The expansion of churches and gospel ministries is an outgrowth of the Great Commission and in our nation today (and elsewhere) planting new churches in areas of increased population density where few, if any, gospel churches exist seems to be effective in reaching people well.
Over the years, our church has partnered with planters in Portland, OR, Toronto, ON, Orlando, FL, Tucson, AZ, Washington, DC, Colorado Springs, CO, and more.
I am currently in conversation with another young man who is planning to move with his wife and children to a densely populated metropolitan area next year. I get excited hearing about his call, his plans, and the anticipation of this new work.
There are numerous books, blogs, videos, and articles written with the church planter and his family in mind. These offer insights, growth and health strategies, and numerous other elements that are helpful and vital for new works.
That's not what this post is about. I'm writing to the pastors and church leaders of established churches who are designated as sending or supporting churches.
A number of years ago at one our denomination's national "Send Conferences" I was asked by one of our "Send City" teams to share in a breakout session with other pastors. I was asked to speak to them, pastor-to-pastor, and share some of the things we had talked about on a vision trip prior. Basically, I was asked to tell pastors things they wish they could, but fear would negatively impact their support.
You see, these planters are so very grateful for the support and sponsorship of legacy church pastors and churches, but sometimes the "help" offered is not the help needed...and they just cannot find a nice way to say it.
So I said it.
And, it bears repeating.
In no particular order, here are seven things your very appreciative church planter would like you to know (probably.)
1. Don't send your youth choir, puppet team, drama team, handbell team, sign language performance team, dance team, etc.
Okay, this is a pretty broad statement and there may be exceptions. One exception (and it may the only one) is if the church planter actually requests such team. For example, we know certain areas in Europe where choirs from America are welcomed and public performances are ways to celebrate the arts well. In this case, the choir may be a good thing (if the choir is a good choir.) However, most of our urban-area church planters have no such venue, opportunity, or place where a choir, drama team, etc. would be a benefit.
Just because your group has traditionally been received well in your church and community does not mean that in an unchurched community such would be welcomed or helpful.
2. Don't arrive in the city with your "way to do church or ministry" expecting the planter to do it your way.
There is such a thing as contextual mission and for the planter embedded in the city, building relationships, and planting a church centered on the gospel for that region, the way to do ministry may be different than how the visiting team does church. In fact, it likely is.
What works in a church with decades of history may be counter-productive in a new work. What works in rural Alabama likely will have to look differently in downtown Philadelphia. This is not a statement regarding the gospel, biblical truth, or doctrinal authenticity. This is related solely to how these elements come together for the church in the community God has planted it.
No one likes the expert who knows how to do everything ... but really doesn't.
3. Don't let another agenda overshadow God's.
For example, if your primarily politically conservative, MAGA-hat wearing church members arrive in the city center that is known to be politically liberal and not supportive of the same political party or political leaders, and the city’s residents first encounter with your team members leads them to believe you are promoting a political agenda (you can swap conservative and liberal depending on where you are from and going,) immediate barriers to gospel conversations will be raised and may impact future conversations. This is not to say that any Christian cannot have strongly held political beliefs (just about every person does.) However, the mission is bigger than convincing someone you have never met to vote the way you do.
Maybe it's not political. It may be as simple as not wearing a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt in New York? Sounds silly and kind of ridiculous. You can cheer for whomever you want, but if your church planter is connecting with a New York Giants fan-base in a specific region of the city, your blue star may just shut down a conversation it took him weeks to begin.
For southern, college football fans, it would be like wearing an Auburn shirt on a mission trip to Tuscaloosa. For our midwestern brothers and sisters, it would be akin to wearing a Wolverines sweatshirt in Columbus, Ohio. You see the problem?
How would you know what fits in this category? Talk to your church planter. Listen to him. He likely has figured out much of this already. Don't ignore his insight.
Keep the main thing the main thing.
4. Don't overpromise and underdeliver.
This is the one I am so tempted to do. I want to offer our planters EVERYTHING they need. I desire to do this, but I cannot offer them funds I do not have, resources that do not exist, or help that will not arrive.
When a promise is made, the planter believes it to be true, as he should. Yet, so many churches have promised things that either just were impossible to fulfill, or due to supporting church dynamics, were simply pastoral desires and not church desires.
5. Don't expect me to plan your mission trip and be your tour guide.
Please don't be offended, but while these planters need your support, your teams, your finances, and prayers, remember that they live in the mission field. They are not tour guides (though they will often give you a tour of their city) and are not vacation planners (I know, you're on a mission trip, not a vacation.)
Every city we visit has incredible sites and wonderful places to visit. Often, we will add a day of touring for our teams just so they can get a good feel for the city or region. In fact, when we go to Toronto, we'll take an extra day to visit Niagara Falls. When in Portland, we may go to Mount Hood. I see nothing wrong with any of that, but we must not expect the planter to create our agenda for touring on our "extra" day.
As for the work being done during the trip, that is a bit different. Groups or individuals who go to serve, do so at the behest of the planter. Therefore, he will have some things in mind where the help of other people is advantageous.
Yet, in most cases, the work of the church is long-term. Therefore, no rally/crusade/event/etc. is likely to be planned by the planter for the visiting mission team to pull off. There are cases where this may happen, but most often...no.
Our people visiting our planters go there to serve him, his spouse, and his family. Whatever they need, we are there to provide. At times, it may seem like we're not doing much, but the ministry of presence is valuable and viable. It counts. If your church needs a "report" of how many "souls were saved" from every trip, you may find yourself frustrated at the very healthy and helpful trip your church planter requested and provided.
6. Don't mess up what we've built.
No one desires to mess up another's ministry. Yet, there are times when a well-meaning mission team arrives in a church planter's city and the conversations at the coffee shop, the activities done, the "ministry" provided actually did more harm than good.
These planters are not just visiting the city for a season. They actually call this city home. It is home. They're building community. They're meeting their neighbors. They have friends. They have new brothers and sisters in Christ and many who they pray will be. They are on a long-term mission and sometimes (unintentionally) the short-term team can actually cause the process of ministry in the city to step backward, rather than forward.
Be careful and again...talk to your planter. Help him and his family serve his city in the name of Jesus Christ. Oh, and doing so may mean doing so in a voice not quite as loud as it is at home (we tend to be loud) and absent of Christianese and "Jesus clichés." Stereotypes of evangelicals and Baptists especially are real. Don't add fuel to them.
7. Don't forget us.
When a planter first goes on the field, it's nerve-wracking and exciting. There's fear and joy about a new work. The sending and supporting churches tend to have very intentional emphases for them initially. Then, it happens.
A few weeks or months into the plant, there's been no communication with the supporting churches. Friends at the former church are still friends, but only through Facebook now. The pages on the calendar have flipped and while life is moving ahead in the new, frighteningly exciting work, for those back home, the same has occurred. The urgency of the immediate takes over and...we forget.
We forget to contact our planters.
We forget to pray for them regularly.
We forget to let them know we love them and support them.
We may even forget to deposit that extra offering in their name that we promised we would (this is often from individuals, but can be from churches as well.)
Ministry is lonely and the support group of brothers and sisters that send out the planter and his wife often find the physical distance to lead to communicative distance.
And the planter family feels so very alone.
The Three "P"s
Years ago I was sitting in a conference room with some of our North American Mission Board Send City planters and missionaries. We were brainstorming some ways to remember what is needed most from established churches for these planters.
I remember saying, it's simple - prayer, people, and provision.
I think another "P" has been added by some, but the fact remains that these families need to know that they are not lone rangers taking on a city alone. We must be together, but take a moment and think through the seven suggestions. Your support is vital, but wrong support is deadly.
Pray for your planters. Pray for them regularly. Pray specifically.
Send people from your church, but only the right people in the right number doing the right things.
Give provision to your planter. Give what you promised. Provision = money! Support them in tangible ways.
- How can you know what to pray?
- How can you know who to send?
- How can you know what their financial and resource needs are?
Simple - ask them. A photograph on a prayer card is great, but more is needed. Talk to them, email them, give them permission to be honest. Then...get in on this great thing called church planting and stay faithful. The harvest will be reaped and you and your church will have played a vital role.
Our church planters serve through the Send City initiative of the North American Mission Board (SBC.) This is not the only church planting strategy and the points shared above are likely useful regardless the sending agency.