21st century America has seen a church planting revival. Church plants are popping up everywhere. I recently googled “Church Plant” in a well-known mid-level U.S. city, and twenty churches popped up within a 5-mile radius. There was a congregation named “Fresh Church” one block from “Radiant Church” who was just around the corner from “Destiny Church.”
We’ve seen the church plant boom here in Orange County, where a dozen new plants are attempted a year. Due to the peak real estate market, many of these church plants share a property, and frequently 3-4 churches are housed on one campus. Everybody seems to want in on church planting.
No doubt, church planting is a noble call. I suspect this is why the For The Gospel team asked for a post on the subject. If the Lord has given you the faith to step out on a lifetime church-planting sprint for people’s joy and God’s glory, I’ve got nothing but admiration for you. Even as I write this, we are sending an incredible man (and team) to launch a new Mission Bible Church in Phoenix, AZ. So, please know that I’m “all-in” on church planting and believe the Church to be Christ’s ordained hope of the world (Mt. 16:18).
That said, here in America, we have a reason to pause as it relates to modern church planting. Allow me to explain: Approximately five years ago, I was asked by a well-known church planting agency to interface with young planters. Those early interactions were alarming. Not because the young men weren’t leadership material. The opposite was true; they were extremely talented, had built great teams, raised a ton of money, and were excellent communicators. However, the issue that caused my heart to skip a beat was the biblically illiterate nature of men striking out to start churches. These men were incredible entrepreneurs, gifted pitchmen, and had raised money, but infant in their theological understanding.
Unleashing talented entrepreneurs but untrained pastors for the work of ministry is destined for disaster. Like a skilled driver who never learns to read street signs or a professional surfer never warned about coral reefs, everything flows for a while but ends in a wipeout. Over recent years we’ve seen wipeouts by some of the most prominent church planting names in evangelicalism. One sad, but undeniable reality, is that their ministries were built on the sand of human influence instead of the rock of biblical design.
Key #1: Church Planting is Work of the Word
Correct church planting always starts with the Bible. Yes, this sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many church-planters hold a Bible but never teach from the Bible.
I was a poor preacher in our church’s early years and have no idea why anyone stayed, except that the coffee was a unique, organic blend and may have got them hooked. Honestly, it was terrible preaching. That’s not to say I couldn’t communicate; I could always tell a sappy story, zero in on a tragic event to stir emotions or insert humor to keep people awake, but that’s not preaching.
Faithful preaching is teasing out the theological truth incumbent to a selected biblical text, based on the author’s intent, thereby applying that truth to the life of a modern listener. If that sounds a bit heady, it merely means we’re to preach the primary truth God provided through a real author, to actual readers, in its original context.
Very few modern church planters really preach. Simply flip around YouTube, and it’s noticeable. The Bible is open, but nobody’s using it. The congregants don’t even bring a Bible to church. More and more guys are using TV screens with one verse taken out of context. This is where American church planting has grown weak – starved – launching church planters who are great influencers but poor expositors.
Countless planters are being launched out of mega-churches without one class of proper seminary training. Like a deer caught in headlights, some of the men I work with admit complete bewilderment trying to figure out Sunday sermons. Others watch famous preachers and “borrow” their content. One young man called me on a Saturday and hadn’t even begun to study! Soft preaching equals hard hearts.
Even if you doubt a man needs full-time seminary education to preach (e.g., Spurgeon), everyone agrees it’s malpractice to put a man in the pulpit without an ounce of training. Preachers are dealing with eternal souls. Nobody entrusts their body to a doctor who skipped med-school; nobody boards a flight with the pilot who bombed flight training. How much more critical is it when it comes to a profession based on eternal well-being?
If you’re a future church planter, you must get into good Bible training. Learning to properly handle the Word of God is the foremost step in church planting. You must be a Bible man. You won’t be assessed by the Lord on the size of your church but on the content of your pulpit (Cf. Jm. 3:1; Heb. 3:17). Your role is obedience, and God’s part is outcomes. It is no coincidence that the men God used mightily were set aside for a period of training. Be it Abraham’s wait for a son, Moses’ Midian halftime, David’s desert hideout, or Paul’s Arabian silence, the Lord prepares His preachers…you are no exception.
True men of God speak for God by properly expositing His Word. Even while I write, one of our young men is in the office next door lamenting over his Greek final. Learn languages. Become proficient at exegesis. Systematize your theology. Lock yourself in the study for 30-hours and promise your people they will hear from God. Most of all, grow in your love for the Word, start your day in the Bible, end your day in the Bible, pray the Bible, post the Bible, then, after you bleed Bible, stand up and boldly declare it.
Key #2: Church Planting is Mentoring the Men
Correct church planting demands the discipleship of men. There has been a cultural move within evangelicalism towards female leadership. It has become popular for hip churches to build a ministry around female twenty-somethings, including song leaders, and even in some cases, the pastorate. There are obvious reasons for the recent surge: (1) growing cultural emphasis on feminism, (2) increasing apathy and passivity by men, (3) elevated passion by young Christian women, (4) the ability of twenty-something females to work on limited salary, (5) the desire to work for an organization that provides friendship and emotional fuel.
The reality is that when it comes to church planting, most church planters are a solo act, with a ton on their plate, and don’t feel they have time nor energy to invest in apathetic young men. So, the path of least resistance to maintaining ministry programming is comprised of zealous twenty-something females. But, as the headlines repeatedly show, this is fraught with risk. Aside from the obvious moral gamble of a young entrepreneurial male surrounding himself with spiritually passionate females, there are fundamental doctrinal and philosophical reasons the church planter must raise up and utilize men in ministry:
The first reason to disciple young men is because the Lord said so (Matt. 28:19-20). The church is to be led by mature men of God (1 Cor. 11:1-16; 1 Tim. 2:12). Paul repeatedly reminded his protégés, Timothy and Titus, to raise up new men to whom they could pass on the ministry (2 Tim. 2:2). Though gifted women utilized their grace gifts in various ways (1 Cor. 11:5), men were tasked to lead (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
A second reason to emphasize young men’s discipleship is that young women will eventually desire marriage and family. The Bible teaches that a woman who raises children is fulfilling a beautiful calling from God (1 Tim. 2:15). As a church elevates this high calling in the home (Titus 2:5), women will naturally have less time for corporate ministry roles and invest more time in the family. Thus, if a church continues to teach both a woman’s high calling for family and requests that she works in a corporate setting (church or non-church), there will develop a juxtaposition – internal conflict even – as she attempts to please competing “masters.”
These two issues lead to our third outcome: a church plant will never become stable without male leadership. The most crucial leadership step a church planter can take is to select a small group of men to invest in. The discipleship method of Jesus, and Paul, was simple enough – full access – True “discipleship” means young men will be with us, study us, watch us, and build their life like us. What we learn, they learn. When we fail, they see it. As we grow, they grow. Our doctrine is their guide. In the very truest sense, our life becomes their life.
If you’re a church planter, let me shoot straight, there are no gimmicks or shortcuts when it comes to discipleship. In the early years, you can’t hand it off. You can’t fake it. It’s not only having the men read a book or take an online class. It is life-on-life, sharing meals, questioning choices, calling out sin, confessing of failures, forgiving of hurts, digging into deep theological matters, and sharing both the joy and pain of ministry.
In my experience, due to sin, sickness, temptation, and circumstance, about 25% of the young men you invest in will come out the other side walking in a manner worthy of the call and ready to become a church leader. Hopefully – your numbers will be better than mine, but that is what I’ve experienced. That means 75% of the time, it will hurt. Even Jesus had a Judas. Further, it will be 3-5 years before you stand back and see authentic reproduction. All I’m saying is, “Lock-in for the long haul.”
But it’s worth it. Once your spiritual family tree starts reproducing fruit, the sky’s the limit. Like raising a son, there’s nothing that compares to watching the next generation of young men impact the world in ways better than you ever could. Most importantly, by surrounding yourself with men of God, your church will have enduring strength; it will outlast the petty divisions, overcome the demonic assaults, lift up your arms when they feel weak, and exist beyond your own stumbles. Instead of feeling like one lonely sprinter running alone, the ministry will feel like the football team, walking from their tunnel, preparing to storm the field, and tear down the goalpost in victory.
Key #3: Church Planting is Saving the Support
His answer stunned me, “One and a half million dollars!” he said proudly. I’d been working with this bright young minister for a few months. I knew church plants in major metropolitan areas could be expensive, but his answer floored me – 1.5M dollars! – After choking on my coffee, I asked a few follow-up questions and then hung up, needing time to catch my breath.
Many church plants fail because they have too much money. I’ve seen it repeatedly; young entrepreneurial leaders use mega-church networks to raise mega-money, all with the goal of a massive launch, salaried staff, and full programming. The flip side of that coin is that the savings account is so significant that the actual congregation is never taught to be generous. Why should they? Somebody else paid the bill! Typically, after about three years, the church is dust in the wind.
Why does this happen? Too much money removes any impetus for people to engage and invest in their church. Like a big government scenario, when welfare kicks in and groceries magically show up on the porch, some people lose motivation to work. The same principle applies in church planting; once there’s “big money” in the bank, a staff, and fully active kids’ ministry, the pastor doesn’t teach on money, and the congregation never thinks about money…until it’s too late.
If you’re a church-planter, I suggest you hold off on using big money upfront. If you’re blessed to raise significant capital, it’s wise to invest it toward a future building purchase. Even if it means you start with a smaller launch team, use a portable sound system, and rent a community center, church plants seem to last longer when built by those who love the church rather than those who simply use the church. Opposite of what you’d expect, people will grow attached to the work of service, not flee from it. This foundational group will then ride the river with you through any wave of tumult.
The heart of the matter is quite biblical: There’s a ton of instruction in the Bible about money. The central truth about money in the Bible is that the heart and money are linked. Jesus was clear on the matter (Mt. 6:20-21), Paul added to it (2 Cor. 9:7; 1 Tim. 6:17-19), even Israel was told to give towards the tabernacle based on their heart (Ex. 25:1-2). Thus, God’s Word is crystal clear: What we invest in, we care about, and what we care about, we invest in. Obviously, this is true of cars, homes, and stocks – Once we support, we care more deeply. A simple perusal of our bank statement showcases the kind of coffee and hamburgers we love. The same is true for our church.
In conclusion, I recognize one size doesn’t fit all. The Lord uses a variety of men, in a variety of contexts, to build His beautiful body. Yet, it’s clear that how we handle His Word, disciple His people, and steward His resources are instrumental keys to a faithful, healthy, and vibrant church-planting ministry.
 The issue of entrepreneurial church planting has been well addressed in other forums. See Stetzer: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2018/september/thoughts-on-church-planting-industry-capacity.