited that someone wanted to join and be a part. So instead of just giving opportunities for people to serve, I felt this need to give them titles that would encourage them to stay. Later, you might get to know the person and realize that you don’t share the same theology, vision, or values.

Also, steer clear of feeling pressure to act like or play to church people and make it feel like what they consider “real church” right away. There were people who wanted me to start worshipping every Sunday right from the beginning. They wanted to know, “When are we going to do baptism?” or “When are we going to do stuff so we’re a real church?”

Remind the already churched people coming alongside you that they’re the servants and not the customers.

Scazzero: I would’ve trusted God a lot more. I think a lot of my feverish activity was fear-based. I didn’t take Sabbaths. I cheated—because God forbid I trust Him to build a church. I didn’t let myself feel depression, anger, or sadness. I was a machine—“Get it done for God!” [I encourage others] to be obedient and slow down and not do activity out of anxiety.

Mangum: I agree—don’t fall into the intoxicating desire of wanting to be bigger and better quickly. It’s in the Western-cultured American Church mindset to build bigger and better and stronger, as opposed to making disciples.

Get your core group—find those three or four people who can really replicate the vision you have in your heart. And meet with them as much as it takes. Pray, fast, create disciplines in them that you want done in you. And then three, four, five months down the road, you don’t have three or four people running the show and most people just following their lead. Instead, you’re empowering people with the Gospel.

Burke: At Gateway, we took too long to define our spiritual formation process or discipleship. It just happened one-on-one early on, and then we grew and grew, and the larger you get, it’s harder to know if discipleship is happening. You have to start getting more organized about how you guide people through spiritual formation so you know they’re actually growing up in Christ.

I had done Campus Crusade and Navigator stuff—you know, a lot of the really cognitive discipleship—and there is a place for that, but I don’t really think that’s the way people truly grow. The way they truly grow is they hit some wall, and something painful happens in their lives. And if they respond to the Holy Spirit, it guides them in a path and actually grows them up.

Usually, people have to be in the right context of relationships to not kick against it but go with it and respond to the Spirit. And so, how do you do that? How do you make a curriculum out of that? What you can do is provide the right context. So we get to create the right culture or relational environment where people can and will respond to God’s Spirit tapping them on the shoulder. We come alongside each other and provide disciplines or resources to help each other respond to the way God is trying to grow us…I wish we’d had that early on; we just didn’t.

Roberts: I would’ve tried to understand the kingdom of God. I knew about it theologically and exegetically, but I didn’t have a clue about what it means to live the kingdom of God. For me, church planting was the Sunday event: How many people can I get there on the weekend? All I knew was the Gospel of salvation. I didn’t understand the Gospel of the kingdom of God, that it was supposed to mean personal transformation.

My paradigm was we started churches to reach lost people. That’s not biblical. If you go back and read Acts 11, what you had were radically transformed laymen who were excited for God, who got persecuted and shipped off to Antioch. They wound up sharing their faith with the people they worked with. And there was so much transformation that took place in their lives. The next thing you know, there were so many of those people that they formed a church. So church planting is a result of evangelism. We’ve reversed it. We’ve said, ‘Church planting is what we do in order to do evangelism.’ But if it’s not birthed out of evangelism, what is the ultimate goal of that church? What is its long-run durability? And is it ever going to transform the community?

Mangum: If a church planter does not have spiritual intimacy with God at a high level, the church will be an absolute failure. Either it’s going to shut down, or it’s going to keep going when it shouldn’t. If you don’t have spiritual vitality, you have nothing to offer.

What things really worked for you? What actions would you recommend to other church planters who are just starting out?

Smith: One of the things I’m really glad I did was take time early on to create an exhaustive vision and ministry plan for the church. It’s important to have a short (one page) and long (10 to 20 pages) version that lays out the vision that God has given you—what sets your church plant apart. Whenever God opened the door, I could share the plan with people who might want to be involved.

I also didn’t feel the pressure at the beginning to start gathering people every Sunday morning. The first three months, we had a series of home gatherings—mainly a dinner on Sunday evening and a Bible study where I shared the vision of what this church could be. Then I launched what was called a “preview service” once a month for three months. After that, we finally had our “Grand Opening Sunday,” the official launching of our church when we started meeting every Sunday. By the time we had our first service, we had more than 200 people.

Mangum: There’s one thing you have to get over quick: Not everyone is going to think you are the greatest church ever. You have to let people walk in and walk out. If you don’t hear from them, you love them, you e-mail them, you call them, and pour into them. But you have to be able to release people.

It’s a hard, emotional thing. Your insecurities come out. You try to convince people to stay as opposed to trusting the Spirit of God to romance their hearts.

Scazzero: Yes. When you plant a church, everybody comes with his or her own agenda. And the best thing that can happen at a church plant is that some people leave. Their vision is not within your larger vision. It’s not that you’re a narcissist; it’s just that God called you to plant the church.

Mangum: Also, when people come to [your] church, they come with expectations. You have a family that has a couple of high school kids, and their first question is “Do you have a youth ministry?” And everything in you says, “Oh, we want to start one.” Then you give them this false hope. Four months later, you don’t have the people to lead it, and you can’t lead it yourself, or you’ll go crazy.

In the first 12 to 18 months, find two or three vital core ministries and say, “We’re going to do this with excellence.” I’ve found that people are more forgiving of the idea that you’re waiting to start something good than seeing you start something before its time and failing repeatedly.

Roberts: We have church planters start a small group and multiply. If they can’t do that, why do they think they can start a church? We help them identify what style they want to do—postmodern, house church, simple church. But we don’t get into models. We’re into design. So you’ve got to know who you are, what your gifts are, and what your community is like.

From day one, I did nothing right. That’s why we started training church planters. [We teach them to] know everything there is to know about the kingdom of God. Don’t just read Dallas Willard, read his footnotes, and that will take you to some incredible people like E. Stanley Jones, Foster, Bonhoeffer, Tolstoy, and God forbid, Gandhi (who meditated on the Sermon on the Mount on a daily basis). You’ve got to have a theological base for what you do.

Additional thoughts from these church planters:

Smith, on Setting Your Church Plant Apart: I think it’s important to really show what sets your church plant apart. What is unique about it? How does it bring something to the body of Christ that is fresh and new? If your church just sounds like half the churches in your area, those other churches might feel like you’re just competing with them for their people.

Because the majority of the churches in America are homogenous, the fact that my church plant is urban and multiracial was a plus. I was seen as something unique because my church uses elements of hip-hop culture in our worship experience.

Scazzero, on Putting Family First: Marriage comes first—even before the ministry. The ministry is always secondary. I have a great wife and four girls. But I was so busy going to church, I missed my girls’ first eight years.

Honestly, for the first two girls, I wasn’t even around. I was so busy! I was absorbed in church work. I can never get those years back.

God never asked me to die to my family. I love my wife, but we didn’t have a great marriage; it was just OK. I was too busy, so I loved her on the run.

Mangum, on Finding a Church Planting Mentor: It’s almost like finding a first job after being an intern for a long time. You just keep pushing and pushing until you get a job. You have to find those church planters or get connected with conferences. It’s all so that you can connect with other pastors. So when you’re sitting here after year one going, “What in the world are we doing?” you can call some guys and say, “OK, are we crazy, or is this normal?”

You have to really battle for that mentoring because those relationships don’t just pop up in your lap. We mentor church planters, and twice a month we’ll talk through with them—“Hey, how are things going? What are your concerns? How’s your leadership? How is your intimacy with God right now?” We are trying to become that sounding board for them. And then as we plant more churches, these guys that we’ve been mentoring become that to others.

Burke, on Developing a Core Church Planting Team: Who you take with you when you’re planting a church depends on the model of your church. You need to evaluate who you are trying to reach. But let’s say you’re going to have a public service, that you’re hoping a couple hundred people come to. Then you’d list out the positions and determine whether you need someone to do them full time, part time, or on a volunteer basis. You really need a point visionary leader, a teacher, and a worship leader who’s full time or part time. You also need someone to coordinate what is going to happen with kids. For us, community (or small) groups were core to our whole strategy of reaching people, and so we needed someone to run the community, ministry, and organizational stuff.

Roberts, on Why Church Planting Is So Difficult: Put yourself in the shoes of a guy who loves God. He’s a great preacher who could go to a large church, an established church, but he’s going to plant one instead.

But everybody is watching him, and his own sense of worth is tied to how well his church does! If you’re not mature spiritually—and who is a lot of times when you’re starting out in the ministry—you’ve got an intense amount of pressure placed on you.

It’s a tough emotional challenge. And what you don’t have nailed down is going to pop up. We’ve dealt with, sadly to say, everything from debt and pornography to depression. We’ve learned that if a church plant is going to really be healthy and make it, it boils down to the leader.

Scazzero, on Church Planting and Spiritual Discipline: When I look back on my early days of church planting, I wish I would have lived a more monastic lifestyle in terms of prayer and being with God, pausing three or four times a day. I now practice morning prayer, midday prayer, and evening prayer. But I would have been very disciplined and structured from the beginning.

I would not have ever compromised my time with God. I was more active than I should have been to balance my time of being with God in contemplation. And that was a mistake.

Smith, on Marketing Your Church Plant: Because other churches had invested financially in my church plant in the beginning, it gave me some resources to ‘market’ this new church to unchurched people.

To create the signature culture of our church, we didn’t do the typical “Oh, let’s put something in the church directory of the Christian newspaper or go on Christian radio and tell people that this is a new church.” We went on the secular hip-hop radio station in town and talked about our new church.

We also found some of the smaller social newspapers that promoted nightclubs, and we put an ad in there about our church. We wanted to make sure we were trying to connect to unchurched people in the city or those who had drifted from church for some reason.

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WillitsÂ’ first article post-college was published in Nashville Lifestyles, and bylines quickly became her business. Over the next five years, she served as assistant editor for CCM magazine in Nashville, Tenn., then associate editor of Outreach magazine in San Diego. Now she spends her days writing and editing from her cozy home in East Nashville, contributing to publications and companies like Outreach magazine, Christianity Today, Youthworker Journal, Christian Single, HomeLife, Collegiate, World Vision, Zondervan, Salem Publishing, Outreach Marketing and Willow Creek Community Church.