Nobody plants a church from scratch.
We planted a church out of our main campus 5 years ago, but it was not from scratch; not by a long shot. The 40 people who went out, went out from us. They went out with values, beliefs, traditions and expectations that came from their time inside our mission and fellowship. There is nothing wrong with that. It saved them time, it helped them avoid mistakes and it gave them a common language and the foundation for an effective culture.
What if you could start a church from scratch?
What would you do if you didn’t have to bend, adapt, edit or translate – what would you do if you could design a church from the ground up?
To be clear: for me, this is an intellectual exercise. I pastor a 147 year old church and I have never found my people resistant to new ideas or innovative methodology. We have the same theology that we had at our founding, but we have adapted, repented, modified and changed a great many things about our fellowship and programming over the years and the Lord has continued to bless us – thanks be to God!
I wonder sometimes what I am not trying simply because I am assuming that we wouldn’t or couldn’t bend that far. I wonder what I am not even proposing because it is just too far from where we’ve been and what we’re used to.
Those are the thoughts and questions that lie behind this post. I don’t anticipate using these ideas as the basis of a church planting strategy anytime soon, but I do think there is value in thinking them through and putting them down on paper. Maybe they are not as crazy as I think. Maybe a few of these ideas can be adapted for use in the real world. Maybe a few of them can be incorporated into your strategy as you plant, branch and expand for the greater glory of God.
If I were planting a church from scratch today, I would want to do the following:
1. Build the Program around Prayer and Preaching
I began my ministry career in a “seeker-sensitive” church; we had all sorts of ideas about how to grow a church. We knew what type of music unchurched people liked and we made sure to sing their favourite songs. We knew about signage, vision clarity, parking, ushering, relevance and meeting felt needs.
We worked very hard and we saw almost no tangible fruit.
Some people came, they were impressed, they remarked upon how much cooler we were than other churches, but that was pretty much it. I don’t remember anyone repenting of their sins, truly trusting in Christ and being saved.
And that pretty much soured me on attractional church.
Nowadays I’d rather just do what the Bible says and take my chances. I’d rather approach ministry like the leaders in the early church who said “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4 ESV).
I think that’s good counsel. If I were starting a church from scratch, I’d put prayer and preaching in the centre and build out from there.
Secondly, if I were starting a church from scratch today I would:
2. Focus Locally Rather Than Regionally
In the 90’s and the early 2000’s, everyone was watching and learning from Walmart and Home Depot. Main Street was out and Big Box was in! Any church with financial flexibility and a saleable property was ditching their downtown campus and making for the suburbs. The thought was that this would allow us bigger buildings, better parking, more program flexibility and the chance to draw from a wider region.
What it did was further segregate and divide churches. People with cars and cash went to the Big Box churches. Old people and the poor stayed put.
The more I think about it, the less regional church makes sense to me.
You can’t pastor a region; you pastor people and people live in places. They live in neighbourhoods. They go to schools. They play soccer at particular fields and they sit in particular parks. As soon as you begin to think of yourself as a “regional church”, you give yourself permission to avoid all of those places in order to attract rich, middle class, mobile people. Church becomes “come and see” rather than “go and tell”.
That change has not been a blessing.
If I were planting a church from scratch today, I would insist upon a local presence, a local vision and a local ministry.
Thirdly, if I were starting a church from scratch today I would:
3. Meet on Sunday Mornings (and Sunday Evenings Too!)
I’m not a fan of Saturday evening church. I understand the logic. Some people work on Sunday mornings, some people can’t get out of bed that early – I get it. But I don’t think that Saturday evening church is an upgrade. It seems to encourage a “let’s get ‘er done” kind of attitude, particularly among the young and nominal. Church becomes a box to check – the faster the better – before getting on with the serious business of the weekend.
Whatever happened to the Lord’s Day?
I’m not being legalistic here; I don’t think it’s a sin to work on Sunday if you are poor or out of options. I just think that if you can, setting aside an entire day for worship, community, rest and fellowship is a really good idea. It is a blessing. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Most of us hear the permission in there, but we miss the opportunity. A Sabbath rest is good for man! And woman! And children! It isn’t a box to be checked, it is a blessing to be enjoyed.
Sunday evening services somehow became stuffy, obligatory and passé. I’m not interesting in bringing that back. I’m thinking of something different. Something simple, edifying and experiential. I’m thinking a sermon, a song and the Table. I’m thinking fellowship, friendship and prayer.
If I was starting a church from scratch today, that would definitely be on the menu.
Fourthly I would want to:
4. Go Light on Mid-week Programs
The church has always had secondary meetings, but they used to be less segregated and less specialized than they are now. Now every member of the family has a different group on a different night – we’re never together and we’re never at home!
This is not an upgrade.
If I were planting a church from scratch today, I wouldn’t eliminate mid-week programming, but I would try to trim it back considerably. I’d try to encourage parents to take personal responsibility for the spiritual instruction of their children, and I would also encourage frequent and intentional hospitality. Much of what we do in mid-week programs is done so that kids learn the faith and make Christian friends. There are other ways, and better ways to do that.
I wouldn’t want to cancel mid-week programs, but I would want to do a little less so that we could do a little more out in the community.
That’s my fifth thing; if I were planting a church from scratch today I would want to:
5. Invest Heavily in Local Partners and Ministries
It’s hard to ask someone to come out on Sunday morning (and evening too!), serve in a mid-week program, attend a small group AND volunteer in the community. When would such a person cut their grass? When would they go on a date with their spouse? How would their kids not hate them?
The simple truth is that most churches try to do too much.
If we could do a little less midweek (see above), then we could do a little more to serve the community. We could wear our church shirts while we serve at the Homeless Shelter. We could partner together to coach a kids soccer team. We could be Big Brothers and Big Sisters. We could do a meal and a sing-along at the old folks’ home. I think that would be good, but I know we can’t just add that on top of everything else.
Sixthly, if I were planting a church from scratch today I would:
6. Cap the Congregation at 300 People
We planted our branch church when the main campus was consistently over 500 people. At 500 people, it felt way too easy for people to hide, consume and criticize. Christians are designed for service. If they sit too long, they rust and ruin. You have to get them out in the field and in a church of 500, that is harder than you think.
Consider the math:
In a church of 75 people, it takes an average of 6 people to lead a worship service. That’s 8% of the entire congregation.
In a church of 575 people, it takes an average of 8 people to lead a worship service. That’s 1.4%. That leaves a lot more people watching and critiquing when they ought to be serving and rejoicing.
You can apply that same math to every other ministry in your church.
The larger the church, the smaller the percentage of people serving. A large church has more money, more staff and fewer opportunities for regular people to serve. Sooner or later that becomes a very unhelpful thing.
I realize this is controversial and I understand why most churches won’t do it. Church is way easier to finance at 500 givers and beyond, but it slowly begins to fail at its primary mission: making disciples. Somewhere over that 300 mark, church gets easier and worse simultaneously.
That leads to my 7th aspiration. If I were planting a church from scratch today, should the Lord bless and cause it to grow beyond 300 people, I would want to:
7. Deal with Growth by Planting and Donating
Rather than building a mega-campus that the next pastor may be unable to fill or maintain, churches that experience consistent growth should consider planting other churches and/or giving away well discipled people to other congregations.
Too many churches are built around the giftedness of a single leader. When the leader is gone, the facility, program and profile become impossible to maintain. The stench of failure becomes a mission killer. I’ve sat in church auditoriums that were built for 5000 but now barely contain 400. It’s depressing – despite the fact that 400 people should be cause for rejoicing! But in an arena sized sanctuary, it feels like the Spirit has left the building. The pressure to sing a little louder and raise those hands a little higher becomes a burden and a distraction to real ministry.
Far better to use the momentum of a gifted leader to plant sustainable branches and to develop younger leaders.
If I were planting a church today, from scratch, I’d build this into the DNA. We would rejoice in sending out groups of 40, 50 and 60 and we would prioritize leadership development. We would also lend, lease and donate well-trained people to other Gospel churches with potential, opportunity and need.
Of course to do that, we would want a particular type of polity; one that presently doesn’t exist, so far as I can tell. That leads me to my eighth aspiration. If I were planting a church from scratch today, I would want to:
8. Blend the Best of Baptist and Presbyterian Polity
Denominations tend to drift towards liberalism, bureaucracy and obstructionism, and the only buttress against that is congregational polity. In congregational polity the local congregation owns the Statement of Faith, owns the building and is responsible for their budget, discipline and governance. That being said, they are free to associate for purposes of mission, fellowship, consultation and leadership development. If I were planting a church from scratch today, given the state of most denominations, I would insist on a foundation of congregational polity.
But I would want to splice in a few strands of Presbyterian DNA.
Presbyterians (and Lutherans) have an appreciation for “extra-ecclesial function” that most Baptistic churches lack. These groups tend to understand that consultation and collaboration in issues of congregational discipline and clergy development can be very helpful. If it were possible, I’d love to find a way to maintain local church autonomy while developing something akin to a presbytery or synod. It would have to be local and essentially voluntary. It could have teeth, but it couldn’t have control. It couldn’t own the properties and it couldn’t hire or fire the pastors, but it could provide ballast and boundaries to help stabilize younger and newer works.
Maybe it would look like this: a hub church plants 3-5 branches over a 15 year period. The Senior Pastor of the hub church continues to function as the Senior Leader over the cluster, with each branch having its own pastor that would function as an Associate or Curate within the whole. Each church would have its own board, and all the elders collectively would sit on a synod-like council to discuss issues related to the shared work. If at any point a branch church felt like it needed to become completely autonomous, it could do so without any penalty or forfeiture of property. Everything given would be given freely. The lines of authority would exist only as long as their value was evident to all.
In theory, this would provide the security of Congregationalism and the wisdom of Presbyterianism. It would be the perfect form of polity for a cluster of churches born out of a single planting entity.
Ninthly, if I were planting a church from scratch today, I would want to:
9. Celebrate the Lord’s Supper Every Week
The Bible does not say how often we should do communion, it just says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV).
I’ve read arguments on either side of this issue and I don’t think this is something I would ever sever fellowship over, but if I were planting a church from scratch today, I would have that church celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. I’d do it first of all because the Gospel has become secondary – almost assumed – in so many Evangelical churches. I think it’s fair to say that if you can’t think of a natural transition from your sermon to the Table, then your sermon was probably heretical. Communion forces us to keep the Gospel central. It will make anything that doesn’t naturally relate stand out as awkward and inappropriate.
I don’t imagine that we would hear as many Beyonce songs in churches if they celebrated weekly communion. There is no natural transition from “All The Single Ladies” to the Lord’s Supper.
The second reason I think it would be helpful is that it would provide an experiential element to the service that might otherwise be lacking in a church that was rigorously doctrinal and orthodox. Experience is a good thing. The Bible tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalms 34:8 ESV)
Christianity is not just a doctrine, it’s a personal experience – and so it should be. I would want this to be a part of any church that I was planting from scratch, today.
Lastly, if I were planting a church from scratch today, I would want to:
10. Find a Way to Be Multi-generational
This one would likely be the hardest to pull off. Church plants tend to be much younger than established churches for a variety of fairly obvious reasons:
i. Older people generally already have deep ties to an existing congregation.
ii. Church plants often get started in school gyms, and therefore a majority of volunteerism has to do with lifting heavy stacks of chairs and setting up sound systems.
iii. Church plants often struggle to pull off Children’s Ministry and Youth Ministry.
For these and other reasons, the main muscle for church plants tends to come from people aged 20-35.
I get that.
But I’m not content with that.
The church has to be multi-generational. It just has to be. It has to be a family with moms and dads, kids and cousins, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas. I believe that there is magic in that and I would want to insist we treasure that in any church I was planting from scratch today.
Maybe that means our music volume would have to be set a little lower than my teenage son might choose. Maybe it means that we need to find a facility that is handicap accessible. Maybe it means that the pace of innovation would need to be respectful and sustainable. Maybe it means we’d have to ask a few senior saints to consider lending us their wisdom and spiritual ballast.
Without that, I don’t think I’d want to try planting a church in this particular environment. With that I would be far more confident that we would be able to fulfill our mandate to make disciples from every tribe, tongue and nation.
Whether our church will be able to plant another congregation in the next 5 years or not, I cannot say for sure. But I am more convinced than ever that the church is the hope of the world. We have the Gospel in word and sacrament. We have community, correction and encouragement. We have the greatest army of helpers, volunteers and care givers in the known universe.
And we have the Spirit of Jesus Christ!
We also have this promise that “the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it” (Isaiah 2:2 ESV).
Even still, come Lord Jesus!
N.B. To listen to the Into The Word podcast, featuring Pastor Paul Carter, see here.