3 temptations for church planters

Trusting God for the right people, at the right time

January 12, 2022

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.

Taylor Combs

Taylor Combs serves as associate publisher of Christian living and leadership books at B&H Publishing Group. He is a graduate of Lipscomb University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is pursuing a Ph.D. in historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family, along with a core … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24