Jim Collins, in Good to Great, says, “A company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people.” Collins’ quote isn’t about church planting. It’s about the fundamentally different world of corporate affairs. But since my wife and I, along with a core team of friends, started the church planting process in the summer of 2021, I’ve not been able to escape that phrase, the right people.
In an incisive article at Mere Orthodoxy last June, Michael Graham wrote of the “six way fracturing” of evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals are, he said, self-sorting “into the type of church that best fits their animating and core concerns.” Though there are legitimate reasons for Christians to find another fellowship of believers, lately, people are too easily leaving their churches, whether it’s over COVID, politics, race, or any number of topics caught up in the culture wars. What’s more, these heightened cultural pressures are coming at a time when Westerners are more mobile than ever before, more churches are streaming services online, and society’s religious offerings are more numerous and diverse. All of this means that what we’re experiencing is likely the largest, most influential self-sorting of its kind in church history.
There are perennial temptations with church planting, and in a sense, none of the temptations in this season are unique. However, the cultural and ecclesial pressures of the last few years have exacerbated some of them. Church planters always feel the need to get more people on board. Will we have a “critical mass” on our launch Sunday? Will we have enough people to feel comfortable inviting our neighbors and friends? How many people need to show up in the first months for this to be sustainable?
In recent months of our church planting efforts, we have had multiple dinners and coffees with friends and acquaintances and people we’ve only just met. In those meetings, we’ve not only felt that pressure, but we’ve also seen the fruit of the evangelical big sort. Many of our conversations have turned from us sharing about the mission and vision of our church to hearing about the frustration and disillusionment people have with the churches they’ve attended, the reasons they might be open to a change, and the things they would really like to see in our church. As I’ve reflected on these conversations, three underlying temptations have become clear.
The temptation to chase people
The first temptation is to chase people. As we’ve prayed, brainstormed, and been connected with folks we think might be a good fit, we’ve found a few categories of people: (1) people who are immediately interested and start coming to core team meetings; (2) people who, for whatever reason, are not interested and are clear about that up front; (3) people who really aren’t sure, for countless reasons. Church planting isn’t for everyone, and I suspect most people haven’t really thought about it before. Naturally, they need some time to consider whether it’s for them.
But as the months go by, growth is slow, and the decision-making process drags on for some, there is a temptation to chase them. This perhaps comes most clearly in the even more specific temptation to assuage their concerns and assure them that those concerns won’t become issues. Worried about your three kids losing the stability of their established Sunday school rhythms? Don’t worry, we’ll get there soon. Plus, I’ve heard parents recount how great it was to have their kids at a church plant! Worried about whether it makes sense for you to join a church in a community different from the one where you live? Hey, plenty of people will drive across town, and I think it’ll be a really smooth transition for you!
These sorts of overpromises in the effort to chase people can quickly turn into under-deliveries. Yes, you’ll get a few extra core team members, but in a year, they may be frustrated, hurt, and walking out the door. I’ve found it’s better to be completely forthright and have people opt out on the front end than to shade the truth, hurt your friends, and see them eventually leave anyway.
The temptation to capitalize on church frustration
This temptation is uniquely relevant after the last few years because church frustration is so high. As I mentioned above, several conversations have revealed that people are less interested in hearing about our vision for our church, and more interested in sharing their vision for a church. They want to know what we think about certain cultural issues; how I, as a pastor, would have responded to certain major events’ and how we plan to move forward. And yes, how we respond to these things as Christians matters, though we won’t all agree. So, while I don’t mind answering specific questions that people ask, I keep trying to pull those conversations back to the mission and vision of the church. We want to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. And we want to be a Christ-centered church for our area.
Perhaps the easiest way to grow a core team in 2022 would be to assure people that you agree with all their cultural opinions and preferences. But, as my friend and fellow Nashville pastor told me: those aren’t the kind of people to build a church with. They likely won’t make it through the crucible of church planting. And if they find something to disagree with at every church they attend, they’ll eventually find something to disagree with at your church too.
The temptation to oversimplify
Related to both of the first two temptations is the temptation to oversimplify. There is so much complexity to the issues that have caused evangelical churches consternation over the past few years. There is a temptation to oversimplify in a way that will get us “amens” from those who are already super convinced on one side of the cultural divide, but will probably alienate everyone else. This usually comes through unhelpful, loud, and confident proclamations, like that the greatest threat to the gospel is “wokeness,” or that evangelicalism is just a purveyor of white supremacy and needs to be dismantled. It comes in nuance-less assertions, such as churches who don’t require masks have blood on their hands, or that every Christian should’ve voted for one presidential candidate or the other.
Healthy churches today and in the future must be able to operate with a measure of nuance, and disciple people—many of whom are wrestling and doubting—through complexity. Oversimplification won’t allow for that. Nuance might not give people the quick or satisfying answers they want, but it will be beneficial to the health of your church in the long run.
For example, after an early conversation with the elders at our sending church, I used a phrase when I presented my vision for a church that caused some of the elders concern. A couple of them followed up with me—for which I was very grateful, by the way. They could’ve assumed; instead, they asked. But in those conversations, there was a temptation to oversimplify my wording and explain away any concern they might have. My pastor wisely reminded me to be as honest, clear, and thorough as I could be. My calling is to do what I believe God has called me to, not to please men (Acts 5:29). In the end, it was clear we weren’t 100% on the same page on that particular issue, but we also weren’t so far apart that they had trepidation about supporting us. Similar stories could be shared about conversations with potential core team members.
Thankfully, the encouragement and help of wise mentors and friends has allowed me to largely steer clear of caving to these temptations so far. At the root of them all is the temptation to ignore Collins’ advice. At a spiritual level, though, it is a greater temptation: the temptation to not trust God.
Church planter, do you believe God has called you to the work of planting? Are you praying for him to send workers alongside you into the harvest? Trust that he knows thoroughly and intimately the harvest into which he is sending you, and trust that he is going to send you the right people, and the right number of people, to accomplish his purposes for you and your church. It will look different than you expected, and it will probably look different than you hoped. But God will send you the right people for the good of his church. You can labor and rest in that truth.