7 Questions to Ask When Starting a Church Planting Network

What it takes to start and sustain a church planting movement.

Over the past few weeks, Dave Ferguson has introduced us to the Great Collaboration: how God relates in togetherness and how our combined efforts together can activate kingdom multiplication. In the last two articles, Dave and Patrick O’Connell took us on a tour of the various church planting network models and then asked you to join one. If you missed them, read about the 10 models here and here. But rather than joining a network, maybe you’d rather start a church planting network. After all, more networks will lead to more churches planted. Today we look at seven questions we believe you should answer before starting a network.

The Tanner Institute interviewed more than 250 great innovators and found that the genesis of almost every brilliant innovation was asking the right questions. The just-right question can be a disruptive agent, cutting through years of complacency to redirect a leader or team’s focus toward extraordinary new insights.

Over the last decade, we who are part of the Exponential community have thought a lot about what it takes to start and sustain networks in order to create a church planting movement. What follows are the seven essential questions we believe you need to ask and answer to start a network.

1. God Question: Where Is God at Work?

The first question you need to ask before starting a network is the same question Henry Blackaby asked when he wrote Experiencing God: “Where is God at work?” If you’re bringing together a diverse group of leaders and churches to start a church planting network, it needs to be the work of God—and not your own work!

In my (Dave) own leadership journey, I have found that the best investment of my leadership gift comes when I see God at work, acknowledge it, join him in it and then report to others what God is doing to see if they want to join me. So, before you say yes to starting a church planting network, make sure that God is clearly at work and he’s asking you to join him there.

2. Leadership Question: Who Are the Movement Makers?

Movement makers are the one constant in every network. I have never seen a network started or sustained without this type of leadership.

My friend, Alan Hirsch, confirms this in his brilliant book, The Forgotten Ways. He writes:

“I can find no situation where the church has significantly extended the mission of God, let alone when the church achieved rapid metabolic growth, where apostolic leadership cannot be found in some form or another. In fact, the more significant the mission impact, the easier it is to discern this mode of leadership.”

These apostolic leaders Alan writes about are what I call movement makers.

There are three traits that will help you identify apostolic leadership in both you and others. Apostolic leaders …

• see the future clearly.
• start new things.
• embed and guard the truth.

3. Vision Question: What Is the Dream?

Something profoundly spiritual occurs when movement makers share their dream for changing a town, a city or a region. Big dreams are a critical component to starting a network.

One of the guys who pushed me constantly to dream bigger was Lyle Schaller. Google him if you don’t know the name. Over and over, this venerable voice would give me grief by poking me in the chest and then he’d look me in the eye and say, “Dave, your biggest problem is that I have a bigger vision for your church than you do.” And every time he’d say that, it would enlarge my dream.

Lyle was that voice for other leaders too, and I want to be that for you. Imagine that I’m poking you in the chest saying, “C’mon, don’t let me or anyone else have a bigger vision for how God can use you than you.” Do you have an apostolic gift? Do you meet the definition of a movement maker? It is your big dream that will inspire and motivate others to action. Start dreaming about what a network could do for your town or city or region. Just imagine.

4. Ideology Question: What Are the Radical Minimums?

I’m intentionally choosing to use the term “ideology” because it integrates both theology and philosophy. Ideology includes the important biblical and doctrinal commitments, as well as the unique ways of doing and being. Both are essential elements that hold a network together.

At NewThing, our ideology is built on a theological foundation that Jesus is Lord and agreement on historical statements such as the Lausanne Covenant and the Apostles’ Creed. Our philosophy is summed up very simply in the 4 R’s:

Relationships: We are friends on mission who commit to meeting together as a network every month to accomplish our vision of multiplying churches.

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Reproducing: We commit to working together to reproduce sites, churches and networks—doing together what we could not do on our own.

Resources: We commit to pool together our leadership and financial resources to enable us to accomplish our vision of multiplying churches.

Residency: We commit to developing at least one resident per site/church per year to equip them to reproduce a new site or church.

I refer to this simple ideology as our “radical minimums.” You may decide that you want more theological boundaries. You may decide that you want to more narrowly define the types of churches you want to plant. Ask the question. Figure it out. You need to decide what are the radical minimums that everyone must agree upon to be a part of this network.

5. Movement Question: How Will It Reproduce?

Reproduction and scaling are absolutely essential for launching and growing a network. If a church planting network doesn’t reproduce, then something’s wrong or missing.

How do you ensure the network you’re leading will reproduce? First, you can’t guarantee it. God gets a say about the growth of his church. Second, it should be embedded in your mission statement. Third, there are a couple of things you can control and what I consider the “must-do’s” for every movement maker wanting to see their network reproduce new churches:

1. Model reproducing. If you want to lead a network that reproduces, you need to be a reproducing leader. If you move into a network leader role, I encourage you to model it. This could mean leading a small group and reproducing small group leaders. But it will also mean that you will always have at least one leadership resident who is in training to plant a new church. As the network scales and grows, you may find yourself reproducing at a different level. No matter what, make sure you model it.

2. Expect reproducing. First, ask every leader to make a commitment to reproducing at every level just like you are. Ask them to annually put in writing their reproducing plan. When you meet with those leaders in your network, ask them to update you on their plan and how you can assist them in achieving their goals.

Second, your network should make an annual commitment to reproducing together. No matter how big or small your network, leaders should come together and make a commitment to collaborate to plant more reproducing churches. Be sure to document it so everyone has access and it can be reviewed and updated as needed.

Focusing on these two specifics and repeating them turns the flywheel. In time, this flywheel builds momentum as you model reproduction and expect it month after month. Year after year, the flywheel continues to turn faster. There are no shortcuts. That’s how you begin to see healthy rapid reproduction and create movement.

6. Resource Question: How Will It Be Financially Sustainable?

There are three simple components to every network: cause, community and corporation. The cause is the dream and vision of the network. The community is the camaraderie and friendships. And the corporation is the organization behind it. You need all three. And at the center of organizing a network is the resource question, How will it be financially sustainable? There are three basic responses to the resource question that every new network must answer.

“It’s free.”

The simplest and easiest way to make a network financially sustainable is to have no budget and for it to cost participants nothing. If the intention is to keep the network small and local, then this could be a great way to go. While there is much that I like about the simplicity of making the network free, there are some downsides too. Without an advance commitment of resources by network participants, it is hard to know if you will have the money to plant new churches. Since the commitment level is low, it can easily create a low commitment network that accomplishes little.

“You give a percentage.”

The upside to this response is at least twofold: first, it feels equitable and that what is expected of big churches and small churches is the same, but on a percentage basis. The second strength is that if you have a few larger churches, this can be a sizeable amount and will allow you to plant more churches. The downside is that it feels like a tax for expansion and growth and it can create the question, percentage of exactly what? … In a church planting network, you want leaders and churches that want to give and not have to give or feel penalized for growing.

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“There is a flat fee.”

When I realized I had started a network and was working through these types of questions, I received sound advice from the man I mentioned before, legendary church consultant Lyle Schaller. He told me, “You want everyone to have some ‘skin in the game’ so you don’t want to make it free. You should ask for a flat fee from all the churches participating in the network. If you ask for a percentage of their giving, it will penalize churches for growing and it can create an adversarial relationship.”

So, when we started NewThing, we asked churches for a flat fee that they would put into their local network for church planting, but would not be spent by a centralized organization. The amount was enough that created a high commitment, but not so much as to keep some out. And when it came time to chip in to plant new churches, many gave much more than the flat fee.

Of all the questions, this will probably be the one you will not want to deal with or think about. But you can’t say, “I don’t know.” Answering this resource question is critical to the success of starting a network.

7. Relationship Question: What Are the Relational Rhythms?

Your network needs to be made up of friends. It’s that simple and, admittedly, that challenging. The leaders in your network need to learn to trust one another, believe in each other, love like brothers and sisters and even be willing to sacrifice for each other. And it’s the network leader’s role to nurture and facilitate those kinds of friendships. The best way to create this is through what I call “relational rhythms.” These relational rhythms are intentional meetings that focus on the cause and in the process build community. Here are three relational rhythms I’ve seen used effectively as a network is starting. As the network grows in numbers and geography, you will need to expand, but these are good starting points.

1. Monthly One-on-One – A monthly check-in or coaching conversation from the network leader to each church leader in the network. This can be a meal together or as simple as a phone call just to touch base and check in.

2. Monthly N.E.T.work Meeting – Gather everyone from the network into one place and include these three elements:

N – Numbers – Review the church planting and reproducing goals you’ve set as a network and give an update on the progress you’ve made. Try to illustrate the numbers with stories and examples of new churches started.

E – Eat – If you want a meeting to go really well, share a meal, show some hospitality. In some cases it might mean light snacks. I know of some networks that opt for cigars. I trust you to figure it out.

T – Training – Offering leaders in the network added value training is helpful and something they can repurpose and share with their staff or volunteer leaders in their own church. Enlist someone in your network to lead it; or tap an outside organization to come in and provide effective training. Training will bring in new leaders and is one more benefit of being part of this network.

3. Annual Gathering – Every network needs an annual retreat or gathering that spans at least two days and a night. This is a time to give updates on what’s been accomplished, renew relationships and cast a vision for the future. Many networks are also part of a larger movement or organization so I encourage you to participate in a gathering with other networks and network leaders once a year. Many use the Exponential conference as their annual gathering … and I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear me say I strongly recommend that.

Albert Einstein had this to say about asking the right questions: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

There is a lot of time and experience spent narrowing down the questions to those seven. Ask those questions and prayerfully decide if God is calling you to start a network.

So, now you have a choice …

Join a network.

Or start a network.

Let’s acknowledge what God has been telling all of us since the beginning of time: We are better together. If you’re convinced, like me, that we are better together, then joining a network or starting a network are the only two options.

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