8 veterans of the process recommend: Define success; count the cost; look beyond launch day—and remember to smile.
Thinking about starting a church? Learn from those who have gone before you and have experienced the challenges and rewards of launching new congregations. Here, eight church planters share how they measured the “success” of their launches, their biggest challenges, what they wish they’d known before they launched, and more.
How did you measure the success of your launch?
Paul Andrew: I didn’t have a particular number in my heart for our launch, but I did dream of the venue feeling full and an electric atmosphere of faith and celebration. Having a great launch is so important, but don’t neglect your plans for the hundreds or thousands of Sundays after it! Launching strong is good, but launching strong and then staying strong is even better. One practical idea is to have a flexible floor plan for seating that enables you to make the room feel good on the day. The last thing you want is acres of empty seats because you believed for more people, and make it feel empty for those who actually do come. Remember that few people care about the headcount, but most people care about the atmosphere.
Paul Andrew, Lead Pastor, Liberty Church, New York City, launched Jan. 23, 2011, with 150 attendees. Current attendance: 200+
Scott Bloyer: If more people showed up than the people volunteering, I thought, Hey, this is going to be a golden success. We did take a big risk. In all seriousness, we were excited if one person came and gave their life to Christ. I think, if I remember correctly, five people gave their life to Christ that day.
Scott Bloyer, Lead Pastor, Elevation Church, Aurora, Colo., launched Oct. 10, 2010, with 227 attendees. Current attendance: 200
Damian Boyd: We weren’t pushing for any hard numbers. We just wanted to have a service that represented the heart of God for the community. And then, a hundred people are fine. I want to make sure that we are correctly engaging people in the community to come to the church. The key for us is, “Let’s correctly have people from the community feel like this is their church rather than how many members can we pack in every week.” I wanted the emphasis on, “Let’s invite the people we know and honor God in the midst of the service.”
Damian Boyd, Pastor, Vertical Church, Atlanta, launched Feb. 12, 2012, with 100 attendees. Current attendance: 50 to 100
Aaron Graham: We wanted to have more people come back the week after we launched. Slow and steady growth. People are less impressed with numbers in our urban context and more impressed by having genuine relational connection with people and having a church that reflects the diversity of their community. People began to experience the contagious community. Virtually every visitor ended up coming back and then inviting a friend over time.
We wanted people to get plugged into community immediately and so having three small groups going already was key to enabling this.
We wanted people who came to the launch service to be able to describe in one or two sentences the vision of our church after hearing the first sermon.
Aaron Graham, Lead Pastor, The District Church, Washington, D.C., launched Sept. 18, 2010, with 50 attendees. Current attendance: 280
Ken Hubbard: I don’t know why we call it this, but we just call it the hundred critical mass because, I don’t remember the stats, but somewhere around 80 percent of the churches in America are a hundred or less or something like that. So we just felt like we want to be above that hundred. With a hundred people, we really feel like we could get momentum rolling. But then, we created a dashboard, it’s kind of a matrix, that helps us go beyond attendance to recognize if we’re healthy or not. So that matrix has things like attendance, which is obvious; finances, in other words, are we in the black yet? salvations; and then we have a class that we call the grow track, which enables them to get involved in ministry and launch small groups. And then how many people are in small groups? How many small groups do we have? So those were all the matrix that we put together a real, easy, obvious system to get people in the journey so we have more than just church attendance to measure our success.
Ken Hubbard, Pastor, New Generations Church, Canton, Mich., launched Oct. 2, 2011, with 263 attendees. Current attendance: 130
James Johnson-Hill: I thought, In a community of 17,000, if we can get near 100, 125, that would be great. Our launch service was 55 people. I had probably deemed it not successful. After the service, I was sitting in the back. My cousin William lives here, and he helped plant the church. I looked at him and said, “William, there are like 55 people here.” William says, “Man, can you believe it?” He was so excited. The average church in Jones County is about 65 people, and these are churches that have been going years and years and years. And here we were, on Sunday No. 1, we were at 55. Our church is a little bit over 100 people now. So in a community of about 17,000, if you’re doing ratios, in a city of a 100,000, we’re just about a thousand members. You know you’ve got that same kind of impact. You can’t ever lose sight of that.
James Johnson-Hill, Lead Pastor, Agape Church, Laurel, Miss., launched April 4, 2010 (Easter), with 55 attendees. Current attendance: 100
Matt Miller: We did not have a number goal. My goal going in to launch was to honestly answer this question, “Did we do everything within our control to have a really strong launch?” The context to this question was set by other types of goals: Did we accomplish our 25 community events? Did we consistently meet with future New City Church members? Could we get and keep our core team in our City Groups? How healthy is our core team’s generosity? Were all leader and volunteer spots filled in our leadership matrix? By constantly asking and answering these questions, we were able to have a strong launch of 322 people.
Matt Miller, Lead Pastor, New City Church, Shawnee, Kan., launched Jan. 8, 2012, with 322 attendees. Current attendance: 220
Aaron Monts: We had no defining measure of success at launch simply because we knew that there would be so many people from around the country there that day to wish us well. Our measure of success was week two and how well we did that week to connect with the new people that walked through the doors that morning. It wasn’t a tall order simply because there weren’t a great deal of new people that attended that morning. All of our marketing paid off three months later. That is when we started to see people find out about our church and make the step towards engagement.
Aaron Monts, Lead Pastor, Ikon Christian Community, San Francisco, launched Oct. 11, 2009, with 90 attendees. Current attendance: 75
What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting people to attend the launch service, and how did you overcome them?
Andrew: First, the obvious challenge of limited financial resources, like every planter. Our team had far more ideas than we had the finance to pay for, so we had to really focus on leverage—what did we believe would give us the biggest return for dollars spent? As it happened, our launch date was the coldest day of the winter. That probably didn’t help, though we’ve since discovered that rain has a bigger impact than cold. We also found that many people in New York City had little to no experience with church at all, but we saw that as our advantage—a clean slate to work with.
Graham: Getting people who had given up on church to get more excited about helping building God’s church rather than deconstruct the church. Getting cynical people to get off the sidelines and into the game is never easy, but we overcame this by not allowing people to complain unless they were going to be part of the solution. We told folks this was their chance to help be and build the church they had always dreamed of.
Hubbard: No. 1 was just getting the word out that we’re here. And No. 2 was that there was a bit of a hardness to the community here. People had felt like they lost their job, lost their homes. And we talked to numbers of people that lost their church. Some churches had closed down. And so there was that kind of distance, or I’m not really sure what word to use. That was one of the challenges. We tried to be real particular, using statements like, “We want to do life together,” “Life-giving church,” “We’re here for a lasting difference,” you know, the word “community” a lot. Another challenge was that we were meeting in a school. And for whatever reason, it wasn’t a church for the people that wanted a church. So we really went the extra mile in making this school. We have a pretty extensive setup. We have this really sharp stage. We’ll bring in portable signs. We bring in a portable resource center and hospitality center and just really put all the things in there that we would have if we had a church building.
Miller: Our biggest challenge was simply letting people know that there was a new church in their neighborhood. We overcame this by consistently being in the neighborhood all the time. When we had a meeting, we met in the neighborhood. When we went to lunch, we ate in our neighborhood. And we did 25 community events in our neighborhood.
Monts: Getting the word out in an urban environment is one of the more difficult things to figure out. There are so many competing voices and options for a Sunday morning. We haven’t really solved this challenge yet, but I feel as if we’re on the right track by simply doing everything we can to let people know we exist.
What do you know now about holding a launch service that you wish you had known before your launch service?
Andrew: Smile and make sure your team does too. On the day a few of my team looked stressed out. After all your hard work you want every guest that walks through those doors to sense a warm, friendly and happy community so watch that your highly task-oriented types don’t lose sight of the main event.
Bloyer: I wish that we would have had the opportunity to do mass mailers and these types of things to let people know that we were there, just to have the opportunity to create a bigger buzz around what we were doing. But I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know if there’s too much I would change with how we would do it because I really believe, where we’re at right now, we are much more relationally invested than if we had just put on a good show. Not that I say that’s bad. It would be nice to have both. But now, we’re more positioned to have greater growth because we have people bought into position, whereas when we launched, it was like, “OK, as long as we have a service, we’re doing good.”
Boyd: I did not know the toll that planting a church would take on me and my family. It’s a hard work. It’s a tough work. I think in our current Christian culture, we glamorize church planting. It is anything but glamorous. It’s tough. It takes a lot out of you. We’ve wrestled with spiritual warfare at a level that I’d never experienced. It’s something I don’t think you’re ever prepared for. My family, financially, we’ve suffered greatly. We’ve had moments where we were about to be put out of our house. We’ve had moments where, you know, the stress level was almost unbearable. Church planting is an ugly process. It’s glorious. It’s like the cross. It’s beautiful in its goriness. The brutality shows the beauty. That’s what church planting is, especially when you’re planting in a really tough neighborhood, a really hard community. You’re playing in the devil’s playground, but you’re playing for the Lord.
Graham: It’s helpful to actually have a sound system and signs!
Hubbard: I would have definitely launched in September rather than October to get a little better momentum going before the holidays because I felt like by the time Thanksgiving and Christmas had got here, our church was still filled with strangers. And it was not a warm, fuzzy feeling of community for the holidays. So I would have definitely launched a month sooner.
Miller: I went into launch with a great coaching network and advisors that were church planters that allowed me and my team to be completely prepared. We were ready, and nothing happened that we were not prepared for.
Monts: Make sure everyone on your launch team has a serving role for that morning. Our setup was crazy easy. We rented out a nightclub that did all the work for us, allowing us to simply show up, plug in and play. Sure, we set up a resource table and a minor hospitality table, but we didn’t have anything else to set up. As a result, we have been severely crippled in our church culture toward serving. We eventually moved out of the space not only for financial reasons (we found something much cheaper), but to offer more opportunities for people to serve. However, it has been a challenge to move our community into this new reality. Everyone expects that it will be done for them, and this was only 1.5 years of meeting in the nightclub.
What advice would you give prospective church planters about how to make the launch service successful?
Andrew: Focus on people, not the numbers. How many people come back is more important than just how many people turn out on day one. Also, enjoy the launch day because it goes so fast. They tell you the same thing when you get married. Take the time to celebrate and enjoy the moment because before you know it, the day is over. And one practical thing: Make sure you’ve got gifted people taking lots of photos and video. You’ll want those later for so many things, and you only get one chance at your “first.”
Graham: Don’t put all your eggs in the one basket of a big launch day. There is nothing wrong with planning for a big launch day, but you must have a discipleship plan in place first for the launch to sustain itself. You must be modeling what you are calling people to do before you go public. It is better to design a three-phase launch that allows new people who get involved along the way to feel like they are helping to build the church as well. If you make too big of a deal about the launch day, then you can unintentionally communicate to the attendees on that first Sunday that they are consumers rather than disciples. If you catch them as consumers you will have to keep them as consumers. Make sure you have roles you can plug newcomers into right away so they can start contributing right away and building that into their DNA. And make sure you have ministry team leaders who can do more than assign a task, but can build a life-giving relationship as well.
Hubbard: Our launch team did a 21-day fast prior to the launch. There are a lot of things we can pull off in the flesh. But I don’t think launching a church is one of them. So the aspect of prayer and asking God’s blessing on it cannot be overstated at all.
Miller: I would encourage the planter to have realistic expectations and to keep the first Sunday in perspective. I wanted to have a great first Sunday, but I wanted to have an even better second Sunday. New City went into its first week excited but looking forward. The launch service isn’t the finish line. The planter has to have “success” defined for their team. We had launch phase goals that we worked toward that we felt would allow us to have a strong launch.
Monts: It is extremely important to redefine success in your own terms, not in the terms of the organization, churches, or individuals that are financially supporting you. Let alone the definition of success that is propagated in church planting circles today (if you’re not 200 you’re a failure.) You are the only one that knows the people and the culture you have been called to and you are the only one that can truly define what success in your mission looks like. This is not to say that numbers are unimportant. Rather this is to say if that is your sole focus, you will wrestle with darkness and depression more than necessary. Trust that God is in control, that He has called you to this place, and that you have been equipped and sent with the support of numerous people behind the scenes. Don’t allow anyone else to define success for you; know in your heart what God is up to in the stories and in the answers to prayer.