In the church planting world, there is a lot of noise. It’s not all bad, but it’s not all helpful. Planters are encouraged to be entrepreneurial, innovators, and go-getters. Your head can spin as every conference, blog, seminar, and “successful” planter advises you to prioritize things like vision, mission, values, strategy, methods, contextualization, and the list goes on. With all the noise, I am afraid that church planters can forget what they are aspiring to be and what it is they are actually planting.
We church planters are first and foremost pastors affirmed and sent out by a local church and we aspire to lead a local body of Christ into the God-glorifying mission of making disciples. Sometimes we need to step back and ask ourselves, “What are the priorities in this church planting endeavor?” What should I be concerned within the early years of planting a church? Here are five priorities that served our church well and that every church planter should take seriously.
#1 Plan to Pray
Many will glance over this point quickly assuming that they know church planting will, of course, require prayer. I’m afraid, however, that we have a tendency to talk about prayer more than we actually pray. The book of Acts and the church planting movement of the 1st century was carried along by the people of God praying together corporately and consistently (Acts 1:14; 2:42; 3:1; 4:23-24; 6:4; 12:5; 13:2-3; 16:25-26; 22:17-21; 28:27-29).
I am convinced that the most important thing I did as a church planter was establishing a weekly prayer meeting. Before we established any other type of meeting, our small church family gathered every week to lift our prayers to God for an hour. We prayed for our unity, for our community, for the lost, and for God to show us his glory. We prayed through portions of Jesus’ high priestly prayer. We prayed through the book of Nehemiah. We prayed through the Psalms. During those days of praying, we had many unexpected visitors join us from the surrounding community. The prayer service became an evangelistic service. I will never forget the words of one young lady who sat in on one of our prayer services. Seemingly awestruck, she approached me and said, “I have never heard people talk to God like they knew him personally”. She soon gave her life to Christ Jesus and she now has the privilege of knowing him personally. Two years later we are still praying for an hour every week. No matter what may come in the days ahead, I know that there will be one aspect of our weekly activities that will not change. Even if for some reason I am the only one to gather on a Sunday evening for that hour of prayer, it will be an hour well spent. If you want to see a movement of God that is bigger than your own plans, plan to pray and don’t stop no matter what.
#2 Preach the Bible
Again, this may seem like a given, but we must constantly remind ourselves of what actually has been growing God’s church around the world for the last 2,000 years before our strategies ever hit the shelves at Lifeway. In Acts 2:42, the first Christian congregation devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. In Acts 6, the apostles saw the need to devote their time to the ministry of the word and prayer above everything else, and when they did, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (Acts 6:7). It was the word that the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region (Acts 13:49) and it was the word that continued to increase and prevail mightily (Acts 19:20).
Apart from prayer, the greatest thing you can do in church planting is to give yourself to the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in the breathed-out words of God that are profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). Read the pastoral epistles written to young church planters in difficult-to-reach-areas and see the unwavering and unapologetic emphasis on teaching the word of God. Heed the charge of Paul to Timothy, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). “Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:11-13). Whatever you do as a church planter, put your faith in the Spirit-empowered preaching of the word of God. It is the Word of God that is living and active (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pt. 1:23-25). It is the word of God that saves (1 Cor. 1:18; Rom. 10:17). It is the word of God that sanctifies (Acts 20:32). Resolve to preach faithful, expositional sermons week in and week out and trust the God who speaks.
#3 Make Membership Meaningful
To have a church you need people, but you don’t just need any people. A church is comprised of people who have been regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit through their faith in Jesus Christ. Early in our church planting journey, I knew that it was going to be very important that I be able to recognize who were the sheep that I was responsible for and who were not. Paul tells the Ephesian elders to, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Hebrews 13:17 says that church leaders will one day have to give an account for those souls they were responsible for watching over. From the beginning, the church planter needs to be thinking through what membership in the local congregation will look like. How will you know who are members whom can be trusted to teach, lead, serve, and represent the fellowship and who are just attendees?
Apart from praying and preaching, the most important thing I did as a church planter in my first year was establishing a membership class and a membership covenant. This has protected our church from wolves in sheep’s clothing. It has led to the salvation of many who would have otherwise slipped into our fellowship without awareness of their own unregenerate state and it has helped me as a pastor to know for whom I will give an account. Without a process for assessing and affirming church members, how will you discern who can and cannot play on the praise team? How will you protect your church from false teachers? How will you have the hard conversations with people who have a false assurance of a salvation they do not have? How will you be obedient to carry out Biblical church discipline if membership is not meaningful? Whatever you do in the early days of a church plant, make membership meaningful. For our church, this looks like a 6-week membership class, a membership covenant, and a final interview with a pastor. These steps have slowed the rate at which we add members, but it has greatly increased the quality, accountability, and commitment level within our church family.
#4 Put What Remained Into Order
Your constitution and bylaws are not something that you put off until year five. Everything you do in the early days sets the stage for what is to come. God is not a God of confusion and God is not silent when it comes to church order. In Titus 1:5, Paul gives on major priority to the young church planter in the difficult city of Crete, “Put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Paul follows the same order in his church planting endeavors in Acts 14:23 when he appoints elders in every church. God has sovereignly ordained that local congregations be led by teams of pastors who meet the Biblical qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). It is the task of the pastor to find faithful men who can teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). If a church planter is to plant a healthy church, he must commit himself to the work of raising up healthy pastors who can shepherd the church alongside him. Unfortunately, there is great temptation to strive for a lot of attendees in the early days of planting, but there is no substitute for the quality discipleship of a few, faithful men who will later be able to help lead the many. Spend the early days establishing church leaders and putting into order how the church will be led. A clearly ordered constitution and bylaws explaining your Biblical church leadership structure will be an indispensable tool in the days to come. For a guide to helpful books on elders in the local church click here. A healthy church will have elders that lead and teach, deacons that serve, and members who carry out the work of the ministry.
#5 Make Disciples in the Community
We are very good at complicating things. A church is a group of saved people committed to one another and to the Lord under the leadership of a pastor. If you are starting a church with a small group of saved people in a community, you grow by adding more saved people to your fold. This is something that God Almighty does of course but he does it through the gospel witness of his people in the course of daily life. Do not lose the simplicity of what we are called to do as Christians and as church planters. When Paul arrived in Philippi to plant a new church, he went outside the gate of the city to the riverside where he supposed a group of people might be gathered who would be receptive to the gospel message. Acts 16:13 says, “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” That women’s whole household came to faith and she would later host the church gathering in her home. What was the strategy? Go where the people are. Build relationships. Share Jesus. Allow God to open hearts as he pleases and then disciple those who believe. It can be as simple as choosing the same restaurant and frequenting it weekly, getting to know the names of the employees, praying for them regularly, and seizing opportunities to share the gospel message. This type of intentional and relational evangelism will go farther than any outreach event or block party you can throw and it is completely free and totally reproducible! Disciples made are far more important than attendees attracted. Go therefore and make disciples.
These five priorities are not all that is required to plant a healthy church, but they are non-negotiable components. If one aspect is overlooked and even if your church grows quantitatively, you will inevitably face the consequences later down the road. Pray through each of these priorities, dive deeply into the Scriptures, and analyze your current ministry context. What are you doing well and what needs more attention? In the coming weeks and months, this blog will seek to address each of the five priorities mentioned here in greater detail.
- Plan to Pray
- Preach the Bible
- Make Membership Meaningful
- Put What Remained Into Order
- Make Disciples in the Community
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley
St. Rose Community Church