The Five Phases of a Church Planting Team

One of the many ways in which planting a church resembles raising a child is that you are unable to settle into a routine for long before everything changes on you again.

This is part of the joy of parenting, and it is also part of the joy of planting. It speaks of growth, as we see the things that we have been dreaming of and praying for starting to be manifest in reality. It also presents a challenge, because no sooner have you got your head around how things are and started to figure out some things that actually work for you current situation, those things no longer work and you need to develop some new ideas for the next season.

This is particularly true when it comes to your church planting team. You may have heard it said that church planting is a lonely business. You may have also heard that the people who start with you won't be the people that finish with you. Both of these comments have an element of truth to them (though by no means are they true in every case), and they speak to the reality that developing a team in a church plant should be one of the key priorities for a planter. What this team looks like will vary depending on the phase of your church planting journey that you are in.

The Church Planting Team in The "Twinkle In the Eye" Phase

Pretty much every church that has ever been planted has started with an idea. Somebody, somewhere has the thought that a new church should be planted (perhaps you have had such a thought yourself from time to time). This thought may sometimes be prompted by prayer and prophecy, or it might be a part of a bigger plan to plant churches in a particular region. It could come through seeing the needs in an area, or noticing an opportunity with a group of believers who need a church near them, or it may even come through the ambition or frustration of a planter who feels that they have something to prove. Often it is a combination of some or all of the above. 

When this thought has got into somebody's head and captured their imagination, it can begin to dominate their thinking. I remember when God first spoke to me about church planting, and for a long time afterwards I couldn't shake the thought. I would talk about it to pretty much everyone I could. I read books about it. I quit my paid church job to join a church plant near me and experience it for myself. My head was full of dreams and schemes about what a new church could be like. This is the "twinkle in the eye phase".

For much of this phase, the 'team' will just be the person who has the thought in their head. This might be someone who ends up planting the church (either as the leader or alongside somebody else), or it may be the leader of an existing church with a dream for planting out again (we often say that planting a church is good, but reaching a region is even better). It doesn't need to be a concrete plan or something that will definitely happen, just something exciting that has grabbed your heart and made you think, 'wouldn't it be cool if...'. This was certainly the case with the apostle Paul. As he wrote to the Romans he expressed his desire to preach the gospel in Rome, and then to go on and start churches in Spain. Though he did get to Rome, many historians think it was unlikely that he ever reached Spain. Nevertheless, this desire speaks of a man constantly dreaming of planting new churches and with a twinkle in his eye about the next thing.

During this phase of a church plant, a lot of what is happening is in your heart as you prepare for what God will do. Nevertheless, there are a few key team members who you need to bring on board. If you have a spouse then you need to share your heart with them (especially if you would intend to be part of the plant yourself), and allow them the time and space to hear God from themselves on it - remember, it would be a sizeable commitment that you would be asking them to make with you and it is important that they carry their own sense of calling to it rather than just piggy-backing on yours. The same is true of your children if they are old enough to understand what is happening. For existing church leaders who would be looking to send out the next plant, then having this kind of conversation with your current team would be a good idea, as the more of you that are excited about the idea, the more likely it will be to happen. 

As well as the strategic conversations with key people, there is no harm and making a bit of noise about it generally. Be careful not to overstate things as this could hit your credibility, but to talk up the idea and begin praying into it in public settings is a good way to get the ball rolling, and it is entirely possible that by doing this you may unearth others who have an interest in getting involved.

The Church Planting Team in The "Get a Meeting Going" Phase

Once you have had the idea of the church plant and started to make a bit of noise about it, the next thing that you should be looking to do is to get a meeting going in the place you want to plant. This isn't a public Sunday service (that will come later) but just a small scale gathering in a home or coffee bar. A good place to start might be getting together once a month to pray, and as things develop you may then move to a weekly Bible study. 

In order to make this happen, all you need is somebody who can get  a meeting off the ground. This doesn't necessarily need to be the person who will lead the plant, though make sure you are clear to communicate what you are and aren't asking them to do; you don't want to create false expectations that will cause issues further down the road. If this is somebody who is already living in the area where you intend to plant then so much the better. 

There is no harm if the meeting is just two or three people praying into the plant to start with, you shouldn't feel any pressure to force things at this stage, but as you continue to share about what you are trying to do and meeting up, you hope that a few more will join you and a vibrant group will start to form. Don't worry about asking people to 'commit' at this point. You just want people who show some kind of interest, and then allow them space to come along, have a good time, form some good friendships in the group and figure out for themselves whether they want to be in the mix for the long term.

The exact shape of this group depends on whether or not the person/people leading it are the ones who had the initial vision for the plant, and also whether they are the ones who will lead it in the long term. It is entirely possible that this will all be the same person, and when this is the case there will certainly be a lot of drive and purpose behind the group, but the danger is that the whole project will rest on the shoulders of just one individual, and this could be a hindrance to forming an effective team in the church plant (this was one of the challenges that I faced the first time I tried to plant a church).

On the other hand, this meeting could be run by somebody other than the eventual leader. When Paul was going to Cenchrae, and then back to Antioch and Galatia, he passed through Ephesus on the way, and he left Priscilla and Aquila there before going on with his travels. Later we see that Paul returned to Ephesus and a church got planted there, but in the first instance he had set up a couple of people in that area who could just get something established there until he returned and could take it forward (at Broadcast, we call this a Bridgehead). Often doing it this way can help a group form with less pressure, and a high quality of community can develop, but it needs careful strategic input from a senior leader to ensure the group doesn't lose focus on the intention to plant!

The Church Planting Team in The "Leadership Emerges" Phase

Eventually, after meeting midweek for a while (or sometimes before), you need to get clear on who is going to be taking the lead in the church plant. This needs to be somebody who has enough leadership capacity to gather a few more people in, and to navigate the church plant through a Sunday launch into an established church. Depending on who you have and their gifting type, this might be someone who is particularly wired for start-ups and can take it through the first few phases, or it might be somebody who ends up taking the lead in the long term.

At this point in the plant, the shape of the team starts to feel a bit different. Because you now have a bit more vision for the future, and some key decisions need to be made (when to start meeting on Sundays, venue, time, etc.), there is a lot of onus on the leader to steer this process. It is important that the leader is able to get a bit of momentum going, but it is also vital to work hard on the relationships with others in the team. We have spoken before on Broadcast about how people will work hard for something that they have helped to shape, and it is important to draw as many of your team as possible into the process, making a point of explaining step-by-step where you are up to, and taking time to hear their thoughts, questions and concerns.

This was the stage of church planting that Paul was at after he had arrive in Corinth at the beginning of Acts 18. He stayed at the home of Aquila and Priscilla, and every Sunday he went to the synagogue and tried to persuade people there of the gospel. It was clear that Paul was the leader of this church planting team, but by staying at the home of Aquila and Priscilla he was able to ensure they were right at the heart of what was going on in the church plant.

One of the key ways that your team grows at this stage is through the relationships that people have with the leaders. Once it is clear who is steering the ship, there will be people who gather to those leaders because they are inspired by them and the vision they cast, because they recognise their ministry, or even because they just like them as people and want to be around them. Similarly, as other members of the planting group get to know and form friendships with the leaders, some of them will also start to emerge and take some shared ownership of the plant, which leads us onto the fourth phase of a church planting team...

The Church Planting Team in The "Shared Ministry" Phase

This is the phase that you really want to get to in order to be ready to launch your Sunday meeting, and it is notable that in the Corinthian example mentioned above, Paul held back on his pace a bit until he had a team in this phase. Whereas his initial practice had been just to reason in the synagogue on the Sabbath , once Silas and Timothy arrived to join him, we are told that Paul was then 'occupied with the word' and he found a public venue (the house next door to the synagogue) and got a meeting started that resulted in lots of the Corinthians believing and being baptised.  

What made the difference here was the team. Although there had been other people with Paul prior to the arrival of Silas and Timothy in Corinth, it seems that there was something different about these people. They were more than simply warm bodies on seats (and warm bodies on seats are actually very important in a church plant). They were Paul's people - leaders in their own right and co-workers who could share the load of ministry with Paul.

At CCM, we are trying to plant a bunch of churches in Manchester, and in the latest church plant in Manchester City Centre, we have recently reached this phase. The plant started as one of many twinkles in the eye of Colin Baron, and Colin found a couple of students who were able to run a midweek meeting in a coffee shop for a few months and allow something to develop. After a while of meeting midweek in this way, it was time to bring in some leadership to help move the plant forward and I was asked to take on this role. Alongside me I have Alastair who is one of the students who ran the original meeting who has a hunger to grow in leadership and learn, and Abi who is taking a year out to help us get the church going. Having people other than myself who have emotional ownership of the church plant, some time availability to throw at it and the capacity to get stuff done is a game-changer and means that we can push the accelerator towards a public launch early in the new year, just as the arrival on Silas and Timothy in Corinth made all the difference for Paul.

As you look to reach this phase, what you are trying to do is to identify those co-workers who can share the load of ministry with you. These may be people within the group that has already formed, or others from outside who are up for getting involved. You then want to invest in these people heavily. It is important that they are given space to take responsibility in the plant, and also that they are given lots of coaching input and space to discuss issues and ensure that you are pulling in the same direction (they way Jesus worked with the twelve as he sent them out is a good starting point in how you do this). Having these people working among you is a big positive for building your wider team and it is now not only the influence and personality of the main leader but also these others that people will gather to. Having this kind of team makes it a lot easier to then grow out your core group and launch your public meetings.

The Church Planting Team in The "Multiplying Teams" Phase

Once you have launched on Sundays and you hit the season of the church's life, the question that you will hear from many people, in one form or another, is 'where do I fit?'. What they are really asking is whether or not you are going to allow space for them to lead and serve in accordance with their calling. It may seem natural to double-down on those who were the key members of your planting team at this stage, but doing so could create a bottleneck for others to come through and deny the space and opportunity for more leaders to emerge.

Now is the time to multiply your ministry.

Following your Sunday launch is an ideal time to think about where you want to plant next (if you haven't been thinking about it already). When you have a vision to seed a whole region with new churches, then you need to be constantly revisiting the 'twinkle in the eye' phase and letting God inspire you with new dreams and ideas of the next thing.

It is important not to weaken your fledgling church too much, but empowering a couple of people to start the whole process again in the 'get a meeting going phase' and seeing what happens can keep the planting momentum strong, ensure that fresh leadership opportunities are constantly on offer, and most importantly begin to plant the good news of Jesus into another new community.

At the same time, bringing others through into leadership within your church, or allowing them to take the lead in work of service to the local community means that there is also space within your plant for others to use their gifts, and you can find that the diversity of passions and abilities in those that make up your team makes it possible to multiply your impact in ways that wouldn't be possible if everything revolved around the main leader. Empowerment is they key, and the more trusted and skilled leaders you can raise up, who can then lead teams of their own, the more effective you (and they) will be.

To Think About (for Church Planters):

  • What phase of church planting are you in at the moment?
  • What is the next thing you need to do to develop your church planting team?