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The Biggest Mistakes I Made in Church Planting

Just over five years ago, my wife Megan and I and our then two kids packed up everything we owned into our Honda Accord and made the drive from Los Angeles, Calif., to Lincoln, Neb., with the hopes of planting a new church. When we arrived, we hit the ground running. We would spend most most of that year throwing parties at our home, investing in people, building a team, raising funds, making a plan, and then in March 2011 we launched.

Five years into this journey, I can say it has been a great ride and God has been exceedingly faithful. By many accounts, we’ve lived the church planting dream. We’ve seen people from many different faith backgrounds find Jesus. We’ve grown substantially and consistently each year. We have a small army of amazing volunteer staff. This fall we even plan to launch a second campus.

From the outside looking in, things look great. Conventional metrics might even suggest we’re knocking it out of the park. But if I’m really honest, I fear this pastor made some big mistakes in the way we went about planting our church that now five years in we are going to have to work really, really hard to undo.

You see, I was trained in how to plant a sexy attractional church. And I think we’ve done that pretty well. (For the record, despite what some may suggest, I don’t believe for a minute that attractional = bad. In fact, I think wherever you find the love of Jesus and the kingdom of God put on display, you will find something very attractive.) For my own part, I was trained in all the conventional methods of planting a church. But what I wasn’t trained in and what I failed to think through entirely was how we were going to make disciples.

This is rather problematic when you consider that Jesus never commanded us to plant churches. He commanded us to make disciples. Now, when you effectively make disciples, I believe church planting becomes inevitable, but it is very possible to plant churches and never get around to actually making disciples.

I thought, studied and planned relentlessly when it came to planting our church, but disciple making wasn’t given nearly the same kind of attention. I assumed that if we moved people into small groups it would just sort of happen on its own. This is easily the biggest mistake I’ve made as a pastor and church planter (and I’ve made some big ones).

Now, I don’t want to suggest there hasn’t been some real and lasting life change that has happened through our church over the last five years. There certainly has been. In fact, God has done things in our midst that have taken our breath away at times. All of that in spite of my many shortcomings and those of our church family. Indeed, the gospel really is that powerful and God really is that good. But not focusing on disciple making from the get-go has cost us, and it’s going to take a lot of work to turn what is now a rather sizable ship in a new direction.

For those who are pastoring, planting or thinking about it, I write in hopes of helping you avoid making some of the same mistakes I did when I set out to plant a church.

If I could go back and do it over again, here are a few things I would do differently:

1. Focus more on making disciples and less on planting a church.

Mosaic is the third church plant I’ve been a part of. I love church planting and I love church planters. But only now am I beginning to recognize just how culturally entrenched many of our models are and just how increasingly ineffective some of those models are showing themselves to be. I think the churches that will show us the way forward in the future will be the ones that effectively make disciples within their context and multiply as a result of lives changed by the gospel. In other words, church planting will become a byproduct of disciple-making, not the other way around.

If I could do it over again, I’d start by focusing on making disciples who can make disciples who can make disciples. By the time I did that, I’d essentially have a church already planted, and one full of people living on mission who get disciple making.

2. Develop a teaching team.

Teaching weekly is a beast that can consume even the most gifted of pastors. I can’t think of another vocation in which an organization’s leader has to write and deliver a fresh new keynote every week, the performance of which he is largely judged effective or ineffective at his job. If a pastor isn’t careful, sermon preparation can quickly become their full-time gig.

If I could go back and do it again, I would start developing and utilizing a teaching team from day one. I’d do this for lots of reasons (probably worthy of another post), but one very important one being to ensure that only a limited amount of my time was devoted to Sunday morning on any given week.

3.  Slow down.

This is something I am increasingly counseling planters to do, but very few have taken me up on it. The truth is there are a lot of benefits to launching large and fast, but there are some profound costs as well. Many of those a planter will only come to know as he comes to discover in the months and years ahead what church he has now inherited. Yes, that planter may have critical mass and be pulling a salary quicker than others, but the crowd they’ve gained in such a short time aren’t generally disciple-making disciples. Some may be (and they are manna from heaven to a church planter), but most will be church people coming from other churches for a mix of perhaps noble and not so noble reasons. The pastor will typically pay for that down the road.

Starting with disciple-making takes a lot longer. It takes a lot more patience, it comes with less perks, and it almost always requires being bivocational. But if I could do it again, I’d slow the process way down and take my time.