Personal Things I Learned While Church Planting

by | Apr 3, 2024 | Church & Ministry, Mission Studies & Intercultural Theology | 0 comments

I was involved in church planting with a fellow planter for much of my twenties. During that period of my life, church planting was everything. There was no financial support from a denomination, so I worked full-time to support myself. While working full-time, I gave every spare moment and ounce of energy into planting this church in Sydney, as did my mentor and fellow planter.

By the end of that period, I was tired. I felt underprepared theologically and pastorally. I needed to get training, recharge, and retool for a lifetime of ministry and service.

It was a good decision. My experience in church planting made the subsequent four years at theological college much richer and more meaningful. The skills and abilities I learned as a church planter helped launch me into other forms of pastoral ministry, as well as writing books and leading within Australian theological colleges.

The competencies I learned in church planting—skills in pioneering, innovation, risk-taking, and leadership—have shaped my approach to pastoral ministry and theological education, giving me the passions and competencies to start fresh expressions, launch innovations, take risks, and step out in faith and trust God even when resources are limited, and the task seems overwhelming. Church planting shapes adventurous, visionary, pioneering spirits. Significantly, it can shape generous and welcoming communities and loving, humble, and prayerful hearts. If you walk in step with the Spirit while planting or innovating, you’ll move from relevance to prayer, popularity to ministry, and leading to being led. Henri Nouwen describes this spiritual and leadership growth journey in his book “In the Name of Jesus.”

In this blog, I reflect on some lessons I learned while church planting. These are just my lessons. They’re personal. They may not even reflect the feelings of our church planting team. It’s a long list, but it’s just my attempt to wrestle with what I learned during that time.

I won’t pretend my decade of church planting compares with the experience of those who’ve done church planting longer-term.
But church planting was so demanding, challenging, exciting, painful, joyous, and all-consuming that I’ve reflected here on some lessons I learned.

Some Personal Lessons from Church Planting

Here are some personal things I learned while church planting.

Church planting isn’t about church planting.

It’s about glorifying God and our Lord Jesus Christ and joining with God in mission—and mission is about discipleship, love, gospel, shalom, the kingdom of God, and much more. My neighborhood doesn’t need another church. It needs a community of disciples who join God’s mission, commit to a distinct life together, and love their neighborhood and neighbors.

Church planting is many experiences and feelings at once.

It’s exciting and terrifying, fun and tedious, inspiring and deflating, growing and declining, relational and lonely, pioneering and shepherding, meaningful and heartbreaking, and so much more.

Church planting often makes you feel like you are out of your depth, out of your comfort zone, and out of your mind.

You try so many things that fail. Some succeed. You take so many risks. Some pay off, and some are a disaster. You wonder whether you’re out of your mind, but you keep trying anyway, clutching to the vision God has placed in your heart, your love for God’s people, and your passion for your neighborhood.

Church planting makes you feel like an imposter.

Deep inside, you wonder whether people will discover you’re not up to the task. You don’t have the skills, vision, training, temperament, or wisdom. And everyone is on the verge of finding this out. You’re not an imposter. So, the Spirit keeps challenging you on this insecurity. The Spirit invites you into a different sense of self and an identity rooted in Christ. The Spirit keeps whispering, “Will you let this go and trust me?”

Church planting needs a community of disciples, a community of leaders, a community of neighbors, and a community of churches.

These three things are necessary for a church plant to thrive (and each is an interconnected community): disciples, leaders, and neighbors.

Church plants need a community of disciples who celebrate the Lord’s Supper, pray, fast, read Scripture, share communal meals, share economic resources, and serve and love each other and their neighbors.

Church plants need a community of leaders who release us from thinking one or two people can build a church. This community of leaders expresses the fivefold gifts: pioneers, prophets, shepherds, teachers, and pastors.

Church plants need a community of neighbors who remind us that God was working in their neighborhood long before we arrived and will be here long after we’re gone. Our neighbors help us see the kingdom of God among us. We join our neighbors in discovering God’s presence, reconciliation, hope, love, and restoration.

Church plants need a community of churches that connects them to the broader Body of Christ. This community of churches and their leaders must support them, stand with them, cheer them on, admonish them, and help them see their place in the bigger picture.

Church planting is about the dismantling of dichotomies and divisions.

Sacred/secular, evangelism/justice, pastoral/planting, etc. After a while, none of these dichotomies or divisions make sense, and you realize that if you don’t let them go, they’ll derail and disfigure the community.

Church planting is about praying like you’ve never prayed before.

You are so out of your depth, you have so many needs, and you’re so dependent on God that you start praying and fasting like crazy. You understand, practically and tangibly, that you are utterly reliant on God and prayer.

Church planting depends on hospitality.

It feels like people enter every part of your life. You embrace a deeper commitment to hospitality and welcome with appropriate boundaries, or you’re in deep trouble. You discover that everything depends on hospitality: community, worship, mission, discipleship, leadership, witness, and more. This isn’t a one-way hospitality. People (in the church and the neighborhood) welcome you and embrace you in humbling, astonishing ways. You discover the centrality of hospitality to life, faith, community, and witness.

Church planting is about reflective engagement.

In church planting, you discover how interconnected action, community, theology, and mission are. Each deepens and relies on the other. Action and reflection go hand in hand, and those who don’t seek to make the most of that quickly get into trouble.

Church planting is about holy discontent.

You are restless with the status quo, and you keep asking God to help you bring change, hope, and renewal. This holy discontent burns in your heart and shapes so much of what you do and how you pray, speak, and act.

Church planting makes you realize how dependent you are on others.

Want to discover how inadequate, unprepared, ill-equipped, and broken you are? Plant a church. This is why church planters need training, support, encouragement, connection with other planters, coaching, and mentoring. This support must come from established churches, other church planters, training groups, denominational bodies, and more. What do you discover you need? Advocacy, friendship, feedback, encouragement, training, finance, peer-to-peer conversations, accountability, resources, partnerships, and more.

Church planting helps you discover the power of stories.

For me, it was a revelation to discover the power of story. I realized that my story, the church plant’s story, the neighborhood’s story, the culture’s story, and God’s story all intersect and inform and shape each other. Church planting made me think a lot about the power of these interdependent stories.

Church planting takes a pioneering, apostolic, entrepreneurial spirit.

We often think of this as a “maverick” spirit. But it’s not. The apostolic, pioneering types in Scripture weren’t isolated mavericks. They served in a team. They joined a community of apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists. They welcomed accountability and obligation. And they took risks, broke new ground, pioneered new communities, and refused to be constrained by small thinking. Pioneers aren’t mavericks but are ground-breakers and crucial to the church’s future. And they often engage in social and business entrepreneurship. They usually combine church planting with bi-vocational (co-vocational) life, fundraising, launching startups and fresh expressions, charities, and other organizations.

Church planting tests and deepens your trust in God.

You struggle for money. You feel out of your depth. You worry about your family. You feel like you’re taking three steps forward, then two steps back. And you learn to trust God. At its heart, church planting is about learning to pray and to trust.

Church planting is like sailing.

You are constantly maneuvering the vessel with the wind. As a community, you continually discern what the Spirit says through meals, prayer, service, neighboring, Eucharist, Scripture, culture, suffering, and more. You can’t be rigid, inflexible, or too set on one course. You must go with the wind of the Spirit.

Church planting is a team sport, not an individual sport.

Charismatic, dynamic, talented, individualistic, egotistical, narcissistic, and extraordinarily gifted people don’t make great church planters. Great church planters embrace a confident humility. They understand that the church’s health, vitality, and mission depend on teamwork, inclusion, community, humility, relationship, and, most importantly, love—within the church community and outward toward its neighbors.

Church planting is about learning to have open ears and eyes.

For me, it was about learning to hear and see. What is God doing and saying? Where is the Spirit leading? How is Jesus present in my neighborhood? Where are the signs of hope, inclusion, renewal, and love in my city and neighborhood? What are my neighbors doing and saying, and hoping and feeling? How can I hear and see?

Church planting needs large doses of play.

After a while, I became tired and overworked. I forgot how to play. I’ve concluded that long-term, sustainable ministry requires large doses of play. For me, that means days at the beach, going to the gym, taking up a sport or hobby, joining local community groups and clubs, walking my dog, reading novels, and going to the movies with friends. All the talk about self-care can sometimes feel a bit boring, but I’ll take play any day!

Church planting depends on imagination.

There is where beauty, art, literature, theology, creation, architecture, stories, films, and more come in. Healthy church planting requires fertile imagination. How do we creative, innovate, pioneer, and find beauty and meaning without imagination?

Church planting is deeply relational.

Here’s the thing. No church plant will survive without deep friendships, healthy marriages (if you are married), intentional neighboring, and many other relationships. This is one of the most relational vocations and calls one can imagine. A ferocious commitment to relationships is critical to church planting.

Church planting shows you the power of forgiveness.

I made many mistakes, hurt people, broke promises, didn’t act with integrity, and showed terrible leadership.

But I also did many things well. I helped people, kept promises, sought God’s help, and tried hard to show the true nature of Christlike Christian leadership.

In all of this, I learned the power of forgiveness. I saw the extent of people’s grace, patience, love, and hope.

Church planting is a very personal experience and story.

Some experiences are common to all church planters, but many experiences and stories are deeply personal and unique. We all need safe spaces to tell these stories and encourage and support each other.

 

Graham Joseph Hill

Rev. Dr. Graham Joseph Hill serves as Mission Catalyst for Church Planting and Missional Renewal with the Uniting Church in NSW and ACT, Australia. Previously, he was the Principal of Stirling Theological College (Melbourne), the Vice-Principal of Morling Theological College (Sydney), and an Associate Professor at the University of Divinity, Australia. Graham is an ordained and accredited minister with the Baptist Churches of Australia. He has planted and pastored churches and been in ministry since 1988. Graham is the author or editor of 13 books. Graham writes at grahamjosephhill.com

Graham's qualifications include: Honours Diploma of Ministry (SCD), Bachelor of Theology (SCD), Master of Theology (Notre Dame), and Doctor of Philosophy (Flinders).

See ORCID publication record: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6532-8248

 

© 2024. All rights reserved by Graham Joseph Hill. Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites, or in any other place, without written permission is prohibited.

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