"The Times Are A-Changin'" and the Churches In My County Have to Be Ready

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

Bob Dylan penned these words for his song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in 1964. While this and many other songs from this era became anthems for a generation caught in the aftermath of the button-down fifties and the rising radical sixties, the words resonate today for many reasons.

This song came to mind as I was going over data from our county in preparation for a meeting with other pastors and church leaders from our expanded community last week. I have lived in this county since 1993 and while that does not make me a native, it does give me a bit of a perspective that those who have just arrived in recent years do not have. A good number of my pastor friends have been here as long or longer than I have (some are natives) and yet most in our area are relatively new to the region.

Local History Matters

I believe local history is important and over the years I have learned much about our county - Clay County, Florida. Clay has a rich history complete with pre-Civil War stories, possible presidential stopovers, the infamous "monkey farm," murdered sheriffs, Stricklands, Spencer's Farm, new schools, dirt roads that are now multi-lane highways, swamps that are now subdivisions, a WWII POW camp, the largest city (town) sign in America, JC Penney's planned retirement village for missionaries, filming locations for big time Hollywood movies, and more. 

But...most of the people I know in our community are unaware of this rich history. In fact, most do not care. This has more to do with the fast-paced lifestyles and busyness of many who call this area home.

But...the times they are a changin'.

Change & Growth Realities

The 2010 US Census shows that our county had 190,865 residents. In 2020, population grew by 14 percent to 218,245. Those who study such numbers and prognosticate future growth state that Clay County could likely be the fastest growing county in Florida (which as a state is growing quickly, too) in the next few years.  By 2030 the number is expected to be over 252,000. By 2045 the number is expected to be more than 285,000 and long-term projections show the numbers continuing to rise through 2070.1 

As of this writing, there are at least 35,000 homes being built in an area of our county that has been forest and fields up to this point. The PARC Group (Master Developer of the Nocatee and eTown communities in St. Johns County) is developing a new community in Clay County that will cover over 3,000 acres with an estimated 4,000 homes along with retail and office space.2

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Where Are These People Coming From?

Now, I know this post is very specific to my region and my church, but I believe there may be some insight here that is transferrable to other areas of our nation, especially suburban areas that are changing rapidly.

As the group of pastors discussed the coming changes, one question that came up was "Where are these people coming from?" and "Where do they work?"

The answer may be surprising. With the "work-at-home" option now normative for many, it seems that many new residents of neighboring counties and planned communities (like Nocatee) did not change jobs when they relocated to the area, but simply work via Zoom or online from their home-office. One friend told me that the majority of his neighbors are from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other areas outside the Sunshine State. The mayor of Jacksonville is even featured on billboards that have popped up in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other large cities promoting Jacksonville and our surrounding areas as a great place to relocate. Thus, the thousands of homes coming will be likely filled with relocated families from other states. While Reddit threads and online discussion boards give details to many related to relocating their families to new homes, planned communities, better schools, golf courses, beaches, etc. few are discussing the great churches in the area. Why? Because they're mostly not looking for church.

What does this mean?

From my perspective, at a minimum, it means the following:

  • People believe safe neighborhoods matter
  • A higher value will be placed on entertainment and amenities
  • More schools will be built
  • Even with the building of a new expressway, traffic will increase greatly and drive times will increase for just about everyone
  • County politics will change as this traditionally very red county becomes purple and traditional "good ole boy" relationships will die out
  • Megachurches will continue to grow, and while they will have thousands attending regularly, tens of thousands...if not over one-hundred thousand plus of our residents will not be attending any church 
  • More church plants will be needed, but space will be a premium
  • Those who hate change will become curmudgeons because...change is happening
  • Churches that continue to calendar, function, and program like it is 2005 will be focused on reaching people who no longer exist and after a good number of funerals will be panicking as they struggle to stay open
  • Churches that believe putting a sign up inviting the community to the latest Christian event will sufficiently reach the already saved who attend other churches, but will not make a dent in the unchurched community
  • Traditionally rural churches will be forced to recognize that they are now suburban churches
  • Traditionally suburban churches will have to face the reality that their ministry focus and community now are more urban than in the past
  • Legacy churches must embrace and support church plants
  • Church fostering and shared space plans will have to develop
  • Churches that continue to live in silos rather than partnering with like-minded, doctrinally-aligned others in the community will die
  • Demographic shifts will mean that churches who are mono-racial in their leadership and membership makeup will be effectively missing the actual neighbors in their community

There are more and while I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet, I do believe these realities are upon us.

Since the churches that will reach the majority of these new neighbors likely do not exist today, we must pray for God to call out the planters and pastors within our own community churches. I long to see dozens of new churches planted in our county and I believe the majority of them need to be led by called out, qualified, God-loving, gospel-centered individuals who have called Clay County home for years. 

Friends, the harvest is here. And while the majority are not looking for a new church, a Christian group, or even desire such, just as with Isaiah when he was called and sent by God, we must be willing to say "Here am I. Send me!"

The world is coming. We must welcome them with the Gospel.

 

__________________

1 Florida Department of Transportation, "Technical Memorandum: Projections of Florida Population by County, 2020-2070," p. 11.

2 The PARC Group, "The Future: Clay County, Florida."


The Question I Should Have Been Asking All Along

The challenges that pastors of legacy churches in older, changing communities continue to increase. And as Carey Nieuwhof shared in recent post, crisis is both a revealer and an accelerator. Carey writes...

The crisis of the last few years has done two things for every church and business. It’s revealed what’s working and what isn’t. And it’s sped up the consequences of both.

While a few churches have seen rapid growth during the crisis, most churches are still hovering between 30-70% of their 2019 attendance.

A survey of over 15,000 churches conducted just before COVID hit shows that between 2000 and 2020, median church service attendance dropped from 137 people to 65.

The updated graph will probably show an even more precipitous decline.

So what’s the insight?

Because crisis both reveals and accelerates, perhaps you’re seeing today what your church would have looked like in 2030. The longer your church has been fully open for in-person services, the more true that is.

As sobering as that might be, perhaps it’s a gift.

If the old approach hasn’t been working for 20 years, the accelerated decline can be a gift to help you see that a new approach is needed.

If the old approach never led to renewal, trying harder won’t bring about different results no matter how hard you try.

And if the old model of church wasn’t working before, it’s probably not going to work again, no matter how sincere you are, how loudly you shout it, or how desperate you feel.1

When I speak of pastors in older, legacy churches in changing communities I have first-hand knowledge. Our church turned one-hundred years old last May and our community that bumps up to the southwestern corner of Jacksonville, Florida is changing at a rate hard to comprehend. In just a short number of years our area has moved from being a destination for families to buy homes, imbed themselves, and remain for decades to being a "drive-by" community from the fast-growing Jacksonville to the former swamp and forest-filled areas in the central and southern part of our county where new subdivisions have been and continue to be planted. New highways and thoroughfares are being built in these areas and the old-timers who may think nothing is going to change are in for a rude awakening. 

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Years ago I shared with our church's deacons and leadership about how missional mapping reveals the great difficulty of actually getting to our church's property from many parts of our county. Barriers that keep people from moving from location A to location B include gated communities, divided highways, waterways, bridges, railroad tracks, and more. As an example, for me to drive from my home to my office at the church, I must cross a divided highway, go by a gated community (I don't live in one,) cross a waterway over a bridge, and cross a railroad track. Thus the "Field of Dreams" philosophy that states "If we build it, they will come" that developed through the church growth era is defunct, if it ever was truly valid.

It's Not Just Small Churches Needing Revitalization

Church networks, mission agencies, and denominations have been and are working to develop strategies to help the thousands of churches across our nation that are on life support. In many cases, the targeted churches are in communities that have had dramatic demographic shifts and yet the church seems to be living in a time warp where upon entry one feels as if they've stepped back a few decades. 

Some have found their membership aging and numbers dwindling to just a a dozen or so. In these cases, one does not need a degree on anthropology or even an advanced math degree to determine that unless something changes, the church will soon no longer exist.

Many in these smaller churches do not realize change must take place until it is too late.

Sadly, many in historically larger, legacy churches in our communities have the very same blind spots. They just have more financial resources so they often do not recognize their very real needs until decades after they should. And as stated before, the crisis of the pandemic has thrust us all about ten years into the future as it relates to church attendance. So, some are now thankfully noticing such needs that would otherwise be ignored for years.

But What To Do?

In our most recent deacons meeting the men asked some very sincere and needed questions regarding the many changes that have recently happened in our church. These changes have included the retirement of two full-time pastors, the retirement of an administrative assistant, the shift from full-time to part-time for some employees (by their request) and the very real issues of deferred maintenance to our buildings that are now having to be addressed.

Concerns abound that we are doing less ministry than in the past, but after discussing this honestly with our deacons and staff, it is not so much that ministry is not happening. It is more that we have been forced to take the steps we should have years prior to eliminate the mindset that the "professional Christians" (e.g. paid pastors and staff) do the ministry and the church members receive the ministry. While there is certainly ministry actions and services offered to church members, we all know that one of the roles and callings of pastors and ministers is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Thus, we have been recently blessed with a shift from obvious consumer-Christianity to biblically-based gospel service.

I will say that it is a very difficult shift for those who have spent decades in a church model that seemingly fuels consumer-based thoughts and functions to one that is biblical. I understand this and actually feel this tension.

In our discussion and in many one-on-one talks I have had with church members, I hear recommendations from those seeking to serve the Lord through our church. As ideas are shared I hear the desperation in the voices. Examples of what could be done (or should be done) clearly are based on what has been experienced in decades past, or in other churches. I have heard well-meaning saints express that we should implement a bus ministry (but we don't have a bus,) restart our children's sports leagues, sing more hymns in worship, sing more praise choruses, increase our choir numbers, get rid of the choir, turn up the lights, turn down the lights, have a big youth event weekly, do more trips, restart mid-week meals, do Bible studies in homes, offer better and more classes for Sunday morning, have the preacher (me) do more topic-based sermons, have the preacher (still me) do more verse-by-verse sermons, go back to what we did years ago (in various ministry age-groups,) and more.

The good news is that all these brothers and sisters care deeply about our church.

The challenging reality is that just about every recommendation comes from a rear-view mirror. That makes sense because we know what we know, not what we don't know. What we know is what we have experienced. We often think about how church was when we loved it most, met our spouse, had our baby dedicated, developed deep friendships, experienced revival, etc. and long for that again.

The Question That Hit Me Like a Brick

Back to that deacons' meeting. We talked. I wrote on a white board. I listened. I offered opinions. Then one of our men asked a question. It was a question I did not expect, but should have. It was the question that caused me to stop and to be honest, led to a bit of a conundrum in my mind. 

You see, I believe that planting new churches is needed in our nation and throughout the world. I serve with our mission board as a cohort leader for new church planters. I serve in our local network to connect church planters with legacy church pastors. I offer expertise (what little I have) to church planters looking for resources, insight, demographic studies, and next steps for the churches God is leading them to begin.

But this question...well, it shook me.

This brother asked "If our church did not exist but you were a church planter looking to plant a church at this location, what would you do and what would you not do?"

Uh...

This is the question that must be answered.

While the legacy of one-hundred years of service in our community is good and vital, in order to continue serving the Lord faithfully and impacting our community...our dramatically changing community...I must ask this question regularly.

It has been said often and must be repeated, the unchanging message of the gospel is never up for debate. The doctrines of the faith are cemented and secure. Who we are as God's church is founded upon him. Yet, to live missionally in any community means that contextualization must continually occur. Otherwise, we will wake up one day to the reality that we have systems in place and structures developed as a church that are perfectly designed to reach a people who no longer exist.

What would I do if I were planting a church here today? 

It seems we have been thrust into this due to the global crisis and this "time machine" has led us now to what otherwise would not have been recognized by many of our church members until years from now. But it is now and God has sovereignly allowed us to remain as his light in this darkness. To be salt and light in this community remains founded on the very same Word, but the way we share that with the world may be changing. It obviously has. 

I am thankful that things are not as dire as they could be, or are for many. But, I know that to ignore the realities of now by simply going backward is not the answer.

We cannot put new wine in old wineskins, though many try. 

I will wrestle with this question as will many others in our church. Perhaps by reading this, other churches and leaders will as well. In the midst of very challenging post-pandemic (or current pandemic) days, may we not cease to live as missionaries and ambassadors to a world not seeking God, not desiring God, but needing him. 

______________

1Carey Nieuwhof. “5 Faulty Assumptions about the Future Church.” CareyNieuwhof.com, 21 Jan. 2022, careynieuwhof.com

 

It is Great to Be Gospel-Driven, But You Don’t Have to Tell Everyone

Church life is replete with themes, growth strategies, title phrases, and trendy belief statements. At one point the only differentiator among churches in a community was the denominational tag.

As non-denominational churches expanded and those within our Baptist world divided, grew, and launched into the church-growth strategies so prevalent in the late twentieth century, we added to our lexicon such church designators as seeker-friendly, purpose-driven, contemporary, family-based, and more. As a response, or perhaps a reaction, other churches sought to ensure that they were known for not being any of those things declared by neighboring churches by promoting their version of church as traditional, “old-time religion” or even “KJV-only.” Words matter and these were designed so that potential church members would know they version of church that was available.

It sounds like a marketing strategy because it is.

Often these descriptive phrases ended up on promotional pieces, church signs, t-shirts, banners, and whatever could be used to promote the local church.

As we work with church planters and journey with them through the process of naming their church and getting the word out to the community, often these same marketing techniques, though updated for the digital age and changed to be more “relevant” tend to rise to the surface. I am not at all opposed to a proper marketing technique and right ways to get the word out about one’s church. I do believe there are some things pastors should consider.

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If you’re intent on being a gospel-centered or gospel-driven church, then be that. You just don’t have to put that on your promotional material. I actually believe every church should be gospel-centered/driven because the gospel is the good news and the good news is Christ. If a new church is seeking to reach the previously unchurched, lost, unsaved people in its community the phrase “gospel-centered/driven” will actually mean nothing…because that’s a church phrase. However, if a church is intent in reaching the already churched, those who attend other churches, disgruntled former attenders and church members, etc. the term may work. Yet, if the goal is to be a church that presents the good news to those who have never heard it, drop the churchy taglines and just be that type of church.

Be gospel-centered/driven. It will become clear as you reach and disciple those who need this good news.

This is the true for just about every other church-centric tagline that is used. At the church where I pastor, we thought about putting “We love God. We love people,” on our church sign, but we have nixed that. Why? Because if I have to emblazon this truth on our sign that we are the people who love our neighbors…it may mean that we have never shown them that we love this. It could mean that we do not love them actually, just philosophically. We desire our community to know we love God by our actions. We want them to know we love people through what we do and how we treat them. We desire that all know we love where we live because we exemplify that. We desire to do all this in Christ’s name, for the glory of God. While we won’t shy away from using the words, there is more value in saying it to someone in person while showing these realities to them, than by just posting them on a sign or website.

Nevertheless, we do have these things visible within our church building and on internal communications as part of our church’s vision frame.  We continually repeat the values of “Love God, love people, love where we live, etc.” not for the people outside our church family, but for the members already here…just so they/we do not forget. Like the ancient Israelites, we are all forgetful.

Pastor, planter, replanter, revitalizer, I encourage you to know why you do what you do. Know the unique version of local church God has called you to be. Preach the Word. Stand firmly in the faith on the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but focus more on being than on telling everyone what you are. Otherwise, your tagline will be little more than aspirational and you may just miss your target.


"When the New Wears Off" - A Reality of Church Planting

I have the great privilege of working with church planters in our city and throughout our state. I call these men front-line servants as many have stepped out in faith to launch and lead a local church that only previously existed in the mind of God. The endeavor requires faith. It calls for risk (though some do not like to use that word.) It is not easy. It is not supposed to be easy. Yet, it is right.

Welcoming new churches in a community, especially one as fast-growing as ours, is a bit of a challenge for many legacy churches and established pastors. Try as we might, there is this sense of competition that often rears its head. As a long-time pastor of a one-hundred year old church (no I'm not the planter who started this church) it requires constant focus to remember that kingdom work is something I have been invited into, and the kingdom is not mine. Thus, newer churches in our community where the number of residents continues to increase should not be considered a bad thing. This is why I intentionally work with planters, seek to help them find sending churches if that is missing, and coach them through our local association of churches and our Send Network. If I simply ignore the need for these new works, I know what I will do. I know me. I will drift into a small kingdom mindset that focuses solely on the "success" and vitality of the local church where I serve. Now, I should be focused on these things, but tunnel vision will develop and I will cease to see how God is at work in our community. I do not naturally drift toward Kingdom-mindedness. I must intentionally move there.

Thus, I get to spend quite a bit of time with pastors launching new churches. Some are further along than others. Some struggle with common realities. Whether it is the gathering of the right people for the right roles in launch team or securing a facility to gather, stressors exist. 

I believe there may be more resources now than at any time in recent church history. The movement of church planting and the similar movement of church revitalization have led to the development of many helps for the fledgling pastor.

I will meet with a cohort of planters this week. It will be the final meeting of our group. These men are planting churches throughout the state of Florida and due to the great diversity of our state, each church looks different from the others. Each church's community is unique and context is varied.

The church planting factory is running 24/7 now and experts abound. Yet, once you get beyond the practical helps, the templates, the "you have to do it this way" instructions, and all that comes after being labeled a church planter, the long, tedious, hard work remains.

And eventually...the shine wears off the new toy.

It is in these moments when the church planter looks around realizing that no one wants to set up chairs any longer. The volunteers who loaded and unloaded the equipment are tired. The smiles are forced on many faces. The hours of preparation to preach the Word seem never ending. The post-sermon self-grading is horrendous because as much as you want to be Barnabas for others, you aren't for yourself.

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I love church planters.

I hate seeing them struggle.

I love church planters.

I hate when godly men who are not qualified nor called think their church planters.

I love church planters and their families.

I hate when their families suffer and the home life is not joyous.

Eventually, the shiny newness of the plant will dull. What then? There is this moment in all organizations when the question of "Are we going to keep doing this or is it time to quit?" has to be asked. Rarely is quitting the right thing. It is sometimes, but I lament when the towel is thrown in too early.

This is why sending churches and church plants must be truly connected. There must be a true relationship and not just a money funneling relationship. I fear that even some sending churches find themselves "collecting" plants for the purpose of sharing how "missional" they are, but are not truly engaging the new works well.

I have failed in far more ways as a sending church pastor than I care to share here. Yet, I know that we (our church particularly and all sending churches) must do better. 

And it is not all on the sending church. Church planters need to give permission to others (mentors, friends, fellow pastors, etc.) to speak into their lives in honest ways. The church planter needs to remember that he is not God's answer to the lost and dying world. He must remember that God is not in heaven saying "Whew! I am so glad this guy became a church planter. He can finally fix all that the other churches throughout history have done wrong." (I'm being facetious, but it is a good reminder.)

When the new wears off...if the church is God's intention, if the planter is qualified and called, he must press on (not out of guilt, but through the strength of the Spirit.) He must persevere and remember he cannot do it alone. The same is true for the sending or legacy church pastor. It is not like the older guys are not guilty of workaholism and believing everything must go through them. 

We need each other. It is God's intention that we do not do life alone. Even Paul had partners in ministry throughout his missionary journeys. Throughout history, there have always been "one anothers" in the gospel stories.

The "new" will wear off. There will be days when ministry is not fun. We know this, but when we experience them, we often wonder if it is worth the effort to press on.

It is.

Oh, and you can take a day or two (or more) off. I hope my wife doesn't read this because I'm not good at doing this, but I know it is right. And if you have brothers in your city whom you trust, that pastor nearby, who love you dearly...you will have someone who can "fill the pulpit" for you every so often. 

 


What I Wish I Knew Earlier About Planting Churches & Sending Church Planters

Church planting is considered trendy by some.

Church planting is a term that has become used greatly in the past decade or so, but in truth is not new. In fact, it is how the gospel has spread throughout the world, from city to city, community to community, and family to family since the birth of the church in the book of Acts. Church planting is so much more than a trend. If it is a trend, it has been trending for two-thousand years.

I am thankful for the men I know who are now planting churches and supporting church plants throughout our nation and world. Intentional and strategic church planting in regions and areas where local expressions of church are needed continue to happen. Our goal as a church and mine as a pastor has been to help identify the men God has called to this amazing task, to equip them, enable them, and encourage them as they serve.

Church planting is not easy. It is exciting and it always looks great on video clips and promotional pieces, but the daily grind can be very difficult. Many of the planters and families we serve with have expressed those moments of isolation, feeling forgotten by their sending church, ignored by supporters, and wondering if they may have missed God's call.

That is why encouragement and continued support is needed.

Knowing Then What I Know Now

As a pastor of a legacy church (a nice term used to describe an old church) I have sought to help church planters, and call out men in our own church family to lead the way in this endeavor for the past decade or so. It has been a learning experience for me. The good news is that we have families serving on the field now, exactly where God desires them to be, in other cities, states, and even nations. They are truly on the front lines of gospel service as they have answered the call of God.

As I review our church's history of church planting and preparing church planters, it is clear that all who have surrendered to this call and continue to serve in this capacity were blessed by God greatly and serve well due to many factors, in spite of our help. In other words, we did not know what we did not know, but if we had it to do over again, we (as a church and leadership) would be more strategic and intentional for the sake of our planters. In many cases, as I review each, it is clear that we may have been so enamored with the concept of planting churches and campuses that we did not rightly pray for and prepare those God placed before us.

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Sadly, we helped some step into planter positions who should never have done so (at least not as soon as they did.) As a Send Network Trainer, I now go through many weeks of teaching and study with local church planters that provide information and expose blind spots early on. This type of training was mostly unavailable or ignored in our past. Therefore, our campuses and plants suffered unnecessarily. 

Scott Ball, writing for the Malphurs Group lists "Ten Deadly Church Planting Mistakes" in a blog post. It is a hard read because I recognize a number of mistakes I have made in the past with our planters. 

The ten mistakes are:

  1. Not going through assessment
  2. Planting without a coach
  3. Launching too quickly
  4. Leading without a team
  5. Launching too small
  6. Relying too heavily on outside funding
  7. Neglecting solid assimilation plans
  8. Installing local governance too quickly
  9. Waiting too long to implement a leadership pipeline
  10. Neglecting the process of strategic planning.

These are delineated in the blog post here. Some of these seem basic, and they are. Yet, in the excitement and joy of planting something new, often a few of these items are left to the wayside, only to be discovered to be needed and important later. Sadly, often too late.

Church Planting Goals

It is important to have vision and clarity when it comes to planting a church, but it also must be understood that there are times when our vision for a new work will help launch a church, but not sustain. In other words, the vision may seem set in stone, but after a year or so of engaging a community, attempting to grow disciples, and be the church needed in a community, that vision may change. 

Anson McMahon, lead pastor of Emmaus Church near Atlanta shared his thoughts on church planting and truths discovered in the journey here. One point that resonates with me is that as a pastor I must remember that Jesus knows what he's doing even when I often do not. 

To be flexible as a church planter and pastor is an understatement. It is required because change is the only constant (well, other than God) in the journey.

What Feels Like a Failure May Be a Win

We all want to win. Winning means accomplishing the task at hand well and doing so better than others. It's about crossing that finish line first. Yet, in church planting, what we often see as failure may actually be a victory.

It is not a failure to admit the plan is not working.

It is not a failure to shift focus.

It is not a failure to move to another area of ministry.

It may feel like failure, but it does not have to be.

Every church has a shelf-life. While the gates of hell will not prevail on Christ's church, the local body of believers gathered as church may change or shift over time. In fact, as is the case in our city, many will find their season of service coming to an end. This has been true in America for decades. We have seen it throughout Europe for centuries. The church of Jesus Christ prevails, but sometimes, the season of service of a local body in a specific place comes to a close. This should not be so that ministry ceases, but so the next chapter of gospel-centered ministry may flourish. 

As Baptists we are well-equipped in starting things like programs, events, ministries, or even church plants. We often do not recognize well when a season has ended. That is why some churches continue to have varied ministries attempting to function that were perfectly designed to reach and minister to a population who no longer exists. Thus the church lives under the banner of "We've always done this" wondering why there are no longer any positive results.

Sometimes a church plant (or a campus plant) served its purpose and has impacted a community well. A healthy church plant will shift from "plant" status to "church" status and engage as an autonomous family of believers. Yet, sometimes this does not happen. There are numerous reasons. Sometime blame must be placed at the foot of leaders. Sometimes this is due to outside impacts that leaders have no control over (you know, like a pandemic or increased facility rental costs.) 

Regardless, the church and leaders must seek to learn from each experience. It is too easy to allow bitterness, negativity, and feelings of failure to grow. 

I have seen churches and planters ignore or avoid church planting assessment. In such instances, problems have arisen in leadership that could have been addressed prior to the launching. When these issues arise months after the launch, the damage may be so severe the entire plant ceases.

This grieves me. Especially because it is avoidable.

Did You Plant a Church Or Just a Service?

This is something that I fear often creeps into our journeys of church planting. If the church plant is intended to reach an unchurched community by engaging one-on-one in the neighborhood, offering Bible studies, relationships, worship encounters, and the fullness of church to an area void of such, it means more must be done than just relocating a group of faithful servants to a new facility.

In other words, if the church plant is little more than a worship service, you have not planted a church. You have just relocated a gathering of believers to a new building. That can be a great start, but it is not a church.

Tim Keller says it best (full article here) ...

You might be passionate about expositional preaching and having really good preaching, and so you want to start a church. But, if all you want is your own pulpit, that is a horrible reason to plant a church. There are plenty of other pulpits out there that you can go to, but don't plant a church just so you can have your own. Or if you're passionate about good liturgy or good music, don't plant a church in order to have that.  Instead, find a church that you can plug into and be a part of that because church planting is so much more than just having the desire or the ability to plan and to prepare for what makes a really good worship service. You are not an event planner; you're a church planter, and these are two very different things. Now, planning a good worship service is of course going to be a part of church planting, but for those of you who have just started church planting or are thinking about it, you are gonna be surprised by how little of your time is actually devoted to that.

If I knew then what I know now...

Like many churches who jumped on the latest iteration of church planting in recent years, we have enjoyed the journey. We have seen lives transformed. We have heard the gospel proclaimed by those who were more silent in their personal witness prior to the new work. We have seen righteous risks taken. We have seen communities changed and great, godly things have happened. 

It has been good.

Yet, we also acknowledge that there were times we ran too quickly, even ahead of our prayers and God-given vision and strategy. As a friend used to tell me "Good is the enemy of best" and we settled for good (with moments of great) but should have been wise enough to wait for best. 

The Future Is Bright

We still plant churches.

We still send church planters.

We hope to do this even more in our church in the coming years. In fact, we are praying to be the sending or supporting church for forty church planters by 2040. Some megachurches can do that in about six months. For us, it will take longer. This means we must do more than drop a few dollars in the mail to a planter every now and then. It will require more than sending a mission team to another city on occasion. It will require strategic prayer and planning to send, support, and sustain church plants in our city and beyond for the long-term. 

We are learning from our past. We are thankful for the lessons. We long to be wiser as we move forward. 

We are reminded that God has a mission. His mission has a church. We are that church. To God be the glory.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. - Matthew 16:18 ESV