The 20th Century cartoonist, James Thurber, once said, "It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers."
For church planters, going in knowing all of 'the answers' is a temptation. The desire to have a go often comes with a catalogue of things that you want to do differently from the place you came from. Besides, you have seen what worked for Keller/Pilavachi/some other big dog. That's bound to work for you too, right?
Thurber's observation is an astute one. The comparative value of the 'answers' that you have figured out before you hit the ground is low compared to the value of knowing what questions to ask when you get there.
Here are five questions that every church planter should ask if they are going to effectively reach their context.
1. Who Am I?
The primary reason why the things that work for Keller and Pilavachi are unlikely to work for you is that you're not Keller or Pilavachi (unless, of course you are Keller or Pilavachi... in which case it's super-cool that you're reading this - keep up the good work!). It is just as true that the things that will work for you wouldn't work for them. The stuff that they are doing is a fit for who God has made them to be.
The shape of your ministry will be determined to a large extent by who God has wired you to be. As you reflect on who you are, here are some of the things that you might want to think about:
- What are your spiritual gifts? Are you a Bible teacher? An evangelist? A prophet? Do you have a gift of administration, of leadership or of healing? Whatever the gifts that you have been given are, they should play a big role in what you do.
- What makes you excited? Okay... we all know that there will be moments along the way where you need to do the dull stuff just because it needs doing, but if there are particular initiatives, ministries and visions that you just can't shake, then these need to factor into your plans.
- What is your stage of life? Are you single? Newly married? Married with young kids? Empty nester? Retiree? These practical considerations will have a big impact on the amount of time and energy you have to throw into your church plant, and you need to plan accordingly.
- Are you an introvert or an extrovert? This is nothing to do with whether you are good with people or not (or whether you like people). It's about how you replenish your energy. Do you find spending too long with big crowds a bit draining or does it fire you up? Spending time with people is always going to be a big part of church planting, but exactly how you do this is up for grabs, so you might as well make it work for you.
- How spontaneous are you? Are you somebody who likes to fly by the seat of your pants or do you thrive when you have a detailed plan of action? It will make a difference to how you approach church planting.
- What is your job? If the church plant is not your full time job (and in the early days it may not be - read more about your options here) then what do you do with the rest of your time? Do you have a skill set that can support you financially and still leave time and energy for starting the church? What shape will the church need to take to fit around your work?
2. Where Am I?
When the people of Israel first approached the Promised Land, they sent a group of twelve spies ahead of them in order to find out about the land. The spies were to report back with the answers to some very specific questions about the land - how many people lived there, how strong they were, was it a good or bad land, rich or poor, and were there cities or trees.
As you learn about the place that you are going into, you are able to formulate a church planting strategy that can work for where you are. Some of the things worth reflecting on about your area are:
- Demographics. What is the typical age profile(s) of the area? Which cultural groups are represented in the community? How wealthy are the people? Is there a university? Are most people culturally similar, or are there a few distinct cultural groups in the area?
- Transience. Is the community one where a lot of families have lived for generations, or do people move in an out of the area frequently? How long will it take somebody coming in from the outside to have credibility with the people?
- Successes. What are some of the things that are going really well in the community already? Is there a way that you can support these things (or at least not directly compete with them)?
- Needs. The flip side of the last point. What are the needs in the community that are not currently being met? Is there anything that you can do to serve in these areas? (And don't presume that the things you think are the needs are the same as what the locals think are the needs - it's a good idea to ask people what they think!)
- Locations. Are there certain places that people spend their time? Are you in an area that has a 'pub' culture or a 'coffee shop' culture? Is inviting people round for a meal a normal thing in your community, or would it seem weird to people? Would people expect formality or informality when they have guests? This is not to say that you can never do things differently to what people are used to, but at least be aware of what will be usual and comfortable for people, and have a good reason when you veer away from this.
- Churches. What other churches and ministries are already operating in that area? Have you been able to build any relationships with them yet? How can you plant your church in a way that is a blessing to them rather than a nuisance? (For more on this point, see this apology from a mouthy church planter).
3. Who Is With Me?
Whilst the first question was all about playing to your own strengths, this one is about playing to the strengths of those who are on the team with you.
As you are getting to know the people in your core team, ask them similar questions to what you would ask yourself. What is their stage of life? What spiritual gifts do they have? What things have they been involved in previously? Are there particular passions they have that keep them up at night?
Whilst it would almost certainly not be a good idea to start new initiatives based on every individual vision or talent you discover, these conversations will help you gain a feel for just what is possible. As you discover the capacity of your team and the particular things that each of them brings to the table, then you should have a much clearer idea of how much you are realistically able to take on.
It is also likely that you will see some common threads developing in these conversations. If you notice that God has stirred quite a few people about a particular thing, then that could show there is the potential for doing something around that area.
4. What Has God Said?
The most critical defining factor in the approach you take to planting a church is what God has said to you. This, of course, starts with the words of Scripture. God has made promises, such as the promise that Jesus will build his church, the promise that there will be worshippers around the throne from every tribe and tongue and nation, and the promise that the knowledge of his glory will cover the Earth as the waters cover the sea. He has also given us the command to make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey.
As well as these words of Scripture are the prophetic words that God has spoken. Though prophetic promises must be weighed, and so are to be held more loosely than the Bible, they can play a powerful role in shaping how you apply the Scriptural commands into your local context. Both the words spoken over you as the planter, and over the church as a whole can help confirm and clarify direction and can spur you on and encourage you in challenging times.
A few years ago we had a Broadcast hangout with Stef Liston. One of the things that Stef talked about was the idea of a 'vision' for a church plant, and he suggested that at the heart of such a vision should be the great commission (expressed contextually) and an articulation of the prophetic promises that you have been given. In other words, your church plant is shaped around the things that God has said.
5. What's Next?
I must confess to being a bit of a West Wing fanboy, and I love the catchphrase that President Bartlett would say at the end of many of the episodes once an issue had been resolved. "What's Next?"
It is a great question, and one that I would suggest church planters should ask. Unlike Bartlett, however, we shouldn't wait until everything has been resolved to ask it (because let's be honest, when do we ever reach that point in church life?). Instead, we should be asking the question before we even get our church off the ground.
Planting a church is a wonderful thing, but reaching a region is so much better (you can find some thoughts on how to accomplish this here). As you launch your church, it is worth thinking about what the game plan is beyond just getting this church off the ground. Where is the next one going to be? How can you get into the outlying communities? Can you identify the leaders that you could raise up (here is a short training vid on how to pick 'em)? What sort of timescale are you thinking? Without asking these questions, you could spend years assembling a few dozen people and yet barely make a dint on the community that you are part of. It is crucial to understand how the church fits into a wider advance of the gospel.
At the moment in Manchester we are looking to plant into the centre (drop us a line if you fancy getting involved). Each week there are between 6 and 10 of us gathering in a coffee shop in the city, hanging out, studying the Bible, praying and dreaming. And yet, despite being at such an early stage of the plant, the talk frequently turns not to the one area of the city that we want to launch in, but to 3 or 4 distinct churches that we want to see planted in the city centre. This church plant will be born pregnant, with a clear strategy of quickly starting several more new churches in an effort to reach the very diverse and buzzing community that we are in.
Your what's next may not be the same as ours, but it is a great question to ask and the answer to it will help give shape to the kind of church that you plant.
Spending some time thinking about these five questions will help you to plant a church that is not just a clone of what you have seen elsewhere, but one that is right for your own context.
I can't wait to see what it looks like.