What’s the best way for a church planter to measure the success of his launch?
Metrics are key to church planting, but especially to the launch phase.
Know your metrics. Jesus told us our mission: to make disciples. We have to keep that as the aim. Of course there are many ways to make disciples that a church plant needs to focus on. As the adage goes, “What gets celebrated gets done.” If you highly value being a constant presence in the community, then you need to start measuring and celebrating community impact pre-launch. If you highly value small groups, you can measure the percentage of people attending the weekend gathering versus small group involvement. If you highly value spiritual conversations with the lost, then measure intentional time your team members have in spiritual conversations.
Celebrate en mass what you are asking people to be about individually. Look for stories of life transformation to celebrate in your large gathering and email blasts. Outreach can often get bypassed for the tyranny of the urgent. There is so much required of teams post-launch that our eyes can accidentally turn to internal ministry teams, set up/tear down, children’s ministry and service production. These are great things, they’re just not the only things. Keep the metrics in front of your people so they don’t become too bankrupt of energy to be missionaries and make disciples in their spheres of influence outside the church family.
Set realistic expectations. The word “launch” means something different to different planters. Planters need to give clear definitions that lead to realistic expectations for your faith family. If the planter does not set these expectations, they will default to measuring success as more butts in the seats and more bucks in the budget. Expectations born from Twitter or conferences are inflated and can lead to serious discontent. I can’t tell you how many planters I work with who are seeing great things happen, but their expectations are skewed because they have had their eyes on megachurch pastors and large urban churches.
What unique challenges do planters face when going into a rural community as opposed to an urban or suburban one?
Resistance to change. Cultural shift takes place slowest in rural areas. This is largely due to the tried-and-true mentality that creates relational stability in rural places and creates resistance to change. By it’s very nature, a church plant is bringing new wine. At first glance there is a larger “wineskin tension” in rural areas than in urban ones when we speak of change, but the gospel is always a call to change and a call to die.
Credibility gap. There are usually tight relational circles in rural areas. This makes it harder to “get in” among the locals unless you are from the area. Credibility takes longer to earn in rural areas, and good missionary principles will have be be followed as a planter enters as a foreigner. To gain credibility they will need to work hard to learn the local customs, get into the relational circles and crack codes en route to finding favor.
Resources. Relational and financial resources tend to be more scarce for rural planters. Relationally speaking, teams are less drawn to moving into a rural areas. There is less of a network of gospel leaders in an area for planters to connect with and be encouraged by. There are also fewer church leaders available to coach planters. I encourage rural planters to utilize the Internet to its fullest capability to connect with likehearted planters, get coaching and receive good practical content. Our recognition of these resource challenges was our main reason for launching an online mixture of connection, coaching and content called DWELL Online Learning Track. Financially speaking, people are less likely to give funds to support rural work. Urban work, especially church planting, is sexy right now and easier for fundraising.
Distance to network. Many of these planters have people “in their corner” who are hundreds or thousands of miles away. When planters need an encouraging coffee discussion or prayer time, they are forced to pick up the phone and reach out to someone. This can create loneliness very quickly in a planter or among a planting couple.
Which is more difficult—planting a church in an area full of churches, or one in a secular, post-Christian area with not a church in sight? Is there a greater need in one area over the other?
These are tough questions. At this moment I think it’s pretty clear that Christendom had a good run in America, but those days are over. We truly are in a post-Christian culture today. I don’t think we can say one is more difficult than the other. Every context presents unique issues, and church planting is always a declaration of war on the enemy. I also don’t think we can say churches are more needed in different areas, but that we need more churches and better churches in university, urban, suburban and rural contexts. I want to look through the lens of the different temptations in very churched or very unchurched areas.
Areas chock full of “solid churches” present the temptation to compete with other churches, outmarketing the church down the street and outdoing their programs. This can turn into a buffet of religious goods and services. The temptation here will look more like professionalism and market sharing. It can shift the focus of church planting from harvesting lost souls to relocating displaced Christians.
Areas with very few churches tend to present the temptation to go overboard in the search for relevance. The result can easily be a social club with religious leanings. The “missional” focus can slip into social action and awareness as the end of the mission instead of a means to gospel presence.
Both roads present different temptations that can lead to the cul-de-sac of a powerless gospel. A church with a powerless gospel is a dangerous thing. Be aware of your specific temptations, acknowledge them to your team and seek the Father regularly about them.
How should planters (or the networks with which they work) identify the communities where they plant? Besides a calling from God, are there practical aspects?
There are three different processes I regularly see for this. They have seen church plants result, and none is more spiritual than the other.
Dot on the map. The dot on the map process is when a potential planter sees an area that has been identified, by them or others, as an area of great need. This could be due to churchlessness, social dynamics, growth patterns or a specific community need. The hard work of demographics and exploring the community gives a visual picture of need to a planter, and God does the confirming from there. Networks or denominations will often have a profile of a planter they are specifically looking for who can effectively engage that specific culture in that social pocket. Skinny jeans and plaid are a better fit for Portland than for Omaha.
The Macedonian call. This process unfolds when God unmistakably puts a city or specific community heavy on someone’s heart. They are burdened for a place they honestly don’t know very well. With little or no exploration they have have a “I must go” feeling that propels them into planting.
Embedding. This is the process by which people plant a church to reach those among whom they are already embedded. Often people will return to their home town to re-embed in that community as they plant. The time away has given them clarity about the need for a gospel-centered church. Others will plant among the people they are already in close relationships with. They see friends who aren’t engaged in a church who have begun to see them as their pastor or spiritual guide. This second form of embedding is truly the “accidental church plant.”
What’s the most helpful advice you like to share with church planters?
There are three things I am continually saying to planters:
1. It’s Jesus’ church. It doesn’t depend on you, so be faithful, and be you.
2. Don’t plant a church in your head; plant it among real people in a real community.
3. Don’t try to do everything right now; plan ahead, but just do the next right thing.
Excluding your own organization, books or works, what resources would you point church planters to that you think are most effective?
Coaching. The right ministry coaches are worth their weight in gold! They can pull things out of you that you didn’t know were there. Often a denomination or network will set a planter up with a coach, but that doesn’t take chemistry into account. Find the right ministry coach you have chemistry and connection with, even if you need to pay for it out of your own pocket.
eBooks. I am excited about the revolution of free eBooks. You can read them in one or two sittings and they will focus on one specific subject that planters are wrestling with. You can find them at Exponential.org, SendNetwork.com and VergeNetwork.org.
Classics. It’s easy to abandon Christian classics in search of relevant new content about the latest methods. Books like The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: And the Causes That Hinder Itby Roland Allen, The Knowledge of the Holyby A.W. Tozer, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadershipby Henri Nouwen and Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Communityby Dietrich Bonhoeffer are great resources to root planters during the bipolar journey of church planting.