Imagine the scene.
You are sitting in a coffee shop with an impetuous young man. He tells you that over the last couple of months God has been speaking to him about church planting. He has read a ton of books, participated in a few hangouts, developed his back-of-a-napkin 5 year plan, and he is now bursting at the seams to go and wants to rent a building and get started straight away. After all, the best time to plant a church is yesterday, and the second best time is now. He would like your blessing, support and advice.
What would you say to this young man?
Or imagine you are in that same coffee shop with an established church leader. Many years of the ups and downs of ministry have taken their toll and this pastor has nothing like the optimism of the first young man. Though he is in favour of church planting in principle, he has too many practical concerns to actually lead his church in that direction. Launching another Sunday meeting would have a big impact on what they are already doing. Sending out key volunteers could be detrimental to important ministries, and financially they are in no position to support a fledgling church.
What would be your advice this time?
Believe it or not, both of these men may be suffering with the same issue – a misunderstanding of pace.
For the young wannabe planter, the notion that a church plant moves from zero to full throttle in about a week will lead to mistakes being made, important steps being overlooked, and the church moving too quickly to a stage that it doesn’t have the momentum to sustain, which could cause discouragement and burnout when the initial burst of enthusiasm begins to fade.
In the case of the cynical pastor, it is this same concept of a church plant moving from a glint in the planter’s eye to a fully-fledged congregation immediately that causes his reluctance. Because he thinks that the price will all be paid at once, that price just looks too high.
But what if I told you that a church plant has many more gears than just neutral and fifth gear? It is by going through each of the gears, building appropriately at each stage and then when the moment arrives gradually increasing the intensity that a new church plant can be birthed in a way that is natural and strong, that minimises the risk of the planter or their team burning out, and that means that the investment from a sending church can be made in a much more managable way.
There are few Biblical characters that have provided more inspiration to church planters over the years than Nehemiah.
He is just so easy to identify with!
He hears about the needs of a city, and feels a burden from God in his spirit to do something about it. After a time of prayer, he decides to go and he galvanises a community of people to build and restore the city. He faces and overcomes opposition. He helps the poor get lifted out of poverty, and helps the rich to embrace generosity. He gets the job done and builds the wall, and the people begin to grow in their relationship with God.
It is near the beginning of Nehemiah 1 that he hears about the needs of Jerusalem, but it is not until Nehemiah 3 that the building work begins.
Between these two events, there is a season of preparation for the work – which is one of the crucial gears that any church planter needs to go through before launching on the ground.
Here are 10 lessons from Nehemiah about how we prepare to build:
1. We pray (Nehemiah 1:4-11)
Yes, it sounds obvious – but it is absolutely crucial. Everything that we want to see happen in the community that we are planting can only happen supernaturally – people meeting Jesus, the sick being healed, relationships being restored - and prayer is the secret weapon in this.
For Nehemiah, prayer was the very first element of his response, but notice that he wasn’t praying to ask God whether he should go or not – it seems that was a given – but rather he prayed that God would grant him success in the work.
2. We speak to influencers (Nehemiah 2:5)
In any community or organisation, there are people who have the influence to make things happen and to stop other things from happening. Often exciting visions can come to nothing because the right person has not been brought on board.
A few years ago, I was a church youth worker and I had a dream of an all-singing, all-dancing new Friday night youth club. I had spent hours dreaming of what it would be like, worked out a detailed program and even designed a logo. But I hadn’t once mentioned it to the church leader. When I finally did share my plans with him, it turned out that he didn’t like the idea, so all that work and vision came to nothing.
For any new initiative, there are key people who need to be on board if it is going to get anywhere. For Nehemiah, that person was the king.
Years earlier, there had been a previous attempt to rebuild the city, but this attempt had been stopped because of a command of the king: “Therefore make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me.” (Ezra 4:21)
It was the king who had made the work stop, so to get the work started again, Nehemiah needed to get the king on board.
Depending on your situation, the people you need to be on board with your dreams will differ, but will be likely to include some or all of the following: your spouse, your kids, your current church leaders, apostolic leaders you are connected to.
If any of those people are not currently supportive of the vision to plant, then it would be wise not to push ahead immediately but to keep talking to those people and understand the reasons for their concerns.
It would also be helpful (though not necessarily a deal-breaker) to have support from: your extended family, other local church leaders, your employer, and your friendship network.
3. We ask for help (Nehemiah 2:1-8)
God is sovereign and provides for our needs, but he usually does so through means.
Nehemiah had a vision, and after bringing the king on board, he knew that the king was in a position to provide him things that he needed (time off his job to go and do the building work was a big one!)
Nehemiah knew that if you don’t ask, you don’t get – and so he asked, and he got!
“And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.” (Nehemiah 2:9)
Let’s be honest. When you are church planting, there are loads of things that you need.
You need some people to uproot their family and move to join you in the work?
So ask them.
You need some local people to start coming along and inviting their network of friends?
So ask them.
You need someone to let you have a meeting room at a bargain-basement price?
So ask them.
You need your employer to let you drop a day at work so you can give it to church stuff?
So ask them.
The answer won’t always be yes when you make the ask, but it sometimes will – and even if it is no, you haven’t lost anything. So make the ask.
4. We pick our moments (Nehemiah 2:1)
One of the most irritating (and inspiring) things about potential church planters is that they are always banging on about their church plant.
We need to understand that just because a God-given vision is at the top of our agenda, it doesn’t mean that it will automatically be at the top of the agenda of everyone around us.
Most people will be willing to talk to us about our hopes, plans and needs, but they will also be quite rightly focussed on other things – their jobs, their families, the visions that God has given them. Few people will thank us if we dismiss their priorities to talk about our own, so it is important that we pick our moments well.
When Nehemiah approached the king, he timed it to perfection. He didn’t barge in while the king was in an important meeting, but rather waited until a time that he was seeing the king anyway (his job was to be the king's winebearer) and allowed the king to start the conversation. The king was with his wine, and so would be relaxed (drunk?) enough to talk to Nehemiah, and was probably in a frame of mind to give a much more positive response than he would have if Nehemiah had brought up the topic at an inopportune time.
When you have a list of influential people you want to discuss your dream with, you would do well to consider how you could initiate the conversation in a way that would bless them. Trying to start a conversation with them about your planned church plant when they are about to preach at an event is probably not a good idea, nor is interrupting them if you happen to bump in to them while they are enjoying family time. If you are not sure how to start the conversation, then a brief email to their administrator with a quick summary of your situation and a query about whether they might be available for a 5-minute phone-call about it could be a good way to start.
5. We make some gutsy moves (Nehemiah 2:2)
There are some simple, low-risk things that are crucial to preparing a church plant (pray, ask for help, etc.) but there will also be some things that could prove more costly.
In order for Nehemiah to get the attention on the king, he had to indicate there was a problem by wearing a frown on his face. In the culture that Nehemiah was a part of, this was an incredibly risky move. The expectation was that it would be smiles all around in the king’s presence, and for Nehemiah to do otherwise meant risking his job, and perhaps even risking his life. And yet to set things up for the ministry that God was calling him to, Nehemiah was willing to make this gutsy move.
For me, the high-risk move was leaving a stable and comfortably paid youth ministry job and spending the next year waiting tables as I began preparing to plant.
For you, it could be leaving your job, moving house, investing authority in a young, unproven leader or one of a thousand other things, but having the wisdom to see the right risky move to make and the courage to boldly step in to it at the right time is vital in being well-set in your church planting ministry.
6. We share ownership (Nehemiah 2:6)
It is interesting that Nehemiah casts the vision in a way that a pagan king can relate to and even claim credit for. In essence, Nehemiah allowed the king to sponsor the project, and he gave the king the win of being able to brag to his friends about how he had restored the city of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah didn’t really mind that the mission was framed as being sent by King Artaxerxes to restore the city, and he was happy to do it on the king’s timetable. So long as the walls got built, it made no difference to Nehemiah who could claim the credit for it.
Not everybody who backs or helps us in our church plant will have the same win in mind, and there is wisdom in allowing these various objectives and narratives to exist side-by-side.
For example, when the leaders of your current church send you out, of course they want you to do well for the sake of the advance of the gospel, but it will also help them within their own ministry as they can share the story of sending you and playing a key role in reaching a new area. Resisting the temptation to overly assert your independence means that your sending church can also claim a success whenever you do, which will be a compelling motivator for them to go on supporting you.
Apostolic leaders may back you, in part to see your church plant thrive, but in part because they can see the potential for your church being a bridgehead into other new areas.
When I first planted, I worked in a school and proposed to the head teacher that I do a four-day week at the school to spend time church planting. He was very keen that the school supports initiatives in the local community and so was delighted to go along with it.
Different stakeholders may have different objectives and wins in mind, but so long as it leads to the work getting done, then it is all good.
7. We make the second ask (Nehemiah 2:7)
Nehemiah had already risked his life once to raise the issue with the king and find favour. It would be easy to leave it there and file it away as a success, but Nehemiah seized on the opportunity and made a second ask; he wanted the king to provide all of the wood from his own forests, and the king agreed!
When we ask somebody for help and they say yes, they have shown that they are warm to what we are doing and they would like to support it. Making the second ask of such a person is often honouring and will lead them to buy-in and partner with us even more.
Is there a church that has offered to regularly pray for your church plant? Perhaps they might also be willing to make a financial donation.
Is there a family that has offered you a place to stay while you find your feet in a new city? Perhaps they might be interested in joining your church plant.
It is possible to over-do this and become annoying (see point 4), but when done well it can be a great source of resource for the work.
8. We have the hard conversations (Nehemiah 2:9-10)
Following his meeting with the king, Nehemiah’s next move was to see other influential people, who he almost certainly knew would not be happy with his plans.
The governors that Nehemiah visited were the same people who were opposed to the rebuilding and had managed to have the work stopped in the book of Ezra. Nehemiah visited them in person to show them the king’s letters and let them know what he intended to do.
As uncomfortable as this meeting would have been, by speaking to these people before the construction began, Nehemiah had ensured that nobody could accuse him of acting deceitfully or disrespectfully, and he improved the prospects of the work succeeding.
Depending on your situation, there may or may not be people who are opposed to the work, but taking the time to meet with them, and as far as it is in your ability to build bridges with them will serve the work much better than a ‘stuff the haters’ attitude ever could, and could potentially diffuse the possibility of opposition and trouble from them in the future.
9. We do a reccy (Nehemiah 2:11-16)
Before going public, Nehemiah spends time getting to know the place he will be working in. He does so with no fanfare and only accompanied by a few people, and during his three days in the city he gains personal experience of the problem. He learned how broken down the walls were and what damage there was to the gates.
This meant that when Nehemiah did go public with his vision, he would not be doing so from mere theory, but he would be able to speak from his own experience.
Before moving to Manchester, I spent quite a few days up here, just walking the city, praying and observing what the city is like – and since moving here, I have learned the place to a much deeper level. There is so much to love here, and also so much that needs healing!
As you prepare for a church plant, walk the streets of the place that you are planning to go. Talk to people who live there. Gain understanding of the things that are great about the place and about the areas of need. If possible live there yourself while you are preparing.
The more you know an area, the better equipped you will be to reach it!
10. We cast vision (Nehemiah 2:17)
Finally, after taking the time to pray, to seek help, to speak to the people he needed to speak to, and to experience the place for himself, Nehemiah casts a heart-felt vision and people begin to respond to it.
Because he was able to speak with knowledge about the need of Jerusalem, and share the story of the favour he had been shown by the king, faith began to rise in the people and they committed to join him in the work.
I remember one time being directly asked by somebody to pitch him the vision for my church plant. I didn’t have an answer on the tip of my tongue and blew the opportunity. I reckon there was a reasonable chance he would have joined if I had been able to give a compelling answer his question.
Understanding the vision that God has given you is one thing. Being able to articulate it in a way that inspires others is quite another, but it is crucial in helping others to understand and finding co-labourers for the work.
Only then, after going through all of these steps of preparation does Nehemiah move the work up out of first gear and actually get building, but by pacing it well he had set himself up to succeed, and less than two months later we read the glorious words in Nehemiah 6:15:
“So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul.”
The completion of the wall wasn’t the end of the story for Nehemiah, just as getting our church plants established isn’t the end of our story, but it is a huge win along the way, and by pacing it right, Nehemiah had given himself every chance to succeed.
If we learn from his example, we can give ourselves every chance to succeed too.